Women-directed horror films are finally getting the (blood) red-carpet treatment! The Viscera Film Festival, showcasing women-made horror shorts, is this Saturday, July 17th in Los Angeles. The film festival came about through the team-up of Shannon Lark, who started the Chainsaw Mafia to encourage independent filmmakers to produce (and whose email signature reads, “Never forget, if a woman can go through the process of pushing out a baby, she can make a horror film!”) and Heidi Martinuzzi, a film journalist and director, and founder of Pretty-Scary.net which covered women in horror films (behind and in front of the camera). Besides the film festival, Martinuzzi and Lark are combining powers (well, websites) to make Fangirltastic.com (still under construction) to keep the spirit of Viscera alive all year-round. I asked Lark and Martinuzzi about the festival and how feminism and horror overlap.
How did the Viscera Film Festival come about? Why was it important to celebrate women horror filmmakers?
Shannon Lark: I came up with the idea of Viscera after making a film with a small group of female friends in San Francisco. The idea suddenly dawned on me, as it had many times before, how rare it is that women set out on creative crusades with each other, particularly in film. Thus the Viscera Film Festival was born, to honor modern female pioneers who are making a mark in horror cinema (typically the most objectifying genre, on the surface), with an emphasis on all-female productions. Viscera intends to help stop women from ostracizing each other to reach the goal: it’s a positive movement to create more jobs and more creative power.
Heidi Martinuzzi: There is no other annual film festival on earth dedicated to female horror filmmakers.The horror genre has many emerging women filmmakers, but their films aren’t as heavily promoted by genre magazines because the horror press business, like the film industry as a whole, is dominated by men who run the publications and the male friends they promote.
Shannon and I wanted to make Viscera a festival where people could come out to see really great horror directed by women that had not gotten the attention they deserve. Viscera is also a place to see really new horror made from a female point of view - the stories, characters, and ideas behind the horror are often very different from the ones created by male filmmakers in this genre. We think that’s really beautiful.
Heidi Martinuzzi on a particularly bad date
What are some of the ways that Viscera Film Festival filmmakers are able to subvert traditional misogynistic tropes of the horror genre?
SL: The wonderful thing about women picking up cameras and creating horror films is that generally the stories tend to turn out different: if a woman’s pain is exploited, it’s because people should know how it feels to be a woman experiencing pain. It’s more of an internal, visceral (pardon the pun) feeling, as opposed to T&A slasher flicks created to make a buck. It’s incredibly important for movies to be made that show how disturbing it is for a woman (or a man, for that matter) in a terrifying situation, because it happens all the time all over the world. Men should know how it feels for women to be encased within our own flesh: experiencing societal pressures, extreme loss, insanity, sexual dysfunction, obsession, and heartbreak. The more women making horror films, the more men will know.
Horror is the perfect genre to jump into for intense filmmaking, and women are really taking the bull by the horns by exploiting their perspective of fear and pain to their audiences. It’s incredibly liberating for the female gender to explore horrific situations, and very therapeutic. I have a deep appreciation for women who make horror films as opposed to romantic films where women are typically shown as feminine, dainty, over emotional, confused, and dependent.
HM: Personally, I feel that stories in which traditional horror roles are reversed, and a male is attacked by a psychotic female who avenges her rape/attack on all males is just as sexist and misogynistic as a traditional slasher movie. Stories in which women are real people to whom we can relate are the ones that defy sexism because they do not allow for objectification. You can’t objectify a character who is passionate, complex, interesting, or conflicted. Good writing and innovative characters are the primary way to fight sexism in horror movies, and that’s something the Viscera filmmakers have consistently done.
Shannon Lark in the director’s chair
And to follow-up, what are women filmmakers and/or actresses doing in the horror film industry to shake up traditional gender standards?
HM: Viscera Filmmakers tell stories about issues that pertain to women’s ideas of what “horror” is. Hollywood Skin (directed by Maude Michaud), Wretched (directed by myself and Leslie Delano), and When Sally met Frank (by Victoria Waghorn) are all films that explore the horrors of eating disorders, body image, sand societal pressures of beauty - concepts rarely tackled by men in horror. They also get to tell stories with female protagonists who do not fit the ‘ “lasher victim” mold. They get to be funny, to be atypical, and to have open-eyed audience eager to accept their message and wanting to be terrified by it.
SL: More and more horror actresses are becoming filmmakers to create the films they want to make. They are learning all aspects of production (writing, directing, producing, cinematography) so they don’t have to wait for the male gender to notice them and appreciate them for their “talents.” Why should we wait? If you are an actress struggling in Hollywood, I urge you to pick up a camera and take charge of your own life and creative mind. It will set you free!
A still from When Sally Met Frank
Some people might see a disconnect between women-directed/produced horror films and feminist horror films. How would you address that?
HM: They’re right - just because a film is made by a woman does not make it a feminist film. A feminist film is one in which equality between the sexes is addressed or promoted as part of the storyline itself. And not all the films in Viscera touch on those ideas. But the idea of a film festival created solely to bring about an equal appreciation for films made by women is a feminist event. When you sit around and wonder why certain areas of the arts, like horror films, tend to ignore the women who are a part of them, taking a step to bring those films to the forefront of horror movie fans minds is a feminist act.
SL: I believe that any horror film made by a woman is a feminist film, because it’s fundamentally from her perspective. I’ve had the pleasure of screening many films in the past few years that focus on the varying types of experiences women have in relation to the male gender and the idea of what a woman should be. Because there are so many different types of feminism, when a woman puts out a piece of art, it is her feminist statement, especially if the content shows women in bondage and being tortured. We should explore that horrific idea and how we can take the terrible things that have happened to women from the dawn of time and turn it into positivity through art: teaching us to be safer; treat ourselves, colleagues, and counterparts with complete love and respect; and help the women of the world be liberated in their own way.
Where would you like to see the Viscera Film Festival in five years?
SL: Viscera intends to become a non-profit organization that gives grants to female horror filmmakers, an active participant with charities such as CARE and RAIN, a mentoring program to budding filmmakers, and an annual festival that showcases women directed/produced short and feature films from all over the world.
HM: I’d love to do it every year, and each year have a whole new batch of interesting and amazing movies to show to interested horror fans. I’d love to find new filmmakers who deserve to have their movies screened to a public that things women bring something awesome to the genre.
What are some of your favorite female-centric horror films and why?
SL: INSIDE, Santa Sangre, Heidi Martinuzzi’s Wretched, because the films display how a woman’s emotions can create disastrous situations, deeply affecting herself and those around her.
HM: One of my all time favorites has to be the Alien series. Ripley is never treated any differently than any of the other characters because she’s a woman - her sex is never made an issue by the characters, the director, or the story itself. She’s a woman who gets to act like she’s actually being chased by giant aliens on a spaceship; frankly, its refreshing to see a woman allowed to be a woman but not forced to focus on her sexuality, a romance, or any other cliche attribute while she’s trying to survive.
I also like Neil Marshall’s The Descent I and II, films about a group of female friends who go spelunking and get lost in the caves with a bunch of monsters. It explores female friendship without resorting to cheesiness, but still makes sure we get to see these women fighting for their lives the way real people would - without worrying if their hair gets messed up.
Again, the film festival is this weekend! Learn more about the Viscera Film Festival at their website!