How do you create the ultimate horror movie mask? That was the problem facing Doctor Strange and Sinister filmmaker Scott Derrickson as he was prepping his new movie, the Blumhouse-produced The Black Phone (out today). In the '70s-set movie, Ethan Hawke plays "the Grabber," a character who kidnaps and kills children, and through most of the film same wears a dementedly grinning mask, or variations on the same. Derrickson was aware that getting the mask right was crucial for the film's success, both artistically and commercially.
"As soon as I started prepping the movie, I just knew, whatever this mask is, it's the thing that they're gonna use to market the movie," says the director, who wrote the film's script with longtime collaborator C. Robert Cargill. "So the success of the movie really depends on how good the mask is and, boy, did that light a fire under me. That really did drive a lot of my determination to make something iconic. In the script, all we had was what was described as an old leather mask [with] a devil painted on with a smile and a frown and that was it. The development of the mask was a whole complex process."
Derrickson and executive producer Ryan Turek approached five different companies to come up with the concepts for the mask. The list included the Pittsburgh-based Callosum Studios, which is run by Jason Baker and legendary makeup artist Tom Savini, whose many credits include 1978's Dawn of the Dead and 1980's Friday the 13th.
"Out of the blue we got a message from Ryan Turek, the producer," says Baker. "He was like, 'Hey, man, we've been seeing all the stuff that you and Tom have been doing lately. We need some creepy masks for a movie and would you guys be interested?' We were like, 'Yeah, I think we can make time in our schedule for Blumhouse and Universal.' [Laughs]"
"During Covid, we designed these safety masks but they were horror-themed," says Savini. "It was the hockey mask from Jason, it was the vampire from Salem's Lot. They were Covid masks for the fans, who were probably going to wear masks anyway, and they wanted to wear creepy ones. So [Derrickson and Turek] probably saw that."
Savini came up with an initial design for the mask, which met with approval.
"Tom just came back with something that was head and shoulders above everyone else," says the director. "He's Tom Savini, you know. [Laughs] I thought we would get something more unique from someone younger. I was wrong. It's the old legend that still delivers. The only reference I gave him was The Man Who Laughs, for the smile mask. Other than that, I didn't really have any reference. He came back pretty quickly with a sketch that's basically the mask that you see onscreen. As soon as I saw it, I went, 'My God, that's it.'"
Savini further refined the concept in collaboration with Derrickson.
"We would send sketches to Scott and he would make suggestions," says Savini. "Jason took over and actually physicalized the looks of the mask. He wound up dealing with Scott after I gave up the designs. I did my thing and then [Jason] had to deal with the creation."
According to Baker, "One of the biggest things Scott said was 'We have to see Ethan's eyes, no matter what. Because if you can't see Ethan's eyes, and he can't give his performance through his eyes, then why are we hiring someone like Ethan Hawke?' That's why the eyes are so wide on the mask, so you can see it's Ethan."
Baker traveled to New York to cast a mold of Hawke's face and later returned for what proved to be an unnerving test-fitting as the actor started getting into the character of the Grabber.
"We took all the masks to Ethan's office to make sure everything fitted and he was comfortable," says Baker. "Ethan is so sweet and accommodating. I show up and Ethan's got, like, a soy latte and a vegan muffin for me. Then he puts the masks on, and all of a sudden things start to click, you can see gears start to turn, and I'm like, I know I made this but I don't like it and I want to leave. It's broad daylight and he's doing little maneuvers and whispering and talking. I was like: This is terrifying."
The Black Phone received positive reviews when Derrickson's film premiered at Fantastic Fest, with critics routinely calling out Savini's contribution to the movie. For Baker, the real treat is having collaborated with his business partner to create a monster for a studio that, back in the '30s, unleashed such horror classics as Frankenstein and Dracula.
"For me personally, it was such a blast, because I got to create a Universal monster with Tom Savini," he says. "If that's not a childhood dream come true, I don't know what is."
Watch the trailer for The Black Phone below.
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