A production still from “Nailbiter” showing approach of the twister. Courtesy of Patrick Rea

“Nailbiter,” a horror film involving a tornado, is the first feature from director Patrick Rea who last year contributed the very well-received short “Get Off My Porch” (you remember the Girl Scouts and their oddly compelling cookies?). Rea, who grew up in Nebraska, used his experience running from a tornado as a boy as inspiration for “Nailbiter.”

“I’ve been around tornadoes all my life,” Rea said. “When I was young, a friend and I were running from an approaching tornado and an elderly couple let us stay in their basement while it passed. That was the genesis for the script. This older couple was fine, but what if they hadn’t been?”

In Rea’s tale, a mother and three daughters fleeing an approaching tornado take refuge in a storm cellar in a nearby house. They think they are alone and that the house is abandoned. They aren’t and it isn’t.

Patrick Rea Photo courtesy of Patrick Rea
From his boyhood, Rea has been fascinated with the horror genre. “When I was a kid I wasn’t supposed to be watching them, which made them way more interesting, kind of the forbidden fruit aspect,” he recalled. Horror is Rea’s chosen genre. “But there are multiple genres within horror. ‘Get Off My Porch’ was comedic horror. Some like ‘Piranha’ are entirely parody.”

He said with “Nailbiter” he wanted a more classic approach to building suspense. “There’s no quick flashy editing, it’s more old school, with a more classic score. The buckets of blood movies are not the kind I want to make. I believe that what you don’t see is actually scarier. I wanted to keep some things cryptic.”

In a story repeated by a number of this year’s Idyllwild CinemaFest filmmakers, Rea recounted that filming was interrupted by the economic meltdown. “I wrote the script in 2007,” he said. “We started shooting in 2009 in Lawrence, Kan., then the economy tanked. We were 60 percent done then ran out of money. We had to come back in 2011 in post- production. Editing took a long time.”

A common interview question with directors is how they work with their actors. Some are collaborative, in which actors’ contributions, including script suggestions, are well received. Then there are others where the script and director’s vision control. Rea said he is of the collaborative school. “We’d rehearse scenes a lot, mostly during production, but some before,” he remembered. “We were constantly changing things. I’d ask them [the actors] how they might change dialogue to make it sound more natural.

Rea said the film started on the festival circuit in March 2012. It has already won best horror feature film at Shriekfest 2012 in Los Angeles. Next up for Rea, who has multiple short films to his credit, is a trio of shorts he plans for next year. “I like to do shorts between features. It keeps the horror community aware of what you’re doing. I also work with a lot of the same people and it keeps my group together.”

ICF 2013 Festival Chairman Phil Calderone said of Rea’s feature, “It’s a tense thriller that’s a lesson in how to build and sustain suspense. I think Hitchcock would approve.”