I have known Alexandra for a few years now ever since I read her “now classic” book, Rape Revenge Films: A Critical Study (2011). I let her know my thoughts on the book and some of the films discussed and over the years we have had a great friendship. I always have liked her style of talking about film, never condescending but quite serious about the subject. It was through her time broadcasting/podcasting on the Melbourne Australia Triple R radio show, Plato’s Cave that I got an even better understanding of her film critique/thoughts and knew we were kindred spirits. (Hell, she gave me two of my go-to catch phrases when reviewing “I Flatlined!” & “I Prayed for Death!”) Her focus over the recent years has been more promoting women in the film and film writing industries, which lead to her most recent film studies book “1,000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018”. I personally read this tome from cover to cover and it is a great work. If you enjoy reading books like “501 Film Directors”, “1,001 Films to See Before Die” or general film review books…1,000 Women in Horror is going to be up in your wheel house and should be in your permanent film book collection.
Alexandra graciously gifted me some of her valuable time and answered some questions for me concerning the book and related subjects. Read on… Dave K./A Fiend On Film
OK, why “1,000 Women In Horror?” and what made you want to work on this wonderful tome?
It felt almost natural in a way; I’ve been writing on horror in one way or another since the early 2000s as either a zine writer, critic or academic, and in recent years I also developed a real interest in women’s filmmaking as a broader subject, beyond genre. From my first book in 2011 on rape-revenge films, gender politics and cult/exploitation film has always been an interest to me, so 1000 Women in Horror really felt like all of these threads coming together in a way that is a bit more fun and accessible than some of my more academic books.
You have written many books and I felt you have always not talked down to your audience. That said, I view 1,000 Women in Horror your most accessible work yet. Was this your plan while writing it, that pretty much anyone can pick it up and understand it?
Absolutely, this was very much a conscious decision. I have a bit of a weird career in that I started in zines and street press – mostly as a music writer initially, actually – then went to academia. Universities taught me great research skills and I quite quickly adapted to the different writing style in academic writing and more journalistic writing, but my instinct has always veered towards writing for a more public readership. So my academic writing actually always feels a little wobbly in comparison to my journalistic ‘voice’, and it’s definitely where I am more comfortable. Most of my books have straddled academic publishing and more mainstream publishing and this was really my first ‘big’ book that let me solely write in the context of the latter, and I have to say that was hugely liberating. There is certainly a place and a value for academic writing, don’t get me wrong, but I have always wanted to reach people outside of the university world – that’s always explicitly been a goal of mine.
Constant! Endless bloody challenges, Dave. I think I’m only half laughing?! The most obvious was of course deciding on who to include in that 1000, which by default necessarily requires me to leave a lot of women – and I mean, a lot – out. But at the same time, doing on a book on ‘every single woman in horror’ is not only dumb and arrogant, but technically impossible. So I really had to approach selection as a bigger picture thing – what do these names collectively tell us about women in horror film history? So I had a lot of profiles I wrote that got cut, and – to state the obvious – I now live in a state of eternal forehead-slapping every time I realise there’s someone who should be in there but isn’t. But I can only do what I do, right? I have to learn just to accept this, and chill the fuck out!
Honestly? This sounds weird, but I agree! I dream of a time when the gender of the filmmaker isn’t necessary to flag, and I can tell you that a hell of a lot of women filmmakers I talk to – the bulk, actually – say the same thing. But the reality is women horror film directors are a minority, a significant minority, and for a woman to make a horror film they almost always have to deal with a lot more resistance than their male counterparts do – there are simply more hurdles in the way for women to make films full stop. So yeah, at the moment, it matters, and it matters a lot because for a woman like Jennifer Kent to get The Babadook into multiplexes is a really massive deal (the same way, I’d add, that it’s just as tough for BIPOC filmmakers too). I dream of the day that it doesn’t matter, where we can assume that it’s an even playing field – but today, that sadly is very much not the case.
A lot of my friends are “women in horror” and they are all my favourites! But I guess what I would emphasise more objectively is the fact that so many women in horror have incredible stories – just unbelievable journeys that led them to their place in the genre. I wouldn’t want to rate those experiences on a scale or anything like that, but this was really one of the big reasons why I wanted to include interviews in the book – literally for a place for women to talk about those journeys. From Debbie Rochon to Mattie Do, Rutanya Alda to Izzy Lee, there’s so many interesting stories that we should listen to.
Do you think the film industry will eventually open itself up to more diversity in let’s say, the next 20 years?
To be honest, I am not sure. It’s hard to tell right now from an industrial perspective what is walking the walk in the desire for change in this area, and what is just PR-friendly talking the talk. In Australia – where I live – we had a huge boom period of women’s filmmaking in the 80s and 90s which was supported by clear institutional support, and amazing films were produced in that context. But it was almost by the early 90s that it was felt like “OK, we’ve fixed that, let’s move on”. What funding support moved onto was also important – supporting Indigenous Australian filmmaking, for example – but you could just see the numbers of women-directed films plummet after that and the default went back to funding films made by white dudes, a lot of which were (and still are) mediocre dreck.
But I don’t want to be too negative, and in the case of horror I do see some real progress. Jason Blum got a lot of flack a few years ago for his comments about what he perceived as a lack of women horror directors, but to be fair not many people noted at the time that Blumhouse had actually worked with women filmmakers before, just not on films that gained a theatrical releases (Catherine Hardwicke’s Plush from 2013 is a case in point here). But to Blumhouse’s credit, they stepped up after they received a rightful drubbing over Jason Blum’s comments about women filmmakers, and have since done some great work with women directors; their Into the Dark series with Hulu had films made by Sophia Takal and Gigi Saul Guerrero, and the forthcoming Welcome to Blumhouse series on Amazon includes works directed by Zu Quirke and Veena Sud. Blumhouse are also behind Shana Feste’s forthcoming film Run Sweetheart Run, which people are going to go nuts about when they see it!
The best is the democratisation of critical forums – outside of zines or community radio, pre-internet there was really a comparative lack of places to actually present film criticism if you weren’t working in a more formalised industry. The internet has changed all of that, although perhaps too far to the other extreme! But it does mean a lot of new voices get to talk about film, and some of those voices have traditionally not had a particularly easy time getting into those more formalised industries – again, especially women, BIPOC, folks living with disabilities, etc.
One of the more negative things that I do see increasing, however, is a lack of sophistication in critical discussion around challenging film and a tendency to reduce movies to a ‘woke’ or ‘problematic’ binary without any kind of discussion. To be clear, I am talking about textual discourse here, not defending assholes; what I am getting at is different from ‘cancel culture’ (or as I call it ‘actions have consequences’ culture which any kid can tell you is just life – if you do something horrible, you’ll probably get in trouble!). So what I am getting at really more here is how there’s a very concerning tendency to dismiss films sight-unseen, dismissing them as ‘problematic’ without even having a conversation about them – in Australia, we just saw this happen in an absolute public shit show around a scifi film by Sandra Wollner called The Trouble With Being Born. The subject matter of this film is challenging and morally confronting but – without defending or attacking the film – I was deeply concerned about how the controversy around this movie as it unfolded in this country was almost completely driven by people who hadn’t seen the movie at all. I guess because I have written so much about things like rape-revenge film my feeling is – if I can be blunt – piss or get off the pot. Either have a position and be prepared to engage with the film you are talking about, or go watch a Disney movie.
Like everyone, 2020 has been a bit of a wild time so things both expected and unexpected have come into play. I think I am not alone in saying “just surviving” is my plan for the future, but I don’t mean to be glib about that at all; maybe taking all we had for granted wasn’t the best way for us to be living anyway? So learning to appreciate what we have – even in such awful circumstances – is a wake up call many of us needed, myself included.
But as for work, I am still wanting to keep my options open and look at different, new ways of engaging with people about the kind of films I’m interested in. I’ll keep writing and doing things like commentaries as long as I am invited to do so, but am also expanding into new areas that are really exciting, too – lots of irons in the fire. 2021 is the 10th anniversary of the release of my first book on rape-revenge films so I’d like to do something to mark that occasion, but what shape that will take I am still unsure. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s to grab opportunities when they come along; be agile, and be open to new possibilities.
Just do it. I meet so many people who talk about what they are going to do rather than just shutting the fuck up and doing it! It may feel like you don’t have an audience and you are pushing shit up hill, but persevere if it’s your passion; I know so many people (writers and critics) who have gone through hell but just can’t stop creating, and that sheer force of will is what keeps them alive. It’s slow, but it comes down to hard work. People sometimes say to me “Oh you are so lucky!” and I know they mean it in a kind way, but it’s like MATE that’s not luck – I’ve been doing this in one form or another since 2003! It’s hard work and obsessiveness more than luck! When it comes to finding an audience, it’s obviously a lot harder for some people to gain visibility because of their gender, sexuality, faith, the colour of their skin or their class origins (we need to talk about the latter more, by the way), but the bottom line is, if you like doing it you should do it and keep doing it. You are your own harshest critic, but also you can be your own biggest fan. In short: gun it!
Follow Alexandra on Twitter https://twitter.com/suspirialex
Get the books at the links below!