Director Karyn Kusama On Sundance Horror Movie: "Women Have a Lot to Be Really F—ing Afraid Of"

Kusama is one of four directors of the all-female anthology-style feature 'XX,' which also features the directorial debut of singer St. Vincent.
Courtesy of Magnet Releasing/XYZ FILMS
'XX'

Except for the female victims, horror movies mostly are a male-dominated genre. But a group of filmmakers is heading to Park City with a film so tightly packed with female DNA that its title is XX.

"XX was created in direct response to the lack of opportunities in film, particularly in the horror genre," says Jovanka Vuckovic, the horror zine journalist turned producer who in 2012 came up with the idea for the film with friend Todd Brown, a onetime horror website founder currently working at specialty production company XYZ Films (which produced the film). "Horror is an area where women have been misrepresented onscreen and underrepresented behind the camera."

Horror anthologies — such as Tales from the Crypt, Black Sabbath, ABCs of Death and the V/H/S series — have been predominantly spearheaded by male filmmakers. With XX, which will be released by Magnolia Pictures' Magnet on Feb. 17, producers had a simple requirement: Every anthology needed to be directed by, produced by, written by and star women.

At one point during the project's long gestation, Rose McGowan was considering directing one of the segments, as was Jennifer Lynch. The late Antonia Bird, who directed 1999's cannibal thriller Ravenous, was signed to helm a chapter, but she had to drop out when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer (she died in 2013; XX is dedicated to her). Ultimately, the producers hired Karyn Kusama, who directed 2015 The Invitation, Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark (better known as singer St. Vincent) to join Vuckovic in the directorial line-up.

"Women have a lot to be really f—ing afraid of," says Kusama, whose segment, titled Her Only Living Son, is about what happens to Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow's character in Rosemary's Baby) when Junior grows into a Satanic teenager. The XX films range from stories of self-imposed starvation to motherhood.

Vuckovic's anthology segment, "The Box," is a gender-bent adaption of Jack Ketchum's short story about a family that mysteriously stops eating, while Benjamin, who also directed a segment in 2015 anthology Southbound, helmed a short about a camping trip gone awry. The remaining segment — about a housewife who doesn't want a sudden death to ruin her daughter's eighth birthday party — was helmed by Clark, in her directorial debut. Says the Grammy winner, "I don't exist primarily in the film industry, so I really can't speak about the representation of women in the film industry. But I am certainly aware of women being maligned all over the f—ing world."

XX will have its world premiere in Sundance's Midnight section, which, as of the past few years, has become a go-to jumping-off point for femme-focused genre fare. Jennifer Kent's The Babadook premiered there in 2014, while last year saw the debut of the Anya Taylor-Joy starrer The Witch, hailed equally for its feminist undertones and novel narrative use of a billy goat.

"Horror does seem to be the genre about women being in control; they are active participants rather than passive or supportive," says Benjamin, citing the teenage cannibal from Julia Ducournau's Raw, which caused fainting fits at its Toronto International Film Festival debut in September, as an example of a dynamic female character in contemporary horror. "I would like to see that in other genres, as well," adds Benjamin. "If I have to see one more f—ing coming-of-age boy movie, I'm gonna slit my wrists. We get it, you are all nostalgic for the '80s."

Benjamin, Clark and Vuckovic will attend XX's Jan. 22 world premiere. Kusama, however, will miss the screening. She will be in Washington, D.C., participating in the Jan. 21 Women's March on Washington, protesting the divisive rhetoric of the most recent election cycle and the rise of President Donald Trump. "There are a lot of monsters in the closet," says Kusama. "And they just keep jumping out at us."

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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