Filmmaker Scott Derrickson steeps himself in the horror genre and fearfully awakens the senses of those who indulge in the Supernatural and Uncanny realms. When he read the short story The Black Phone, written by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill more than fifteen years ago, he was hooked and knew that he had to bring the story to life on film.
In 2012, filmmakers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill partnered with producer Jason Blum and actor Ethan Hawke to make Sinister, widely considered the most terrifying film of the 21st century thus far. The team was eager to work together again, and as Derrickson began exploring options, he revisited Joe Hill’s bestselling short story The Black Phone, which was released in 2005 as part of his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts.
Derrickson and Cargill have become among the industry’s most esteemed horror auteurs in large part because their films are about far more than scares. “If you can imagine removing all the genre elements from a great genre film and you’ve still got a great drama…that’s worth watching,” Derrickson says. “If you take away the action, set pieces, scary scenes and thrills and you’ve still got a great film there? Then you’re onto something that has the potential to connect with the audience in a memorable way.” More than memorable, their films are unforgettable.
“Modern Horror is not often subtle,” Christopher Golden wrote in the Introduction of 20th Century Ghosts. “Most of those who practice the art of the unsettling far too often go for the jugular, forgetting that the best predators are stealthy. “
“I happened to stumble into a bookstore around the time the book came out,” says Derrickson, the writer-director of Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
“At the time, I didn’t know who Joe was, let alone that he was Stephen King’s son. I stood in the bookstore and read this short story and thought, ‘Wow, this guy is great.’ It was only about 20 pages long, but I thought the concept was fantastic and such a good idea for a movie. I never forgot about it. I’d bring it up on occasion and continued to think about turning it into a film, but the timing was never right. Then, about a year and a half ago, the time just felt right, so my writing partner, C. Robert Cargill, and I optioned the title from Joe, and we wrote the script.”
Cargill was equally enamored with Hill’s short story. “Scott slid me ‘The Black Phone’ and I loved it so much that I immediately bought the rest of the book and blew through it,” Cargill says. “It had a bit of everything in it, and that’s exactly what you want when you sit down to read a horror story.”
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Inspiration for the tale came from a specific memory from Hill’s childhood
Both the short story and the film follow 13-year-old Finney, who is abducted by an infamous child abductor and serial killer known as The Grabber in a small town in northern Denver. Locked in the killer’s basement, Finney discovers that he can hear the killer’s previous victims through a disconnected black rotary phone on the wall. The inspiration for the tale came from a specific memory from Hill’s childhood.
“I grew up in Bangor, Maine, in a very old house,” Hill says. “There was a phone in the basement that wasn’t connected to anything, and I found that phone creepy and unsettling. It didn’t make sense for a phone to be in a basement with a dirt floor and crumbling concrete walls. As a kid, the worst thing I could imagine was that phone ringing.”
Derrickson had always had an interest in creating a film that explored the emotional complexity and pain of childhood and the ability of children to overcome tragedy. “François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows has one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen in a film,” Derrickson says. “It not only showed the traumas that can haunt one’s childhood but also the resilience of children. I knew I wanted to make something in that spirit, but I couldn’t find a story that felt like it would capture that feeling. That is, until I read The Black Phone. After I came across that, Cargill and I started to talk about how we could combine that same concept with this short story.”
The result is a film that transcends genre. “Scott and I believe that great genre films take a genre that you already love and tell that story, and intercept it with a different genre,” Cargill says. “Here, we wanted to write a coming-of-age film that got interrupted by a horror movie.”
In most films about child abduction or serial killers, the victim needs to be rescued by an intrepid, driven detective or another adult. In The Black Phone, the well-meaning adults are essentially useless and the kids – Finney himself, the voices of the dead boys on the phone, and especially Finney’s younger sister, Gwen – are the only people who can possibly save Finney from certain torture and death. Beyond the blood-chilling terror, it’s a film about the strength of children, their ability to believe in unseen forces, and the power of family and love to endure even the darkest, most unthinkable events.
In Joe Hill’s short story, The Grabber was inspired by John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer known as the Killer Clown, who murdered at least 33 young men and boys between 1972 and 1978. “When I was thinking about that kind of predator, I was envisioning someone with echoes of Gacy,” Hill says. “And there was another child killer in the late ’90s outside of Boston that I read about in the paper, and it has haunted me my whole life. I don’t know why it made such a deep impact, but it did. One of the things we turn to fiction for is to get the justice that we don’t get in real life. In real life, these awful things happen and there’s no way to fix it, so we fix it the way we can, with stories.”
Hill was thrilled with their adaptation. “The short story always wanted to be a novel, but I couldn’t see how to extend the story without taking it to places I didn’t want it to go,” Hill says. “It was fascinating to watch Scott and Cargill solve the puzzle of it to make it bigger, richer and full of characters who each have their own stories and wisdom to add.”
Once the script was finished, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse was the duo’s first and only stop. “We didn’t take the script anywhere else,” Derrickson says. “We told Jason that we’d love for them to produce this, and instead of replying, he sent me a rotary black phone in a display case, which, I guess, was his way of saying yes.”
“The first time I saw Sinister, I knew there was someone disturbing with a wild imagination behind the camera, which of course, is a great quality for a horror filmmaker,” executive producer Ryan Turek says.
“That film really cemented Scott and Cargill in the genre as filmmakers with a keen sensibility to keep audiences on their toes. And with The Black Phone, they’ve done it again, except this time, looking at the traumas and dangers of being a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Kids had a lot more freedom back then, which made them a lot more susceptible to danger, but it also kept kids on their toes. And the film does a great job of inserting the audience into that experience and keeping them on their toes, too.”
For Hill, the recreation of that era in the film proved particularly vivid and personal. “I remember 1978 looking like that and kids and parents behaving that way, and I don’t think that’s something that’s represented in film very often,” Hill says. “We often see nostalgia cast in a rich golden light that makes everything look a lot better than it really was, sanding off all the rough edges and the ugliness that really was.”
Derrickson wanted emotional veracity, not just technical accuracy, in every frame. “The trick was to capture not just what the era looked or sounded like, but what did it feel like?” Derrickson says. “I wanted The Black Phone to feel like how the late ’70s felt to me when I was 12 and 13.”
For Gen Xers, children of the ’70s, this was a time without anti-bullying initiatives, where, for boys in particular, learning to defend yourself against mean kids was considered a normal rite of passage. “My earliest memory up until high school was the violence of the neighborhood that I lived in,” Derrickson says. “The primary feeling that I remember having as a child was fear. I was the youngest kid on the street full of bullies.”
Across the country, the era was also tinged with terror, as serial killers such as the Manson Family, Hillside Strangler, Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy dominated national news and reshaped American nightmares. “I remember when going into elementary school, at least where I grew up in North Denver, there was a new presence of serial killers,” Derrickson says. “It was the mid ’70s, and everyone was telling urban legends about the worst kinds of serial killers. All of these horrors had become such a real presence in everyone’s psyches.”
By the 1980s, child murders routinely gripped headlines, beginning with the 1981 kidnapping and decapitation of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in Florida. Seemingly overnight, American childhood changed forever. “When Adam Walsh was killed, every kid in the country knew his name, knew how he died and the horrible story of how they found the body,” Cargill says. “It gave us all nightmares, and it actually led to a line in the script: ‘You go from being an unknown kid for so long, and then everyone knows your name.’ That’s very much reflective of the era that we all grew up in.”
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the seeds of Derrickson’s artistic future were planted here, too. “Growing up and feeling a lot of fear as a kid and understanding that emotion, my love for horror ultimately originated there,” Derrickson says. “Watching horror and making horror, for me, has always been about confronting something that I’m afraid of. I love the non-denial in the genre. Looking into the eyes of something unspoken or that’s unspeakably scary in the world or in nature, I’ve always found it an incredibly cathartic experience, both as a viewer and as an artist.”
“Joe Hill’s short story is very compact and simple,” Derrickson says. “But despite the simplicity of the structure, I felt tremendously empathetic for the lead character. I was excited to expand on that character even more and provide the audience with the opportunity to feel the fear that he feels. We auditioned a lot of kids, and we were lucky to find Mason for the role of Finney. He really carries the film with a very nuanced, powerful, and demanding performance.”
One of the first scenes in the film sees Finney watching the 1959 William Castle horror classic The Tingler. “I built haunted houses in my basement as a kid,” Derrickson says. “I was that kid watching The Tingler, and I never forgot it. It was the first horror movie that I remember stumbling on, on my own. It’s a black-and-white film and that scene when, suddenly, bright red crimson blood appears, that burned into my brain and I never let it go. Not a week goes by that I’m not thinking about the images from that movie. Children have a fascination and innate need to take those horrific things in. I think it’s an instinctive reckoning with how scary it is to be a human being, especially for a child.”
Joseph Hillström King (born June 4, 1972), better known by the pen name Joe Hill, is an American writer. His work includes the novels Heart-Shaped Box (2007), Horns (2010), NOS4A2 (2013), and The Fireman (2016); the short story collections 20th Century Ghosts (2005) and Strange Weather (2017); and the comic book series Locke & Key (2008–2013). He has won awards including Bram Stoker Awards, British Fantasy Awards, and an Eisner Award. In 2019, In the Tall Grass, co-written with his father Stephen King, was released as a Netflix Original film.