After winning horror contest, Northwestern alum Anthony Williams begins developing pitch into feature-length film


Source: Danny DelPurgatorio

Danny DelPurgatorio poses as a corpse in his pitch video for “Wither.” He and NU alumnus Anthony Williams (Communication ’08) won $300,000 to develop their concept into a feature-length horror movie.

Jane Recker, Assistant A&E Editor


How do you stop a ghost from haunting you? By bringing it back to life, of course.

It’s a premise that sounds like a silly joke, but it won writer Anthony Williams (Communication ’08) and director Danny DelPurgatorio $300,000 from “Clive Barker presents: Reel Fear Horror Contest” to develop their pitch into a feature-length horror movie.

The duo’s story, titled “Wither,” revolves around a doctor who is haunted by the ghosts of his deceased patients and his family. Driven mad by grief, he attempts to stop the ghosts by bringing them back to life. In doing so, however, he also revives dark monsters and creatures of the afterlife.

The film, which has a script and recently began pre-production, has come a long way since its initial pitch, especially because the duo only entered the contest on a last-second whim.

“We were so close to not submitting (a project) at all,” Williams said. “I was really sick at the time and we were both super busy. If I had said to Danny I wasn’t feeling it, we would have backed out.”

Williams and DelPurgatorio put together their pitch with no expectations of advancing to the next round. When they made the top five in early May, the producers flew them to New York and asked them to develop a short video based on a $2,000 budget and a 25-line script.

On Aug. 2, they received the call that they had won the contest.

“This was no slam dunk,” Williams said. “It’s incredibly humbling to have won considering how good everyone else’s work was.”

The upcoming movie utilizes elements of “body horror,” a subgenre of horror filmography that exploits the fear of watching one’s body decay, Williams said.

Williams said body horror resonates with audiences due to its universal nature.

“Even though it’s fantastical, it’s something that’s easy to relate to,” he said. “It’s a lot like having an illness or something else happening to your body that you can’t control.”

Having relatable characters is crucial to maximizing fear, Williams said. Much of “Wither” centers on the doctor’s obsession with the ghosts of his past, so watching the protagonist descend into madness and make “terrifying” decisions can appeal to audiences, he said.

“When you feel like the main character is a real person, someone you could grab a drink with, (and they’re) put in a dangerous situation, the care for them amplifies that fear,” Williams said.

Williams and DelPurgatorio have always focused on incorporating deeper messages in their projects. The duo first met seven years ago through a mutual friend who thought Williams would be the ideal writer to realize one of DelPurgatorio’s concepts.

DelPurgatorio said he instantly connected with Williams’ “weirdness” and passion for creating new work.

“A lot of people will talk about making new stuff but never actually do it,” he said. “(Williams) will talk to me about an idea and come back with stuff the next day. It’s been very inspiring for me.”

Williams’ creative passion was especially noted by Communication Prof. Debra Tolchinsky, who teaches in the Radio, Television and Film department. She said Williams was always dedicated to crafting the subtext of his films and wasn’t afraid to take risks in her class.

Tolchinsky added that Williams’ enthusiasm with horror was “infectious.”

“Horror is a great lab for experimentation,” Tolchinsky told The Daily in an email. “Since it’s generally considered low-brow, it enables filmmakers to let their hair down and play without all of the pretension that often accompanies film.”

Williams said he credits the support he received at Northwestern for much of his current success.

“Northwestern is mainly an academic university, so it can be hard when your favorite genre involves hatchets and blood spilling everywhere,” he said. “My professors helped encourage my vision even though it was different from what other people were doing.”

That vision has now led to the development of a full-length feature film, which the pair hopes to complete by next fall. They plan to present it at various festivals, with a possible follow-up release in theaters.

DelPurgatorio said the process of creating a film usually takes much longer.

“You hear a lot about people taking two to four years before their film even gets financed, so it’s really cool that everyone is behind this and really pushing for a quick turnaround,” he said.

DelPurgatorio said he wants audiences to enjoy “Wither,” but ultimately, he hopes to succeed in scaring them.

“I’ve always loved polarizing films that half the people hate,” he said. “What’s powerful is that you can create something that can pull something out of the viewer and make someone have a reaction.”

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