Ethan Hawke's The Black Phone Mask Was Designed By Horror Legend Tom Savini

If you've seen "Creepshow," "Friday the 13th," or "Maniac," you've beheld the work of Tom Savini. The legendary fx artist has been in the game for over 40 years, from Bob Clark's '74 Monkey's Paw riff "Deathdream" to his feature directorial debut, a 1990 remake of George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," and finally coming full circle to directing an episode of Shudder's "Creepshow" series in 2019. Pulling from his experience as a combat photographer during the Vietnam war, Savini incorporated the visceral imagery he saw and captured with his camera into his later makeup effects work. His latest contribution to the nightmares of a generation is a sinister mask for a menacing man.

In Blumhouse's latest thriller, "The Black Phone," a boy named Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) finds himself in the lair of a child-killer called The Grabber, played by Ethan Hawke in a terrifying rare turn as a baddie. Co-written by director Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill and based on Joe Hill's 2004 short story of the same name, "The Black Phone" has its killer kidnapping children and bringing them to his bare-bones basement (only equipped with a dirty mattress and the phone of the title), where they never come back out alive. During one such abduction, the Grabber can be seen donning a gray, horned, sectioned mask featuring a devilish grin. When this mask is revealed in the film, it's not Finney who sees it first — it's the audience. The moment is arresting and provides one of the most memorable single images of the film entire. 

Simply put, the mask makes the movie just as much as the stellar cast does. Its impact has been compared to that of Lon Chaney's Cheshire grin in "London After Midnight," but I see Conrad Veidt in Universal's "The Man Who Laughs" (which, admittedly, isn't a horror film).

Empire Magazine's new "The Book Of Boba Fett" issue is on newsstands starting 25 November, wherein Derrickson details how The Grabber's look came to be. When the "Sinister" director got his hands on a work-up by artist and filmmaker Tom Savini, Derrickson knew it was a wrap on the search for The Grabber's look. He tells Empire:

"Tom gave me a sketch he had done himself. As soon as I saw it, I was like, 'Oh, well, this is what we're doing.' It was really amazing."

The Sultan of Splatter

Even with the prosthetic effects master on board, the production still struggled to capture the nuances of Savini's original design. On paper is one thing; making something tangible and wearable for the actor is another. "We spent two solid months just rejecting the things that they were sending me," Derrickson tells Empire, "I kept going, 'It needs to look exactly like Tom's artwork.' It was much more of a challenge than I was expecting."

Derrickson knows the importance of a terrifying villain face in horror pictures. His own 2012 effort, "Sinister" — a feature, by the way, co-written with frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill and starring Ethan Hawke — features a pagan figure and soul devourer named Bughuul (Mr. Boogie, if you're nasty) whose face has the suggestion of eyes and a mouth, but is clearly malevolent and otherworldly. 

Sometimes, these looks can just come together, as when an 11th-hour alteration was made to a dimestore William Shatner mask to create the slasher icon The Shape, a.k.a. Michael Myers of the "Halloween" franchise. But for most modern filmmakers telling a scary story, such moviemaking miracles can't be left to chance. In that case, Savini isn't a bad artist to have in your corner.

"The Black Phone" arrives in theaters on February 4, 2022.