No one is going to confuse the lead character of Roxanne Benjamin’s “Body at Brighton Rock” as some sort of hardened heroine. As timid park ranger Wendy, star Karina Fontes is already out of her depth when the retro-leaning horror feature kicks off, and that’s long before she stumbles upon a dead body in a remote patch of her state park. Things only get worse from there, as Benjamin’s feature directorial debut follows Wendy on a crash course to do the wrong thing at every possible opportunity.
“She does a lot of bone-headed things,” Benjamin said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “When people are like, ‘Ooh, she does so much stupid shit!’ I’m like, ‘Oh shit, I did all of those things.’ Besides finding the dead body, I’ve done literally all the things that happen in the movie.”
Benjamin wanted to present the kind of flawed female character that’s been lost in vague calls for “strong female characters.” The horror genre has long played home to compelling female leads — even beloved “final girls” like Laurie Strode, Ellen Ripley, and Sidney Prescott tend to survive by embracing their weaknesses — and Wendy is proof that there’s room for all kinds of women in film.
“I feel like we’ve gotten into a weird place, where people are afraid to have flawed female characters, because they’re afraid of the flack that they’ll get for having flawed female characters,” Benjamin said. “Which, ultimately, is like the least feminist thing I’ve ever seen. That’s completely backwards.”
Benjamin is eager to see more flawed characters like Wendy on the big screen, both in the horror genre and beyond. “We should have women who are villains, we should have women who are shitty to each other, we should have women who are just women,” she said. “It’s not like every woman is a super-woman. We are flawed individuals with a full range of emotions and characteristics. The idea that we have to be this one thing in this one box, and that’s the only thing we see, is not real to life.”
As for the other pervasive trope that characters needs to be “likable” to win over an audiences, Benjamin has some smart ideas there, too. “A character doesn’t need to be likable,” she said. “They need to be interesting.”
The first-time feature filmmaker is something of a late bloomer in the filmmaking world — she was 34 when she directed her first short, a segment in the 2015 anthology “Southbound” — she’s no industry newbie. Benjamin started her career on the acquisitions side, before getting into producing nearly a decade ago with the “V/H/S” horror anthology.
“I never went to film school, and I never had any sort of film education,” she said. “I grew up in the backwoods and was not exposed to a lot of movies. We had Blockbuster, and whatever cool VHS tape you saw on the shelf was what you watched for the weekend. … I didn’t have any concept of necessarily like ‘filmic’ taste or ‘cinematic’ taste.” Instead, she settled into B-movies that ranged from “Night of the Living Dead” to “Ernest Scared Stupid.”
While Benjamin initially worried that her lack of technical training would hinder her directorial aspirations, she’s come around to a major bright side: her personal taste remains intact, and it’s guiding her burgeoning career.
“I feel like film school does kind of beat out a sense of fun in the movies that you want to make, like it has to be less fun to be elevated cinema,” Benjamin said. “That to me just seems super lame, because the movies I loved as a kid were like ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ and just goofy shit like that, or ‘The Lost Boys,’ movies that were fun as well as being scary.”
Benjamin’s affection for the movies of her youth has translated handily to her next couple of gigs, including directing a pair of episodes for the upcoming “Creepshow” anthology series and writing the script for an Orion Pictures-backed remake of Thom Eberhardt 1984’s sci-fi horror comedy “Night of the Comet.”
“It’s a fun, fun movie,” Benjamin said of the latter project. “The original I love so much, just because it’s so funny, and they’re still dealing with their teenage problems in the middle of the apocalypse. That feels very accurate to what would happen, you know? And it doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
The original film starred Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelly Maroney as a pair of teen sisters forced to deal with a cosmic event that has wiped out most of the world’s population (and turned some survivors into murderous zombies). It’s funny and scary, and it’s got a pair of flawed women at its center. Benjamin said she’s turned in her script, and she’s hopeful that she can direct the film as well.
“I know they’re putting it together, but I’m not sure what the status is on it, to be honest,” Benjamin said. “You know, these things always take time. I’m hoping it’s something that I get to direct, for sure. It’s right up my alley, with having two female characters and exploring their relationship in a kind of live or die situation.” She laughed. “Seems to be my MO!”
Magnolia and Magnet Releasing will release “Body at Brighton Rock” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, April 26.