February's typical focus on bleeding hearts takes on a different meaning when you consider a relatively new observance: the eighth-annual Women in Horror Month, an international grassroots initiative that, in addition to organizing a blood drive, is dedicated to promoting the work of women in the horror industries. To celebrate this year, Jovanka Vuckovic has something up her tattooed sleeves.
The Toronto filmmaker is the blood and guts behind XX, a new anthology of short horror films directed by four women: Annie Clark, also known as musician St. Vincent; Karyn Kusama, whose first feature film, Girlfight, won the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize in 2000; Roxanne Benjamin, who comes from a background of horror anthologies, including V/H/S and Southbound; and Vuckovic herself, a multihyphenate horror artist who, from editing magazine Rue Morgue to owning a tattoo parlour, has twice been named one of the most influential women in the genre.
Frustrated but undeterred by the horror industry's insistence on hiring few filmmakers outside of white men – and with the genre's reliance on treating women as mere gore-soaked sex objects – Vuckovic says she simply "got tired of asking people to depict women as actual human beings in horror films." Hence, XX, a smart and refreshingly fun outing that eschews juvenile jump-scares and the tropes designed and monetized for the male gaze.
The anthology, which arrives in Toronto Feb. 17 and becomes available on VOD on March 3, opens its maw with The Box, Vuckovic's cannibalistic curtain-raiser. It's followed by Clark's Birthday Party, which celebrates dark comedy in a bizarre anti-joke about a dead man in a panda costume. Later, things get hellish in Benjamin's Don't Fall, which descends into demonic madness when a group of naive youths go off the beaten path while camping. Finally, XX is rounded out by Kusama's Her Only Living Son, a teenaged revamping of Rosemary's Baby.
Anthologies naturally invite viewers to draw trajectories, or how one short leads to the next. As XX paces itself by gorgeous interstitial stop-motion animations by Sofia Carrillo, The Box, Birthday Party and Her Only Living Son each make stabs at motherhood, an unintended commonality of the finished product.
"Motherhood seems horrifying," Clark joked at the film's Sundance premiere last month, commenting on the recurring theme. Birthday Party is her directorial debut, though horror is admittedly not her first passion. "It's very scary. It's too scary," she said.
Benjamin adds her own dark comedy to the lineup of filmmakers XX has assembled. "Mine is about motherhood, too – you didn't catch that?" she quipped beside Clark, who worked with Benjamin to write Birthday Party. Don't Fall, though, is about as doting as a wrecking ball.
While it helps to tie XX together, the fact that three of the four shorts feature mothers is simply a coincidence, according to Vuckovic. Yet she is prepared to quote Bela Lugosi, the scowling face of 1931's Dracula, for viewers who make the connection. "Women have a predestination to suffering," she says. "It is women who bear the race in bloody agony."
Still, Vuckovic doesn't believe the stories in XX are inherently different because they're written by women – or, for that matter, because the stories are about mothers. Rather, she adds, "It's the perspective that shifts when women are doing the telling."
Point-of-view seems to be the key ingredient here, especially when, Vuckovic adds, 90 per cent of all films in the past century have been made by men – and, according to a 2015 San Diego State University study, just 7 per cent of all working directors are women. "I hate to trot out statistics," Vuckovic says, "but they paint the quickest picture of the problem."
Whether or not XX is four silver bullets to the issue may depend on your horror mileage, but if you find it particularly tame, consider that the genre has been moulded in one very specific way for decades – rape-and-murder plots aimed at nubile women/sex objects. "It's that sense of creeping dread, it's that building tension, it's that unease that can also be considered horror," Vuckovic says. "Those are the kinds of stories that need to be told more, and are more interesting in a broader spectrum."
And encouraging those stories, and further pushing women to try their hand in horror, is why XX exists in the first place. "Women are the next frontier in horror cinema," Vuckovic says. "And I think Bela Lugosi would agree."