Scott Derrickson's "The Black Phone" introduces the latest in a long line of iconic Universal Studios horror characters with the Grabber, a sadistic serial killer and part-time magician who wears a set of unsettlingly dynamic devil masks.
The brainchild of Derrickson, designer Tom Savini and fabricator Jason Baker, the masks convey three exaggerated expressions of the villain: joy, despair and utter nothingness in a haunting reinterpretation of the traditional comedy/tragedy masks.
Played by Ethan Hawke, the Grabber is a departure from many of the screen's most infamous masked killers in part due to his evolving masks, but also because of his loquacious demeanor. "If you look at Jason [Voorhees] or Michael Myers or Ghostface, they don't talk," said Derrickson. "The idea of this very chatty serial killer behind a mask was really interesting to me. I knew if we got that right, it could be all the more unnerving for it."
We answered all your burning questions about the masks the Grabber wears directly from the people who brought the villain to life.
What made Tom Savini and Jason Baker right for the task for crafting the masks?
"Obviously Tom's a legend, but I didn't hire him for that reason," said Derrickson. Actually, he'd asked Blumhouse producer Ryan Turek for the best makeup effects companies that specifically made masks. Turek gave him a list of five companies, with Savini and Baker's Callosum FX Studios being one of them.
"I went to all five companies and said 'Here's the script, here's the concept. Give me a piece of concept art that shows me what this mask is going to look like,'" he said. "And all five came back with interesting ideas. I remember the other designers had more elaborate concept work and descriptions and all that. Tom Savini sent back a single pencil sketch that was almost exactly what you see in the movie. And as soon as I looked at it, I was like 'Oh my God, that's it.'"
The sketch was drawn by Levi Simpson, Baker's brother-in-law. "He and I were doing some sketches, we sent them to Scott, and so it was basically the three of us that came up with a design: Levi, me and Scott," said Savini.
How did the look of the masks evolve over the course of production?
"In the script, we had described old, cracked, leather, antique masks that had a painted devil on both of them," said Derrickson. "One with a smile, one with a frown, like a traditional comedy/tragedy set of masks. And so I started with adding 'What if he had a third mask that he introduces himself with that has no mouth? That could be weird.'"
Baker made threeor four of each variation and more than 30 all together. "Because there were ones that were the full masks and there are the half masks. We made one specifically for the scene where Ethan takes the upper half off and just has the lower half. We had to make some for gags, for stunts, and then with COVID, we had to make replicas for the photo double because we couldn't have Ethan sharing the same mask as the double."
It took about two weeks to get each mask approved and about one or two days to physically construct it. "The whole process, from start to finish, took us about a month," said Baker. "We'd shoot test footage and send it over. Scott would come back and be like, 'I like this, I don't like that. Let's change this.' And then we'd work on it for a day or two, make those changes and just keep going."
What inspired the look of the masks?
The protagonist of Paul Leni's 1928 silent film "The Man Who Laughs" provided early inspiration for the Grabber's freakishly stretched grin. "That particular grimace, I thought, could work well for the smile mask," said Derrickson.
Savini and Baker also drew inspiration from circus masks, Greek masks, antique dolls, old movies like "Mr. Sardonicus" (1961) and the Coney Island barker. "We had a whole vision board at our studio, just little ideas and things that inspired us," said Baker.
"And Scott had photos," said Savini. "So it was a back-and-forth process with Scott."
"Scott was like, 'It needs to look like something that [the Grabber] found, not something he created,'" said Baker. "They wanted it very old, very antique-y looking. Maybe something that was made for a theatrical production or something of that nature."
Derrickson sent over some old ceramic masks for reference, as well as other types of handmade masks. "Jason started to really refine it and do 3-D concept work of Tom's design, showing me what he thought it would look like," he said. "In making it, we almost ran out of time. Because I spent most of my pre-production trying to get the masks just right and it was just not getting quite right. And then right at the last minute, everything clicked into place."
When was it decided to split the masks into interchangeable upper and lower portions?
The idea to split the masks into top and bottom portions came after Hawke was cast. "I thought, 'Oh my god, I've got Ethan Hawke. Now I want to see his face a little bit.' And so I thought, 'Well, I could break it in half and he could wear [different] pieces during [different] scenes. And then it became a really fun thing to think about how he would choose different pieces for different intentions with Finney. How is he trying to present himself and why."
"I was like a large cat toying with a small mouse, showing him different aspects of myself with each 'face,'" said Hawke. "A mask immediately changes the way other people relate to you. I felt like a lion, feeding off the fear of its prey. It isn't until [Finney] conquers his own fear that he is able to vanquish the beast. I guess there's something about masks that makes me think in symbols."
"There were times where it'd be like, 'Well, at this point, he's going to pull off the top mask because he needs to be able to see properly because he's going to have to chase a kid,'" said Cargill. "And then times where he had clearly not put on the bottom part of the mask and only put on the top part because we really wanted to see his expressions."
"What's interesting is there's no explanation about how he goes from the smile to the frown," said Savini. "I imagine this is really creepy to the average audience member."
"I love the fact that you see him silhouetted in the shadow," said Baker. "You think it's one mask and then he steps through and it's [another]. It was just so cool."
How were they physically constructed?
The first step was procuring a life cast of Hawke's face to use as a mold. The life cast was made using silicone-based, light casting materials, "basically dumping this all over his face, then packing it up with plastic bandages so there's something to support [it]," said Savini. The masks were sculpted over Hawke's life mask in clay and then a mold was made.
"But we're doing all of this during COVID, so it was a whole new process compared to how we've done stuff before," said Baker. "Usually we just throw talent on an airplane, bring them to us, take a copy of the head and go from there. But Ethan at the time didn't feel comfortable with the travel during the middle of the pandemic so we had to go to him in New York. We did this life cast in his office, brought it back to Pittsburgh where we're based, worked on everything and took it back to New York to test fit it on him."
The final masks were made out of a light, fiberglass-resin hybrid mix lined with felt and lightly padded with foam backing. Stunt masks made out of latex and lightweight rubber were also created. "So light and durable," said Baker. "[Since he's] wearing the mask for 12-14 hours a day, we wanted to keep Ethan as comfortable as possible."
"During the whole process, we're sending photos and videos and everything back to Scott," he added. "Scott knew exactly how they were going to light the scenes in the basement so that really helped us with our paint schemes and test footage. And then once everything was approved, we drove them down to Wilmington, [North Carolina] where we shot everything."
How did Hawke respond to the masks?
"He loved them," said Baker. "The moment I opened them, he was like a kid on Christmas morning. He just could not wait to try them on. Wearing a mask is obviously very limiting for an actor and to have him act through it, I think maybe a lesser actor wouldn't have been able to portray that."
"As soon as I saw the masks, I knew what to do," said Hawke. "There is an almost Greek theater element to what was being asked of me. I wasn't being asked to do a portrait of the devil in any uber-realistic fashion. We see the Grabber only as [Finney] sees him, so there is something very impressionistic happening that I wanted to embrace. Voice and movement becomes the game."
"Here he is, having to act in a way he's never acted before, with his face mostly or entirely covered," said Cargill. "So he's having to perform theatrically with his body, which he hadn't done since college when he did Greek theater. He had to find a way to both be trying to get in the good graces of a kid he's kidnapped while at the same time switching at the drop of a hat to be absolutely terrifying. And he just nailed it."
"Here's Ethan, this sweet, gentle, nice guy," said Savini. "He puts the mask on and suddenly he became the character. It's almost like this force of presence. The magic was the combination of the mask and what he put behind it that created this new Universal monster. So it was a thrill and an honor."
What makes a good mask? And what makes masks so scary?
"We have this thing programmed into us called the uncanny valley where something that looks like it should be right but isn't right ultimately unsettles us," said Cargill. "What makes a good mask is something that feels familiar, but is different in some way. This is clearly a devil mask, but you've never seen a mask that looks quite like this. The way that the facial expressions work functions very differently than other devil masks you've seen.
"It doesn't look like something you pulled off a party supply store shelf, this is something that someone clearly crafted for themselves. Great masks just add to the mystery of what's going on behind it."
"To me, I think one of the many reasons why are these masks are so terrifying is because you can actually see Ethan's eyes," said Baker. "You look at something like Michael Myers, where you know it's a human, you know someone's in there, but you can never see his eyes, so you don't know if there's any comprehension. With the Grabber, you can see his eyes. You can see that things are processing, that he's thinking. To me, that makes it utterly terrifying."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.