If horror is your favorite genre, you’re definitely aware of the fact that consistency is somewhat of an issue with the genre.
Because many horror films are produced on small budgets, fans of the genre often roll the dice when seeking out the latest horror film to hit theaters.
The genre is often low risk, high reward, with plenty of small-budget productions turning gigantic profits due to good word of mouth and high turnout at the cinemas.
Jeremy Davies, Mason Thames, and Madeleine McGraw attend the Universal Pictures’ “The Black Phone” Los Angeles Premiere on June 21, 2022, in Hollywood, California (Credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock)
One example is 2009’s Paranormal Activity, which was filmed on a shoestring budget of $215,000, and ended up grossing $193.4 million at the box office. Even earlier than Paranormal Activity was the cult classic The Blair Witch Project (1999), which famously grossed $248.6 million against a paltry budget of approx. $250,000.
Finally hitting theaters on June 24, 2022, The Black Phone proved to be a real treat for fans of the horror genre, as it combined genuine scares with a heartfelt coming-of-age story. In this article, we’ll be exploring the production of The Black Phone and which ingredients truly allowed the film to have a recipe for success.
How Was The Black Phone Made?
Although the film only saw the light of day in 2021, development on the film technically began nearly a decade before that date, when, in 2005, director Scott Derrickson purchased a copy of a short story collection from author Joe Hill, who is the son of legendary horror author Stephen King. You can buy Joe Hill’s award-winning story collection on Amazon.
This collection of short stories included The Black Phone. After reading the story, Derrickson “immediately recognized that the story’s concept would make for a good horror film.”
Scott Derrickson is an American filmmaker best known for directing films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil, Doctor Strange, and The Black Phone (Credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock)
Derrickson showed the story to his longtime collaborator, American screenwriter C. Robert Cargill. They have since worked together on horror films like Sinister (2012), Sinister 2 (2015), and the marvel superhero movie Doctor Strange (2016).
They eventually shelved their plans to adapt the novel when they began working for Marvel. However, they picked it up again once Derrickson had left Marvel studios following creative differences on the sequel to Doctor Strange.
In The Black Phone, Jeremy Davies plays Terrence Blake, E. Roger Mitchell portrays Detective Wright, Madeleine McGraw stars as Gwen Blake, and Troy Rudeseal is Detective Miller (Credit: Universal Pictures)
When writing the adaptation of the film, Derrickson decided to incorporate aspects of his own childhood into Hill’s story, as Derrickson “…grew up in a violent household and a violent neighborhood.”
What Is The Black Phone About?
Set in 1978, The Black Phone follows the character of The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a psychotic serial child abductor and murderer who wreaks havoc in the suburbs surrounding Denver.
While this is taking place, preteen siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live in the area where their classmates fall victim to The Grabber.
Mason Thames plays Finney Blake, a captive teenager, and Madeleine McGraw plays Gwen, Finney’s sister who experiences psychic dreams, in the 2021 American supernatural horror film The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Gwen experiences psychic dreams from the victims of The Grabber, causing the authorities to believe that she has inside knowledge of the crimes.
Eventually, Finney gets abducted by The Grabber and communicates with the ghosts of his prior victims (as well as his sister Gwen) to plan his escape from The Grabber’s confinement.
How Was Ethan Hawke Cast as The Grabber?
Casting for the film began shortly after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the younger actors being cast via remote auditions over the internet.
Actor Mason Thames discussed the awkwardness of this process, stating, “…we had bad Wi-Fi. I’d say a line, and it would take a few seconds for them to say something back. It got a bit awkward. Eventually, I got a callback.”
Ethan Hawks, who plays the role of The Grabber in the film, was offered the role by Derrickson, as Derrickson had worked with Hawke previously on Sinister (2012). In Sinister, Hawke played the role of Ellison Oswalt, the victim of the killer demon in that film.
Ethan Hawke plays The Grabber, a psychotic child kidnapper and serial killer, in the film The Black Phone (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Initially, Hawke was apparently not keen on playing the role of The Grabber, a child serial killer.
One of Hollywood’s biggest stars throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Hawke is perhaps most well-known for playing leading male characters in films like Gattaca (1997), Training Day (2001), and What Doesn’t Kill You (2008).
With that being said, we’re not surprised that Hawke was hesitant to play the role of The Grabber. However, Derrickson revealed that after Hawke read the screenplay, he instantly decided to accept the role of The Grabber. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hawke further elaborated on his decision to accept the role, stating:
“I’ve always had this theory that when you teach an audience how to see the demon inside you, they don’t unsee it for the rest of your career. Jack Nicholson can be playing an acountant and you’re still waiting for him to explore like he did in The Shining. But I realized that I’m on the other side of 60 and it’s time to put a new tool in the tool kit. Villians might be my future.”
Finney Blake, played by Mason Thames, is kidnapped by the Grabber, played by Ethan Hawke, and wakes up in a soundproof basement with a black rotary phone on the wall. Finney answers the ringing phone and is told by Bruce’s ghost about a way to escape (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Villians definitely seem to be the future of Ethan Hawke’s career, as he also recently appeared as the villain Arthur Harrow in Marvel’s Moon Knight miniseries, which premiered in March of 2022.
Was The Black Phone A Success?
With a strong story and talented actors filling the cast, The Black Phone had all the ingredients to be a successful film.
The film was well regarded by critics and audiences alike and currently sports an 83% critic rating and an 88% audience rating on the popular aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes.
Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of the captivating yet frightening Grabber and Mason Thames’s nuanced performance as the captive Finney Blake received widespread critical acclaim (Credit: Universal Pictures)
The performances by Ethan Hawke as The Grabber and Mason Thames as Finney Blake were critically acclaimed and consistently praised as highlights of the film, with film critic Tara Brady of The Irish Times stating, “Hawke and Thames respectively give two big performances to enact a compelling cat-and-mouse game.”
The film went on to haul in a respectable box-office gross of $161.4 million against a relatively small (for Hollywood standards) budget of $16 million.
Will There Be A Sequel to The Black Phone?
Although the story of The Black Phone exists as a standalone short from author Joe Hill, talks of a sequel to the film have been brewing following the success of the first film.
In The Black Phone, Mason Thames stars as Finney Blake, a teenager captured by The Grabber, while Madeleine McGraw plays Gwen, Finney’s sister experiencing psychic dreams, and Jeremy Davies portrays Terrence, their alcoholic and abusive widower father (Credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock)
Joe Hill has apparently pitched director Scott Derrickson on an idea for the sequel, which is currently in the early stages of development.
In the horror genre, success typically breeds sequels of dubious quality. We’re hoping that if there is a sequel to The Black Phone, it will follow in the same vein of quality as the first film!