Ethan Hawke, in 30 years, has never played a flat-out villain before, so it would be nice to say that in “The Black Phone” he not only plays a serial killer — one of those anonymous madmen who live in a one-story house of dingy brick with a dungeon in the basement — but that he makes something memorable out of it. His mask is certainly disturbing. Hawke’s character, who is known as the Grabber, is a kidnapper of teenage boys, to whom he presumably does unspeakable things. He drives a black ’70s van with the word Abracadabra written on the side of it, and when he pops out of the vehicle to yank his victims off the street, he’ll be wearing a magician’s hat or carrying some black balloons. But it’s not until we see him in his home element that we take in the full hideous grandeur of that mask, which comes in removable sections and looks almost like it’s been chiseled in stone: sometimes it’s got a leering smile, sometimes a frown, and sometimes he just wears the lower half of it.
That this is Hawke playing a figure of evil is one of the principal hooks of “The Black Phone.” Yet serial-killer films, or at least the good ones, tend to have a dark mystery to them. By the time Hawke shows up in “The Black Phone,” in an odd way we feel like we already know him.
The movie is set in North Denver in 1978, which seems like the perfect setting for a serial-killer movie, especially since it colors in the era with a quota of convincing detail. We meet Finney (Mason Thames), the doleful, long-haired 13-year-old hero, when he’s pitching a Little League game; after he gives up the game-winning home run, we see the teams shuffle past each other, shaking hands and saying “Good game, good game” — a detail owned by “Dazed and Confused,” though at least the reference has its nostalgia in the right place. Finney and his precocious kid sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), discuss who’s the biggest heartthrob on “Happy Days” (she thinks it’s Potsie, but prefers Danny Bonaduce on “The Partridge Family”), and the movie weaves a resonant period vibe out of backyard rocket launchers, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” songs like “Free Ride,” and, tellingly, posters for missing children.
It seems there’s been a recent epidemic of them: five teenagers, all boys, pulled off the streets by the Grabber. And Finney, of course, is next. It’s not long before he’s been kidnapped and stuck in the Grabber’s dungeon — a concrete bunker, soundproof and empty except for a dirty mattress, with corroded walls marked by a rusty horizontal crack that looks like a wound. The heart of the movie is Finney’s experience down there and his attempt to escape. Now and then, the Grabber presents himself to the kid, hinting at terrible things to come, and giving him food, like scrambled eggs that look scarier than anything else in the movie (though they prove quite edible).
Yet despite the hellhole trappings, “The Black Phone,” as we quickly discover, is not a dread-soaked, grungy, realistic serial-killer movie, like “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Dahmer.” It’s more like “Room” driven by a top-heavy dose of fanciful horror, with touches of “It” and “Stranger Things.” We get a hint of where the movie is going early on, when Gwen has a dream revealing details about the killer, like the fact that he keeps those black balloons in his van. You might hear about Gwen’s nightmare premonition and think, “Cool!” Or you might take it as the first clue that “The Black Phone” is a horror film that’s going to be making up a lot of rules as it goes along. The director, Scott Derrickson, made the first “Doctor Strange” film (as well as the 2012 horror film “Sinister,” which also starred Hawke), and here, adapting a short story by Joe Hill, he has made a serial-killer movie that feels like a dark cousin to the comic-book world, with supernatural elements that drive the story, even as they get in the way of it becoming any sort of true nightmare.
The ’70s were an era when Middle American serial killers, the kind who would spread their crimes over decades in places like Wichita, appeared to be sprouting like mushrooms. Yet they were still in the process of becoming iconic; it would take popular culture to accomplish that. (“Red Dragon,” the first Thomas Harris novel to feature Hannibal Lecter, was published in 1981.) Now, however, they’re so iconic that they’re downright standard. In “The Black Phone,” the Grabber violates the bucolic setting but also fits rather snugly into it. The film presents him not as a complex figure of evil but as a pure screen archetype: the psycho with a dungeon next door. Hawke, apart from the Ethan-Hawke-as-demon mask, doesn’t have a lot to work with, and to up the creep factor he reflexively falls into mannerisms that may remind you of Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Hawke is such a well-liked actor that he’ll probably get a pass on this, but given the outcry that character caused 30 years ago in the LGBTQ community, you may wonder why Hawke allowed himself to drift into what amounts to a kind of sicko cliché.
In the dungeon, there’s one other object: an ancient black rotary phone hanging on the wall. The Grabber tells Finney that the phone doesn’t work, but it keeps ringing, and each timer Finney answers it the voice he hears on the other end belongs to…well, I won’t reveal it, but suffice to say that the movie has taken a leap beyond the everyday. Finney gets a lot of clues about the Grabber: what his games are, the weak points in the dungeon’s infrastructure (like a hole he starts to dig under loose tile, or a refrigerator hidden in a wall behind the bathroom). Much of this doesn’t lead anywhere, but it establishes that Finney has become part of a brotherhood of victims. He’s a bullied kid who’s going to learn to fight back!
“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.