Horror Director Karyn Kusama Thinks We're Living in an 'American Nightmare'

We spoke with the filmmaker about her new short in the 'XX' anthology, parenthood, and the films getting her through these rough times.

Women are no strangers to horror film. It's hard to find one that doesn't feature running women, scared women, screaming women, and brutally murdered women. We experience the fear of so many horror films through these on-screen proxies, but when it comes to the behind-the-camera talent—especially in mainstream theatrical horror—female filmmakers are not nearly as represented. The anthology film XX, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and arrives in theaters and on VOD today, seeks to put a dent in that imbalance. And veteran indie director Karyn Kusama, who's no stranger to genre films of all stripes, is leading the charge.

The film includes short films directed by Jovanka Vukovic, Annie Clark (AKA multitalented musician St. Vincent, in her directorial debut), and Southbound and V/H/S director Roxanne Benjamin. Several explore themes of being a provider, a caretaker, and a clean-up crew—both literally and emotionally. But it's Kusama's Her Only Living Son, the film's finale, where the idea of motherhood—specifically, being a mother to an adolescent boy—is taken to a demonic extreme. It follows Cora (Christina Kirke,) a single mom whose son is approaching is 18th birthday and exhibiting increasingly violent, antisocial behavior. His teachers and neighbors let him get away with it, citing something special about him, something he got from his father. Like her 2016 film The Invitation, Kusama uses enclosed spaces and withheld information to let us imagine the outside world and events that inform her characters' unsettling reality. She's haunted by the idea of parenthood—and the kind of surrogate body horror of watching a child go through the unimaginable in a world that's ill equipped to help him.

I talked with Kusama over the phone about cults, zombie people, and why a female perspective is fundamental in addressing our current American nightmare.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: You were one of the first filmmakers to be attached to XX, but the film went through several filmmakers before settling on the final four. During that development phase, how much were you in communication with the other directors? Did you do much in the way of collaboration with anyone?
Karyn Kusama: You know what's interesting, is that I didn't. Early on, I had considered an idea, and I realized [it] would be basically too expensive, the way that I wanted to execute it. So I abandoned it, but in doing so, found out that there would have been some thematic overlap between one of the [other] films and the idea that I had abandoned. So that was really the only way I would have known anything about any of the other projects. And so we were really kind of given the freedom to make what we thought we could execute within the budget and the constraints of the production, and I was surprised to see that there were areas of thematic similarity, but then also very different departures as well.

The idea of bringing together four female filmmakers to do horror shorts is in itself a kind of statement about the possibilities of the genre. What's special for you personally about being a woman working in horror right now?
You know, I'll go back to some of my favorite […] film criticism I used to read that was about horror. So frequently, it would address the "American nightmare." I think it's fair to say that no matter what side, or from where on the political spectrum you cull from, I think we are squarely in an American nightmare. And it's very clear for all of us to see. And for those for whom it's not clear, I mean, I guess we can put them in the zombie category.

This is a highly politicized and activated and alert moment in history. We are bearing witness to something that will have potentially tremendous ramifications for the globe for decades. And so I feel like horror is just a way to contain some of the tremendous anxiety and fear that I actively feel on a daily basis because of where we're at. Maybe in giving voice to that stuff, and giving shape to it, and imagining outcomes that surprise us, or survivors who surprise us, we can slowly coalesce to find a way forward, and find a way to talk to each other. Because for me, the horror of the world we're living in right now is the lack of listening. People just are not listening to each other anymore. And I'm really disheartened by it, but I have to wonder about what got us to this place. There are so many factors, but it makes me feel like there is so much to explore in these more extreme storytelling forms.

I think this is why we turn to genre film in the first place. It's why there have been times of political unrest and turmoil that also produce great art and amazing stories. And I think we are probably entering that time again, or are in it right now. I feel very close to the horror genre because I think of how it's gotten me through periods where at the time I felt afraid of the world and afraid for the world. And I think that's why we keep returning to this storytelling form, because we're just trying to find new answers to these old questions.

One question your short in XX deals with directly is about parenthood, but specifically about a mother raising a son, and what it means to raise a boy—a potentially destructive, frightening boy—in our current culture. Is that all there, or did I read too much into it?
Well, it is, because I'm a mother, I have a son. I think a lot about what it means to be a mother to a son in today's America, in today's world. I do feel like there's something just fundamentally broken about our illusions and delusion of what maleness and masculinity has to be. I wanted to address the notion that men start as boys, and boys start as tiny children, and they learn about the world from not just the outside, but that sort of more protected inner world of their family. And I wanted to imagine a very strong bond between this mother and son in my short. I wanted to imagine that they, for better or for worse, felt like it was just the two of them against the world, even though the son is curious about that outside world, and wants to interact with it more.

That felt like a really plain and relatable reality of a single mom raising a kid on her own. And just the idea—do mothers make a difference? Can they change their children? Can they parent their children to make decisions differently than they would without that woman in their life? Of course, I hope that's true. And I know, too, that there can be styles of mothering that are tremendously destructive and problematic. But in this case, I wanted to explore how devotion is this almost dangerous energy, because this woman is so devoted to her son that it comes at a very high price.

It struck me as a very necessary continuation of the Rosemary's Baby story, and exploring that mother not just as a victim and a target, but someone with a real problem that she has to make the best of for the next 18 years.
I recognize that some people would just say, "Well, it's just based in another narrative, and there's nothing imaginative about that," and I totally understand people's beef with that. But for me, what became interesting was imagining that kind of character having to have some reality of running from place to place with her kid, who's going from school to school and trying to make friends and become a person. And then meanwhile, his manhood is looming. I think [it's] kind of the instructive, most fundamental element of horror storytelling—there's no relief from the fact that you live in the world. So even though this character has escaped one danger, she still has to face the other dangers that will confront her daily life as a single parent on her own, with this kid who is becoming increasingly out of control.

And so I thought there was something interesting about that, because it made me think about how horror pushes us to keep facing the music. Like, you can't run from yourself. And what you see in horror so frequently is people trying to escape their circumstances and themselves, and being unable to do that. And that seems very real to me right now. [ Laughs.] That seems, like, too real, perhaps. But it's instructive, and I learn a lot from that kind of storytelling.

Her Only Living Son also returns to some cult elements that you previously dug into in The Invitation. What is it about cults right now? Why do they resonate with us again?
I'm think, as I've had to think about this issue more, and really kind of confront our cultural/political condition right now, I think there's this fascinating thread that unites a lot of politics, a lot of religion, and a lot of what we could call "cults." A lot of corporate mentality, and military mentality, which is … kind of a dulling one's curiosity about the world, combined with an encouragement of unquestioning faith. I think we are struggling with the possibility that those two threads are intertwining and simply becoming the norm in culture. I'm struggling with it, but I feel like we're all kind of having to face what it means when—and I'll just kind of [speak] specifically, and for myself only—what does it mean when we watch essentially 99 percent of the Republican party completely lose any sense of its moral dignity? We've now seen them turn their back on decency. And that's fascinating. Where's that all going to land with history? Because they just got in lockstep with one another and kind of lost their soul.

What films—horror or otherwise—are getting you through these times?
It's so funny, I definitely find myself watching a lot of documentaries. I kind of need to see—I was really amazed at the very efficient dispersal of information in [Ava DuVernay's] 13th. I couldn't get over how many of those concepts stuck with me and how much it's changed my thinking about the nature of politics right now in America. So that was just something I'm really thankful for having watched.

I mean, you know, honestly I'm in a moment where I really need humor. So I'm probably watching bad lip readings of the inauguration or something. [Laughs.] I just need to blow off some steam and kind of laugh the surreal quality the daily world seems to have taken on. But in terms of film I felt very inspired by the outcome of Arrival and we could have this woman character be smart and capable and be able to sort of save humanity from its worst instincts. That felt really powerful to me. It makes one feel something, but it also has something really fascinating to say about the nature of listening and collaboration and cooperation. The ability to have those traits doesn't have to be a position of weakness.

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