In Review

The Black Phone: an ‘exquisitely tense’ horror film

Ethan Hawke gives a ‘riveting’ performance as a masked child killer

Until now, Ethan Hawke has “conspicuously avoided ‘traditional’ villain roles”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. But if his “riveting” performance here is anything to go by, he could enjoy “a long and profitable twilight career playing screen baddies”.

In this often “exquisitely tense” horror film, he plays “the Grabber” – a masked psychopath who is sowing terror in 1970s suburban Denver by snatching children off the street. When 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) falls into his clutches, however, he is able to use the black phone of the film’s title to communicate with the Grabber’s previous victims (now dead), who are keen to help him escape.

Using atrocities committed by a serial killer “to drive what is essentially an exciting escape adventure” sounds unbearably tasteless, but the film just about gets away with it, thanks mainly to its “fearless” junior cast.

The film is not as terrifying as it sounds, said Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times. An adaptation of a short story by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), it has a “nostalgic mood” and an almost contemplative tone. It’s perhaps best to judge it less as a horror movie with a “low goosebump count” than as “a celebration of youthful resilience”.

I’m afraid I found the film “impossible to enjoy” as either of those things, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. It depicts a horribly bleak world, in which fathers abuse their sons, and children bully and attack each other. “If the child-on-child violence doesn’t get you, then the adult-on-child variety will”. As for the plot’s “leap into the paranormal”, it struck me as both predictable and unconvincing.

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