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Women directors bring new blood to horror, sci-fi films

Director Karyn Kusama with actors Michiel Huisman, left,

Director Karyn Kusama with actors Michiel Huisman, left, Jay Larson and Tammy Blanchard on the set of "The Invitation." Photo Credit: Drafthouse Films

There’s something of a mini-tradition of women creating horror movies (and sci-fi, and fantasy) that defy assumptions — chief among them, that women can’t make marketable movies. But is genre filmmaking the great hope of women in filmmaking?

The latest example: “The Invitation” by Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight,” “Aeon Flux,” “Jennifer’s Body”) is described by its director as “kind of a strange exotic bird, a psychological drama, suspense thriller and emotional story that eventually ‘goes bat [expletive] crazy.’ ”

“But that can’t go on the poster,” she admitted.

Opening April 8, the film, written by Kusama’s husband, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi, involves a group of old friends having a reunion dinner party in the Hollywood Hills — where they’re joined by a couple of cult recruiters and several unspoken agendas. In some ways it conforms to expectations — as any “genre” film would. On the other hand, it toys with those same expectations.

“I don’t think men and women tell different stories,” said Heidi Honeycutt, who runs Etheria, a Los Angeles-based showcase for female directors of genre movies (horror, fantasy, sci-fi). “They might tell the stories slightly differently.”

As has been widely publicized, the gender balance in Hollywood filmmaking is so out of whack it’s attracted the attention of federal investigators. Seriously. “I know I sound like a commie,” Honeycutt said, “but the Hollywood system is a capitalist, business-based caste system.” What’s “really baffling,” she said, is the idea that people want to be a part of “one of the most stratified, corporate-controlled systems in the entire world” and then complain it’s not fair. “Of course it’s not fair.”

The thing to do if you’re a woman and a filmmaker, Honeycutt said, is to play to your strengths. Don’t expect the system to change. Make movies people really want to see, like horror.

Others disagree.

“Like all aspects of the film industry, the horror genre remains male-dominated,” said Leah Meyerhoff, founder of Film Fatales, an international organization for female directors. “Hopefully, as genre films about women continue to be commercially successful, we will see more films being made by women as well.”

But inroads have been made. Among the more recent examples of women breaking into horror — or what gets categorized that way — are Ana Lily Amirpour (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), Stewart Thorndike (“Lyle”), Tara Subkoff (“#Horror”), Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) and Sarah Adina Smith, whose “The Midnight Swim” (2014) deals with three sisters visiting their childhood lake house, where craziness lies just below the surface.

“I don’t think I was setting out to make a horror film, or even a thriller,” Smith said. “I wanted to capture the fear of mental illness and that can express itself cinematically in a way that leans toward genre tropes.” Had she done a straighter story about mental illness, she said, “I think it might have even been a little less exciting, a little too on the nose.” Smith also has a short playing at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month, part of an omnibus horror film called “Holidays,” which takes a troubling look at various days off. Smith’s is titled “Mother’s Day.”

“Horror is fantastic for allowing you to explore areas that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” said Mary Harron, whose blackly comedic “American Psycho” of 2000 has become a cult favorite. (See sidebar.) One thing about horror, she said, is that “you don’t have to have a happy ending” — even Sundance films usually have happy endings, Harron said, a symptom of an increasingly conservative slant among even independent movies.

Another thing Harron noted: It’s easier to get financing for horror-style movies.

“Anecdotally, we are seeing women directors find work in horror as it is more commercial and thus easier to get those projects greenlit,” Meyerhoff said. A considerable amount of the financing for the films — Kusama’s and Smith’s among them — has come from Gamechanger, an outfit devoted to female-made narrative films (not necessarily genre movies). Often, the films lead to work for women on television, directing such series as “The Walking Dead,” “Teen Wolf,” “The Following” and even “Game of Thrones.”

Where the movies go can be a struggle, but despite the fanboy biases that can afflict the genre film community there are important supporters, like Mitch Davis and his Fantasia festival in Montreal, and Honeycutt’s Etheria.

“One thing we do with my festival is go out of our way to show commercial, mainstream genre films — horror, sci-fi, fantasy, action stuff, new films by women directors,” Honeycutt said, “and we invite executives and show runners and say, ‘There’s no reason not to be hiring women to direct ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ or ‘Jessica Jones’ or whatever. There’s this idea women don’t want to make genre, or that there aren’t any, and we go out of our way to show them, ‘No, you’re totally wrong and here they are.’ ”

Not everything that passes for genre is aimed at a teen audience, either. While Kusama hopes younger people are drawn to her film, “It’s a movie for grown-ups. It’s for people who’ve lived a little and seen the world and know what tenuous times we live in. My goal wasn’t to make people’s skin crawl, but it was to get under their skin.”

More women behind the camera

Women don’t like horror. Or fantasy. Or sci-fi. Uh . . . do they? Actually, some of the more remarkable genre films of the past several decades have been directed by women, almost always with a twist, a subtext, and a few lessons on whom to avoid.

NEAR DARK (1987) Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) directed this pre-vampire-chic thriller about a farmer’s son (Adrian Pasdar) who is “turned” by an attractive female vamp (Jenny Wright), but then has to protect his family from the thirsty horde. Any comparisons to “Twilight” would probably be on the money. A cult following has attached itself to this nasty little thriller.

BOXING HELENA (1993) A doctor (Julian Sands), unable to get over a woman with whom he once had an affair (Sherilyn Fenn), takes her captive, amputates her arms and legs and keeps her in a box. The rather controversial debut of then 20-odd-year-old Jennifer Chambers Lynch (“Surveillance,” “The Walking Dead,” “Teen Wolf”).

TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001) Claire Denis, among the more acclaimed of current French filmmakers, explores the gruesome edges of eroticism, cannibalism and vampirism in this explicit but captivating tale of an American couple (Vincent Gallo, Tricia Vessey) who travel to Paris, where they run into a neuroscientist and the wife he keeps in a cage (Beatrice Dalle). Not for the squeamish, but unforgettable.

AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis and starring Christian Bale, this alternately wry and horrifying 1980s satire showcased the considerable talents of Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol,” “The Moth Diaries”) and her ability to alchemize thriller tropes and a blackly comic storyline.

TWILIGHT (2008) Yes, Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown”) directed the first episode in the megasuccessful vampire series, apparently becoming the first director to lose the job after grossing $400 million at the global box office. We still think it was the best of the bunch (even though the other chapters made more money).

— JOHN ANDERSON

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