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Battling the scream queens: Women in horror cinema move beyond tired tropes

//Lyndsi LaRose on the set of the “Last Chance,” the new short she wrote, produced and acted in with Gina Comparetto. Photo provided by Gina Comparetto.

Is there anything more satisfying than watching an out-of-town Karen get her throat slit by a deranged hairstylist? For many horror fiends, the answer is, no, and Director Jill Gevargizian is one of the many women to give it to them.

“[Horror] can be such a strong and provocative genre. They’re not the kind of film that treats its audience passively,” Gevargizian said. “Like, you have to engage with it, and it’s going to make you feel something.”

Gevargizian directed last year’s “The Stylist,” a movie about a woman talented at both styling her clients’ hair as she is at dismembering their bodies. Noting a lack of female antagonists, Gevargizian was inspired by the profession-themed slasher movies from the ’80s and ’90s. However, rather than imbue her film with a camp aesthetic, “The Stylist” relies more on a psychological dissection of her main character than cheap thrills. 

It’s a movie that follows in the footsteps of other horror films made by women that use the genre as a canvas to explore tormented psyches and dissect social issues. Jennifer Kent’s “Babadook” was an exploration of grief and depression and the trauma that can come from them. Nia D’Acosta, director of this year’s “Candyman,” revamped the character to better fit contemporary discussions about race following the George Floyd protests.

Gevargizian certainly wanted to leave her audiences with more than just another slasher movie with a high body count. From the beginning, her goal was to shoot a psychological thriller that also happened to be a horror movie.

“I really hoped it would leave people just very conflicted about what they believe is right or wrong, or how easy it is to call someone a monster and not really look at what got them there or who they’re like,” she said. 

The film industry as a whole is dominated by men. However, as more women take part behind the camera, they instill their films with elements that many women can relate to, allowing the audience to experience visceral horrors that many may not have considered before. 

“As women, it’s sad, but a lot of times we have to have our guard up, especially when we’re very young. They always say, ‘Don’t ever walk to your car alone at night; make sure you’re aware of your surroundings,’” said Gina Comparetto, who produced a short film called “Last Chance” with her friend, Lyndsi LaRose. Both women wrote, produced and starred in the film. “I think women can bring our experience as women, like Gina said, walking to your car with your keys in between your hands like the Wolverine,” LaRose said. 

 

 

//Lyndsi LaRose and Gina Comparetto on the set of their new short, “Last Chance.” Photo provided by Gina Comparetto.

Their short, “Last Chance,” is a horror-comedy that takes place in 1987. A story about two sisters and a friend who want one last wild night before going their separate ways, they decide to break into a neighbor’s house for booze. Things spiral downward from there. 

“We really were intrigued by that premise and making it feel as real as possible. Like, wow, these women could really get themselves in this silly situation that ends up being extremely scary and dangerous,” Comparetto said.

With more women working behind the camera today, and with the problem of toxic workplaces receiving increased attention, the filmmaking environment has improved from how it used to be.

Behind the camera, women today face a different environment than that of their forebears in the industry. However, there are still some things that haven’t changed.

“So that’s been really, really interesting to realize how we have been so ingrained to be soft and meek and apologetic in business,” LaRose said. “I’m trying to be inspired by other women I know that are in power positions—as well as the men—and how they communicate, which is unapologetic and bold and confident.”

LaRose and Comparetto both have had very good experiences working with men on their shoots. They credit their director, Anthony Fanelli, for bringing their vision to life. However, LaRose did say that there have been times when she’s had trouble being taken seriously by men. 

“When I first started acting and I would get horror auditions, it was for, you know, a hot idiot who had her boobs out and probably flashed the camera at least once and died within five minutes of the script,” LaRose said.

Despite stubborn issues that persist across generations of filmmakers, things are getting better.

“Now, I’m starting to see more dynamic characters come in roles that have layers to them and that aren’t oversexualizing the character,” LaRose added.

Still, issues persist, and not just where inclusion is concerned but also with how it’s integrated. For Gevargizian, although representation has improved, she is concerned about the balkanizing effect that placing filmmakers into separate boxes partitioned by identity can have. In fact, she’s no longer comfortable being asked about what sort of perspectives women can specifically bring to a horror film.

As the conversation around gender becomes more fluid and the dividing line between men and women gets blurred, questions around who deserves elevation become dicey, she said. 

“I feel like it’s finally coming more to a point where everything is integrated, but you kind of have to be like, oh, that festival is separate,” she said. “Here’s the block of women-made films, and it’s kind of like a Catch-22. I understand the need to highlight it, but it’s also important to just not make it seem like it’s different or separate.”

If people are consistently separated into groups based on their gender or identity, she’s worried that shared perspectives can be shut out from the storytelling process. Gender and identity are so fluid, and gender-diverse people are becoming increasingly more visible in all industries. It begs the question, what are artists, and viewers, missing out on when one starts placing filmmakers into rigid boxes?

With that in mind, one area Gevargizian wants to see improvement in is with increased representation of transgender voices in the genre. While individual backgrounds often inform a creator’s art and can work to set it apart, an element of looking forward is ensuring everyone can sit at the same table, too. As diversity improves over time, it’s normalized the types of stories women bring to the horror canon. Also, Gevargizian said that she doesn’t believe that all women want or need to automatically create something different than men.

As another talent behind the camera, Colleen Coffman has faced similar experiences as a makeup and special effects artist, and one of the few in the industry who’s female. For her, the issues she deals with on a daily basis have less to do with sexism than with egos running unchecked. She said that she’s been fortunate to have excellent communication and relationships with about 99.9% of the director’s worked with, including men. However, where she runs into problems is with other makeup and effects artists who come from the coasts. That said, Coffman’s skill is undeniable. On productions with their own effects team, she’s been promoted from being a supporting artist to taking on a more active role in creating the visual effects seen on screen.

“Being a female, finding acceptance is quite a challenge,” Coffman said. “And industry people don’t automatically respect who you are or your thoughts on the subject just because you’re female.” 

However, she knows the key to overcoming resistance.

“I show them what I’m made of. I just don’t take no for an answer. I step up and do my thing. I’m good at it and people recognize that no matter what their sex is or mine,” she said.

 

 

 

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