Who exactly is The Grabber in The Black Phone? What compels him to drive around in a van, kidnapping and murdering young boys? And what’s with the creepy masks?
The answers to those questions don’t matter in the slightest. Ethan Hawke’s unnerving antagonist works so well because his identity and motives are completely unknown to the viewer. All we know for certain is that he’s got a (now-deceased) brother named Max (played by James Ransone) and a steak-loving dog named Samson. Other than that, he could literally be anyone — even that kindly neighbor down the street who entertains the local kids with two-bit magic tricks. That’s why director, co-writer, and producer Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange) refused to provide a definitive origin story for the character.
“When we tested the movie, audiences wanted to know more about The Grabber,” Derrickson told Empire for the magazine’s November 2022 issue (now on sale). “And the studio came to me and was like, ‘Can we put in something about his backstory?’ I said, ‘No.’ The fact that they want to know more about him is where you want them. The mystery and the unknowability of the these kinds of sociopaths is a lot of where their terror comes from.”
Based on the Joe Hill story of the same name, The Black Phone takes place in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado during the late 1970s. When Finney Blake (Mason Thames) finds himself captured and imprisoned by a local child murderer, he mounts a daring escape with some help from the killer’s previous victims — all of whom get in touch from beyond the grave via a seemingly disconnected phone mounted in the The Grabber’s basement.
While Finney’s home life is far from perfect (his father — played by Jeremy Davies — is a physically abusive alcoholic), Derrickson and his regular co-writer and producing partner, C. Robert Cargill, wanted to give the protagonist a ray of hope in the form of his Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), whose Danny Torrance-like ability to learn certain facts about the murders while dreaming proves invaluable to bringing her brother home in one piece.
“We needed to want him to have something to come back to when he left the basement,” Cargill said. “He was going to have an abusive father, so why doesn’t he have an awesome sister? That was the germ that created Gwen.”
It then became a challenge, finding the right balance between rosy optimism and nihilistic horror, the latter of which is not only manifested in Hawke’s knockout performance, but also in brief appearances from The Grabber’s unrestful and mutilated victims. “We just write and try to spook each other, and usually we’ll set a phone call from the other guy going, ‘Oh my gosh,'” Cargill added. “That’s when we know we’ve got it, when you make your fellow writer cringe or jump.”
The Black Phone is now streaming on Peacock and currently holds a fresh score of 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Originally published Oct 5, 2022.