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If the indie horror film community ever needs a slogan, it'd make sense to choose this classic line from director Tod Browning's odd and singular 1932 classic Freaks: "Gobble gobble, one of us!" Incredibly loyal and tirelessly supportive, the passionate scare lovers who regularly congregate at horror conventions and genre-centered film festivals like Austin’s Fantastic Fest and Montreal’s Fantasia form a large society that happily parties and works on cinema’s fringes. Their primary hub is Los Angeles, where horror producers, directors, writers, bloggers, and non-industry fans bump into each other while catching midnight repertory shows at theaters like The Cinefamily and New Beverly, and frequently pop up on each other's podcasts, like GeekNation's The Movie Crypt, hosted by directors Adam Green and Joe Lynch, and Killer POV.
Over the last few years, the best way to see what the community is all about has been to watch any of the multiple anthology films that have emerged from it. Inspired by Creepshow, E.C. Comics, and England's old Amicus Productions movies (Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Asylum), indie horror's denizens have collaborated with one another to unleash ambitious multi-story films like The ABC's of Death and the V/H/S franchise.
And the omnibus momentum shows no signs of petering out. This month, two new anthologies are making waves and premiering to positive feedback. In the playfully bonkers Tales of Halloween, out today via Epic Pictures, 11 directors collectively known as "The October Society"—including Darren Lynn Bousman (three of the Saw sequels) Neil Marshall (The Descent, several Game of Thrones episodes), and Lucky McKee (May)—present 10 wildly different yet uniformly raucous shorts set in and around a fictional suburban town on Halloween night. Southbound, meanwhile, is much darker, made up of five segments that bleed into each other and cohesively establish a lonely California desert road as a potential gateway to Hell; its directors include V/H/S veterans Radio Silence and David Bruckner.
Photos of Tales of Halloween and Southbound's directing teams reveal the two unrelated films' one common trait, aside from their genres and anthology formats: There’s one woman in each bunch—Axelle Carolyn for Tales of Halloween, and Roxanne Benjamin for Southbound. On the surface, that’s not a shock, since women’s struggles for a spot behind the camera are no less prevalent in horror than in, say, drama or comedy. What makes these two women so badass, though, isn't their roles as lone female voices in predominantly male-driven anthology films—it's that they're also the films’ producers and overall gatekeepers.
After watching Tales of Halloween and Southbound, which recently premiered at TIFF and screens in NYC at the end of this month, another fact becomes evident: Carolyn's and Benjamin's directorial contributions are the best parts of their respective movies. In the former, Carolyn’s simple yet creepy "Grimm Grinning Ghost" offsets Tales of Halloween's mostly goofy scares by sticking to atmospheric spookiness, following a young woman (played by Alexandra Essoe) home during her walk home from a Halloween party as an apparition stalks her. In the latter, Benjamin's "Siren" fuses surrealism, dark comedy, and occultist chills while showing the strained relationship between three members of an all-girl rock band whose van breaks down on an empty highway.
In Carolyn's case, the Belgium native created Tales of Halloween and wrangled the hugely ambitious film's other 10 directors for nearly 18 months in order to complete the passion project. For Benjamin, Southbound allowed the Pennsylvania-born multihyphenate to utilize the experience and skills acquired through producing V/H/S (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013) and co-producing V/H/S Viral (2014). By playing such crucial roles in the careers of several of horror's "next generation," Carolyn and Benjamin both harken back to predecessors like Debra Hill and Gale Anne Hurd. Did you realize that John Carpenter's seminal Halloween (1978) was co-written and produced by a woman? Indeed, that'd be Hill, who was also instrumental in Carpenter's The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981). And were you aware that James Cameron owes his career to the lady who produced The Terminator (1984) and ushered Aliens (1986) into production? That's right, tip your hat to Hurd, who currently executive-produces AMC's juggernaut The Walking Dead.
Who knows, Carolyn and Benjamin could be on their levels in due time. Both women are, after all, only just getting started.
Here, TribecaFilm.com introduces you to the two ladies who see the future of indie horror every time they look at their best friends and closest collaborators. In their own words, Carolyn and Benjamin discuss how their years spent loving the genre as fans have prepared them for making power moves within it as that rarest kind of horror filmmaker: the woman.
"I didn't grow up in a place where people want to be filmmakers. I grew up in Belgium and went to an all-girls Catholic school. Nobody around me talked about wanting to make movies. But I loved horror movies. I'd sneak copies of Fangoria into school and hide them from my teachers; some of the kids would see my magazines and look at me funny. But it never felt like I was being singled out as an oddball because I was female who liked horror—it was because I was a horror fan in a place where there weren’t many others like me, male or female."
"I eventually moved to London, and there were a lot of really cool guys in the London horror community, but it wasn't until I moved to Los Angeles that I felt like a part of the horror community. I’d go to horror movie screenings and never bump into people I knew, but in Los Angeles, if you go to a horror screening or a Q&A, there are so many horror directors, producers, or screenwriters sitting with you in the audience. There's a whole community in LA that feeds on the genre together. I felt like we needed to do something to encapsulate that into one film. That's where Tales of Halloween comes from. Some of the episodes in Tales of Halloween were shot in our own houses. Adam Gierasch's episode, 'Trick,' was shot in his house a week after we were all there for our Halloween party. You can even see some of the same decorations." [Laughs.]
“It's been amazing to take Tales of Halloween around the world for festivals and screening, but it's also opened my eyes a bit to things. One of the first conventions we went to, it was me and three of the guys, and people kept going up to them and asking them which segment they directed, but they'd all pass right by me—they thought I was someone’s girlfriend. Recently we were at a festival in Mexico and a bunch of people asked me, 'Which segment do you act in?' They figured I must be an actress, but then one of the guys said, ‘No, she’s a director and she basically created this whole project,' and the people thought that was amazing. I understand why those people didn't think I was one of the directors—they’re not used to seeing female filmmakers at those events.”
"A big part of filmmaking is networking and finding people who’ll give you a chance, and very often that only happens within groups of guys, because they already hang out together. I'm very lucky that I've always been a part of the guys' group, but a lot of women find it hard to be comfortable in those types of circles, so, because of that, they don’t get the same kinds of opportunities and exposure for their work. If I get the chance to produce another anthology project like Tales of Halloween, I’m definitely going to reach out to more female filmmakers."
"I used to think that it wasn't an issue of women not having opportunities in horror but that it was a thing where women just didn’t want to make horror films, but now I know that that's bullshit. When you go to a horror film festival or a horror convention, it’s at least 50% women, so there are a lot of women who love horror. Nowadays, especially, if you go to a showcase for short horror films, there are so many women making shorts—the problem is, they don’t get the opportunity to make a feature after that. That's what's upsetting about it."
"If you go to a film school, you'll see a predominant amount of women, but once school ends, they struggle to get an opportunity to grow as filmmakers. A lot of things being done these days to help women seem to be geared towards helping them go to film schools or workshops or being mentored, but that's now what we need. There are a lot of women out there who are qualified and know how to write, produce, and direct, so what they need is a studio executive or a producer to tell them that they believe in them, and to give them the money to make their film. If that happens, those women who've received those opportunities are the ones who will help change things on a wider scale."
“I was a total weirdo growing up. None of my friends were into horror. My parents loved horror, though, so I’d be able to stay up late and watch USA's Up All Night with my mom, and, growing up in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, that was my only real exposure to horror movies like The Gate and all of John Carpenter's stuff.”
“It's funny, my friends would look at me like I was crazy when I'd bring my DVD copy of Dr. Giggles to slumber parties in junior high. It also didn’t help that when I’d have slumber parties at my house, my dad would cut the power, be outside in a hockey mask, and fire up a chainsaw, and there would be a bunch of screaming girls running around in the dark. [Laughs.] But I think being scared like that helps girl bond, you know? I doubt there are many guys getting together in elementary school and having slumber parties where they’re doing 'Bloody Mary' in the bathroom mirror or 'light as a feather, stiff as a board.' Those feel like very girl-centric things to do.”
“In the film industry, I've been lucky to become friends with a lot of awesome dudes, and that comes from how I’ve been going to film festivals like Fantastic Fest, TIFF, Sundance, and SXSW for so many years. I've made so many amazing friends through those, and it’s been so cool to help them make stuff. With anthologies like V/H/S and now Southbound, it's been about helping my friends work on something cool and unique while they're sitting around and waiting for their bigger movies or studio movies to get made. All of the guys I work with are making these things because they genuinely love movies. It’s not like they're sitting in an exec’s office somewhere, going on the water bottle tour, pitching a bunch of ideas, and then waiting six months for them to get back to you about a script you wrote. It's about going out and doing it, run-and-gun style.”
“Someone pointed out to me the other day that my Southbound segment, ‘Siren,' is the first segment in any of our anthologies to have female lead characters. That’s great because brings some diversity, but it’s really just because of who I am, and my own personal point-of-view. One of the biggest influences for 'Siren' was the Swedish film We Are the Best!, about three young girls who form a punk rock band, and all of the emotions they go through together. That feels like an influence you wouldn’t hear from a guy who’s making a horror movie.”
"On a personal level, I definitely want to tell more stories about female relationships through horror-centric ideas. Movies like Heavenly Creatures messed me up as a kid, movies that have heavy female relationships—there's so much to explore there on the horror landscape that hasn't been explored. There are so many coming-of-age movies for men, and I think there's a lack of that in the female space. We need more horror movies like Ginger Snaps, movies that young girls who love horror can relate to."
Tales of Halloween is now open in limited theatrical release, though not in New York City. It is, however, available on VOD. Check it out on iTunes here.