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Scott Derrickson survived his first home invasion when he was 6 years old.
"I had gone down the street to a friend's house," the Colorado born-and-raised director of horror hits like Sinister and The Black Phone tells Yahoo Entertainment. "His parents weren't home and somebody broke in. We were just little kids, and we ran down to the basement where his dad had a little bar area. We hid behind it while this guy moved through the room that we were in. As soon as he did, I bolted up the stairs and ran back home."
Derrickson was an adult the next time he confronted a home invader — but that didn't make the experience any less frightening. "There was a guy trying to break into my house, and banging hard on the door trying to get in," he says. "I was just beside the door and yelled, "If you come through that door, I'm going to shoot you in the chest!" I'm a gun owner. I'm also very pro-gun regulation, but if somebody wants to break into my house, I will defend myself.
"Luckily the cops arrived before he got through," Derrickson adds. "But that memory of, 'I might actually have to shoot someone,' doesn't dislodge itself from your brain."
Based on those experiences, it's no surprise that home invasion continues to be one of Derrickson's main sources of nightmare fuel. And that specific fear permeates "Dreamkill," the short segment he helmed for V/H/S 85, the latest entry in the popular anthology horror franchise that's streaming now on Shudder. Written by his regular collaborator, C. Robert Cargill, "Dreamkill" follows two cops, Bobby and Wayne (James Ransone and Freddy Rodriguez), trying to catch the culprit behind a series of gruesome break-ins.
The invasions have been documented on a series of disturbing VHS cassettes that turn out to be connected to Bobby's Goth son, Gunther (Dashiell Derrickson, the director's son), who insists that the events on the tapes come directly from his dreams. Like the other shorts in this edition of V/H/S, "Dreamkill" is set in 1985, the year after Wes Craven's original Nightmare on Elm Street gave generations of horror lovers bad dreams — including Derrickson.
"I've had three or four experiences where I was truly terrified in a theater," says the filmmaker, who was 18 when Freddy Kreuger claimed his first victims. "Anyone who was my age and saw A Nightmare on Elm Street back then, that first kill was so violent, unprecedented and brilliantly conceived. I'm sure that's in my my subconscious somewhere."
But the primal terrors of "Dreamkill" are first and foremost rooted in the still-palpable fear that Derrickson experiences when he remembers his near-misses with home invaders.
"It's something I'm always aware of," the director explains, adding that those fears made him a "light sleeper" when his children were younger. "When you have little kids, boy does it become the only thing you think about. You're always running scenarios like, 'If somebody breaks in here, I'm going to do this. If somebody breaks in there, I'm going to do that.' You have such a primal need to protect your children."
And "Dreamkill" dramatizes Derrickson's nightmare of being caught unprepared. During one invasion, the killer is confronted by a homeowner hiding behind a corner with a golf club. But the man is easily disarmed, and his fingers are promptly claimed as trophies. "The reason I'm a gun owner is that I don't want to get caught with a golf club," Derrickson says with a laugh. "I want to stand back at a safe distance and fire away. That's my plan!"
Children in peril is the specific fear that drives The Black Phone, which Derrickson and Cargill adapted from a short story by Joe Hill. Set in the director's own childhood stomping grounds of Denver, the movie's central boogeyman is Ethan Hawke's child-snatching serial killer, the Grabber. One of the biggest horror hits of 2022, The Black Phone was undoubtedly top of mind for parents earlier this month after 9-year-old Charlotte Sena was kidnapped from a state park in upstate New York. The case made national headlines, and fortunately ended with Sena found alive and her captor taken into custody.
For Derrickson, stories like that rhyme with the kinds of experiences he's heard from others in the wake of The Black Phone. "My brother told me that after the film came out, he had two different friends who told him about a blocked memory they had of someone trying to abduct them as kids," he says. "There was something going on in Denver at that time. It was a big permeating fear that I lived with throughout my childhood. I have all these weird memories from when I was a kid. My friend's mother was murdered when I was nine, and that was something I lived with."
While some adults prefer to repress those kinds of memories of childhood terror, Derrickson says he embraces them. "I seek out those stories," he says matter-of-factly. "When I know that something is truly nightmarish, I want to read about it — not because I find it titillating, because I don't. I want to confront the fears those stories give me and turn that into some kind of creative output."
And even as he's been sleeping more soundly in recent years, Derrickson says home invasion remains a persistent source of terror. "A couple of times my alarm system has gone off, and it's terrifying," he says. "When I was making 'Dreamkill,' I went down a rabbit hole of all the scary 911 calls I could find reporting home invasions. They're just bone-chilling. When you hear things get out of control on those calls, the helplessness of the victims is just horrifying and upsetting.
"As a horror director, I don't find it funny to think of myself as a puppet master playing the audience," Derrickson adds. "I try to create things that I find terrifying, because I figure that if it scares me, it'll definitely scare the audience."
V/H/S 85 is currently streaming on Shudder.