Female Director Spotlight: Karyn Kusama and Gendered Horror

Horror has always provided a foundation for social commentary. As an audience, our fear of the monsters on screen can reflect – or negate – the fears that are deeply rooted within our communities. Gender, therefore, is an obvious topic for the horror director, and the academic links between feminist analysis and genre filmmaking are extensive. It’s the reason why Much Ado takes part in ‘Women in Horror Month’; we wish to highlight the fact that women excel when it comes to the monstrous and the terrifying.

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Karyn Kusama on set of Aeon Flux (2005). © Paramount Pictures

Karyn Kusama lies at the very heart of this link, as a horror filmmaker who places female stories front-and-centre within her work. Her protagonists are richly developed, flawed and driven – whether that be for blood, success, or revolution. Her films provide subtle commentary upon the patriarchal grip of masculinity, the immovable nature of grief, and the overbearing pressure of maternal love. Her stories are interwoven with humour, poignancy, and wit. From ‘Jennifer’s Body’ to ‘The Invitation’, Kusama’s short filmography is an example of how female filmmakers truly own the horror genre.

Jennifer’s Body and Teen Objectification

I’ve already written a little on ‘Jennifer’s Body’, and I stick by my earlier conclusion – this underrated classic is one of the most important horror movies of the past couple of decades. Very rarely, if ever, does a film concern itself with the outlook of teenage girls, much less in a way that utilises humour to comment upon the everyday consequences of the patriarchy. Modern horror can so often relegate young female characters to whichever one-note stereotype they may find the most use for: the violently-murdered slut, the virginal final girl, the monstrous outcast. ‘Jennifer’s Body’ takes these tropes and mocks them for what they are – ludicrous ingredients of a sexist industry that cannot let go of its gender bias.

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Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried in Jennifer’s Body (2009). © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

At first glance, the eponymous Jennifer melds into the “first to die” trope; she’s conventionally attractive, sexually confident, and not the most book-smart character ever created. Her appearance, however, belies her function within the story, for it is Jennifer that is the killer, rather than the victim. Even more brilliant is the fact that her thirst for blood is quenched through the murder of men, who she attracts via the use of her sex appeal. Jennifer turns what would typically be her weakness into her greatest weapon, and the men, in their own twisted dedication to patriarchal standards, fall right into her trap. Beautiful.

 

The Invitation and Emotional Trauma

Discussing the emotional response to a horror film can often be monotonous in nature; fear is typically the primary aim, and the reaction most associated with the genre. ‘The Invitation’, however, manages to maintain a dual purpose throughout, evoking poignant conclusions on the nature of recovery, and producing the same tense atmosphere that any viewer would want from a horror-thriller. The result is something which reaches beyond what many modern horrors settle for – the exploitation of basic scares – and achieves a thoughtful ambience that remains with the audience past the 90-minute runtime of the film.

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Logan Marshall-Green in The Invitation (2015). © Drafthouse Films

The trauma in question is the loss of protagonist Will’s son years before the beginning of the film. This loss forms the heart of Will’s changing character and, ultimately, the paranoid mindset which drives his motivations. For our protagonist does not know how to cope with the figurative presence of his deceased child; the memory of the boy haunts him, more terrifying than any ghost ever could be. Will is forced to come face to face with his pain when his ex-wife – and the mother of his child – Eden invites him to a dinner party, full of friends who she has not seen for two years. The tale behind her mysterious disappearance, along with the creepiness of her new beau David, is drip-fed throughout the film. The story is a little predictable – it’s fairly obvious that something weird is going on after all – but then, not every horror must boast multiple shock twists. Instead, ‘The Invitation’ imbues traditional horror tropes with emotional gravitas, to reach a touching, multi-faceted denouement.

 

Girlfight and Gendered Expectations

‘Girlfight’ has a lot to answer for. Whilst many would recall the likes of ‘Million Dollar Baby’ when discussing female boxing films, some critics have credited Kusama’s 2000 feature debut with kickstarting the sub-genre. Boasting a stellar performance from Michelle Rodriguez as a young, hot-headed wannabe boxer, ‘Girlfight’ faces the prejudices of a macho industry head on, and viciously kicks them in the balls.

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Santiago Douglas and Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight (2000). © Screen Gems

Rodriguez’s character Diana is unashamedly fierce, and her determination is framed perfectly by Kusama’s sharp direction. The boxing scenes are a joy to watch, often taking the view of Diana herself, quickly associating the viewer with her battle for respect and justice. The real strength of the film, however, can be found outside of the ring, in Diana’s complex relationships with the men within her life. Her gentle brother Tiny, who also feels gendered pressure due to his artistic nature, is a great foil for Diana, and provides a great example of positive, supportive masculinity. On the other end of the spectrum is her abusive father Sandro, from whom she must hide her passion for boxing for fear of disapproval. Diana’s backstory is so beautifully fleshed out in a way that makes her much more than simply an agent through which Kusama can make a point about equality. Diana’s actions are not always innocent, but her delinquency is balanced by an earnest, if concealed, wish to do what is right for herself and her future.

 

Aeon Flux and Patriarchal Control

The first thing to know when approaching ‘Aeon Flux’ is that this is not the film that Kusama intended audiences to see. The original version of ‘Aeon Flux’, which Kusama cultivated with the support of Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing, has been described as a “$50 million art movie” with the “thoughtful pacing of a highbrow Asian martial arts film.”

Anybody who has seen ‘Aeon Flux’ knows that this description is a far cry from the end result.

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Karyn Kusama and Charlize Theron on set of Aeon Flux (2005). © Paramount Pictures

In Autumn 2004, just before the completion of the movie, Sherry Lansing announced her departure from the studios, to be replaced with Brad Grey and Gail Berman. Without Lansing to advocate for her vision, Kusama couldn’t fight back against the studio’s desire for a different movie altogether, and the result was a butchering of her work, with over half-an-hour of material hacked away from her work. Emotional levity was removed – too feminine, clearly – and a gay supporting character was cut from the story. The film ended up as a box office bomb, a complete critical failure, and the impact of its reputation irreversibly damaged Kusama’s career.

This is the reason that women need to be front and centre in all branches of this industry. If the people making and financially supporting these kinds of decisions are men, female directors simply cannot thrive – no matter how deserving they are. The cycle continues through the lack of trust in women as experts in their field; Kusama’s difficulty in attaining projects after one box office bomb is a ridiculous double-standard considering the male directors that continue to work today.

In any case, I won’t be reviewing ‘Aeon Flux’ in this section of the spotlight, because it isn’t the film Kusama wants you to see. Instead, I’d recommend you watch it drunk, and enjoy Charlize Theron kicking the shit out of people.

 

Other Work: Satanic Shorts & A Shot at Stardom

Kusama’s best known short film is currently streaming on Netflix US & UK as part of the anthology ‘XX’. This collection of horror shorts by female filmmakers showcases some of the best hidden talent out there, with Kusama’s segment, ‘Her Only Living Son’, forming a twisted amalgamation of biblical metaphor, masculine violence, and parental overindulgence. Clocking in at an all-too-short twenty minutes, there’s really no excuse to miss this piece; despite the film’s brief length, Kusama makes fantastic use of every second she has, creating a morsel of greatness that fits well into any feminist reading of modern horror.

Earlier on in this spotlight I mentioned how Kusama’s career has been threatened by mismanagement of her work – to say that she is an underrated filmmaker is an understatement. Kusama’s next project, then, will be music to the ears of any who wish to support the work of talented female directors. 2018’s ‘Destroyer’, starring Nicole Kidman, Tatiana Maslany, and Sebastian Stan, is a crime thriller revolving around an LAPD detective. With Kidman fresh off a brilliant 2017, Tatiana Maslany proven to be able to play literally any character, and Sebastian Stan’s hoard of fans, ‘Destroyer’ is already looking promising, and the prospect of Kusama as director can only make a good movie a great one. Hopefully, this will be the film that propels Kusama into the limelight she really deserves.

And even if it doesn’t, we’ll continue to love her work anyway.

2 thoughts on “Female Director Spotlight: Karyn Kusama and Gendered Horror”

  1. I’ve always found it interesting that female directors and horror intertwine so well. Although it’d be great to see a female directoral perspective in other genres, it’s really great to see it in the horror genre, something I found as a horror newbie to be quite a masculine filled genre.

    thegeekyfilms.wordpress.com

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    1. Definitely! There’s such a strong link between the two I think, firstly because there’s so much for female directors to inverse when it comes to horror, and also because horror is really damn good at delivering a social message. I actually think, despite how masculine the genre is, its the ideal foundation for feminist discussion. There are just so many tropes that revolve around women – the final girl, the revenge plot, the slasher film itself, the monstrous feminine, etc etc – its brilliant to see these tropes actually being tackled by female filmmakers like Karyn.

      Liked by 1 person

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