The Joe Hill short story that inspired Scott Derrickson’s latest horror film, “The Black Phone,” isn’t based on actual occurrences, but the ’70s-set abduction chiller is suffused with plenty of authentic horror. The film follows 13-year-old Finney (newcomer Mason Thames), who becomes the latest victim of prolific child abductor and serial killer The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a local magician who uses his own North Denver neighborhood as a personal hunting ground.
When the film opens, the threat of The Grabber looms large over Finney and his friends, who are extremely aware that they might be scooped up by the vicious criminal and never seen again. For Derrickson, who adapted Hill’s short story alongside his long-time creative partner C. Robert Cargill, the fear that Finney feels even before he’s snatched felt uncomfortably relatable. After all, just like Finney, he grew up during a time when American children were granted enormous freedom (no cell phones to tether them to their families, a real “be home by dark” kind of world), even as they were beset by headlines screaming about child predators grabbing kids off the street.
The pervasive sense of real-world trauma in an entertaining package is present from the moment “The Black Phone” opens, thanks to a set of gritty opening credits (shot on Super 8) that focus on youngsters in various states of unease, a “creeping in of the bloody violence of childhood” that was conceived of and shot by Derrickson’s wife, fellow filmmaker Maggie Levin.
“The gore and the violence in those, it’s all child injuries, it’s setting the tone for North Denver in 1978, where I grew up,” Derrickson told IndieWire during a recent interview. “Being a kid in that part of town in that neighborhood, you just bled a lot. Kids were bleeding all the time. Everybody’s getting their head split open and their arms and legs cut up, and it was just the way that it was. … I really wanted to capture the time and feel of that place. My own childhood memory is marked mostly by feelings of fear. That’s what I mostly remember.”
Derrickson’s work has always exhibited his strong interest in marrying true terror with horror entertainment. His 2005 breakout hit, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” was marketed as being loosely based on a true story (the title character was inspired by the story of Anneliese Michel, though the film takes many liberties). His 2014 feature “Deliver Us from Evil” followed a similar path, and while it was touted as being based on “actual accounts” of horrific occurrences in New York City, the central story was written by Derrickson. (He did, however, pull from former NYPD sergeant Ralph Sarchie’s nonfiction book “Beware the Night,” about his own experiences.) Derrickson even co-wrote and produced Atom Egoyan’s 2013 crime drama, “Devil’s Knot,” based on the story of the West Memphis Three.
So, yes, he likes true crime, but Derrickson also sees a value in fact-based docs and horror movies that goes beyond just basic entertainment consumption.
“Oh, oh, I’m addicted to them! I call them ‘murdies,’” Derrickson said when asked about his affection for true crime films and series. “‘Time to watch a murdie. Going to watch a murdie.’ There’s not a true-crime documentary film or series that you could name that I have not seen. I’ve seen everything. Every month, I look at everything that’s new that comes out. I usually watch all of it, certainly anything that’s good.”
Derrickson said that he thinks a big part of the appeal of watching true crime stories, particularly those about serial killers, is rooted in “the otherness of it, the alien nature of a character who has no conscience or empathy. The sociopathic mystery of that is incredibly fascinating. It is as fascinating and as alien as the planets in another galaxy.”
He continued, “There is a wonderment quality to it, and a vicarious thrill that comes through watching a reenactment or hearing a reenactment of how these things happen from the safety of your own home, and feeling empathy for those victims, but not being one yourself. But also, most of the good ones fill you with a sense of justice.”
Derrickson pointed to the popular HBO series “The Jinx,” which followed convicted murderer Robert Durst through what would end up being pivotal moments, as a good example. The six-part series from Andrew Jarecki infamously ended with Durst’s apparent off-camera admission of guilt to his many alleged crimes, leading many viewers to assume that he’d admitted (while outfitted with an audio recorder!) to a string of murders he’d been accused of for several decades. Durst was taken into custody the night before the last episode aired for the murder of Susan Berman. He was convicted of the murder in 2021 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. He died in January.
“What have you ever seen that’s as satisfying in terms of justice served as the ending of ‘The Jinx’? It’s fantastic,” Derrickson said. “The guy just self-incriminates, because he’s shooting an HBO documentary. It’s awesome.”
Derrickson said he’s often asked some version of the question, “If there’s so much horror in the real world, why do you want to make horror art and put more horror out in the world?” He’s thought about the answer quite a bit.
“My answer is always: Horror art is not putting more horror in the world. It is putting a reckoning with horror into the world,” he said. “There’s plenty of horror in the world, there’s not enough reckoning with the horrific, there’s not enough honest reckoning with the horrible. To me, horror cinema, horror literature, anything involving Gothic art, is a way to tap into and reckon with the unspoken and unspeakable evils, and threats of the world, whether it’s in fears, fear of ourselves, fear of the other, fear of the serial killer, feel of fear of nature, what it can do, all of that.”
That sentiment runs through “The Black Phone,” which hopes to offer a sense of justice to both Finney (and the other victims who came before, who assist the teen through the use of the eponymous black phone) and the audience watching him attempt to save his own life and bring The Grabber into the light.
“The more reckoning we can have with the really terrifying aspects of human life, the healthier we are,” Derrickson said. “I personally fancy the idea that fans of horror movies have a kind of mental health that only they can have.”
A Universal Pictures release, “The Black Phone” hits theaters on Friday, June 24.