Women in Horror, Horror in the Family

I will admit, I’ve been waiting for this film. Until fairly recently, I used to write for another online magazine that, in its last incarnation, was called GeekPr0n. I spent some years covering various comics, television shows, events, and films for GeekPr0n and writing articles on some of the things that I got to see. In 2014 I was made aware of a film adaptation in the works of Clive Barker’s short story from his Books of Blood called “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” which led me to the film director and former editor of Rue Morgue Jovanka Vuckovic. This got me acquainted with Jovanka Vuckovic and I began to follow her creative work, which led me one day to an event in Toronto called Horrorama that introduced me to another project she was working on: namely a short film adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s short horror story “The Box.”

I had a lot to say about both of these films and the source material from which Jovanka Vuckovic was working. I was utterly fascinated in seeing what a feminist or at least female creative perspective on both of these adaptations would produce: especially on Clive Barker whose stories of horror and desire being one and the same intrigued me. But that’s not what I am going to talk about in this article because, at the time I heard about her adaptation of “The Box” was about the same period that I learned she was only to help create the first all-female directed and starred horror anthology XX.

Talking about this subject means I’m going to tread a lot more old ground, with bodies in varying states of decomposition and freshness galore. But with the obligatory horror word play aside, I’m just trying to figure out what to add to this conversation about women in the film horror genre: how men tend to dominate the industry, and female characters fall easily into stereotypes of whores and virgins and screamer queens. There are exceptions, of course, such as this anthology and those whom are involved in it, but this is the soil that drinks the creative blood, and from where restless dead creations arise. But I promised to stop channelling the ghoulish humour of the Crypt Keeper and as my first Sequart article dealing with a film, I am going to go into it.

I didn’t know what to expect from XX, to be honest, aside from the analyses and fan speculation I put into Jovanka Vuckovic’s contribution. The anthology is produced by XYZ Films and distributed by Magnet Releasing. It features five female directors: Roxanne Benjamin, Sofia Carrillo, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, and Jovanka Vuckovic along with four actresses Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool and Christina Kirk are the anthology’s leads.

The thing about anthologies of any kind is that they are not sequential stories. I have attempted, in the past, to review another horror anthology and try to examine what I found in it. Horror film anthologies, I’m given to understand, are tenuously unified by a common theme at best and each small film is included – at least ideally – to create something of a multifaceted blood gem. The first anthology I tentatively reviewed was Axelle Carolyn’s Tales of Halloween at the Toronto After Dark and I recall its films were not always cohesive with one another even though the conceit was that they were supposed to take place in the same town.

But the reason I am thinking about Tales of Halloween is because like that film, XX also has a stop motion narrative sequence introducing and leading to each tale. Just imagine a creepy dollhouse with animated parts moving around and opening strange dusty doors leading to other places, other stories. This is the short animated film interstitial that Sofia Carrillo creates for us to frame the other four live-action horror movies and it was definitely not something that I expected. As I was watching these sequences unfold before the first film and throughout the rest until the end, I was trying to figure out what it might mean: what kind of story Carrillo was helping to tell.

It is useful to think about given that I was attempting to piece together an overall theme to the anthology. Unlike Tales of Halloween, the four other films don’t take place in the same physical or geographical space. And unlike the former film, which is my basis of reference, Carrillo’s stop motion is far more abstract and lacks the voice over of a narrator to introduce each tale. But if you were to look at the doll’s house as something of a feminist image, you might be able to argue that it represents the collective mindscape of women that, again arguably, horror generally doesn’t delve into beyond the superficial. Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and the attic containing Bertha Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre also come to mind aesthetically along with a little bit of Henry Selick’s own stop motion take on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline: especially when you consider the last segment of the film where a girl is reanimated like a clockwork toy in her bed.

You can also argue that if this house with its winding shadowy corridors and antiqued elements of girlhood from another era, is that gender-place where women still tap into on an unconscious level, then each door is a segue into the mind of each female protagonist in the anthology: with every cinematic perspective being another female director’s take on femininity.

First, let’s look at Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box.” As I mentioned earlier, I’ve written about “The Box” before, specifically what I knew of the original short story that Jack Ketchum wrote and how Jovanka Vuckovic was going to adapt and change it with her creative perspective. For instance, “The Box” originally had a male protagonist: the father of the family that is depicted in the story. But I already knew from my time covering Horrorama of 2014 that Jovanka Vuckovic was going to make the central protagonist of her film adaptation a mother instead.

There are a few possible reasons for this change. At the February 17, 2017 showing at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto and during its Question and Answer period after the showing, Jovanka Vuckovic told us that she had another film planned. She explained something to the effect that it was about a woman who was slowly starving to death over time but, unfortunately, her production lacked the finances to maintain the special effects, makeup, and prosthetics required to depict this vision. This account is something touched upon in her and Natalie Brown’s interview with The Gate. It was around this time that the concept behind XX – of an all-female anthology – had been proposed to her by Todd Brown of XYZ Films according to her interview with Chris Alexander on ComingSoon.net.

Much of why she chose to adapt “The Box,” aside from some of its commonalities with her original idea, is covered in her interview with Alexander. Even though she changed the identity of the protagonist, much of the story still remains the same. It is a subtle, insidious horror: one of the many fears that parents have for their children. What happens when, one day, your child simply decides not to eat? That there is simply no point in eating?

There is nothing else that is overtly terrifying about the film, save for one dream sequence that Jovanka Vuckovic decided to add into it. In the original short story by Jack Ketchum, as I mentioned before the central character in the narrative dealing with this development is the father of the family. One day they are on a train home, and the son Danny sees a man with a gift box. He asks the man what it is and if he can have a peek at it. The man does so, whereupon Danny has this strange and puzzled expression on his face. Then the man leaves, with his gift, and he never comes back into the plot. It’s almost anticlimactic, but whenever Danny is asked about what he saw in that box, he tells his parent that it was “nothing.” It is after this that both children stop eating entirely.

I have had my own thoughts about what is in that tiny, prettied up space that Danny saw: the secret that he also passed onto his sister. Certainly, as I mentioned in my GeekPr0n article, the box itself is something of a twisted, dark side version of the MacGuffin witnessed in Pulp Fiction. But I will get more into that speculation soon. Natalie Brown plays Susan Jacobs, the mother of the family in the film. She attempts to continue her life, business as usual, through making and buying meals for her family and taking care of herself.

Jovanka Vuckovic creates an interesting challenge for herself here, but also says something very interesting about mothers and their families. In Ketchum’s story, the father is a man that admits he feels distant from his family, even as he takes care of them. There is a part of him that is detached from the external world while he also has a strong sense of order and structure. He does care about his family, and loves them, but there is this inability to understand what is going on from an emotional level – from a relational standpoint – with them as human beings.

Ketchum, however, has the advantage of being able to communicate these ideas and the effects of the environment and food on the family in “The Box” through words. Jovanka Vuckovic uses a combination of voice-over, from Susan’s perspective, a lush visual of the various foods being eaten – and in particular not being eaten – around the family dinner table, and divides each segment with a day of the week or how much time passes. It is a quiet, understated, building of tension when Danny decides for a time that he isn’t hungry and finally his father simply can’t bear it anymore and reacts out of fear in shouting at him.

Susan Jacobs continues to go through the motions of keeping the appearance, at least to herself, of a functional and happy family. She goes through all the accepted routines and procedures of getting her family help when that no longer seems to work. She too, like her male counterpart in the short story, has something of a disconnect with her family. But when her husband shouts at her, and asks her if she even cares or if this bothers her, I don’t know I feel more sympathy towards her. I think this is the point where I can see another possible why Jovanka Vuckovic chose to adapt and work with this narrative. Both of her first short films, The Captured Bird and The Guest deal with, as I put it once, an impressionist or abstract view, something of a “Kafkasque storytelling sensibility.”

To me, The Box is heavily symbolic and nuanced. During the Q &A session Jovanka Vuckovic told us that our society, such as it is, often associates motherhood with empathy and feelings. It is an ideal in which it is usually the mother that relates the most to her children, to the beings that in some cases grow inside her and that she bears into world. Ideally, she also raises and takes care of them. Ironically, in that same patriarchal sense, men as father as seen to be more emotionally distant and material in what they can provide their children or family unit – which is somewhat explored in the original short story – but this obviously not always the case. Jovanka Vuckovic took the time to tell us that some women simply can’t relate to their families, to their children, and that somehow they this – this lack of relation to what they have been trained to perceive motherhood as feeling – as some kind of personal failure or defect in themselves.

The box that Danny sees at the beginning of the short film supposedly has “nothing” inside of it. I’ve stated before that perhaps this “nothing” is actually a legitimate answer. Perhaps the box is a metaphor for an existential truth about life having no intrinsic meaning, and this is why Danny and his sister Jenny, and eventually Susan’s husband Robert are all so happy even after they stop eating: perhaps even more so than they have ever been in their entire lives. The family dinner table is, in most cultures, a place that centralizes the family: that brings together, that supposedly helps them communicate, that links them physically together, and whose responsibility is associated under a traditional role of the mother or maternal figure that gives life through sustenance. Even though, both Susan and Robert work and often simply order takeout, in no way does this negate this older cultural dynamic as it’s usually Susan that often prepares and presents the food at the table as well.

So what happens when no one, aside from Susan, is eating anymore? Aside from inevitable bodily shut down from starvation, the rest of the family has no need to sit at that table. Susan has no reason to prepare large amounts of lavish food, and only has to order food for herself. The scenes where she is sitting at the table, alone, is poignant as it resembles outwardly what she’s feeling inside. This also doesn’t mention Jovanka Vuckovic’s specific dream sequence, where in a scene not unlike the fantasy of the mother and the two mermaid that suckle from her breasts in the Polish horror musical The Lure, Susan lies on the kitchen dinner table as her family eats raw and bloody parts of her body: the gruesome image subverted by the look of sublime relief on her face as she is no longer failing to provide sustenance to those that she loves. It is that instinct that she can’t necessarily consciously communicate when she is awake, but at the same time I feel like she would be greatly afraid of it: this consuming need to subsume her sense of self for the survival of everyone else, or the culturally ingrained expectation that she put others before her own life – even if they are those that she loves.

Everything slowly begins to disintegrate even as Susan attempts to keep up with what’s left of her family’s lives: or at least it does for Susan. Even her relationship with her husband changes. While it is the mother in Ketchum’s “The Box” joins her children in not eating out of, perhaps, some sense of empathy and not being able to eat or live without them, Robert as the father in The Box film is actually told the secret of what was in the box by his son: which he doesn’t – or can’t – tell his wife in bed much later. It all feeds back, if you will pardon the unintentional pun, to food and community and the fear in Susan of not being maternal enough: of not believing in the narrative of “the good mother.”

It was also during this viewing of the film that I started to think more about he man with the box and who he might be: or what he might also represent. In the film, the man with the box has something of a bland disposition. His skin is a little pasty and he even seems a bit thin himself: though nowhere near as emaciated as Danny, Jenny, and Robert get towards the end of the film. My own speculation is that the man with the box is a personification of Famine: not necessarily in the physical sense, but more of the spiritual. And by this statement what I mean is looking at how the Christian Apocalypse isn’t so much about the end of the world, but Revelation: which is a great change in one’s perspective. As such, and for some reason it came to me during The Box, the man carries the truth about existence having no meaning, of emptiness, of the idea that this is the natural state of the world and that not accepting or understanding this leads to pain.

Perhaps this interpretation, while probably not even original, mixes the metaphors quite a bit when you look at it through the lens of the film and I don’t necessarily see how it might come together in any masculine or feminine sense. If I really had to read deeper into it, I’d say there is something about the fact that the wrapping on the box is red like blood, like life, when you compare it to some of the food in the film as well as the table scene with Susan’s dream about her body being consumed. Maybe it symbolizes her own perceived failure to protect her children, to save her family, and that place of detachment she wants to overcome – to find – at the end of The Box as she continuously takes the subway after her family’s death: trying to find the man with the box, attempting to understand and feel what they did, hoping to finally join them but still – in her own words – feeling hungry.

Of course it could just be that I’m enamoured with the image of Famine of the Four Horsemen riding the TTC, but there is something deep and primal and ontological about what Susan Jacobs continues to look for and an implied irony that she will never find the meaning, or end that is she looking for in this life. There is nothing moralistic about this narrative. It is fear, it is despair, and it envelops the protagonist like the label she can never really fit into…. like a box in which she can never truly fit.

But now we leave one box and go into another. Annie Clark – or as she’s better known St. Vincent – and Roxanne Benjamin’s “The Birthday Party.” I have to say that this short film really plays with your expectations. Melanie Lynskey plays Mary, a seemingly chronically exhausted house mother in a bathrobe for the better part of the film, who spends most of her energy trying to organize, and not ruin, her young daughter’s birthday party. Her husband is a businessman who has enough money to hire a permanent housekeeper and nanny named Carla: who resembles nothing less than a darkly gothic sinister stepmother that arranges the real mother’s death so she can take over her role as wife and mother to the family. Of course this is not what happens, though her inclusion is a nice red herring.

In fact, if I were to say that this film has any antagonist, or monster, I would call it social expectations related to female gender. Mary doesn’t like the fact that Carla is immaculately dressed all the time, or seems to know what to tell her child, or where her husband is, or even the way she perceives her looking at her all the time. The way it’s played off in the beginning, Mary is threatened by Carla but isn’t later much later that you realize it’s not that she thinks Carla is trying to kill her or her husband. Mary seems keep herself functioning, barely, through medical marijuana and drinking. She attempts to keep up appearances with her higher class neighbourhood, and include everyone her events: even a birthday party for her daughter specifically. Mary is also mindful of the fact that her daughter may be affected by her anxiety over all these roles she struggles to fill, or quietly blames herself for failing to accomplish, especially given that the latter’s therapist has made her aware of this.

Things may not be going right for Mary, but then they really go wrong when she finds her husband dead in his office. What ends up happening is nothing short of both ridiculous, sad, sometimes even touching, but mostly just one great spectacle of a disaster in the making. Melanie Lynskey basically plays a Weekend at Bernie’s with hiding her husband’s body after realizing he accidentally killed himself with drugs and alcohol, while occasionally cuddling him in her arms trying to deal with her sudden and horrible grief while attempting to put on a face for her daughter, whose birthday she doesn’t wish to spoil, and everyone else who is invited or practically invited themselves.

In the end, however, the charade all comes to a horrific end when Mary makes the mistake of dressing her husband’s body in a children’s mascot suit that falls over into the cake and traumatizes not only all the guests, and the other children, but her daughter as well. It leads to a hilarious subtitle to the film revealed at the end called The Birthday Party or, The Memory Lucy Suppressed From Her Seventh Birthday That Wasn’t Really Her Mom’s Fault (Even Though Her Therapist Says It’s Probably Why She Fears Intimacy). St. Vincent herself is a musician and this was essentially her directorial debut, complete with a soundtrack that she created for the film herself which rises to a ridiculously sweeping epic rock crescendo at the climax of the film where the corpse in the child’s suit falls into his daughter’s cake.

So, speaking of falling, our next film is Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall. I’ve read some other reviews on the film and I’ve seen it said it may well have been the weaker link in the chain of films. However, I’ve also read that it plays the stalking monster hunting down ignorant campers theme straight. But I would also like to add my own view on what really makes this film work in the framework of the anthology.

Breeda Wool plays a young woman named Gretchen. Gretchen is on a trip into a North American desert location with her brother Paul and their friends Jay and Jess. She is afraid of heights and, indeed, seems to have a major amount of anxiety: which her brother and friends exploit for their own amusement. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for her when one of them pretends to push her off a cliff, or fake falling somewhere else. Even though they all seem to be long-time friends, you get the sense that Gretchen is almost always the butt of their jokes. She plays the trope role of the character in a horror movie that is always scared, wants to not be in the forbidden or hidden territory that they aren’t supposed to be in, and generally has good reason to feel both these impulses.

More often than not, Gretchen’s character is the first one that gets killed by the monster, or perhaps second after the stereotype of “the clown” takes nothing seriously too far and ends up getting shredded.  This is not what happens to Gretchen however. You get the foreshadowing beforehand with a cave drawings, or painting on the bedrock of the mountain that the group explores earlier on in the film. It depicts the rise of a creature possibly attacking other beings. It is hard to describe as the images could really be anything.

It’s at night, though, that things really start to happen. At that point, after Gretchen is wounded during the day on the rock face you can see where this is going. What we’re going to have is something of a transformation. I was originally thinking it might be something like a werewolf and, indeed, if you look at earlier legends of werewolves or vampires they are often evil spirits inhabiting the skins of humans or dead bodies. I thought that Roxanne Benjamin was going to lead us to a place not unlike Alan Moore did in the Swamp Thing story “The Curse” where a repressed and emotionally abused woman becomes a werewolf and unleashes all of her anger and damaged femininity into a lycanthropic transformation of pure righteous violence. But perhaps something of that can be applied to Gretchen. The truth is, I get the sense that for all her friends cared about her, they never really took her seriously. But even if you discount what is happening to Gretchen personally, becoming possessed by the evil spirit depicted in the painting, there is something to be said about a dispossessed person gaining power, or reacting from a stimulus that releases much of their repressed fear and rage.

This thought actually leads well into the fifth and final film in the XX anthology: Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son. What can I say about this particular short film? It starts off with Christina Kirk as Cora, a woman who had once been in some trouble and on the run until settling in a small town with her son Andy. It’s a horror story that happens practically in broad, summery, sunny day light in a beautiful country clearing, a beloved family dog, and a house that is almost the essence of a Maybury white picket fence homestead. You would think that this setting would be a complete antithesis to something truly disturbing, but you would be wrong.

It is Andy’s eighteenth birthday and his mother Cora is delighted in the prospect of celebrating her only son’s growth into manhood. There is some tension however, as Andy wants to get to know his father – who apparently abandoned them to pursue an acting career – in addition to some trouble that he is having at school. Cora is utterly dedicated to her son – to the point of negating any potential she might have for a romantic life – and she doesn’t know why he is out late or having mood swings. One day, she is called into the principal’s office to talk about her son’s misbehaviour and…. it doesn’t go quite the way that you might think.

Cora finds herself confronting Kelly Withers, whose daughter got her fingernails ripped out by her son. The principal and teacher in the room are distantly, almost indulgently, downplaying Andy’s actions to the incredulity of both Cora and Kelly. At first, I was led to believe that this was an act of institutionalized racism as Kelly and presumably her daughter are Black. But there is just something particularly flat about the performance of both principal and teacher, almost to the point of it being a parody of normal human behaviour. It’s when Kelly leaves that the other actually praise her son’s actions and say that he will be someone “special” one day. There is something very clearly wrong here and it is seriously creeping Cora out: and you get this feeling that she actually knows what it is, but she just doesn’t want to admit it to herself.

It’s when the overly friendly mailman Chet reveals that he knows who Andy’s real father is, and the exact nature of his conception and birth – proud of the fact that he is doing his own part in contributing to the young man’s rise to power – that you can figure out where this has been, if not where it is going. It turns out that it really does take a village of cultists to raise a spawn. I would have liked it if there had been more about the cult, but this is a short film and it isn’t about them. It isn’t even about Andy’s father. It is about mother and son.

I find the ending to Her Only Living Son to be both fascinating and cathartic. You realize why Andy is so angry all the time, why he seems to be in so much pain. And Karyn Kusama takes us right past Rosemary’s Baby, past all the tropes of a mother killing her demonic child, or her monster child killing her, or the inevitable victory of him and his father over humankind, or even that of the powers of holiness over evil and it is about them. You see the power dynamic here. Andy is the child that Cora has raised for eighteen years that she has worked at a diner to support. She sacrificed her life for him to have a chance. Cora was manipulated and violated by her former husband to achieve his petty ends, and possibly raped by Andy’s father. Instead of abandoning or aborting Andy, she accepts and loves him as her son.

Andy, for his part, is torn with pain over who his father is, and the physical agony of his toe-nails becoming claws. He is changing and he knows it. There is one part where he uses his power to mentally dominate his mother and it is so tempting to write him off as his father’s son, as a monster. But when you see her love for him overcome those moments of her crawling on the floor towards him, you see that Andy isn’t in control. He is being used and manipulated by the dynamic of rape and dominance that made him: something that you realize he is fighting against because his mother loves him and it’s reciprocal. In the end, Cora shows the greatest strength and tells him that their life together is what made her believe in God and the forces of good. Their embrace isn’t enough to allow them to survive, but they die together and perhaps save each other in a more meaningful way: making their lives and the spirit of the anthology come full circle.

A little while back, I reviewed a horror documentary called Why Horror? by Tal Zimerman. While there was a lot that was interesting and insightful about the documentary, I felt that its focus on women in horror and their perspective was somewhat lacking at best, and it emphasized some supposed studies on female sexuality. One thing that I realized after watching XX is the fact that there was no sexuality or sexual content whatever in any of the films in this anthology. It looked at women as people and, in particular, at women in families. Family had, according to Jovanka Vuckovic, been an almost accidental unifying theme in XX. XX may not be a family movie, but definitely is family thematic, and you can see it through women and their siblings and their children and how their personalities affect their relations to those families under traumatic and even supernatural circumstances. Identity in all the films gets challenged or changed with different outcomes for each lead.

But I think this goes beyond just the five films and the best way to wrap it up is to look back at Sofia Carrillo’s stop motion segment. At the end of the anthology, we see a little girl get reanimated in her bed by the construct exploring the great and dusty doll’s house. As such, what I’d like to think, is that XX is an exploration of what it is like to be a woman in the horror genre and that this little stop motion clockwork girl represents the future of girls and women experiencing and re-appropriating horror for their own purposes. Certainly, after a work like XX, I’d like to see what more women can do from here.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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