The Black Phone And Sinister’s Scott Derrickson Name-Drops Hannibal Lecter And The Joker When Explaining How To Create A Good Horror Villain

The horror genre has been in a renaissance for years now, and 2022 has already given us a number of strong entries. The next of these is Scott Derrickson’s return to horror The Black Phone, which reunites him with Sinister star Ethan Hawke. This time around Hawke is playing the antagonist known as The Grabber, with Derrickson recently name-dropping Hannibal Lector and The Joker when explaining how to create a good horror villain. 

As you can see in the video above, I had the privilege of speaking with Scott Derrickson, Ethan Hawke, and the young stars of the upcoming horror movie The Black Phone. As a fan of his work on both Sinister’s villainous Bughuul and The Black Phone’s Grabber, I asked the filmmaker the key to creating a horror villain that can carry an entire movie. Derrickson shared his perspective, saying:

I really think mystery is the key, mystery. Bughuul’s very mysterious. He never speaks and you really don’t understand what he is until the end of Sinister. And even then you don't fully understand it. But you look at the great iconic villains: Heath Ledger’s Joker, Hannibal Lector. These are characters who don’t have a backstory. You don’t know why they are the way they are.

He’s definitely got a point. While there have been countless horror movies over the years, some franchises get bogged down with revealing an appropriate backstory and motivation for the killer. But in the end, some of the most terrifying movie villains are ones without motivation. In addition to Heath Ledger’s Joker and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector, the killers from The Strangers also come to mind as a prime example.

Bughuul in Sinister.

(Image credit: Summit Entertainment)

In some ways the villains of Sinister and The Black Phone can’t be more different. The former is a demonic presence, while Ethan Hawke’s masked Black Phone antagonist is a regular human. Still, Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson was careful to methodically approach each villain, and their lack of a backstory.

During our same conversation, Scott Derrickson further explained why the lack of a backstory helped to buoy the performances given by Heath Ledger and Anthony Hopkins as Joker and Hannibal Lector respectively. As he put it,

If The Dark Knight actually told us the truth about ‘How do you think I got these scars? Want to know how I got these scars?’ If he actually told us the real story he’d be way less menacing, he’d be way less scary. If there was a scene in Silence of the Lambs where we were told ‘This is why Hannibal Lector eats people’ he’d be less scary. So I think that you have to have a real mystery and trust the mystery of an abhorrently behaving character.

Without a moral compass or concrete backstory to cling to, these antagonists become agents of chaos. And there’s few things more terrifying than someone you can’t predict. With The Black Phone, that makes young protagonist Finney’s terrifying interactions with Ethan Hawke’s Grabber all the more tense.

Scott Derrickson rounded out our conversation about horror villains by offering one more tip to the horror fans and filmmakers out there: stay in the present, rather than harping on the past. As the Exorcism of Emily Rose filmmaker explained,

And so the key is: make them interesting, fascinating in the present. Make them dangerous, horrific in the present. But then be willing to not do the typical movie development thing and try to explain why they are the way they are. Let them be mysterious.

Touche. The best villain performances aren’t about what happened before the action of the movie, but during. And careful using these masked characters to terrorize the heroes and audience is how to truly build the tension of any movie. And said tension gets extra power when the villain’s intentions are a mystery.

The Black Phone hits theaters on June 24th. In the meantime, check out the 2022 movie release dates to plan your next movie experience.

Corey Chichizola
Movies Editor

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Double majored in theater and literature during undergrad. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBlend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his favorite actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid.