Nixing normative discourses, one horror flick at a time

Nixing normative discourses, one horror flick at a time

Horror films have by and large been centred on straight cis white male directors. That’s evident in the narratives we see time and time again. Rarely have genre filmmakers chosen to tell women’s stories. LGBTQ stories, and stories told from the perspectives of persons of colour (“POC”) have been rarer still.

XX, which is set to debut in Toronto at the Imagine Carlton and Royal Cinemas on Feb. 17, represents a turning point in genre filmmaking. The film is part of a promising horror renaissance that seeks to subvert the genre’s gender norms. But the work for more inclusion in horror is by no means finished.

XX is a compilation of shorts directed by women filmmakers who bring a diverse range of backgrounds and accomplishments to the table.

Karyn Kusama directed the campy, underrated, charmingly subversive Jennifer’s Body and last year’s tense dinner party thriller, The Invitation. Annie Clark is predominantly known as the eclectic multi-instrumentalist St Vincent. Roxanne Benjamin is a veteran of horror anthologies such as V/H/S and V/H/S/2. Toronto native Jovanka Vuckovic is an author and filmmaker whose surrealist shorts have been celebrated by the likes of Guillermo Del Toro.

Genre critics often point to films such as The Babadook, It Follows, and last year’s The Witch as the works that began to turn the tide, although there were early standouts in feminist horror filmmaking. These last two films were written and directed by men, but their central narratives address rape culture and the shaming of emerging sexuality.

American Psycho is a fitting example of such feats. It’s the film adaptation of a notoriously misogynist novel. Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner chose to omit the book’s scenes of physical and sexual abuse in favour of masterful satire at the expense of the white-collar male ego.

Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film The Babadook tells the story of a distressed single mother attempting to raise her young son who has developed behavioural problems. The rigours of motherhood—continuous sleepless nights, facing other parents’ judgment, isolation within the home—manifest as the film’s titular creature which first appears as a character in a picture book.

The creature stalks and harasses the film’s protagonist, eventually prompting her to question her sanity. The Babadook was heralded as a new touchstone in horror, a film from a first-time director who brought a female authorial voice and depicted the immense societal pressures of motherhood in a nuanced and thoughtful way. It is a thrilling, tense, and terrifying film.

The last year has seen even more horror films with a female authorial voice. Alice Lowe’s film Prevenge—which Lowe wrote, directed, and starred in while she herself was pregnant—is a funny, smart, and touching exploration of societal expectations placed on pregnant women.

Julia Ducournau’s Raw is a startlingly violent and darkly comedic cannibal coming-of-age tale. At a Q and A for the film's 2016 premiere at TIFF, Ducournau said critics are often shocked when they find out such a graphic story was helmed by a woman—as if women are incapable of creating shocking and controversial art.

A great horror film reflects our fears back to us. It’s fitting then that the films described above are all centred around what women have had to fear most in the last few years. Women have been made to fear that lawmakers will roll back our rights. Mothers struggle with a societal pressure to be infallible. Their perceived mistakes are not easily forgiven. Women are judged for choosing sexual partners freely and with consent. They’re shamed simply for growing into their sexuality. Society congratulates and admires men for those same feats.

So the horror revolution, such as it is, is still mostly a white one. But horror has begun to tell LGBTQ folk and POC stories.

The upcoming film Get Out is directed by Key and Peele’s Jordan Peele. The film follows a young Black man who, upon meeting his white girlfriend’s parents, uncovers a sinister plot to turn black members of his community into robots.

Filmmaking collectives such as Audre’s Revenge Film, founded by Monika Estrella Negra, tell stories by and about POC and LGBTQ folk in horror, sci-fi and fantasy spaces. For the horror genre to evolve beyond its limited circles, it must represent and interpret marginalized communities’ fears. In the existing sociopolitical climate, women, POC and LGBTQ folk still have the most to fear.

Image features Jovanka Vuckovic, director of "The Box" in XX, a Magnet release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Laura Di Girolamo is a writer for such publications as Exclaim! Film and Cinefilles, a social media professional, and a performer at stand-up storytelling shows in Toronto. A graduate of the York University Film Studies program, her research specialized in female representation in genre films and TV. She is also one of the co-creators of The Bloody Mary Film Festival, which spotlights the work of female-identifying Canadian filmmakers in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Laura is a devoted fan of lipstick, Korean skincare, ghost stories, gross bar food, and cats.  Her love for horror films likely began the year she turned 13 and watched The Craft about three times a week. Follow her on Twitter at @laura_digi and @bloodymaryff