Ethan Hawke draws mixed reviews as The Grabber in ‘The Black Phone’

Blumhouse

Reviews are in for Scott Derrickson’s new spine-chilling ghost story slash serial killer movie, The Black Phone, starring Ethan Hawke as the horrifying villain, aptly nicknamed “The Grabber”. With the movie itself being generally accused of struggling to find its identity, it’s Hawke’s performance that is getting most of the attention.

Hawke plays a child murderer who lures his victims by pretending to be a party entertainer and then traps them in his basement before killing them. The actor wears a mask for most of the film that can be changed to portray different, but equally scary, expressions. The Black Phone‘s supernatural elements are tied to the ability The Grabber’s most recent victim — Finney, played by Mason Thames — has to communicate with the serial killer’s past captives through a phone, while his little sister Gwen, played by Madeleine McGraw, helps authorities find Finney with clues she accesses through prophetic visions.

The Guardian calls Hawke “eerily good” and “unnerving” in this atypical role for the Before Sunrise actor, who has rarely played flat-out villains like The Grabber before.

However, in a sentiment that is echoed in a good portion of reviews so far, Todd Gilchrist, from The A.V. Club, criticizes the film’s refusal to offer any justification or backstory for the masked villain’s behavior. “Without a sense of purpose to make his abductions into terrifying gauntlets,” he argues, “there’s nothing uniquely frightening about him as a villain.” IndieWire‘s Marisa Mirabal disagrees, saying this lack of answers “works extremely well with the film’s tone and overall dread the story elicits.”

Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman believes Hawke leans into the “sicko cliché”, reminiscent of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, which isn’t exactly a good thing considering “the outcry that character caused 30 years ago in the LGBTQ community.” Anton Bitel for Little White Lies also points out the similarities between the basement where The Grabber keeps his victims and Buffalo Bill’s disturbing underground trap.

The Black Phone‘s nostalgic pull seems to be intentional, though, as it fits in nicely with the wave of retro horror established by Stranger Things or the It franchise. Currently scoring an 85% on the Tomatometer, after 40 reviews, the horror feature by the director responsible for Marvel’s Doctor Strange, releases in cinemas on Friday, 24 June.