After collaborating on the films Doctor Strange and Sinister, film partners Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson decided to adapt the 2004 horror tale The Black Phone into a feature film, combining elements of the tale with Derrickson’s own traumatic childhood memories.
Written by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill (find him in his 2005 short story collection 20th Century Ghosts), it tells the story of a 13-year-old boy named John Finney who is kidnapped by a serial killer. When the Galesburg Grabber locks Finney inside his soundproofed basement, the boy discovers an apparently disconnected black phone, through which he is somehow able to talk to the killer’s previous victims.
“One day in 2005, I walked into a bookstore and found Joe Hill’s storybook with The Black Phone, not knowing who he was at the time,” says Derrickson, who co-produced and co-wrote the film with Cargill. sfx. “I read The Black Phone while I was in the store and immediately realized that the concept of the story would make a good horror movie.”
Cargill and Derrickson toyed with the idea of turning the story into a feature film for more than a decade. They finally moved forward with the project in early 2020, when the pair decided to walk away from the Doctor Strange sequel due to creative differences with Marvel Studios. “When Sinister was in production, about 10 years ago, before that movie came out, Scott and I discussed The Black Phone as our next movie,” says Cargill.
“However, it wasn’t the right time. We felt like there wasn’t a thin first act and third act. However, we never let it go and kept developing the story. With the sequel to Doctor Strange, it was a case where we wanted to do one kind of movie, and Marvel wanted a different kind of movie. At that point, we knew it was time to finally make The Black Phone.”
hawke the killer
In order to incorporate Derrickson’s own childhood story into the film, they decided to move the setting of the original story from Galesburg, Illinois to north Denver, Colorado in 1978, Derrickson’s home territory.
“I grew up in a violent home and in a violent neighborhood,” he says. “When I was eight years old, a friend of mine who lived nearby knocked on my door and told me that his mother had just been murdered. There was also a lot of domestic violence, in my house and in the children’s houses. who I grew up with It was a scary and violent place to grow up, and I tried to bring the reality of that into the movie.”
Instead of starting with the first interaction between the boy, now named Finney Shaw, and the killer, whom the filmmakers renamed simply The Grabber, Cargill and Derrickson decided to open the film by exploring the everyday life of Finney’s childhood. “In terms of inserting my own childhood into this film, I was very influenced by Francois Truffaut’s great New Wave drama The 400 Blows. Like that film, I decided to introduce Finney, at least in part, as my stand-in, through from which to explore my own difficult childhood,” says Derrickson. “When we first meet Finney, he is very shy as a result of bullying from his classmates, who do not appreciate Finney’s special qualities. He is also dealing with an alcoholic father, a widower, who is struggling to raise Finney. and his younger sister Gwen, who is apparently the only person in the world Finney can turn to for love, strength and support.”
With the help of legendary special effects expert Tom Savini, Cargill and Derrickson also decided to reinvent the character of the killer. “When Joe published the story in 2004, almost 20 years after it was published, it was obvious that the Grabber character was influenced by Pennywise, who was influenced by serial killer John Wayne Gacy,” says Cargill. “After the movie version of It was released a few years ago, Scott and I knew we had to rethink the look and feel of the Grabber. We envisioned it as a wizard dressed as a devil: an angry devil and a grinning devil in a mask. It’s the face of a mysterious sadist, a truly evil figure.”
When it came time to cast an actor to play this unsavory character, his first choice was Ethan Hawke, with whom Cargill and Derrickson collaborated on Sinister. However, while Hawke was cool with the idea of meeting with the filmmakers, he wasn’t all that interested in playing a villain, let alone a child killer.
“Ethan didn’t want to take on the role at first, given the description of the character and the plot,” says Derrickson. “However, he agreed to read the script, and less than 24 hours later he called me and left a message on my phone, speaking in Grabber’s creepy voice. He read one of the lines from the script before telling me he was going to do it.” take the paper Ethan brought a deep understanding of character to the role, and his performance in the film is complex, terrifying, moody and unlike anything he’s done before as an actor.”
Children in need
For the demanding role of Finney, Cargill and Derrickson, newcomer Mason Thames was cast, making his feature debut. “Finney is a smart but shy boy who is very close to his younger sister Gwen, with whom Finney has an almost psychic connection,” says Thames, who cites Halloween as his favorite horror movie.
“The biggest challenge for me playing this role was imagining that I was trapped in Grabber’s basement, which is disgusting and dirty, without my family, with no one knowing where I am and having to consider the possibility that I’m going to be killed, like all the other missing children. The ghosts, their voices, are terrifying.”
In addition to delving into the relationship between Finney and Gwen to further expand the 7,000-word short story into a feature-length script, Cargill and Derrickson focused on the ghostly voices Finney hears on the antique rotary phone attached to the basement wall. . Instead of speaking to the ghost of a single murdered child, as is the case in the original story, Finney listens to the whispers of several dead children, whose stories are also revealed through flashbacks.
“The phone starts ringing and Finney hears the voices of the kids he knew, went to school with, and now they’re dead. Now all they want, all they can do, is stop Finney from finishing the same way,” says Thames. “They tell Finney what to do, they give him clues. Finney figures out that the other missing kids were killed pretty quickly. The Grabber doesn’t seem to want to kill Finney, though, at least not right away. The Grabber finds Finney interesting.”
Besides the ghosts, the only other person who is attuned to Finney’s situation is Gwen, played by Madeleine McGraw, who apparently has the ability to sense her brother’s anguish.
“As they say in the movie, Gwen is the sunshine in the apocalypse, the eyes of love, certainly in terms of Finney’s life,” says Derrickson. “The movie is very much about their brother-sister relationship and how they protect each other. Gwen is haunted by dreams and premonitions just like her mother, and Gwen had a vision of a boy who was kidnapped by Grabber before he Finney was kidnapped.” However, Gwen did not feel that Finney was going to be the Grabber’s next target.”
Although the film is set in the 1970s, the filmmakers do not see the past through rose-colored glasses. “This movie is not nostalgic for the 1970s at all, and I certainly don’t remember that period very fondly,” says Derrickson. “As much as I enjoy ’70s movies like Dazed and Confused, that’s not what I experienced growing up. Instead, I remember the aftermath of the Charles Manson murders. I remember [serial killer] Ted Bundy moving around Colorado, killing a woman and then being tried. I remember seeing a lot of kids in my neighborhood bleeding all the time.”
Derrickson’s long relationship with The Black Phone, from reading the story to the eve of the film’s release, has been a cathartic experience. “Most of the children in the film, including the ghosts Finney talks to on the phone, were based on children I grew up with,” he says, adding that he spent several years in therapy to process his painful childhood memories. .
And, while acknowledging that the child endangerment element may be uncomfortable for some to watch, the filmmakers don’t think the film is in the least bit exploitative or in bad taste. “It’s about childhood resilience, and that’s what motivated me to want to do it for over 15 years,” says Derrickson. “Writing scenes for him, I felt a personal connection with the children in the story, both Finney and Gwen, and also with the children who talk to Finney on the phone, and I felt a great appreciation for their courage and their need for justice. . .
“Since I was a child, I have used the horror genre as a way to deal with the evils in my life, and The Black Phone has been a means through which I have been able to deal with the past and understand how it has impacted my life. adult”.
The Black Phone is in UK cinemas now, in US cinemas June 24. This feature originally appeared in SFX magazine – we invite you to subscribe to the magazine. (opens in a new tab) And never miss out on another terrifyingly cool feature again!