Julia Kaminski February 10, 2017 - 11:06am
Growing up with the admittedly ambitious dream of becoming a horror filmmaker, I accepted pretty early on that female role models were few and far between. Not that I was particularly seeking them out, I idolized all the great male directors just the same, however I would still find myself subconsciously scouring the credits of scary movies for potentially female names because, for me, that made my goal that much more attainable. Lucky for me, I only had to wait about 15 seconds into the beginning credits of Halloween to find, not just any female name, but one that had carved out a reputation as a pioneer in both the horror genre and film in general. Made on a modest $325,000 budget, Co-Producers Debra Hill and John Carpenter had their work cut out for them with their upcoming indie film, Halloween. Fortunately for them, and us, the stars and their combined talents aligned and the film became the most successful independent film in history, grossing 70 Million worldwide, spawning seven sequels and two remakes. But as John Carpenter became a household name, his Co-writer and Co-Producer, Debra Hill remained in obscurity.
Debra Hill began her career in the film industry from the ground up. Starting out as a Production Assistant on adventure documentaries, Hill rose through the ranks, doing everything from Assistant Directing to Script Supervising. Eventually, her path crossed with John Carpenter on his 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13, on which Hill had been the Script Supervisor. Due to the impression she had made on Carpenter during the making of the film, it was she who he approached with a script he had been asked to write. The script would be for a low budget horror film about a man stalking babysitters on Halloween night. It was Hill’s secondary voice on the script that ended up being vital to the success and durability of the film. Aside from simply supplying the name of the fictitious town in which the film is set, naming Haddonfield, Illinois after her own hometown of Haddonfield, NJ. Her contribution to the dialogue and the relationships between the female characters sets the film apart, even by contemporary standards. The rapport between the teenage girls and how they interact with those around them feels organic and believable in a way that can only have been written by someone who had had similar experiences. Hill was even responsible for the last key ingredient involved in launching Halloween into greatness, the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis. Hollywood pedigree aside, Curtis was relatively unknown prior to Halloween’s release and it was Debra Hill who recognized her potential as an actress and, from a producing standpoint (and long time Hitchcock), the potential to draw parallels between their film and Curtis’ mother Janet Leigh’s work in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hill was also known to go beyond her duties as a Producer and Writer. In the documentary Halloween: A Cut Above The Rest she describes the cast and crew as all hands on deck where everyone did a bit of everything, and she seemed to continue that same proactivity and versatility throughout her life.
Even this early in her career, Debra Hill possessed a certain level of self-awareness and industry awareness that would benefit any producer in the business, let alone a female. In 2003, she recalled experiences that ring true for women even to this day, saying "Back when I started in 1974, there were very few women in the industry, and everybody called me 'Honey’. I was assumed to be the makeup and hair person, or the script person. I was never assumed to be the writer or producer. I took a look around and realized there weren't many women, so I had to carve a niche for myself." And that’s exactly what she did.
The success of Halloween may have shocked a large portion of Hollywood at the time; but Debra Hill and her crew knew they had created something extraordinary. In A Cut Above The Rest, Cinematographer Dean Cundey recalls the film’s screening at John Carpenter’s alma mater, USC and it’s subsequent Q&A with the cast and crew. The film drew some expectedly mixed reactions from the crowd, with a portion of the audience walking out. But during the Q&A, Cundey recalls Debra Hill saying that they hoped the film would become something of a classic, a comment that enraged a particular audience member to the point of calling them pretentious and walking out. It was this exact type of unapologetic faith in her and her collaborator’s work, along with some damn good instincts that led to that audience member eating his words as Halloween has become known as one of the greatest horror films of all time.
Due to their undeniable working chemistry, Debra Hill and John Carpenter collaborated many times throughout both of their decades-spanning careers. They reunited as Co-Writers and Co-Producers again on Halloween II, although Carpenter did not return as Director, and Co-Producers on Halloween III: Season of the Witch. She also produced several of Carpenter’s other hits, such as Escape From New York and The Fog. Although she is best known for her work with Carpenter, she collaborated with several other well-known directors in and out of the genre. As far as horror films go, she produced David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone but proved she could make a hit out of any genre with Terry Gilliam’s Oscar winning film, The Fisher King along with several cult comedies, including Clue, Adventures in Babysitting and Heartbreak Hotel. Her instinct about films and filmmakers proved time and time again to be steadfast and her passion and expertise further elevated the films she championed into success.
Sadly, in 2005, after three decades in the film industry Debra Hill succumbed to cancer at the unfairly young age of 54. She continued to work throughout her 13-month battle with the disease and all the way up until her death. The legacy she leaves behind continues to impact the filmmaking world for fans and filmmakers alike. Although she was never as widely praised as many of her directorial counterparts, she was a legend in her own right. As her longtime collaborator and friend, John Carpenter speaks of her as nothing short of an equal, describing her as “a real pioneer in this business, who opened the road for women” "Unlike many producers, she came from the crew ranks. I think they're the most under-appreciated people, and they work the hardest," he said. "She had experienced the ins and the outs and had a thorough understanding of what it took to make a picture."
In 2003, the organization Women in Film honored Debra Hill with their Crystal Award. This award could not have been more deserved and although she is no longer with us, I am optimistic for the future of her reputation. There is no question that she had an extraordinary impact on the industry. Her ability to break glass ceilings paved the way for many other women in her field and I can only hope will inspire young girls to do the same, regardless of the industry. With that being said, I want to extend a personal thank you to Debra Hill. Thank you for your fearlessness in the face of an, often merciless, industry and thank you for being that name in the credits, it meant a lot.
Julia Kaminski February 16, 2017 - 11:51am
What’s better than a scary movie? A much shorter scary movie! Well okay, maybe not, but it will impinge on your highly coveted spare time much less. So, in honor of the weekly releases of short films on the Screamfest Youtube page, and of course Women in Horror month, here are five spine-tingling short films directed by women:
1. The Stylist Directed by Jill Gevargizian
This 2016 short film revolves around a shy hairstylist named Claire, played by the enigmatic Najarra Townsend on a night at her salon. As Claire’s final client for the night arrives, things turn sinister. This filmmaker’s name may ring a bell because she popped up in the 2017 Blood Drive PSA from our post a couple of weeks ago. The Stylist has been getting praise online and throughout the festival circuit. Aside from being a general badass, Gevargizian shows off some pretty impressive filmmaking chops as well since she generally writes, directs and edits her films. The traction she has gotten from this film, as well as her involvement in projects such as the Blood Drive PSA’s has firmly planted her on my list of directors to watch and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. The Stylist is currently streaming on Shudder and according to a recent update on her Twitter, Gevargizian is currently working on developing The Stylist into a feature. Check out her website www.Sixxtape.com for more information.
2. The Barista Directed by Rebekah Mckendry
This horror comedy short was an Official Selection at Screamfest back in 2014 and has something of an ensemble cast, starring Chase Williamson of John Dies at the End, Morgan Peter Brown of Absentia and Amanda Fuller of Starry Eyes. Taking place in a coffee shop, it is about a paranoid man who is convinced one of the baristas is death. Not only is this one fun, it’s refreshingly original and has really great performances for as short as it is. With over a decade under her belt at Fangoria Entertainment, has a PhD in “Horror and Exploitation Cinema” and is now the Editor-in-Chief at Blumhouse.com, it is easy to say, this woman knows her stuff. With that level of understanding of the genre, I’m very excited for her future directorial endeavors. The Barista can be seen at Blumhouse.com
3. Innsmouth Directed by Izzy Lee
This is by far the wackiest and most NSFW film on this list. Although inspired by the works of H.P Lovecraft, primarily The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the film is a subversive take on its source material. The works of H.P Lovecraft are nothing short of controversial. He has been criticized for his racism and his predominance of male characters. It is these exact issues that have made fans of his work feel a bit alienated. However, he is a Horror Fiction legend for a reason and we horror fans try to celebrate the things we enjoy and do our best to look past its shortcomings. With Innsmouth, Izzy Lee took this idea a step further. As any good filmmaker should, she took the elements she liked about the material and filtered it through her own perspective. The result of this is an almost exclusively female cast and some pretty crazy imagery. Innsmouth follows Detective Olmstead (Diana Porter) as she travels to a small town to investigate a strange eggsack found on a dead body. Upon her arrival, she finds that Innsmouth is not just any small town. Innsmouth is currently streaming on Shudder but a teaser for the film, as well as teasers and information about her other short films can be found on her website: www.nihilnoctem.com
4. Persephone Directed by Lisa J. Dooley
Part of the Fun Size Horror anthology; Fun Size Horror: Volume One, Lisa J. Dooley brings us the story of a young girl who wakes up in a coffin with nothing but a flashlight and a pocket knife and as she makes her escape, new horrors await her. Clocking in at just under five minutes, this short is just as advertised: Fun. Even with it’s short run time, Persephone balances tension and payoff quite well and will still leave you wanting more. Fun Size Horror is a website that showcases original horror short films submitted by users. As for Lisa J. Dooley, according to the FSH website, she is currently attending USC and raising money for her thesis film. Persephone can be seen here: Funsizehorror.com
5.Monster Directed by Jennifer Kent
When Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook was released in 2014, it became an instant classic. However, like many directors’ first feature, it started out as a short. In this ten-minute version from 2005, anyone who has seen The Babadook will be able to recognize it’s framework. Monster follows a single mother, as she must protect her overactive son from a strange entity living within their home. Kent’s decision to shoot in black and white, as well as the creative camera angles make this short creepy and atmospheric in it’s own right and hints at Kent’s ultimate vision. With that being said, it is incredible to see how she grew as a filmmaker in the 10 years between the two projects and I’m very grateful that she decided to explore and expand this story. The Babadook is most definitely the feature that Monster deserved. Monster can be found on Jennifer Kent’s Vimeo page and keep an eye out for her upcoming feature The Nightingale, a drama set in 1829 Tasmania about a young woman and her hunt for revenge for the murder of her family and the aboriginal man she brings along on her journey.
For more short films by more talented people, be sure to check out and subscribe to the Screamfest Youtube page!
Julia Kaminski February 23, 2017 - 12:12pm
Seeing as how we are counting down the last few days of February, I’m going to take this opportunity to celebrate one more woman who has recently popped back into the zeitgeist, cult film extraordinaire, Jackie Kong. At this point the difficulties women face in Hollywood have been more than expressed, but as an Asian American woman making sleazy horror comedies in the 1980’s, writer/director Jackie Kong sure as hell had her work cut out for her. Despite her relatively few directorial ventures, she quickly established a signature style all of her own.
Born in 1957, in Southern California, Jackie Kong grew up around film. Her mother was an actress and all around cinephile, so she was exposed to cinema early on. In a recent interview on the podcast, Shock Waves, Kong recalls receiving her first 16mm film camera from her mother’s good friend Marlon Brando for her 18th birthday, after seeing several of her short films. However, Brando often tried to talk her out of her chosen field and was well known for being openly contemptuous of Hollywood and all that it represents. Despite this very reluctant support from Brando and her parents, she chose to enter into the filmmaking world. She made her first film The Being, a creature feature starring Martin Landau, at only 23 years old. Despite being lost in distribution hell, leading to somewhat of a commercial failure, The Being continues to find new audiences today. The film not only had strong direction, but had a distinct voice, a very impressive accomplishment for someone so young. Not to mention an especially cool monster design. Unfortunately, the poor performance of a first film is generally a death knell for someone in her position, even by today’s standards. However, if Jackie Kong is too stubborn for Brando, she is way too stubborn for Hollywood and she wasn’t going out that easily.
On her next film, Night Patrol, she decided to switch gears slightly and tackle the world of off-color comedy. Working with a modest budget, Night Patrol, starring The Exorcist’s Linda Blair, was shot entirely on weekends and was completed mostly on favors called in by Kong. Upon it’s release in 1984, Night Patrol became an over surprise hit. After Night Patrol’s success, Vestron Pictures tapped Kong for a three- picture deal through their low budget division, Lightening Pictures. The first of these films was her crown jewel, Blood Diner. When Kong was originally given the script, it was intended to be a more serious venture, but she quickly gave it a makeover.
Released in 1987, Blood Diner was the film in which Jackie Kong perfected irreverence as an art form. Channeling filmmakers such as John Waters, and more so Herschell Gordon Lewis, Blood Diner was pulpy, wacky and above all subversive. It was even intended to originally be a sequel to the H.G Lewis hit, Blood Feast. It encapsulates the excessive nature of 80’s culture while simultaneously creating interesting and idiosyncratic characters. For example, the Tutman brothers are very good looking, despite their sinister nature. Also, the design of the evil goddess Sheetar is both beautiful and terrifying, complete with yonic imagery, definitely the biggest clue that the film had a feminine influence. The film was shot in a brisk three-week span, which proved to be quite the feat since the film had such a wide range of special effects. After it’s release, the film built momentum throughout the years, launching effectively into cult film status.
Unfortunately, Jackie Kong was only able to complete two of her three-picture deal, following up Blood Diner with the comedy The Underachievers, before Vestron went out of business. In the decades since, she has worked as a speaker and guest of several film festivals and became the Executive Director of a non-profit organization called Asian American Media Development. She has recently resurfaced and has plans to get back into the directing game.
So why exactly do Jackie Kong’s films still hold up? Nostalgia does play a significant role and is a popular market many distribution companies are taking full advantage of. Blood Diner itself was recently liberated from “Discount Horror Collection” purgatory and got the fully remastered Blu Ray treatment by Lionsgate, as part of their Vestron Collector’s Series. As for Jackie Kong herself, she is taking the film on tour. The 2017 tour will be along the West Coast this spring, ending in Los Angeles with a party in Hollywood where the film was originally shot. It will feature a Q&A with Jackie Kong and an “Undead Party” following. To see if the tour is coming to a city near you, visit Facebook.com/findingsheetar for more information. You can also visit her website Here for more information about her other upcoming projects.
As Women in Horror Month comes to a close I just wanted to bring it back around and leave you with a quote from the lovely Debra Hill:
"I hope some day there won't be a need for Women in Film. That it will be People in Film. That it will be equal pay, equal rights and equal job opportunities for everybody."
Julia Kaminski February 2, 2017 - 8:00pm
It’s that time again! It is time for the Twisted Twins’ annual Blood Drive PSA. For those who are unfamiliar, The Massive Blood Drive PSA is the brainchild of filmmaking duo, Jen and Sylvia Soska. Each year the twins and a handful of other talented up and coming filmmakers, release a series of blood-centric, NSFW shorts throughout February in honor of Women in Horror Month.
The drive began back in 2010 when the sisters developed the idea as a win-win to showcase female filmmakers while giving back to the community. Blood seemed the most obvious of charitable donations. In the years since it’s inception, the project has grown to also include male filmmakers. To keep things interesting, the twins always choose a theme for their PSA’s. This year’s video, which premiered February 1, is a music video collaboration of over 11 different filmmakers, both male and female. The Drive has since become a staple of the Women in Horror Month website, and as the sister’s own upward trajectory continues, so does the visibility of the Drive and the initiative itself. Founded by Hannah Neurotica back in 2009, Women in Horror Month is “an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.” The site is an invaluable resource for those interested in finding WIHM events near them or just to find a way to get involved. With a roughly 50% female fanbase, it is no wonder why filmmakers and fans alike are vying for more representation. In recent years, women have been slowly chipping away at that glass ceiling and are taking the Horror genre by storm.
Despite the decades of allegations that the genre is sexist, the rise of the “Survival Girl” archetype solidified it as a notoriously female-centric genre. In recent years, women have become more prominent behind the camera as well. With films such as Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook”, Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and the release of this year’s entirely female directed Horror anthology “The XX”, the future is looking bright for female filmmakers. Filmmaking aside, women have long since been active in all facets of the genre. Screamfest itself is female helmed, with our festival director and founder, Rachel Belofsky, as our fearless leader. With that being said, I want to take this month as an opportunity to further explore the talented women who have created and championed the films we know and love. So keep checking back each week for more information.
You can find the 2017 Blood Drive PSA on the Twisted Twins Production YouTube Channel as well as the WIHM website. You can also take a look at the site’s event page to see if there will be any WIHM events near you. By Julia Kaminski womeninhorrormonth.com