The horror genre has been undergoing a renaissance for many years, and 2022 has already given us a number of strong works. The next of these is the return of Scott Derrickson in the horror “Black Phone”, in which he reunites with the star of “Sinister” Ethan Hawke. This time Hawke is playing an antagonist known as the Grabber, and Derrickson recently mentioned Hannibal the Lecturer and the Joker, explaining how to create a good horror villain.
As you can see in the video above, I had the honor to talk with Scott Derrickson, Ethan Hawke and the young stars of the upcoming horror film “Black Phone”. As a fan of his work on Sinister’s villainous Boogeyman and Black Phone Grabber, I asked the director for the key to creating a horror villain that can carry the whole movie. Derrickson shared his point of view, saying:
I really think the mystery is the key, the mystery. Buguul is very mysterious. He never speaks, and you don’t really understand who he is until the end of the Sinister. And even then you don’t fully understand it. But look at the great cult villains: the Joker Heath Ledger, Hannibal Lecter. These are characters who have no backstory. You don’t know why they are the way they are.
He’s definitely right. Although countless horror films have been made over the years, some franchises have gotten bogged down in revealing the killer’s suitable backstory and motivation. But, in the end, some of the worst movie villains lack motivation. In addition to Heath Ledger’s Joker and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal the Lecturer, the killers from Strangers also come to mind as a prime example.
(Image courtesy: Summit Entertainment)
In a sense, the villains of the Sinister and the Black Phone are very different. The first is a demonic presence, while the antagonist of Ethan Hawke’s masked Black Phone is an ordinary person. Nevertheless, the director of “Doctor Strange” Scott Derrickson carefully approached each villain and their lack of backstory.
During our conversation, Scott Derrickson also explained why the lack of backstory helped support the performances of Heath Ledger and Anthony Hopkins as the Joker and Hannibal Lecter, respectively. As he put it,
If “The Dark Knight” really told us the truth about “Where do you think I got these scars from?” Do you want to know where I got these scars from?” If he really told us the real story, he would be much less threatening, he would be much less scary. If there had been a scene in The Silence of the Lambs where we would have been told, “This is why Hannibal the Lecturer eats people,” it would have been less scary. So I think you should have a real secret and trust the secret of a disgustingly behaving character.
Without a moral compass or a specific backstory to cling to, these antagonists become conduits of chaos. And there are few things more terrifying than someone you can’t predict. With the “Black Phone”, the terrifying interactions of the young protagonist Finney with the Grabber Ethan Hawke become even more intense.
Scott Derrickson concluded our conversation about horror villains by giving another piece of advice to horror fans and filmmakers: stay in the present, and don’t talk about the past. As explained by the director of the film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”,
And so the key is to make them interesting, fascinating in the present. Make them dangerous, terrifying in the present. But then be prepared not to engage in the typical elaboration of films and try to explain why they are the way they are. Let them be mysterious.
The best roles of villains are not what happened before the action of the film, but what happened during it. And the careful use of these masked characters to terrorize the characters and the audience is how to really create tension in any movie. And this tension gains additional strength when the villain’s intentions remain a mystery.
“Black Phone” will be released in theaters on June 24. In the meantime, check out the movie’s release dates in 2022 to plan your next movie.