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Inside the Making of 'XX,' the Horror Anthology Made Entirely by Women

With shorts from St. Vincent and Karyn Kusama, this all-women directed film is an antidote to Trump.

Horror has generally been an awful genre for women. Slasher flicks and torture porn have been cesspits of brutality, putting horrible female stereotypes through actual grinders and demeaning two-dimensional virgins to the point of parody. There are exceptions, of course, but overall it's not been a great ride for the infamous "final girl." To survive in horror as a woman, you've got to be a good girl, a sexual innocent, a stand-in for the male fantasy of the sexy naif. Off-screen, it's no better, with male directors overwhelmingly calling the shots. But all of that is changing. Directors like Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Jennifer Kent (Babadook), and Julie Ducourneau (Raw) are upending the genre and leading a charge of female horror auteurs. A new film XX, is pushing this wave even further by creating the first all-women-directed horror anthology, featuring shorts from Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark a.k.a. St. Vincent, and Jovanka Vuckovic. XX premiered to a sold-out crowd at Sundance and is already creating major buzz around its stylishly scary vignettes.

I sat down with Vuckovic, who also co-produced XX, to talk about reclaiming horror and why Donald Trump may be the creative spark the genre needs.

VICE: Talk to me about the inspiration for The Box. Where did the story come from?
Jovanka Vuckovic: The Box is based on a short story by an horror author name Jack Ketchum. He sort of came on the horror scene in the 80s and early 90s, Stephen King calls him the scariest guy in America. He primarily writes kind of splatter fiction and was known for that. I read this short story in a collection. It really stood out, because the rest of them were so graphic and violent, and then there was just this one little Kafkaesque existential horror story, that really read to me like an episode of The Twilight Zone. So, when we were putting this anthology together, I thought of The Box. Because it always stayed with me, and I thought, you know—this is my opportunity to do a segment for The Twilight Zone. It really feels like it, I think. It has everything except for Rod Sterling like smoking a Camel in between, you know, interstitials. We all had the choice to do whatever we wanted, and I was the only person, I think, out of the group who adapted a short story.

You really feel for Susan, the lead character. As a mother yourself, were there moments where you really related to that exhaustion?
Well, in the original short story, it's the dad. It's about the dad and about how the dad is the one who's working and can't connect—is incapable of making a meaningful connection with his family. I had to switch the gender of the protagonist in order to fit the mandate of the anthology, which was that they all had to be written by women, directed by women, and starring women in the lead roles. So I had to switch the genders, but then this amazing thing happened, and it suddenly became about ambivalent motherhood. It became about how not all women are meant to be mothers. It became much more personal for me, because I was able to sort of exorcise some of my own issues with my own mom.

It's just about perspective. It's the same horror story, but it's amazing how you just shift the perspective a bit. We're just seeing the same story from a different point of view. I think traditionally, since 90 percent of all movies made in the past 100 years have been made by men, the point of view has been from their perspective. If you switch those genders of the protagonist and your story falls apart, it's probably not a very good story, right? In this case, it was very easy, and we can now relate more to moms. Moms are the ones who are working. We are seeing a lot more stay-at-home dads.

There's a person who I met, who told me that she had turned 40 and doesn't really know why she had any of her kids. She's like: "I can't stand any of them." That really stayed with me and sort of informed Susan's character. So, yes. The drudgery of routines. The constant repetition. The food repetition. The repetition of, like, doing everything at the same time every day. Bed time. Bath time. Can be exhausting. Motherhood isn't for everyone.

Still from The Box

It speaks volumes to how important it is to get those perspectives in. How did the anthology come to be? How did you all get involved?
It all started around our producer's kitchen table. His wife basically had noticed that all the movies he produced with his film company were by men. She said, "When are you going to do something about that?" He had noticed that all these women were being passed over for directing jobs on all the anthology films that were coming out. So, being a white dude, he knew he couldn't be the face of something like this, so he called me up. At the same time, I had been plotting a crowdfunding strategy to do my own all-women horror anthology. So, it was like the best timing. So, we made a list and started reaching out to people. We made the anthology because there were no all-women anthologies. We made XX in direct response to the lack of opportunities for women in film. Particularly in the horror genre. The horror genre isn't inherently sexist, but it's an area in which women have historically been misrepresented on-screen. And under-represented behind it. We've been pin cushions and knife fodder, and, yes, we've also been final girls, but the final girl herself is also a trope. She is not a real person. As amazingly resourceful as she is at surviving and besting the killer, she is still not a real person.

Right, she's a virgin, she's the good girl.
Yes, sometimes. The best example, obviously, is Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies. But she started off as a man, and Ridley Scott just made her character a woman and changed nothing else about the script. So, that's not how the rest of the final girls usually play out. We're starting to see a bit of a shift now with women writing or directing. We are starting to see what I call feminist horror films. A feminist horror film is just a movie that portrays women as actual human beings. It's not like the women are killers, or we need to turn the genre on its ear. That stuff is just superficial. It's not meaningful. What matters is that women are being portrayed as actual human beings. In all the lifestyles that we live and you know, as damaged as we can be. We need more than these paper thin women characters. So, that was the part of the impetus of putting XX together.

There are so few women directors. I hate to trot out statistics, but it's the easiest way to paint a picture of how grim it is. More than 50 percent of all film graduates are women, and yet, less than 7 percent of all working directors are women. This is a problem. It's a problem with no easy solution. Even, despite the efforts of the ACLU investigating Hollywood hiring practices and various social activism happening online, the diversity report was just released in female directors. Women directors have fallen by another 2 percent. So it's actually getting worse not better.

Is it political?
We are in a political climate now, particularly in the United States, where women have a lot to be afraid of, so something like this offers a glimmer of hope to other women filmmakers and to future generations like no matter how bad things look, even with Orange Hitler in power, these women came together and we made the first ever all-female horror anthology. That energy was palpable in the air at Sundance. One of our directors was unable to make it to the premiere because she was marching on Washington. So, you know, we can't help a movie like XX being politicized because, I mean, from its inception, it was political. It was a political statement.

Do you have any advice for people who are just viewers, who read this and go, "I want to help, but what can I do?"
You can help with your almighty dollar. Unfortunately, women aren't allowed to fail in the same way that men are. If our movies don't do well, we go to director jail for a very long time, and so, we need people to come out to see XX. The only way we can get a chance to make more movies is if the movie makes its money back. It is a business. We would love to pretend that it's all completely about our creative pursuits, but it is a business, and these companies—these financiers need to make their money back. Please go see the movies made by women. It helps us a lot.

Were there any surprises for you in the stories the other directors chose to tell?
I was surprised that all of the stories ended up being about family. That was a total coincidence. I mean, you can read into whatever you want about five directors all doing stories about family, but it just happened by accident. Funnily enough, both Annie [Clark] and [animator] Sofia [Carillo] don't like horror movies. They don't watch horror movies. They get scared of them. Annie actually was covering her face through most of the Sundance screening.

Still from The Box

It seems like women are making a real mark in horror right now from yourself, Karyn Kusama, Julie Ducournau...
Yes and Ana Lily Amirpour. There is a small movement of women feature-film directors making horror films and making waves with them. It's still very small, though. The horror genre, in particular, has always been a great springboard for us to exercise our cultural fears. I mean, if you look back at the 50s, we were afraid of very different things than we are now, right? We were looking to the skies and the threat was communism and alien invasion and body snatchers, and you know, loss of our personal autonomy because we were afraid of invasion. And then in the 60s, the concern shifted around the Vietnam War, and so, horror films started to become about fear of the other and coming from war changed somehow. The 70s, we started to become afraid of each other, and you have the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the situation where you can drive a hundred miles away from your home and be a stranger in a strange land. So, with every decade, horror evolves as a really malleable platform for us to talk about what we're afraid of, and so, thankfully, women are finally being given opportunities to talk about what they're afraid of. Naturally, the subject of the storytelling is a little bit different. I don't think what drives the stories themselves is any different than what a male filmmaker would do. It's just the tiny perspective shift that makes it feel so different, and the horror genre is badly in need of new perspectives and women have that to offer in spades.

How do you see horror evolving to react to what's happening in our world right now?
Trump and everything that's happening, the political climate is really great fuel for creatives. I'm really curious to see what kind of horror films are going to emerge out of this time and to be able to look back ten years from now and see the sort of creative backlash. I mean, one of the best ways to fight things is to make stuff. And people are going to make stuff about what's happening right now. I think we're all really scared. It's not just women. Everybody's really afraid of the potential disaster of a Trump presidency.

Follow Amil Niazi on Twitter.