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Ethan Hawke's Killer In The Black Phone Mirrors Lon Chaney's Man In The Beaver Hat

A household name for the past two decades, Ethan Hawke has lent his talent to more than one iconic role. "Dead Poets Society" and the "Before Sunrise" franchise are just some films where Hawke plays an empathetic romantic. However, his more recent credit in 2022's horror film "The Black Phone" is a clear departure from his usual fare. Directed by Scott Derrickson of "Doctor Strange" fame, "The Black Phone" tells the story of a community ravaged by a child murderer known as The Grabber.

Hawke first collaborated with the director a decade ago for the horror film "Sinister," following the exploits of washed-up true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Hawke). Reported as one of the scariest films of all time (via Forbes), it was only natural that Hawke was the first choice to play The Grabber in this horror follow-up. This unique collaboration allowed for the personification of a truly terrifying killer, creating yet another iconic role for Hawke. However, horror aficionados who have seen the film might notice there is something familiar about Hawke's character. The Grabber's initial outfit is a fascinating reference to one of actor Lon Chaney's most famous roles in all of horror cinema.

Top hats are terrifying

When first laying your eyes on The Grabber in "The Black Phone," it is difficult to not feel a sense of dread. The villain first approaches young Finney (Mason Thames) on the street and introduces himself as a part-time magician, clad in stark white makeup and a top hat. Anyone in their right mind would run the other way, especially if they have seen "London After Midnight." Back when director Scott Derrickson released the first promotional photo for the film, Collider pointed out the comparison to Lon Chaney's character in the film, The Man in the Beaver Hat. 

Both "The Black Phone" and "London After Midnight" utilize chilling makeup to create an eerie character. According to lonchaney.org, the 1927 film that featured one of Hollywood's first on-screen vampires was lost in the 1965 MGM vault fire. In the film, Chaney stars as The Man in the Beaver Hat as well as Edward C. Burke, a man investigating the mysterious death of a friend. With sharp teeth and a face full of makeup, Chaney's visage is still disturbing and a natural choice for the aesthetics of The Grabber.

Like The Man in the Beaver Hat, The Grabber is a reflection of humanity at its worst. Notably, each of The Grabber's trademark masks have a dark meaning. One has a perpetual frown, and the other has a disconcerting smile. The Grabber uses these contrasting emotions to excuse his violent and deadly acts against children. Horror often utilizes homages in past films, and "The Black Phone" is not the only one inspired by "London After Midnight."

Lon Chaney's legacy gave us a waking nightmare

The sharp teeth and warped face of Lon Chaney's The Man in the Beaver Hat may send a chill down the spine, but it is nothing compared to the true stuff of nightmares. Almost a century after the premiere of "London After Midnight," a new horror icon entered the scene — "The Babadook." In Jennifer Kent's 2014 horror film, Amelia (Essie Davis) must come to terms with single motherhood and grief after losing her husband on the way to give birth to her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel's constant screaming, as well as the titular monster of the film, highlight the anxiety of motherhood and the struggles of mental illness. Even in picture book form, The Babadook's unseeing eyes and wide grin put The Man in the Beaver Hat to shame. The similarities are also no coincidence, as Kent told MountainXpress.

"Absolutely," Kent said after Ken Hanke asked if "London After Midnight" was an influence. "I will admit that image really impressed itself on me." Kent went on to point out why these images were so terrifying. "It's just a face that's been distorted — without CGI obviously — but manipulated so that it looks human but almost not. I think that 'London After Midnight' – shot with his face and his mouth pulled apart like that — is really frightening."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950- NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.