Interview with Drew Daywalt: Horror's great Internet age begins

At a time when Hollywood is obsessed with remakes, we talk to the man who is bringing digital terror to new heights

Published April 14, 2011 2:14PM (EDT)

Never sleep again: one of Daywalt's creations
Never sleep again: one of Daywalt's creations

Warning: The videos embedded in the post are haunting and disturbing. Not for the faint of heart.

What's your favorite scary movie? That infamous line haunt the victims of Wes Craven's "Scream" and its subsequent remakes, the most recent of which Andrew O'Hehir just reviewed in Salon. But it's a question that also haunts its young audience, a generation that has grown up in a period when the lack of good horror films is downright scary. Millennials have the torture porn of "Hostel" and "Saw" to call our own and all those slick remakes of classics like "Dawn of the Dead," "Halloween" and "Nightmare on Elm Street." But for all the bodies piled up on "CSI" and "Law & Order: SVU," where is our "Twilight Zone"? Our "Tales From the Crypt"? Hell, we don't even have our own "Twin Peaks."

So where has all the horror gone? A good guess might be the Internet, since that's just about where everything else is these days. But when I tried to find an original horror series online, I came up with a disappointing array of low-production YouTube scares. Then I was introduced to Drew Daywalt's work through a former collective Fewdio (tag line: "We create nightmares")  and was instantly hooked. Drew's shorts were terrifying, and not in that annoying "gotcha" way (like those YouTube clips where nothing happens until a molted face suddenly pops up and makes you scream). We're talking real, nail-biting suspense and horror of the Wes Craven variety, but with better sound quality.

You could say that Drew has made the first really great horror films for the Internet era: None of his shorts are over 15 minutes long, and you can easily get his entire online oeuvre by just clicking in related videos on YouTube. In fact, most of Drew's videos (he now works under the YouTube name Daywalt Fear Factory) are under five minutes, some of them under three, and all of them completely unsettling. If you don't like scary movies, I would not suggest you click on any of the videos posted in this article.

The first video of Fewdio's I saw was a short featurette called "Mockingbird." There's no blood, no violence (though it is implied), and yet -- with the exception of perhaps "Black Swan" -- it was one of the scariest things I had seen all year.

Drew, who has a blog over at FearNet called "School of Fear," is no amateur to the genre. A veteran scriptwriter for Hollywood action-comedies and an Emmy-nominated writer/director in animation, he can expound on his love of directors like David Cronenberg and Tod Browning with a fanboy's enthusiasm. I spoke to Drew over the phone about the classics that inspire him, the state of modern horror films, and creating terror for under $500.

Lately I feel like there has been a real dearth of horror films and TV shows coming out of Hollywood, and when we do get something they all feel like a rehashing of better films. Finding your stuff is almost a relief, because it plays on these urban legends, but there is something very original about them as well. Do you feel there is a way to be high concept in short-form horror? Or is it all trashy fun?

I feel the same way you do. You know, torture porn, for me, I found that interesting because it was new ... at first. I really enjoyed "Saw" (the first one) and "Hostel," despite the fact that people said it was not true "horror."

I was recently having a similar argument -- that unless something supernatural happens in a movie, it can't be horror.

That's just splitting hairs. Torture is a legitimate form of horrifying people. It's just because it's so unpleasant, people don't want to say it's in that category. I mean, it's such a fine line. I tend to look way back for my inspiration: H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe. They both worked in the short form, and while Lovecraft worked in the phantasmagorical, sort of atheistic horror, Poe was sort of into torture porn. "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Black Cat" -- those are literal torture stories. And people back then were saying, "Oh, it's cheap thriller stuff, it's lowbrow."

What is Hollywood's biggest failing in the horror genre?

There are too many remakes, too many reimaginings. Nothing new, and that's always a bad sign. They remade "Frankenstein" 26 times between 1930 and 1970, so it's not a new phenomenon. It's interesting, if you look at 1935, that was "Werewolf of London" and it was a Universal film. It was coming on the heels of "Dracula" by Tod Browning, and it's amazing. And that was six years before the Lon Chaney famous one, "Wolfman." But again, that's a remake. And ironically, that remake has become historically the more famous film, despite "Werewolf" being a better movie. So this is nothing new.

So do you think Hollywood has just run out of scary stories?

Sadly, I think it's a business model problem. My experience in the past 10 years of Hollywood has been someone can walk in and pitch something, and it can be really revolutionary and original. And execs will say "Well, this needs a Peter Jackson or a Guillermo Del Toro" to get made. And you're like "Hey, Guillermo Del Toro wasn't always Guillermo Del Toro; at one time he was just a guy."

I used to run with Chris Nolan before he was "Chris Nolan." I remember when he was trying to sell "Memento" and he just couldn't. Studios would be like, "This will never work, it's all backwards!" We were both doing films for Newmarket productions at the time, and they were trying to get studios for "Memento," which was just falling on its butt. They couldn't sell it. I was the next movie up for Newmarket, a movie called "Stark Raving Mad," and they called me up on the eve of my production and said, "Just don't give us another 'Memento.'" (If you now go to Newmarket's website, they list "Memento" as the first movie they ever produced, a veritable feather in their cap.)

When did you make the switch over to YouTube and Fewdio?

It was during the writers' strike. I realized I had a year where I wasn't going to work, and none of my friends were either. So at the time, my writing partner said, I'm going to pick up FinalCut Pro and learn how to edit. We were screenwriters, so we really had no training with editing, sound, shooting. We didn't want to bother anyone and ask them to do it for free. I had sat at the helm of 20 music videos, but I had never DP'd any, you know? So we had to teach ourselves everything. There were five of us writing, and all the films were under $500, because we shot on digital, used all our own equipment, used our actors' houses for locations, did everything sort of guerrilla-style because we didn't want to bug any of our friends and say "Hey, come work for us for free."

That's incredible, because to me, what makes these videos so great is the sound quality, the makeup effects, and the cinematography. It looks way too professional for something that's just going to be on YouTube. Like, for "Breach," the noise and atmosphere are 90 percent of what makes it so suspenseful. It could be a studio film. So why release it online and not try to make money off it?

We created something that no one got paid for, so we gave it away for free. That way, no one could later come along and claim ownership, or that we got compensated and they didn't. Plus, when we started getting all positive reactions … man, being Internet famous is the best kind of famous, because you get this direct channel to talk to your fans.

How would you guys come up with the plots of these shorts? They have that very "urban legend with a twist" feel, like you think you know where this is going, but then suddenly it veers left.

We worked very much like a comedy troupe -- you sit around at a writer's table and say, "Who has the best idea?" It's like campfire stories, you just try to freak each other out. But you'd try to throw a curveball in there. Like the short "5 Minutes Earlier" came from this idea that people kept telling me to "Do a slasher film, do a slasher." But I think that subgenre's dead. It's over. But people kept asking for it so I came up with the idea that we would do it backwards. We did the violence first -- I'm not a big fan of gore, but it can be fun, so I had him chopping her up in the first two seconds -- and then we spend the rest of the film getting to that point and making everybody wait when they know the outcome already.

Why horror movies at all?

I was reinventing myself, leaving Hollywood action-comedies where I think at one point I had 11 films at various states of not getting made. We had a Bruce Willis project, a Will Smith project, something for Johnny Knoxville, and I was writing for Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott, Brett Ratner. But they always have a pile of movies they are working on at any given time, and ours would just be added to that list. And I just got sick of it. And at that time, I just thought -- and I still think -- that horror movies needed storytelling. We need to take it back from the gore-hounds. But in Hollywood it's really tough to change genres, you have to reprove yourself. But with Fewdio and the responses we were getting from our Internet fans, it was like an immediate reaction. Proving yourself just by being good.

Now, you said earlier that you didn't like the "moralizing" in teen slasher movies, that it's always about how you shouldn't have sex, how you shouldn't do drugs, etc. But you have a certain kind of morality to your films too, especially in "Suicide Girl," which looks like it was about the Megan Meier case.

Yeah, I mean, I'm actually a fan of the morality tales in old D.C. comics from the '50s and '60s. But the morals from horror movies now are all outdated. Don't have sex? Everyone is having sex, just be safe about it. I made "Suicide Girl" because, to me, that's a modern morality tale. Those poor kids are getting picked on, and I was a geeky kid, so I totally empathized with that girl from MySpace. I mean, how could an adult ... I know kids can be mean, but how could an adult do that? Now that's horrifying.

I notice a lot of your films come from a kid's perspective as well, that sort of childlike fear of adults (and vice versa). Especially in "There's No Such Thing," which is sort of like a child's worst fear about their parents lying to them. So what scared you as a kid?

Everything scares me, which I think is Stephen King's response. It's like, comedians are funny because they uniquely see satire in everything they see and do. Horror writers and filmmakers tend to be worst-case-scenario types. They get into an elevator and go, "Wouldn't it be awful if suddenly we were locked in here and something came through the vent? What if the cable cuts and you fall? What if the elevator doesn't stop and you go down to hell?" No matter where you are. You get into a door with a cabbie and the doors lock and suddenly ... you know, it never stops for us. It's a constant game of "What if?" But for me, the creature I put in "Bedfellows" was the boogeyman that I used to imagine as a kid. Just that thing, always waiting for me.

Drew Daywalt is currently working on a new show for MTV called "Death Valley," and his series "Camera Obscura" can be found on DailyMotion.

By Drew Grant

Drew Grant is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @videodrew.

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