The Soska Sisters and Hollywood’s Complicated Relationship with Women and Horror

The Soska Sisters and Hollywood’s Complicated Relationship with Women and Horror

To be a woman who loves horror is a strange thing. It's the constant navigation of a genre steeped in misogyny and racism. It's looking for yourself in something that on a surface level seems to torment and torture you just for entertainment. Yet despite all of this, women have always been a large and

To be a woman who loves horror is a strange thing. It’s the constant navigation of a genre steeped in misogyny and racism. It’s looking for yourself in something that on a surface level seems to torment and torture you just for entertainment. Yet despite all of this, women have always been a large and influential part of the horror fandom. As (the only Dracula I recognise) Bela Lugosi once famously said: “It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out-and come back for more.”

If women are some of the biggest consumers of horror then surely it makes sense that the industry would create films that cater to them, right? Alas, no. For some reason it seems unfeasibly hard for Hollywood to comprehend that anyone other than straight white men watches their films, so it’s very rare that women break into Hollywood at all, let alone into genres which are defined by their (wrongly) perceived masculinity and violence like horror. So when you get not one but two female directors whose professional debut is one of the most original, lauded, and politically loaded horror films in years, you’d expect that the industry would bend over backwards to encourage and lift up this creative talent.

Well, no.

“It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out-and come back for more.”

See, women have never been the target audience for horror. Hell, we’re rarely the target audience for anything. But this messy, dark, violent thing… it wasn’t meant for us even though our bodies are built to bare the brunt of human pain and violence. Maybe that’s why we have always been the perfect victims, able to take everything these nightmare creations put us through whether they stalk us in our dreams, chase us with chainsaws, or break out of asylums to seek revenge. We have always been the final girls, ready to run, fight, and scream, all the while looking beautiful and often braless. Only surviving within the framework that they deem us to fit.

So no wonder they were so terrified when two women made a film that subverted all of these tropes in a story so effective, stylish, and popular that it won awards nearly everywhere it went and became an instant cult classic. This film was American Mary, an almost perfect piece of revenge fantasy about a young rape survivor who takes grisly vengeance on her attacker whilst creating a name as a body modification artist. A slow burn, noir-esque tale which casts a light on the alternative body modification scene as well as exploring the motivations and machinations of our protagonist.

The Soska Sisters hail from Canada. Dedicated horror fans since their mother allowed them to watch Poltergeist as children, the sisters broke onto the horror scene with the low budget (and incredibly questionably titled) Dead Hooker In A Trunk. There is a big conversation to be had about the way women work within a patriarchal male structure by creating within the framework of that, but problematic as it was the pitch black lo-fi vibe of the film garnered the attention of then It Boy of gore, Eli Roth. Three years later the sisters had their first bonafide hit on their hands with American Mary.

To talk about modern studio horror is to talk about franchises. In 2004 a low budget film called Saw changed the way that studios thought about horror films, becoming a word of mouth hit and making a huge profit on its relatively tiny budget. It ended up spawning seven sequels (including the upcoming Saw Legacy) and is currently the fifth most successful horror franchise of all time. Since then Hollywood has been desperate to recreate this model of the Halloween blockbuster. Few modern films have come close to the cultural impact of the Saw franchise. Whether you enjoyed them or not, they were an autumn staple of cinema scheduling, releasing one film a year for seven straight Octobers.

Other underdogs have dared to copy Saw‘s Halloween blockbuster model: make a successful, critically acclaimed low budget film and then continue the legacy of that movie with a franchise that generates hundreds of millions of dollars. While American Mary—a movie heavily featuring body modification and made completely with in-camera practical effects—in itself, may not easily fit into all the parameters of this model, with it the Soska Sisters proved that they can achieve maximum effect on a minimum budget. However, there’s one thing that separates the people behind American Mary from those responsible for Hollywood’s modern Halloween Blockbusters: they’re women.

All seven Saw directors have been men. The writers of all seven installments have been men, too. Out of the three released films and one currently in production from the Insidious series, there is not one credited female writer or director. Another hugely successful horror franchise spawned from the Halloween Blockbuster model is Paranormal Activity, the first of which is often touted as the most profitable film of all time. In all there have been six films in the series and once again not one of them has been written or directed by a woman.

When it comes to modern studio filmmaking women only account for 7% of directors. When you try and look at the amount of that percentage made by women of colour, the number is so low that the data is practically impossible to find.

The Soska Sisters are not anomalies. Jennifer Kent, who helmed the critically acclaimed and financially successful Babadook, has yet to announce her next project, let alone been given a studio franchise. It took Karyn Kusama, who directed the cult horror Jennifer’s Body, which was written by Diablo Cody and starred Megan Fox, six years before she could make her next feature film, terse horror thriller The Invitation. Ana Lily Amirpour’s astoundingly original and almost perfect genre debut A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was critically lauded and hugely successful for an independent foreign language film. Not only will you not see her heading any large franchises, but her next film won’t even be coming from any of the main Hollywood studios. She has recently teamed up with VICE to put out her new feature The Bad Batch.

As you can see, there’s an obvious pattern. When it comes to modern studio filmmaking women only account for 7% of directors. When you try and look at the amount of that percentage made by women of colour, the number is so low that the data is practically impossible to find. Looking at the facts about how many women ever get the chance to helm a studio film, or even more rarely a studio franchise, you can start to make more sense of how Jen and Sylvia Soska’s success has been widely ignored by Hollywood. After American Mary, rather than being given the opportunity to craft the next big Halloween Blockbuster franchise, the Soska Sisters have stayed mostly within niche horror work, including a segment in The ABCs of Death 2.

The Soska Sisters were then hired by WWE and Lionsgate (who happen to produce Saw and were integral to the Horror blockbuster resurgence) to create a new film in the See No Evil franchise, as well as another non-genre WWE Studios film called Vendetta, starring everyone’s fave 90s Superman, Dean Cain. As someone who has followed their work, this left me pondering how the company behind some of the biggest modern horror films were so quick to give the Soska Sisters these (very entertaining) “modestly budgeted” direct-to-video films but not the keys to the proverbial castle.

The Soska Sisters themselves have been nothing but positive about their WWE Studios work and I’ve never seen any interviewers bring up the trajectory of their career. The WWE films themselves are enjoyable genre romps, though I still think it’s important to talk about the fact that these two talented women who made such an impact with their first two features—especially with the underground cult hit status of American Mary—have not been afforded the same cinematic chances as their male peers.

Shockingly, all of the top credited producers and writers on this show—which is largely being presented as the Soska Sisters’ new project—are (you guessed it!) male. Once I discovered this, my enjoyment of the show was largely diluted.

The sisters have recently become the faces of a horror themed game show called Hellavator. The premise is that three people have to make it through haunted horror maze style challenges to win cash. It’s pretty great. I recently watched the entire first series and was pleasantly surprised by the show’s variation and inventiveness, along with how much fun Jen and Sylvia Soska appear to have hosting the show as the evil masterminds behind its Saw-esque set up. I assumed from their involvement that Hellevator was their brainchild and passion project, though with a little more research I discovered that the show is actually from Blumhouse, the studio that brought you a little franchise called Paranormal Activity.

Shockingly, all of the top credited producers and writers on this show—which is largely being presented as the Soska Sisters’ new project—are (you guessed it!) male. Once I discovered this, my enjoyment of the show was largely diluted. Not only are the men who finance and produce popular and profitable horror films aware that the sisters exist, but they’re willing to hire them as TV presenters yet not as directors or creative minds. Hellevator will begin its second season on Oct 7th. The Soska Sisters have also recently signed on to helm a remake of Cronenberg’s Rabid, which harkens back to their love of classic horror and potentially signals a move away from WWE Studios.

The struggle for female representation in Hollywood and horror goes on. Over the last few years there have been hints of change, especially in the independent market, with incredibly crafted and critically acclaimed female directed horrors like Karyn Kusama’s masterful The Invitation. Even with such a great reception, Kusma has openly talked about how hard it was for her to get the film made. The Invitation was, in fact, funded by an organisation called Gamechanger, which actively support films created by women. The lack of women in film, and specifically horror films, is finally being recognised and spoken about, which is a step in the right direction. But whilst over 90% of studio directors are still men, we clearly have a long way to go.

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Rosie Knight
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