Here at Downright Creepy, we consume quite a bit of genre work. It is our passion and joy. But when you have just about seen it all, how does one make the world feel new and…daunting…again?
In this piece, we will be exploring some of our favorite voices in Horror. And it should come as no surprise that our chosen champions of Horror this month happen to be a group of incredibly talented women. It is a much more powerful thing to evoke an idea by showing it, and expressing what the core of it is than to talk an entity into being. And so, this being a written article, what better way to attempt to avoid talking a thing into existence than to explore the works of these creators and their connecting fibers, through the use of their own words…talking…about it…? Without further ado!
To set the tone of this exploration of some of Horror’s dearest, there are two passages from acclaimed directors Julia Ducourneau (Raw, Titane) and Rose Glass (Saint Maud), whose feature film debuts both shaped the ever-evolving scope of Horror cinema in a not-at-all insignificant manner. Both Glass and Ducourneau have managed to compose masterful dialogues on the bounds of humanity. Humanity as it relates to bodies and spirits, alike. Raw releases its viewers from the parameters of the gendered, contained, body by fully caging us within Justine’s (played by Garance Marillier) as she begins to feel a brutal transformation of her own. A transformation that appears as though it will proceed with or without her, its host. Whatever ‘her’ means within the realm of this film. Similarly, Glass’ Saint Maud delves beneath the skin of its pious protagonist, Maud (played by Morfyyd Clark), not as a means of further understanding what it means for this woman to be entangled in such a predicament as hers, but rather to feel what horror it is to so viscerally long for and need to know that there is some guiding, knowing power greater than oneself. No matter what cruel shape this power may take.
Bodies and minds–particularly our physical vessels, in this instance, are so close to us. Obviously. As a species, we’ve never known life outside of them–beyond them–but what happens when this fact begins to feel like more of a threat? When the skin we inhabit begins to shape us and what we are, then what happens? How do you live within a body that speaks for you? How does one live and create within a skin that they are always trapped within….one which wears them, despite what they might be expressing themselves? Is your body always yourself?
The horror of such questions has transcended the frames of her respective and masterful films, for Director Ducourneau. In the words of Ducourneau, “For me, as a woman, I don’t want my gender to define me at all. When people say I’m a woman director — I mean, that’s always a bit annoying, because I’m a person. I’m a director. I make movies because I’m me, not because I’m a woman. I’m me.” (source) After studying at the esteemed institution, Le Fémis, Ducourneau made her feature film debut in 2016 with the sensational film, Raw. She then won the Sutherland Award for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival in the same year, and went on with her next film, Titane (2021), to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Nothing evokes this presence of frustration and the force–or temptation– of undoing as it relates to our humanity, quite like Ducourneau’s films. They do not shy away from this shedding of the glamourization and sexualization of female bodies onscreen, in the pursuit of crafting undiluted evocations of these characters as individuals. The films certainly do not avoid sexuality as a presence, but rather charge the inherent feeling with an urgency that lends it space to simply, or with great difficulty, be. There is a language here that transcends the bounds of the box we’ve allowed ‘female’ characters and any ‘notion’ of their sexuality to live within, previously. It is no longer a notion, for one. It is real, and panting, and commanding. Not because it is new, per se, but because it is visceral and it is true. Finally.
In speaking on the idea of our existence being at the mercy of our own bodies as humans, as Alex Godfrey mentions in an interview with Ducourneau, the director explains, “You haven’t decided to have a rash, it’s your body doing it. So, are you your body or is your body you? This is the kind of thing I always thought about: what does it mean in terms of identity?” (source)
Very much in line with this lingering question of identity, Director Rose Glass has also delved into something similar when questioned about creating as a person within a particular body. “…it’s more interesting to have more diversity in directors, because everyone, anyone, who writes feeds into their own experiences and thoughts…I didn’t consciously set out a particular thing I want to say about being a woman, I just write as a woman.” (source) Of the films mentioned thus far, albeit all women-led narratives, I refuse to believe that anyone having seen these films would deem them remarkable or especially intriguing due to this presence of gender. Rather, the intrigue stems from what these perspectives allow us to glean from the worlds they inhabit. It is the assumption, that traps us. Glass says, “All these conversations about more diversity in directors isn’t just about gender,” she continues, “but there is more interest in enabling female-driven stories, and I guess maybe it’s interesting that a lot of them seem to be tapping into pretty horrifying things. I don’t know what that says about women, but I think that’s interesting. I get surprised sometimes by how I’ve had some interviewers asking: ‘Are you worried that women will be turned off by the violence?’, or ‘How did you handle the gore?’, and it’s like: ‘Have you met women before?’”
Perhaps the best way to most succinctly see one another, in truth, is through the one commonality we all share: a living body. Skin and bones and all the rest. Glass and Ducourneau utilize the presence and power of the human vessel itself to bond their protagonists with audiences more concretely. In Ducourneau’s Titane, the protagonist is one of very few words, in addition to being far from what you’d characterize as an open book with regard to intentions and emotional capacities. Therefore, as Director Ducourneau states, “…my entry point was her body. For me, I decided that if I cannot make you feel emotions for her for the first thirty minutes, then I’m gonna make you feel what she feels in her body. Under her skin…hence the violence, and the body horror aspect of it. For me, it’s a way to create an umbilical cord between you and the character, playing on this body empathy that everyone feels in life…” (source) Empathy can be a tricky creature, as Maud (the protagonist of Glass’s Saint Maud) would know…particularly when one’s empathy lies enveloped within the echoes of God’s voice itself. Within the film, Maud occupies a position within the nursing/medical field where she fervently pursues her elusive yet incredibly palpable sense of purpose. In the words of Director Glass, “…It made sense to me that Maud would be drawn to that profession. Also, because she’s somebody who’s always found it very difficult to connect with people emotionally and socially, bodies seem less ambiguous to her. Physically caring for somebody is like, “I know how to do this. Bodies work a certain way. I can do it.” It’s the more emotional, psychological stuff that she struggles with.” (source)
Director Rose Glass made her feature film debut in 2019 with Saint Maud, before being named Best Debut Director in 2020 at the British Independent Film Awards. Glass was also nominated for two awards at the 74th British Academy Film Awards. Prior to her feature, Director Glass was known for a riveting short film, Room 55, which was made in 2014.
It should not come as a surprise that even on a performance level, this question of the relationship between our bodies and minds will surface. In an interview by Juan A Ramirez with blossoming Horror icon, Mia Goth, Goth is described as one who, “…savors her attraction to the “deep animal urges” characters like Gabi in Infinity Pool or Pearl display, explaining that she relies on her body, which has “far better ideas than my head,” once shooting begins…” (source) Although our brains do tend to get in the way, perhaps this is precisely what makes the immensity of the human mind so haunting, great unknown that it is. In speaking about her role in co-writing Pearl (2022), Goth notes, “I would write as Pearl, as me…but Pearl is me. I mean, all my characters are me, turned up or turned down. It’s all me exploring different facets of myself.”
If anyone possesses even a simulacrum of a clue as to how we are meant to understand ourselves in an effort to then evoke some essence of this humanity within our own art, then it must be in the hands of these creators. The most promising path towards evoking an uncanny, and hauntingly prescient image of what it means to create as one, embodied, is to do what we do best as people… to pursue a question.
The wise director Jane Schoenbrun of 2021’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, describes the inclusion of this practice in their own filmmaking process. “I think it always helps pull the movie together when you’re forced to put into words something that feels intuitive to you. I take a lot of pleasure in that process, actually, I think it’s a very important part of directing. Once you open the script up to others, to invite them to bring this thing to life, your job becomes Vibe Checker. I’m simply trying to get everyone to see and feel and … kind of walk through the atmosphere that I’m walking through in making the film. Sometimes that can turn into an intellectual conversation about theory and what this all means, but sometimes it can be things that I know intuitively and were there for me in the script, like what being 15 on the internet in 2001 felt like. But I think the film, if it works, is 85 minutes that can stand alone and evoke that atmosphere and a lot of the ideas and emotions that are lurking as specters behind the movie.” (source)
Awarded 2021’s Visionary Filmmaking Winner at MFF for We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, Writer/Producer/Director Jane Schoenbrun is no stranger to the relevance of pursuing a greater vision within an otherwise limited world. In addition to being co-creator of Eyeslicer, they are also the creator of collective:unconscious (2016), and an author at Criterion Collection’s ‘The Current’.
Ultimately, we want our art to have resonance. In the words of Mimi Cave, director of Fresh (2022), “I think, ultimately, I just want people to feel things in their gut. I want people to remember what they saw and think about it for a couple of days after…” (source) Audiences certainly did keep Cave’s feature directorial debut in mind upon its release. The piece’s concise storytelling allows the true horror of the film to stand on its own. Its restraint from a filmmaking perspective echoes the hesitance embedded within the terror of protagonist Noa quite beautifully. Her body is literally what brings us into the dark underbelly of this film. Granted, this also seems to be the shit-eating-grinned-face of it. And now, Noa will need to use this same vessel to find a way through. It is this conundrum, in an eerily particular way, which connects most of these artists and their craft.
Much of the pull of this genre as a whole, stems from the disparity–or the yearning to understand the disparity–which lives within our being reliant on these forms that both house and hinder us, to put it far too simply. In the words of acclaimed performer, Florence Pugh, star of Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), “Scenes that make you hurt, or cringe, or turn away from the screen when watching are scenes designed to make you feel, for ten seconds at least, the most human.” (source)
“The idea was to create a new humanity that is strong because it’s monstrous — and not the other way around,” remarks Director Ducourneau when speaking of Titane. The idea of our strength coming from this core that is overwhelming and vicious and wrong and unnatural and teeming, as the monstrous tend to be, is a captivating one. It makes sense, then, why Saint Maud is such a frightening portrait of strength in its own right. Glass speaks of her character Maud’s strange faith in this same vein. “It’s morphed into a weird, ultimately self-destructive form of self-care, of trying to keep herself together and keep herself feeling in control. Life is confusing and chaotic, and it’s tempting and seductive to be drawn to things that make it seem clear and understandable. But being pushed too far in that direction can lead to quite dangerous things.” (source) The yearning to make sense of this deeply rooted, deeply human constellation of contradiction, is a familiar riddle we horror lovers know well. Although these films do not tend to offer solutions or even attempts at them, they do offer invitations to contemplate these pervading questions in unexpected ways. In the words of Director Schoenbrun, “I hope certain viewers will see something they recognize in these feelings and images … in its interior world and emotional turbulence … in its hazy aesthetic distortion and oneiric reflections on gendered bodies, ungendered bodies, and bodies in disarray. In its cinematic dysphoria. I hope it will make them feel a little less alone.” (source)
Here are more Horror creators we will be looking out for in the coming seasons:
Jenna Ortega has created quite the platform for herself within the Horror realm this year. And this comes as no surprise considering the caliber of her projects, stemming from her role in Ti West’s, X (2022) to the latest installment of the Scream franchise. Ortega received critical praise for her role in The Fallout (2021) and has proceeded to receive nominations at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards for Wednesday, which is described as a Horror-Comedy series. On the topic of why she tends to work within the Horror genre, she has been quoted as saying: “It’s pure entertainment. It’s pure fun. I think they’re the best sets to be on because everyone wants to be there. And no one’s taking themselves too seriously…I love all genres, I really do…But you’re not trying to impress people necessarily. You’re trying to give people a good time. And I think when you make it too serious is when it gets kind of muddled and not as exciting…Also for some reason, I don’t know what it is about my face, but people just seem to really want to throw blood on it…I think that there’s maybe something to that. It’s put me in that position one too many times and I don’t hate it.” (source)
Lauren LaVera, an American actress from Philadephia, Pennsylvania has become quite well-known for her fan-favorite role as the lead, Sienna, in Terrifier 2 (2022). LaVera had devoted nineteen years of her life to studying Tae Kwon-Do Martial Arts, before pivoting into the acting industry. Despite being an avid horror fan herself, LaVera admitted to not having seen the original Terrifier (2016) until she booked her role in the sequel.
After training for three years at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Emily Bennett was awarded Best Director in 2018 at the Horrible Imaginings Festival for her most recent short, LVRS. Bennett’s screenplay ‘Ache’ was also a quarter-finalist in the 2020 Academy Nicholl Fellowship. As co-director and co-writer, as well as lead, in Alone with You (2021), Director Bennett states, “It’s cathartic. I think honestly, Justin and I have both been through our share of bad relationships and bad experiences, but … I like to write what scares me. And what scares me is other people, and what other people can do to other people. I think relationships can be profound, and they can change you into the best person you can be; in this relationship, that’s certainly how I feel now. But in other relationships, those can be the most terrifying things.” (source)
Gigi Saul Guerrero
When asked about her favorite part of the filmmaking process, Writer/Director/Actress Gigi Saul Guerrero says, “…shooting, for sure, and working with actors…maybe because I’m an actor myself, but that collaboration of bringing these characters to life, that to me is my most favorite process…watching it live in front of you on the monitor. You’re making something…And of course, the reward. It’s hearing the audience react. I feel like your job’s not done until you hear that first audience reaction.” (source) Guerrero directed the horror web series, La Quinceañera in 2017, in addition to directing episodes of The Purge and the horror anthology series, Into the Dark (2019). Director Guerrero has a vast assortment of acclaimed shorts within the festival circuit, from El Gigante (2014) to Puppet Killer (2019). Bestia (2017) won the Golden Palm Award at the Mexico International Film Festival in 2018, in addition to a slew of other nominations.