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SYFY WIRE reviews

'The Black Phone' dials up great reviews as critics praise Ethan Hawke's 'skin-crawling' performance

Hawke has a bright future as an onscreen villain.

By Josh Weiss
Vance Hopper (Brady Hepner) and Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) in The Black Phone (2022)

You thought Moon Knight's Arthur Harrow was creepy? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet! Taking on one of the first villainous roles of his celebrated acting career, Ethan Hawke is said to absolutely command the screen as the child-killing Grabber in The Black Phone. Hitting theaters this coming Friday (June 24) by way of Universal Pictures, writer-director Scott Derrickson's supernatural thriller currently holds a fresh 85 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics praising Hawke's performance as "utterly skin-crawling."

Recently speaking to SYFY WIRE, the actor explained what drew him to the — ahem — sinister role. "I like complicated people, problematic people, but being the embodiment of evil was not something I was really dying to do," he said. "But I had such a wonderful time working on Sinister with Scott. If you're going to spend your life dedicated to acting, you better have at least one movie to play at midnight."

Based on a short story penned by Joe Hill and Derrickson's own childhood in Colorado, The Black Phone turns back the clock to the 1970s when young Finney Blake (Mason Thames) finds himself abducted and trapped in the basement of Hawke's sadistic murderer. The boy's odds of survival seem slim to none until a black rotary phone that doesn't seem to be attached to any discernible wiring starts to ring with messages from The Grabber's previous victims. Chock full of retro needle drops and other bits of nostalgia that perfectly evoke the time period, the film (written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill) presents a dark reflection of rose-colored Americana.

Madeleine McGraw (Outcast), Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan), and James Ransone (IT: Chapter Two) round out the cast. Derrickson and Cargill produced the feature alongside Jason Blum. Ryan Turek and Christopher H. Warner are executive producers.

The Black Phone carries you along on its own terms — that is, if you accept that it’s less an ingenious freak-out of a thriller than a kind of stylized contraption. It’s a horror ride that holds you, and it should have no trouble carving out an audience, but I didn’t find it particularly scary (the three or four jump-worthy moments are all shock cuts with booms on the soundtrack — the oldest trick in the book). The movie plays a game with the audience, rooting the action in tropes of fantasy and revenge that are supposed to up the stakes, but that in this case mostly lower them." -Owen Gleiberman, Variety

"This is watchable entertainment that achieves a reasonable altitude with its jump-scares, and whose suspense-thriller aspect keeps it engaging on a human level: but there’s a kind of plot issue in the film’s second act, with Finney’s terrified life as the Grabber’s prisoner in which he seems to be able to get away with an enormous amount of undetected escape preparation. But Hawke, whose creepy bad-guy potential is a plausible new career direction, is unnerving, and there are really good performances from Thames and McGraw." -Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

"The Black Phone is set in the ’70s, but it’s not self-consciously trying to be a ‘70s horror movie. Yet its themes and atmosphere do reflect that era: a time when child abductions and serial killers became some of America’s darkest myths, when paranoia and mistrust were rampant, and when kids were allowed a lot more leeway and freedom in their lives, sometimes with sorrowful results. Yet it’s not a nihilistic film either. What is broken may not be easily put back together, if at all, but the characters in The Black Phone do their best to try." -Don Kaye, Den of Geek

"The Black Phone may be a Joe Hill adaptation, but it really does feel like a Stephen King work. That’s obviously a comparison both have tried to avoid in the past, but Scott Derrickson really does lean in to the King of it all. It meets Stand By Me, with a bit of Panic Room thrown in, isn’t the worst way to describe this flick. Fans of the short story will likely be pleased, but it’s hardly a prerequisite for enjoying his one." -Joey Magidson, Awards Radar

"Hawke, in a rare villain role ... gives a frightening and fascinating physical performance — since his face is masked for almost the entire movie, it’s his presence (sometimes dominant, sometimes playful, always creepy) and vocal work that most impresses. He swaps out the upper and lower portions of his devil-horned mask like some fucked-up psychological exercise — donning frowns that feel more like snarls, or malice-dripping Man Who Laughs grins. Sometimes, he exposes his eyes or mouth entirely. Hawke becomes one with those masks, perfectly moulded to his facial contours. It’s hard to look away." -Ben Travis, Empire

"Derrickson’s at his best in scenes where Finney explores the Grabber’s basement, pulling up floor tiles or digging behind solid-looking walls. Derrickson’s also smart enough to let Hawke suggest some things about his character through the abrupt shifts in the Grabber’s tone of voice and body language. That’s especially impressive since Hawke performs most of his scenes in a bifurcated mask that either hides or highlights his character’s leering, omnipresent smile." -Simon Abrams, TheWrap

"Derrickson excels at evoking the late '70s era throughout the movie without making it feel gimmicky or arbitrary. From the choices in fashion and interior decor to the music, Derrickson makes this feel like a familiar, lived-in world, with the Grabber personifying something of a suburban nightmare come to life.  Derrickson and co-writer Cargill, who also produces the film, have expanded the lean source material into a large, terrifying world. Hill's story is all killer, no filler, running for about thirty pages. The Black Phone adaptation is nearly two hours long, giving its main characters more backstory and emotional depth while making its villain all the more twisted." -Sam Stone,

"Hawke’s face is almost completely obscured the entire film behind a Tom Savini-designed mask, and it adds to Hawke’s utterly skin-crawling performance. The actor exudes a perverse, murderous creepiness that makes his constant threat of danger palpable. His portrayal goes far to convey the abject menace long before we see the aftermath of his depraved work. There are shocking bursts of violence and scares, but none of that holds a candle to Hawke’s decisive turn." -Meagan Navarro, Bloody Disgusting

The Black Phone hits the big screen this Friday — June 24.