As Paramount justifiably celebrates Top Gun: Maverick crossing $601 million domestic, passing the $600 million-grossing initial theatrical run of Titanic to become Paramount’s biggest “first theatrical run” unadjusted grosser ever, Universal has reason to pop up an admittedly smaller bottle of champagne. As we speak, Minions: The Rise of Gru is the biggest animated grosser with around $225 million domestic and $430 million global, while Jurassic World Dominion has earned around $353 million domestic (past the unadjusted $353 million cume of Furious 7) and $881 million worldwide. Oh, and Blumhouse’s The Black Phone has passed $100 million worldwide in just three weeks of theatrical release. The film arrives on PVOD this Friday (along with Jurassic World 3), and it is the biggest non-sequel horror flick since pre-Covid times.
Directed by Scott Derrickson and penned by C. Robert Cargill, the film isn’t entirely original as it’s based upon a Joe Hill-penned short story. However, I’d argue it qualifies as a “new to you” adaptation because, for most general moviegoers, it qualifies as “original.” See also: next month’s Bullet Train, which for most will be “that Brad Pitt actioner directed by the Deadpool 2 guy” instead of “an adaptation of Kōtarō Isaka’s novel.” Most audiences showed up last year to Old not because it was a loose adaptation of Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle but because it was the latest M. Night Shyamalan chiller. The Black Phone is an R-rated non-sequel with little star power based on comparatively little-known source material.
Of the twelve major horror movies since February 2020 (all due respect to solid but smaller chillers like The Empty Man and The Unholy), The Black Phone’s $100 million cume is sixth. It is the biggest non-sequel horror film since Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man earned rave reviews and $145 million worldwide (on a $9 million budget) in the last weeks before Covid shut theaters down. In a skewed irony, the top two biggest horror films since then were big franchise titles (A Quiet Place part II with $297 million and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It with $206 million), while the lowest-grossing high-profile chiller was Spiral: From the Book of Saw ($40 million). We’ll see if The Black Phone catches Halloween Kills ($131 million) and Scream ($140 million).
It has outgrossed Old, Candyman ($77 million), The Forever Purge ($77 million), Escape Room: Tournament of Champions ($67 million), Don’t Breathe 2 ($47 million), Spiral and The Unholy ($30 million). Most of the 2021 horror releases were arguably sacrificial lambs keeping theaters alive (low budget equals low risk) while the bigger tentpoles waited out Covid over the summer. Universal moved Blumhouse’s The Black Phone into this summer precisely because they knew they had a winner. The film has earned around $65 million domestic from a $23.6 million debut. Credit strong reviews, the Blumhouse brand, added marquee value (for horror) associated with Ethan Hawke and Scott Derrickson, pulpy characters and an emotionally satisfying story that, no spoilers, ends at least 27% happier than The Forever Purge or Hereditary.
Beyond the “horror still thrives in theaters” narrative, which should continue next week with Jordan Peele’s Nope, there’s something else to consider. Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill were supposed to write and direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness before parting with Marvel over “creative differences.” The Black Phone was their “one for me” flick. Meanwhile, Sam Raimi was plucked from directorial hibernation for the Benedict Cumberbatch/Elizabeth Olsen sequel. The Multiverse of Madness was a gruesome and ghoulish hybrid of MCU formula and Raimi’s patented horror tropes, and it earned a whopping $950 million worldwide. The Black Phone is the best film Derrickson and Cargill have yet made, and its success sans franchise may help their careers at least as much as directing the MCU sequel.
It’s hard not to argue that this wasn’t a win/win situation. It’s not unlike when F. Gary Gray was not chosen to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He was allegedly among the final contenders and ended up helming the blockbuster (and well-reviewed) N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton to the tune of $200 million global on a $25 million budget. That led him to get big bucks for helming The Fate of the Furious in 2017 and Men in Black: International in 2019. This isn’t to say one is better or worse than the other, but it’s another reminder that there’s more to life in terms of performers and filmmakers than participating in Marvel or DC superhero movies. Audiences getting Doctor Strange 2 *and* The Black Phone is the best-case-scenario.