A quiet town in Colorado is rocked by a series of child abductions carried out by a figure known only as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke). When Finney (Mason Thames) is taken by him, his sister (Madeline McGraw) tries desperately to find him through disturbing visions she receives at night. Finney also has help in another form - a black phone in the cellar where he's being kept that has the Grabber's other victims at the other end of the line...
Ethan Hawke's career has been an intriguing one, to say the least. He's managed to neatly thread the line between truly independent, artistically bold work like 'Maudie', the 2000 adaptation of 'Hamlet', more mainstream dramas like 'Boyhood', and the celebrated 'Before' trilogy, and then all-out action thrillers like the modern classic 'Training Day'. Yet, in between all these, he's taken time out to star in grungy, almost grindhouse horrors like 'Sinister', 'Daybreakers', and the first 'Purge' movie. In a way, Hawke's versatility has only gone so far - he's never played a deranged, psychotic killer until now. With 'The Black Phone', it feels more like Hawke felt drawn to the chance to play the role rather than the story itself.
Indeed, as stories go, 'The Black Phone' is pretty standard fare you'd expect from someone along the lines of Stephen King, or in this case, his son Joe Hill. There's a supernatural element, family-based horrors from a drunkenly abusive father, and the general horror of being a child in the '80s. Likewise, director Scott Derrickson is in familiar territory here having previously directed the likes of 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose', 'Deliver Us From Evil', and 'Sinister' - which also starred Hawke, albeit in a much less sinister role than he has here. Despite this, 'The Black Phone' has little in the way of anything unique to offer and the scares are largely telegraphed in advance. There are a few loose strands of ideas that are never quite explored deeply as they could be, possibly owing to the fact that 'The Black Phone' is based on a short story than a full novel.
What keeps 'The Black Phone' from being forgettable is the performances by all concerned, but chiefly Ethan Hawke and his child co-star Mason Thames. Even though he spends the majority of the movie behind a terrifying mask that changes depending on his particular mood, Hawke is able to bring a sense of twisted malice. His choices are all pitched neatly in every scene. Sometimes, yes, he's over-acting and being ridiculously theatrical, but then other times he plays it in a far more physical, tighter sense. The young Thames, by contrast, feels natural and unencumbered in his performance. This adds to the dread because he does look legitimately scared in more than a few scenes and the resilience he shows is more affecting. Likewise, the dynamic he has with his on-screen sister Madeline McGraw feels authentic.
If this is to be a new phase of Hawke's career, one where he's willing to play villains, he's probably going to take on some of his most interesting work in years. Already, 'The Northman' saw him play a boorish Viking lord who meets a bloody death and here, he plays a child-stealing psychopath killer. 'The Black Phone' might be a standard enough horror, but Hawke's performance is anything but and just about saves it from forgettable mediocrity.