The Black Phone: Ethan Hawke’s serial killer saga shouldn’t work, but it really does



n this ultra-violent, and in many ways derivative horror yarn, Ethan Hawke excels as a masked and lachrymose serial killer, who wreaks havoc on a Denver suburb in the late 70s. “The Grabber” has a masterful costume: imagine The Child Catcher crossed with Alan Partridge (terrifying!). But it’s Hawke’s wretched eyes that seal the deal.

Back in 2012, Hawke and director Scott Derrickson collaborated on trashy Blumhouse gem, Sinister. Once again, pleasantly jagged edges abound. As adolescent boys go missing, a motherless teen, Finney (Mason Thames) and his psychic kid sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw; fabulous), tiptoe around their traumatised dad (Jeremy Davies), who’s a dead ringer for Charles Manson. Meanwhile, an excitable man in the area (James Ransone) turns out to be a good-hearted coke fiend.

Gwen (both potty-mouthed and pious) is great value. At one point, she has a crisis of faith and starts using the f-word with Jesus. But the altogether quieter Finney is just as fascinating.

Like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, our hero is frightened of practically everything. A tough boy at school (Miguel Cazarez Mora; awesomely charismatic) brags about being taken by an uncle to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a drive-in. Finney has no cool adults in his life and just stumbles across stuff on TV. In one moving moment, the camera cuts and forth between Finney’s stricken face and the famous bathtub scene in William Castle’s camp classic, The Tingler. The Black Phone bangs the drum for lonely scaredy-cats who discover horror all by themselves.

There’s also a split second shot, in the opening credits, of a young girl furiously licking blood from her arm. Her blood? Someone else’s? From the get go, the film sets out to tantalise and succeeds.

So Finney gets kidnapped and dumped in a basement, where there’s a disconnected phone that somehow links him to the Grabber’s dead victims, who conveniently provide intel on the killer’s MO. Grainy, dank-coloured sequences, shot like home movies, provide atmospheric background on the lost boys.

What they say and do, within the confines of the basement, is an excuse for routine jump scares and crude wish-fulfilment (Finney is encouraged to be a vigilante, rather than a victim; the dream comes true, quite expectedly). And attempts to appeal to the “It” crowd are brazen.

Even so, this is powerful stuff. The film’s like the phone. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

102mins, cert 15

In cinemas

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