Kind blue eyes. That’s the most striking part of the poster for The Black Phone, the latest Blumhouse horror movie from director Scott Derrickson. Filling the poster is the face of the Grabber, a kidnapper and child murderer who terrorizes a Denver suburb in 1978, covered with speckled gray paint. A mask covers the Grabber’s jaw, giving the killer an unsettling permanent grin, while a top hat and wide glasses accentuate his upper face. But it’s those eyes that stand out the most, somehow kind and sad, despite their ghastly surroundings, making the Grabber all the more terrifying.
In that one image, we see the secret to Ethan Hawke’s late-career turn toward horror. After establishing himself as one of the greatest leading men from Generation X, Hawke developed a reputation for playing sensitive and vulnerable characters, given to fits of thoughtful melancholy. But with movies such as The Purge, The Black Phone, and even the Marvel television show Moon Knight, Hawke is reinventing himself as a true scream king.
Born to the Genre
While Hawke may be best known for his angst-riddled characters in Reality Bites and the Before trilogy, he got his start in the world of genre movies. At the age of 14, Hawke starred alongside River Phoenix and Jason Presson in Explorers, a sci-fi comedy directed by Joe Dante, the man behind classics such Gremlins and The Howling. “[Dante] taught me all about horror movies and about genre filmmaking,” Hawke told Den of Geek. “I got a major tutorial about it and loved it.”
Except for an occasional crime movie or western, Hawke tended to stick to dramas, movies that more obviously suited his vulnerable and thoughtful screen presence. Even when he diverted into more genre fare – playing a rookie cop opposite Denzel Washington’s immoral officer in Training Day, a member of a bank-robbing family in Richard Linklater’s period comedy The Newton Boys, or a genetic imposter in the high-concept sci-fi film Gattaca – Hawke used his soft, reserved screen presence to ground the proceedings.
Although he’s rarely associated with the genre, that vulnerability makes Hawke an ideal actor for horror movies. Hawke’s on-screen calm can be read in different ways, simultaneously suggesting creeping dread and deep serenity. Even in a substandard thriller like Regression, in which he plays a detective investigating Satanic cult activities, Hawke’s furrowed brow and gravelly whisper bring more depth to the character. When combined with the sense of kindness he often conveys, Hawke excels at playing those caught up in larger conspiracies, sometimes as the victim and sometimes as the monster.
That tension drove Hawke’s early forays into the genre, such as the 2004 Angelina Jolie thriller Taking Lives and the 2009 vampire film Daybreakers. In the former, Hawke played an art dealer who aided in Jolie’s search for a serial killer (spoilers), only to reveal that he himself was the murderer. The latter takes place in a world conquered by vampires, where Hawke’s undead scientist aids the last human survivors. Both roles allow Hawke to weaponize his innate likability, turning it against the audience for maximum suspense.
The Turn to Horror
Thanks to that combination, Hawke has become a compelling figure in two of the more popular horror movies of the early 2010s, Sinister, his first pairing with Derrickson, and the franchise-launcher The Purge. Both films cast Hawke as what appears to be a family man living the middle-class dream, but whose weaknesses lead him down a dark path.
In Sinister, that descent begins when his struggling writer, Ellison Oswalt, moves his family to a house with a grim past as inspiration for his next book. Oswalt discovers a collection of old family movies with gruesome twists, revealing the influence of a demonic figure called Bagul and exposing his children to the monster. Where later entries expand across cities and countries, 2013’s The Purge is a focused home invasion movie, in which masked assailants use the titular night of lawlessness to vent their frustrations at the success of Hawke’s James Sandin. As the situation escalates, a viciousness erupts in Sandin, previously hidden by Hawke’s affable performance.
Both films are perhaps most famous for their more salacious elements, the grisly super-8 home movies in Sinister or the outlandish masks in The Purge. But neither of those elements would have the same impact without Hawke’s performance.
Take the arrival of the first murderers in The Purge. Director James DeMonaco shoots the Purgers through a surveillance camera on the Sandin’s door, heightening the twisted worldview of the murderous yuppies. But it’s the cuts back to the Sandin family, where Hawke’s character subtly shakes as he stares at the screen, that give the tension meaning. With his eyebrows arched and lips slightly pursed, Hawke’s expressions simultaneously suggest threat and fear, leaving the viewer unprepared for what follows.
Likewise, there is the barbeque sequence from Sinister, which largely consists of grainy footage of a family cookout, juxtaposed with the same family burning alive in their car. While the sounds and images certainly startle the viewer, the lingering terror comes from the shots of Oswalt watching the film, the picture reflected on his glasses as he leans in, looking with interest. A wider shot shows Hawke fumbling to down a drink but refusing to look away from the carnage. Hawke’s unique skill at playing introspection and compassion make him an ideal horror star, forcing viewers to keep focused on the humanity of the killers and their victims.
Answering the Black Phone
According to Hawke, working with Derrickson on Sinister reignited a love of horror that began with Dante. “There’s a certain math and a geometry and fun to making a good, scary movie,” Hawke told Den of Geek. “I felt really proud of Sinister and wanted to work with him again.”
And yet, Hawke initially felt reluctant to take on The Black Phone. Adapted by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill from a Joe Hill short story, The Black Phone explores a child abduction scare in a Denver suburb. When young Finney (Mason Thames) gets abducted by the Grabber and locked in a basement, his only hopes for escape are the extra-sensory abilities of his younger sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw) and a black telephone, through which he communicates with past victims.
When Derrickson offered Hawke the role, the actor initially said, “There’s no way I’m going to play that part … Got to get a better part for me than that.” But after reading the script, Hawke realized that the movie offered far more than shocks and mayhem. “I was moved by it,” confesses Hawke. “The movie is part serial killer movie, part ghost story, and part coming of age story … there’s an aspect of the movie that feels a little bit like Stand by Me, meets Poltergeist, meets Hannibal Lecter.” With so many different influences at play, Hawke realized, “I should do something that I haven’t done before.”
For Hawke, that new element was the Grabber’s mask, sure to become as iconic as those worn by Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Through the mask, Hawke gets ample opportunity to figure out the math and geometry he finds in horror. Each time the Grabber appears on screen, he wears a slightly different version of his grey mask. Sometimes, it covers his entire face, from the empty blank space where his mouth should be to the devil horns on top. Other times, the Grabber leaves his jaw or forehead exposed, revealing the humanity behind the monster.
Thanks to this varied performance, audiences never get a clear read on the Grabber. He’s capable of showing a malevolent playfulness, lifting both hands in the air to mock Finny and show off his mask, and he can show a genuine wounded spirit, dropping a tray in disappointment when Finny fails to meet his expectations. In every case, these flourishes make the Grabber all the more disturbing, as they refuse to let us write him off as anything other than a sick human being.
Of course, that’s exactly why you bring Hawke into your scary movies. No matter how outlandish or gruesome the proceedings, Hawke can ground the story in real human emotions, thanks to his outstanding acting abilities and those kind blue eyes.