No one is more surprised by Karyn Kusama’s second act as a horror filmmaker than Kusama herself. Best known in the early aughts for her girl power-driven, high energy offerings “Girlfight” and the Charlize Theron-starring “Aeon Flux” film adaptation, Kusama dipped a toe into horror with 2009’s icky-great “Jennifer’s Body.” It was the perfect feature to kick off the next part of her career, blending her desire to tell female-centric stories alongside genuinely gag-inducing scenes that would feel at home in any horror film.
With 2015’s lauded “The Invitation,” Kusama completed the leap, helming the psychological thriller with white-knuckle ease, a horror story about broken relationships and broken people gussied up into a cross-genre nailbiter. In short, it was scary. And making that kind of film instantly changed the expectations regarding the kind of films that Kusama wanted to make in the future.
“I don’t know if I could’ve predicted it at all,” Kusama said when asked about her recent minting as a horror director. “In fact, I can say, categorically, I could not have predicted this. What I do think is really interesting is that, as I get older and more mature, I’m really attuned to how frightening this world is that we live in.”
Few things are as scary these days than real life, and Kusama is eager to use her evolving horror chops to explore not just the idea of devilish deeds, but how to combat them, no matter if it’s coming from a creepy character or a presidential administration bent on building policies that some might classify as evil.
“Sometimes evil is in the form of a malignant clown, and sometimes evil is in the form of policy and legislators, and sometimes it’s a grinning death mask and it has something more viscerally terrifying about it,” she said. “But I’m sort of wanting to face it all and scream back in its face. I’m trying to make sense of my terror of the world by making these films. I’m leaning into the possibility of genre films as a way to kind of work out my personal politics.”
There’s a more familiar evil at play in “Her Only Living Son,” Karyn Kusama’s entry in the long-gestating horror anthology “XX,” which boasts shorts from five female filmmakers. Kusama tapped into a horror classic to inspire her short, which serves as the final offering in the creepy and imaginative series of films. “I started thinking a lot about this idea of speculative fictions, and alternative outcomes to stories that I love,” the filmmaker said.
She aimed high, fashioning a demonic possession story that borrows very liberally from Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Kusama is refreshingly clear about her influences.
“I wanted to imagine another outcome, another future, for a kind of narrative that I’m really drawn to, most specifically in the vein of ‘Rosemary’s Baby,'” Kusama said. “I feel a kinship to the idea of beloved stories and beloved pieces of art that we can imagine in different ways, and sort of take a meta approach in terms of what those stories offer us.”
Kusama makes no bones about the prevalence of possession stories in the horror genre – or the prevalence of “Rosemary’s Baby” knockoffs – but her adept grasp on what makes scary stuff work allowed her to effectively toy with a seemingly tired storyline. Reworking the Polanski classic for a new story would rightly scare off most filmmakers, but Kusama’s ability to bring her own worldview to material served her well.
No matter the genre, Kusama makes her films her own, deepening themes we’ve seen before in lesser stories. That was certainly the case in “Her Only Living Son.” “I really wanted to explore this idea of the premise of evil and this notion of its kind of unstoppable force,” she said. “As I get older I’m really, really resisting that idea, I’m really not buying it anymore. I think evil is something we give, and we give that power to that concept.”
Despite the specificity of the story, Kusama believes that the concept and scope of evil extends way beyond the limits of filmmaking, and it’s something that she wants to keep exploring, on screen and off. That sense of evil in the real world continues to haunt Kusama, who expressed tremendous surprise at the current climate that “XX” is opening to, specifically a world where Donald Trump is president and the country’s first female presidential contender was such a point of contention.
“The timing is really bizarre in a way, because I just think it’s so disappointing that we still have to have these conversations about the primal fear of women and the primal fear of women being decision makers and leaders, but I guess here we are,” Kusama said. “This is the death rattle, I hope, of that fear.”
Kusama is more motivated than ever to use her films as an outlet for bigger issues and everyday horrors.
“Even in the script, I was writing about the devil’s presence at the end of that film as this petty, easily insulted childish force that just sort of needed a spanking, needed to just be resisted and screamed back at and told, ‘no, get out of my life,'” she said.
She added wryly, “There’s part of me that just thinks that where we’re at politically right now, is just this sadly way too literal manifestation of what I just described.”
Kusama may be surprised by her turn into horror-centric filmmaking – though her upcoming slate includes a thriller based on a Megan Abbott bestseller and a drama based on Mary Gaitskill’s bestselling “Bad Behavior,” and she’s quick to note that she does not want to be pigeonholed by any genre – but she’s come to understand why it so suits her.
“Horror, almost better than any of the other genres, pits the will to live against the will toward nihilism,” Kusama explained. “I just think that’s worth exploring. I don’t know what is more important, actually, to explore than that very dynamic.”
Courtesy of Magnet Releasing, “XX” will open in select theaters and on VOD on February 17.