Scott Derrickson and Ethan Hawke reteam after their well-done horror venture, Sinister, for a new attempt to creep out audiences. The Black Phone, based on a short story by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), almost gets by on the merits of Hawke’s nasty turn, but it ultimately feels a little too business-as-usual for the genre.
Hawke sort of comes off as a magician version of Pennywise, the nasty clown from the Stephen King universe. He’s called The Grabber, and he hunts children while dressed as a magician holding black balloons. Why any kid would get within 20 feet of this guy is beyond me—but there wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t, so there you go.
When he gets the kids, he puts them in a basement where he teases them before ending their lives. He wears a series of creepy masks (created by the great Tom Savini) and uses a belt as one of his weapons of choice. Hawke, despite some of the cliches his character flashes, is damn scary in the role.
Alas, Hawke isn’t onscreen all of the time, and much of the running time is spent in the dark basement with his latest victim-to-be, Finney (Mason Thames). A broken phone suddenly rings—and The Grabber’s victims are on the other end of the line. Some of the voices are friends of Finney, and they give him directions on how to possibly escape.
The premise of the broken phone getting calls from dead kids is a little scary, but that wears off, and the film soon becomes just another movie about somebody trying to break out of captivity. Finney’s sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), sees things in her dreams that could help Finney get rescued. Her character’s abilities feel like something Hill’s dad would’ve put in one of his novels when he was feeling a bit lazy.
The film is almost worth seeing for Hawke, and Thames and McGraw are talented young actors. It has its moments, but The Black Phone isn’t scary as a whole; instead, it feels like something you’ve seen too many times before.
The Black Phone is now playing at theaters across the valley.