A Conversation with the Women Behind ‘XX’

By  · Published on February 16th, 2017

Three of the film’s directors talk about the future of women in horror and the genre’s importance.

When news of a horror anthology directed by Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound, V/H/S), Jovanka Vuckovic (The Captured Bird, Rue Morgue magazine) and Annie Clark (better known as musician St. Vincent) first hit, fans were understandably excited by the prospect. XX, which had its Sundance premiere last month and opens in theaters this weekend, offers audiences a first: an all-female helmed anthology series.

As one of the film’s directors and executive producer, Jovanka Vuckovic admits that XX was created, in part, out of necessity. “To combat the 7% problem [Hollywood’s lack of women directors], we had to do something actionable. The project originated with me and Todd Brown, my white feminist male friend who’s the hidden hero of this project, because we both noticed all of the women filmmakers being passed over for jobs both in features and in the most contemporary horror anthologies. So we decided to do something about it and in doing so we created not only job opportunities for women but opportunities to tell a story from a woman’s perspective. I think, as you know, the horror genre is badly in need of a new perspective and women have that to offer in spades.”

It is undeniable that women have long been the key to horror’s longevity and success. As Carol Clover masterfully detailed in her seminal 1992 work, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, horror has always had a feminist appeal, aligning audiences ‐ long though to be mostly male ‐ with female victims. Clover coined the phrase “Final Girl” to represent a female victim who overcomes the odds to defeat and vanquish her attacker. While the Final Girl trope initially didn’t offer much agency to female characters, it underwent a slow evolution over the years, eventually giving audiences strong, memorable characters such as Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs), Sidney Prescott (Scream) and many others.

But at the end of the day, Final Girls are still a trope and one that Vuckovic thinks needs re-examining and updating, particularly from a female perspective. “With the exception of Ellen Ripley, who started off as a man and part of the reason why she feels so authentic is because they didn’t change anything else about her character to make her more womanly, a lot of the other Final Girls are still tropes, they’re not real human beings. I think that women have to be part of the next frontier of horror cinema because we have this ability, we can write stories that portray women as actual human beings and thereby make feminist horror stories. That doesn’t mean anything superficial like making the killers all women, all you have to do to make any movie feminist is portray women as actual human beings so thats the next step in the evolution of Final Girl to contemporary feminist horror.”

Jovanka Vuckovic on the set of ‘XX’

Vuckovic’s sentiments on how women can inject new life into the horror genre are certainly evident throughout XX. In the film’s final segment, Karyn Kusama offers a new exploration of another trope with “Her Own Living Son.” Here, a single mother is finally able to triumph over evil through the power of love, while also nodding to a beloved horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby. The segment is tinged with Kusama’s uncanny ability to unnerve with the smallest details, something she did to great effect in 2015’s The Invitation. (When I told Kusama that The Invitation scared the shit out of me she just gave me a hearty laugh and thanks.)

Kusama, who admits to seeing Rosemary’s Baby so many times she can quote it back to the screen, felt that XX was a chance to revisit the idea from a fresh perspective. “There is this opportunity in telling a speculative re-imagining of that kind of storyline, this opportunity to imagine what the influence of a single mother’s parenting might be. We assign so much power to this notion of evil and lord knows it feels like there are examples of it everywhere in culture right now, but the fact is I think a lot of evil is really fucking petty and greedy and small and insecure and broken. So to me the idea that this mother was just like ‘you know what no, I'm not gonna give you my son, I'm taking him back, he's taking himself back,’ basically throwing the royal bird to evil. I just feel like we all need to be doing that right now.”

Roxanne Benjamin (left) and Karyn Kusama (right)

For her part, Roxanne Benjamin saw XX as an opportunity to change audiences perceptions of what a female director might offer in a horror film. “I just wanted to make something very pulpy, kind of dime store horror if you will. I feel like if there are any stereotypes of female genre directors, it’s that we’re going to have very cerebral horror stories to tell. I wanted to have a straight up jump scare fest.” Her segment, “Don’t Fall,” feels the most traditional of the bunch, offering a simple plot chock full of plenty of gore and scares. “It’s a roller coaster; that’s the good thing about horror, it allows you to experience a fight or flight scenario in a safe environment. Horror is ultimately cathartic.”

But Benjamin believes that horror is more than just an opportunity to be scared, it also can unify. “In making [horror], you have these weird fears about different things or weird stories you want to get out and then you think you’re a total fucking weirdo and that nobody else is scared of that thing or has that anxiety. Then someone will come up to you after a screening like ‘oh my God, that scared the shit out of me’ and you’re like ‘holy shit, I’m not the only one!’ It weirdly makes you feel less like a creep to make creepy things because then you find out there are other creeps who are as creepy as you are so its weirdly therapeutic.”

For Kusama, horror doesn’t just unite us but it helps us answer life’s questions, something she feels is especially timely. “I feel like we live in a time where there’s plenty to be afraid of in our daily life and I feel like horror and sci-fi and genre in general helps give us some control over that uncertainty. That sense of not know how much access we have to the real world and how much information are we getting that’s real and pertinent and how can we affect change, all of these questions have been challenging people from the beginning of civilized societies. We’re trying to understand do we as individuals have any kind of impact whatsoever on the trajectory of history. Storytelling forms like horror help give some shape to that and allow us a bunch of different ways to answer it.”

Jovanka Vuckovic on the set of ‘XX’

Vuckovic, who adapted an existential horror short story by Jack Ketchum for her segment “The Box,” also sees horror as a way to unlock answers and mysteries. “It’s one of the oldest storytelling genres. Guillermo Del Toro pointed out that ever since we’ve been huddled around the campfire we’ve been telling stories about the dark and what lives inside it. Even going back further, Lovecraft said the oldest emotion is the fear of the unknown, so horror helps us know the unknowable and it really is a limitless genre.”

While horror might give us answers about the meaning of fear and give us insight into the darkest corners of humanity, the genre’s long term sustainability lies with inclusive storytelling. XX has made waves for being the first all-female helmed anthology but its success could also have a lasting impact for women, infusing the genre with new stories and inventive new scares. On top of this, Kusama hopes it will open the doors for up and coming filmmakers. “It was an honor to be part of this first version of XX. I hope that it will do well and there will be more of them and that there will be more interesting films and filmmakers that the world gets exposed to through this kind of storytelling mode.” With XX, Kusama, Vuckovic, Benjamin and Clark have made a compelling case.

XX opens in theaters, on demand and on Amazon Video and iTunes on Feb. 17.

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Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.