Welcome back to this year’s Halloween series! Every Monday and Wednesday throughout October until Halloween day, Nerds & Beyond will be sharing our favorite Halloween-themed TV episodes and bone-chilling movies. Today we’re featuring the genre work of actor Ethan Hawke, who is (in my opinion) an unsung treasure in the horror genre.
Hawke got his start in film at age 14 with a genre film alongside River Phoenix and Jason Presson. Explorers, a sci-fi comedy, is directed by Joe Dante — the man behind movies such as Gremlins, The Howling, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. With the exception of the occasional role in a western or crime film, the actor has primarily stuck to roles in dramas that give him the opportunity to showcase a raw emotional vulnerability that proves difficult for other actors. The sincerity and delicacy behind his performances often helps to ground the project, his reserved presence bringing a quiet and unassuming depth to anything he touches.
It is precisely this delicate vulnerability and reserved screen presence that make him an absolute asset to any horror film he joins the cast of. The aura of calm that he exudes with the softness of his voice in combination with a natural sense of kindness he often portrays makes him the perfect Scream King. Hawke can play the kind and sympathetic hero or the unexpected and believable monster — or a chilling combination of both as is often explored in the genre. The kindness behind his light eyes is often a curtain for something much more sinister.
In 2004’s Taking Lives, in which he stars opposite Angelina Jolie, Hawke plays an art dealer who aids in the search for a serial killer, only to be revealed as the serial killer himself. While Taking Lives is not a true horror film, rather a thriller, the film does provide an early insight into Hawke’s capabilities of playing the unassumingly horrible killer — something that he would dive into much more in the future. Four years later, Hawke would star in Daybreakers — a vampire flick in which he plays a vampire researcher who is striving to find a solution to the dwindling blood supply. Hawke’s natural likability is used to the immense benefit of the story in both cases here — in Daybreakers you root for his character to succeed in his experiments, while in Taking Lives the likability is used against the audiences to make the final reveal that much more shocking. In either case, Hawke displayed a promising presence in the genre throughout the early 2000s.
2012 would introduce Hawke to the genre to a new level, with a genre favorite Sinister. While Hawke takes on the role of the leading man, a semi-failing author past his five minutes of fame and the main protagonist of the film, his portrayal of Ellison Oswalt is one of many complicated layers. Ellison clearly loves his family – a wife and two children – and wants to be their caretaker and bread-winner, but his desire to do so results in questionable decisions that lead his family down a dark path. This character type would be echoed in his following genre appearance in franchise-launcher The Purge, in which Hawke’s James Sandin reveals a viciousness when the events of the film continue to escalate.
In both of the above instances where Hawke portrays the honorable family man with a darker side to offer, he contributes pieces to scenes that would create the exact mood needed to invoke horror in the audiences’ minds. In Sinister, Ellison spirals as he discovers horrific home videos showing gruesome murders of past families and uncovers the truth of their deaths. While the imagery used by director Scott Derrickson is enough to send a chill down anyone’s spine, what really drives the horror home is the lingering view of Ellison watching the horrific home videos unfold. The shake of his hand as he tries to soothe his terrified psyche with a drink; the images reflected in his glasses as he finds himself unable to look away; the desperation in his eyes as he attempts to save his family mirror the image of James in The Purge when the murderers are first introduced — shaking and full of micro-expressions, the performance indicates there is much more to these characters than what we see on the surface.
All this to lead us to this year’s The Black Phone, with several genre appearances in-between. The Black Phone is adapted by Derrickson, reuniting the director with Hawke, and C. Robert Cargill from the Joe Hill short story of the same name. The Black Phone explores a child abduction scare in a Denver suburb, where 13-year-old Finny becomes the latest victim of the Grabber and his only chances of survival are on himself, the extra-sensory talents of his sister, and a mysterious black telephone.
Hawke exudes true, raw evil as the Grabber in this film. This role truly brings together the aforementioned traits into one singular character to bring forward a sinister, clever, manipulative, and psychologically bone-chilling villain. This role marks a first for Hawke — the Grabber’s surely now-infamous mask. Each time he appears on-screen he is wearing some variation of the mask — mouth uncovered with eyes hidden, eyes on display with a sinister frown covering his jaw, and sometimes covering his entire face. This variance in the character’s appearance presents a challenge to the actor, who has to communicate why the mask is changing, all while utilizing the parts of his face on display to the camera.
There is an eerie malevolent playfulness to Hawke’s character, and a sinister likability that few could portray in the expert way he did with this performance. After kidnapping and imprisoning Finny he often attempts to be likable — he jokes and delivers food, and displays his wounded soul when his victim fails to meet his cruel expectations. There aren’t many jump scares in the film, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel on-edge as you experience the movie for the first time. When you realize that the Grabber is intentionally setting traps to give himself an excuse to punish (physically torture) his victims … he becomes all the more sinister.
Overall, Hawke is able to use subtle expressions and emotion to lend a new depth to a character with very little backstory. His every action and word is curated and articulated with veteran expertise, painting the image of not a monster, but a deeply broken and sick man. Only an actor so completely in-tune with his performance could portray the whiplash juxtaposition of a man so calm and collected on the outside, while on the inside a fiery violence burns to the surface — and Hawke does it in a memorable way that puts the Grabber up next to genre villains like Ghostface and Jason Vorhees, with only a fraction of the screen-time.
In summary, while “Ethan Hawke” may not be a name that comes to mind when one thinks of horror, perhaps it should be.
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