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Over the weekend, The Black Phone made a major dent in the North American box office with a $23.3 million opening, an excellent debut for a mid-budget horror film in a crowded summer full of blockbuster efforts which means the film has already made back its budget and then some. It was a triumphant launch for one of the most-anticipated horror films of the year, and it means that fans everywhere are going to spend the next few days talking about how they spent their weekend with director Scott Derrickson's new scarefest.
Like his other most famous horror effort, the modern classic Sinister, The Black Phone features Derrickson's haunting visual style and knack for deployment of jump scares, paired with an emotional core that allows for an intimate focus on a few characters and the horrors they face. This time around, those characters are the brother and sister duo Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). While Finney faces the most overt horror of the two, as he's the one who gets kidnapped by the child killer known only as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), Gwen deals with plenty of horrors of her own back home. Even as she's trying to find her brother, driven on by seemingly supernatural dreams that point the way to his location, Gwen is also faced with confronting the ongoing abuse her father (Jeremy Davies) dishes out, rooted in his own trauma after losing his wife. The result is a dual study in very real, very relatable terror.
Speaking to Bloody Disgusting about the film, Derrickson -- who adapted the film with co-writer C. Robert Cargill from Joe Hill's short story of the same name -- explained that it was this two-handed approach to the horror that led to what turned out to be the film's most brutal scene, a scene which has nothing to do with The Grabber at all. According to the director, the moment when Gwen's father actually whips her in an effort to get her to stop pushing her dreams as some kind of solution to the problem of where her brother has gone, was so brutal to early viewers of the film that they encouraged him to remove it from the final cut.
"There’s a line you can cross in dealing with children," Derrickson said. "I think that probably the riskiest scene I’ve shot in my career is Gwen getting whipped by her father. That was a scene. There were some people involved in the movie who asked me to take it out, and I was like, ‘The movie won’t work without it.’ I was adamant. It’s there to show the trauma they deal with daily, but also their bond. You feel for them and how they care about each other and have each other’s back in that scene. But at the same time, there was a way to do that scene that would turn everyone off.”
Derrickson went on to explain how, to avoid crossing a certain line of violence in the film, he had to stage the whipping sequence very carefully, and create certain physical and emotional demarcations that were clear to his audience. Of course, the performances from Davies and McGraw were also essential.
"So, I picked the location because I knew I wanted not to see the actual whipping," he explained. "I wanted the audience to feel it more than actually, see it happen. The vast majority of that happens behind the counter. You don’t see it happening. You feel it more in the performances of Jeremy Davies and his rage and what you hear from Gwen. Then when Gwen stands back up, she doesn’t get whipped again. That’s the most emotionally harrowing part of the scene. The most upsetting part of the scene, what people think of as the whipping scene, is the second scene when she’s not getting whipped, but when he’s berating her. God bless Madeleine. Her performance in that scene is so truthful, so raw, and real.”
The Black Phone is in theaters now.