Horror anthology films date back all the way to 1919, when Richard Oswald sent shivers up German spines with Eerie Tales, and they’ve never truly died out. In the ‘70s, American screenwriters Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg founded the Shepparton Studios based Amicus Productions, dished out blood drenched titles such as Asylum and From Beyond the Grave. Whilst the likes of V/H/S and ABCs of Death have dragged the grisly portmanteau into the 21st century, new horror film, XX, has come along to take its place amongst its contemporaries.
Written and directed by an all-woman team, the anthology sees seasoned pros like Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, The Invitation) work alongside those making their debuts, such as Annie Clark aka St. Vincent. The whole ensemble has been produced by filmmaker and former editor-in chief of Rue Morgue Magazine, Jovanka Vuckovic, who also directs the segment The Box.
Twice voted one of the most important women in horror, Jovanka took time out to chat about XX, the role of women in horror and adapting the work of Jack Ketchum.
You’ve said that XX was created because there were ‘no all women horror anthologies’ How did you start such a task? “It all began at Todd Brown’s [producer; The Raid] kitchen table. His wife Kristy pointed out that he’d only produced films by men to date, so he set about changing that. He’s a feminist, but being a white male, he knew he couldn’t be the public face of an all women-led horror anthology so he called me up. We both noticed women being passed over for directing jobs on features and in the contemporary anthologies and wanted to make a difference. Horror is a genre we both know well, so it was a starting point. In fact, I had a similar idea at the same time, and was thinking about crowd funding it. But Todd’s financing plan, title and concept was better than mine, so I quickly abandoned it and joined forces to help him create XX, which would in turn create more opportunities for women where there were not. It is our humble contribution to progress.”
As well as yourself, you have Roxanne Benjamin, Sofia Carrillo, Karyn Kusama and Annie Clark. What were you looking for from the films and its directors? Was there a particular theme or mandate? “There were just three rules: the films had to be written by a woman, directed by a woman and star a woman in the lead role. Other than that, the directors could do whatever they wanted. And on that note, by “woman” I mean anyone who identifies as such. Despite the superficiality of the title, we were hiring with inclusivity and diversity in mind. We really wanted to have one or both of the Wachowski sisters on board, and tried to reach out to them – because XX was always a part of a larger conversation about gender – alas it wasn’t possible. The line-up changed so many times over the four years it took us to make this anthology, it was very challenging. We went out to a lot of different directors, and the final line up is a bit of magic, I think, because the segments all fit together quite nicely.”
Did the pool of directors for XX have a chance to meet up and discuss their films during production? Or was it a case of leaving everyone to their own devices? “No, we didn’t discuss our segments with each other at all! It was a complete surprise at the end when they all sort of ended up being about family. Make of that coincidence what you will! So my segment was shot over two and a half years ago, Karyn shot hers in 2015, then Annie and Roxanne put theirs together in record time in the summer of 2016. Sofia worked on her wraparound segment for several months with only a logline – a single sentence – to inform her about what each of us was doing. It’s remarkable how she was able to distil the meaning of our stories into a few images that precede them.”
You’ve talked in the past about the representation of women in horror. Whilst some films have female protagonists that are lauded as being ‘bad ass final girl’ because they fight, for example, it’s much more nuanced than that isn’t it? “In the horror genre, women have historically been misrepresented in front of the camera and underrepresented behind it. We’ve more often been pin cushions and knife fodder way more than we’ve been final girls. And the problem with the final girl is that she is a token, a trope. That’s not good enough because she is a not a real person. This is why I feel that women are the next great frontier of horror cinema. When women are able to write and depict themselves as actual human beings, fascinating new storytelling possibilities will emerge in a genre that is badly in need of new perspectives.”
Tell me about your reasons for adapting The Box? Have you always been a big fan of Jack Ketchum’s work? “I had another idea initially that was going to be too large in scope, so I started thinking of short stories I could adapt. My friend Lucky McKee (All Cheerleaders Die, The Woman) had been co-writing scripts and books with Jack Ketchum for a few years and he reminded me of Jack’s collection Peaceable Kingdom. Stephen King once called him the scariest guy in America for good reasons. He writes hard horror, splatter fiction, if you will. But tucked inside this omnibus was a little Kafka-esque existential horror story called The Box which won a Bram Stoker award the year it was released. It always stuck with me – I found it haunting and peculiar – almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone. So I changed the gender of the protagonist to fit the mandate of our film and started writing.”
How did changing the story’s perspective from the father to the mother affect your adaptation? “It’s amazing how a tiny shift in perspective can result in a totally fresh feeling story. By casting a woman as the parent who worked, and was unable to make meaningful connections with her family, all these new storytelling possibilities emerged; it became about ambivalent mothers, about how not all women are meant to be mothers. And an exploration of the “negative” associations around motherhood. We’ve all seen plenty of doting mothers portrayed onscreen. This one is about the flawed, insecure, totally imperfect mothers out there who resent their kids. Yeah, they exist.”
Anthologies like ABCs of Death have their own franchises, do you hope the same for XX? “Todd and I had always hoped that if XX performed well – which it has so far – that there would be a sequel or some new iteration that would create jobs for another crop of women. I can’t confirm anything yet but we are definitely interested in doing more.”
XX will be playing as part of Monster Fest Travelling Road Show in Sydney from March 9 – 12. It will also screen at the Gold Coast Film Festival on Friday, April 8, 2017.