The Black Phone's villain changes his mask throughout the film, breaking established horror killer rules. Here's an explanation for why he does it.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Black Phone.
Ethan Hawke plays a masked serial killer known as "The Grabber" in The Black Phone — and he breaks a horror movie rule as old the genre itself. The Black Phone has received positive reviews from both critics and audiences, with Hawke's performance as the creepy and unforgivable Grabber being widely lauded. The masked killer is not only performed well but also written in a way that breaks a horror convention that has stood for decades.
Across the runtime of The Black Phone, The Grabber is seen both in and out of his mask. He isn't wearing it when he abducts Finney (Mason Thames), and it becomes apparent that he changes its look and expression from scene to scene. In some scenes, he only wears the top half of the mask, allowing his face to emote but his eyes to be covered. In one notable scene, he removes the top half to chase Finney out of the house during an escape attempt, leaving the bottom half of the mask fixed to his face in a creepy rictus.
Related: Does The Black Phone Have An After Credits Scene?
By The Black Phone's ending, it's evident that The Grabber is different than other masked villains in horror films. He doesn't seem to be at all supernatural, and he isn't as worried about covering his identity as he appears to be about sending a message to, or instilling fear in, his victims. There's an unwritten rule that masked villains tend to follow in horror movies - namely that their masks stay on. These masks tend to be emblematic of their identity, power, and terror, which they are often robbed of when unmasked in their respective films' codas. In contrast, the Grabber's mask is still a piece of his identity, but it's moldable and modular — he controls it. It's not a static symbol of his otherworldly power, but instead a strategic piece of theatre for The Grabber to employ.
Not much concrete information is revealed about The Grabber in The Black Phone, and while it's possible that a potential The Black Phone 2 might reveal more, his backstory remains shrouded in mystery to date. However, what little is shown displays that The Grabber has a pathological need to toy with his victims. He acts kind at times but has violence ready to spill out on the children he abducts. The mask and the way he uses it plays into this. It's never not creepy, giving off demonic vibes with its horns and wide smile, deep frown, or totally blank bottom half, but how he employs it changes his victims' reactions: when they can't see his own expression, there's a barrier between them. When they can, he can instill extra fear or try to gain their confidence. This level of control allows him to torment his victims even further.
Scott Derrickson crafted the perfect horror movie villain in The Black Phone's Grabber because his costuming plays into his persona: it's not just set dressing. Like The Grabber, his mask is mutable and fluid, changing from scene to scene in the way his personality shifts. Like The Grabber, his mask can change at the drop of a hat. His entire character exudes a clear need for control, and his mask is true to that, and it is this eschewing of a horror movie convention that marks The Black Phone as something special in the genre that demonstrates the talent of The Black Phone's cast and crew.
Next: The Black Phone Forgets To Answer Its Biggest Powers Mystery
Ray is a writer who cares way too much about obscure facts, subtitles, and small domesticated animals. For Screen Rant, he writes features that focus on his favorite movies and TV Shows. When he's not writing, you can find him cooking, hiking, or remembering some cringey thing he said seven years ago.