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‘The Black Phone’ – Joe Hill on the Movie’s Faithfulness and How They Got Tom Savini to Create the Mask

The dead are calling in director Scott Derrickson‘s (Sinister, Doctor Strange)new horror movie The Black Phonearriving in theaters on June 24, 2022.

The film’s screenplay is by Derrickson & C.Robert Cargill (Doctor Strange, Sinister franchise), based on the award-winning short story by Joe Hill from his New York Times bestseller 20th Century Ghosts.

Ahead of the film’s release, Bloody Disgusting chatted with the bestselling author about the adaptation and how Derrickson and Cargill transformed his short story into a visual novel with heart. Hill also revealed a surprising personal rule of Tom Savini‘s that The Black Phone deftly bypassed, enticing him to create Ethan Hawke‘s The Grabber’s mask.

Fans of Hill’s work and those familiar with the original short story might find themselves surprised at how faithfully The Black Phone adheres to the essence of the source material while altering and expanding some of its brief details for a feature-length film.

Hill explains how he, Derrickson, and Cargill each contributed crucial yet different components to this crowd-pleasing adaptation. The first component, of course, is his source material from him. Hill detailed how Derrickson and Cargill shaped his story further.

(from left) Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

“There were three main creative threads that were braided together into the film,” Hill begins our conversation. “Scott and Cargill used everything in the story, every line of dialogue, every scene. It’s all there on the screen, but that’s only about 40 minutes of the film. They needed more, and they found more. There’s this very autobiographical story about growing up in the violent 1970s out in the Midwest. It’s a story that reflects on Scott’s childhood memories of him, and it moves with a kind of pinpoint emotional precision. It uncovers the time with forensic accuracy.”

He continues, “There have been a lot of throwback movies that are set in the 1980s, and it’s bubblegum colored and Spielbergian. Scott wasn’t interested in a nostalgia trip. That’s not really what he does with The Black Phone. He insists that the times looked a little bit different to people who lived through them, and I think he got it right. I think, in part, he gets it right because he shows such emotional restraint, understands what every scene is supposed to do emotionally, and makes sure it delivers that. So, that’s what Scott brought to it; it comes uniquely from his heart.

Then Cargill looked at the short story and said, ‘It’s the ultimate horror movie escape room.’ It’s a puzzle box. How does he get out?

Hill adds, “The plot of the story, of course, is there is this man who’s been kidnapping and murdering children. Our hero Finney is taken by him and finds himself locked in a basement stained by the blood of all The Grabber’s former victims. But also in the basement is a disconnected phone, an antique phone that’s been there for most of a century. For Finney, it begins to ring with calls from the other dead kids. Cargill saw that each kid could provide another clue as to how Finney might fight back or escape.”

(from left) Vance Hopper (Brady Hepner) and Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

“I think he saw that he could use that as a way to make these kids real, vivid, give them their lives,” Hill continues. “Their lives mattered; their experiences mattered. Who were they? What did they live through? There’s one incredibly powerful line where one of the ghosts says, ‘You’re getting out of here, Finney. I’m going to make sure of it because I don’t want to have died for nothing.’

“I mean, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. That’s not in the story. That’s Cargill or Scott. Those are the threads that were braided together, and I think that is what makes the movie work. It does have this real emotional power in the sense that it’s not exploitative. It is about looking at victims and giving them back some agency, their strength, and power.

That emphasis on the children’s stories and their emotional power is responsible for persuading Tom Savini to lend his expertise, along with Jason Baker, to create The Grabber’s mask.

Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

Hill, who has a connection to Savini from childhood, revealed that the SFX legend has a personal rule regarding victimizing children in films. It’s one that The Black Phone never broached.

The author explains, “The iconic mask was designed by Tom Savini, whom I met as a child and have renewed my friendship with as an adult. Tom told me it was a personal rule with him never to work on a film that exploited children as victims. When I read the script for The Black Phonehe said, ‘I’m in,’ because it isn’t exploitive, because it presents these kids as a tribe, a gang, like The Gooniesand it insists on the richness and value of their lives and gives them back their strength. If the movie works emotionally, that’s a big part of it as well.”

If the talk of tenderness and goonies references gives pause, don’t worry. Hill promises the horror balances the heart.

I don’t want Bloody Disgusting readers to get this wrong. The movie’s going to scare the pants off you. That’s absolutely the goal, but it has heart. That’s nice because there are a lot of horror films that I love, that probably you love that are, let’s face it, basically gory, slapstick. They’re a good time. You don’t really care about any of the people who the slasher is going after. Every time someone’s killed, you’re actually laughing because it’s so corny. There’s a place for horror movies like that, but it’s nice when they can tap something richer.”

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