'The Black Phone' explained: A real life killer, childhood memories shaped the adaptation

Sonaiya Kelley, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The phone is dead. And it's ringing.

So reads the tagline for "The Black Phone," Scott Derrickson's haunting adaptation of Joe Hill's short story. The script, which Derrickson co-wrote with his producing partner Robert Cargill, stars Ethan Hawke as The Grabber, a sadistic kidnapper who stalks young boys in suburban Denver in the 1970s.

Hill, the son of horror maestro Stephen King, deftly blends several horror tropes (ghosts, invisible killers, clairvoyance and other supernatural elements) in his telling of the story, which centers around Finney (Mason Thames), an introverted 13-year-old who becomes The Grabber's latest victim.

The adaptation comes 10 years after Derrickson and Hawke first collaborated on the chilling Blumhouse horror "Sinister." "'Sinister' is an important film in my life," said the actor by email. "It was simple and clean in the best way. For me, 'Sinister' felt like the first film of the second half of my career. It gave me the opportunity to begin to play older, more complicated men. It was a beautifully written role and it was easy to try and give a personal performance inside a genre film, which is a rare opportunity."

Here's how Derrickson and Cargill expanded Hill's 10-page short story into a feature length film.

Turning 10 pages into a full length movie


Derrickson was attracted to the Joe Hill short story, which was published in 2004, for its compassion and distinctiveness. "From the first time I read it, something that I thought was deceptive about the story is that it combined a serial killer story with a ghost story," he said. "I hadn't seen that done before and certainly not in any kind of an effective way. And Joe did it seemingly effortlessly. There's so much empathy toward Finney and it was all told with a point of view of love and felt very hopeful and even inspiring."

He brought the story to Cargill in 2011 and together they worked to brainstorm ideas on how to adapt it for the screen.

"It's 10 pages, we meet the character right as he gets thrown in the basement, there's no other real characters," said Cargill of the immediate challenges they faced. "But it's just such a great idea: a kid is spending the night in a basement with a disconnected phone and then the phone rings."

"What we've changed is additive rather than subtractive," he continued. "Because every element of that short story was perfect for a film."


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