It’s hard to talk women in horror without talking Jovanka Vuckovic. Many readers may not be familiar with the name, but they’re almost assuredly familiar with her work: As the editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue Magazine for seven years, she was one of the driving forces behind establishing the brand’s identity, overseeing the transition from a black-and-white bi-monthly publication to the full-colored vanguard it is today (“That wasn’t all me,” she’s quick to say, as I express my admiration for her tenure as EIC. “That was a team effort, and I had a great team.”) Though she left the publication in 2008, Vuckovic left an indelible mark-- If Fangoria was the making-of-feature of the horror world, then on Vuckovic’s watch Rue Morgue became the director’s commentary, a thoughtful, observant perspective on culture as much New Yorker as Entertainment Weekly.
It says as much about Vuckovic’s credentials that in addition to contributing to Rue Morgue before and during her tenure as editor, she’s also a contributor to general interest mags like Revolver and Rolling Stone, acting as a sort of genre ambassador to bring her intelligent, well-articulated perspective on horror to the masses. It’s that very sharp and deeply intellectual understanding of horror that makes The Box—the opening short of the XX anthology—so powerful, and easily the best of the bunch. Uncanny, detached and clinic in a Kubrickian sort of way, it leaves the viewer with a sense of discomfort and uncleanness without shedding a single drop of blood or depicting any otherworldly beings, despite the supernatural force looming over every shot. Pennie goes into more detail here; but before you check out her review, please do take the time—as I did—to sit down and enjoy a chat with a woman who’s truly a pioneer of modern horror, Jovanka Vuckovic.
Preston Fassel: What drew you to the short story The Box?
Jovanka Vuckovic: Years ago, when Peaceable Kingdom—Jack Ketchum’s anthology-- came out, I read it and he’s, as you know, known for being the king of splatter fiction. And tucked away amidst all this violence was this existential horror story. This very Kafkaesque horror story. And it always stayed with me. And obviously, it affected a lot of people, because it won a Bram Stoker award the year it was released. And it always felt to me like it would make a great episode of The Twilight Zone. It even had a MacGuffin. It was perfect. It was ripe for adaptation. So when Todd Brown and I put this anthology film together, it just popped in my head. I thought, “YES! THE BOX!” This is my opportunity to do an episode of The Twilight Zone, and all it’s really missing is Rod Serling smoking a Camel in between talking about (lowers her voice) “the choices that Susan has made…” (laughs) That have led her to that place. So that was really it. A lot of people asked if I chose—a lot of people have noticed that the segments are, coincidentally, about family—and I didn’t choose that short story because it was about family. I just liked the story. It just stayed with me. It’s a very haunting little story, and I tried to stay true to the story, y’know, while changing the gender of the protagonist to fit the mandate of the anthology.
PF: That was actually my next question. In the story, it’s the husband who’s the only family member not to know what’s in the box. Why change it for the film?
JV: Well, I had to. Basically, the rule that we made, the rules that were in place when we made this thing, were that all the segments had to be written b women, directed by women, and star a woman in the lead role. And because The Box is about the father’s inability to connect with his children, and therefore, he ends up being saved from whatever is in the box, I had to switch it to the mother. And when I did that, this amazing thing happened.
PF: It does make it interesting, narratively, because you have the mother typifying these very stereotypically male behaviors like being emotionally distant and kinda macho, and the father is the affectionate, gentle, nurturing one.
JV: It’s funny how changing perspectives just a little bit opens up whole new storytelling possibilities. Because it’s not so much in the storytelling that it changes, it’s the point of view. Change it to the mother, and suddenly it became about ambivalent motherhood. How not all women are meant to be mothers. And it became much more personal to me. It became about my own mother, it became about me, it became about the anxieties of motherhood. The drudgery of daily routines, and the feelings that some of us have some of the time about our commitments to family. And so- yeah. This kinda amazing magic happened when I did that… And that’s where the newness comes in. Because 90% of the films in the last 100 years have been made by men. The point of view traditionally has been the male point of view. So it becomes refreshing to see something from somebody else’s perspective. In this case, we live in a world where the mothers are going to work and there’s a lot more stay-at-home dads, and women are having complex feelings about motherhood. And that’s not to say that they didn’t always, but this is one story about that.
PF: How have you seen the role of women in horror change since you first became involved?
JV: You know, it was always—What I saw at conventions, overwhelmingly, over fifty percent of convention-goers and over fifty percent of horror ticket buyers were women. They’ve always—You know, Bela Lugosi had that great quote, about how women are predestined to love horror because we bear the human race in bloody agony. And he was as right then as he is now. Women love horror. And the barriers were the same barriers facing women in all disciplines. Right? It’s not just the horror genre. It's kinda symptomatic of a larger, systemic issue in the entertainment business. It’s also happening in STEM, it’s happening in journalism. We face, y’know, in the case of film, institutionalized sexism. And these are very complex problems with no easy solutions. So XX is our small contribution to progress. There’s Geena Davis’ organization, has a saying, “if they can see it, they can be it.” So we were very proud at Sundance to walk onto that stage amidst a political climate in which women are facing real, genuine fears of losing their rights and freedoms, to walk on that stage and say “change is still possible, even now, change is possible,” we’re quite, quite proud of that. One of our directors was even not able to come that day because she was marching on Washington. So the timing couldn’t be more perfect for a film like this.
PF: Where do you see the future of women in horror?
JV: Well, I would like for there to no longer—as much as I love Hannah [Neurotica], and I support Hannah and what she’s trying to do—I would like for there not to be a need for the phrase. I would like to not be—to not have lists that’re, “Top Ten Female Horror Filmmakers.” I would just love it if we were all on the same list. That’s a future that I would like to see, that I am working tirelessly towards. Everything that I do I do with diversity in mind. Not just gender diversity but racial, and in the telling of stories that are new perspectives. So I can only hope that, at some point… because, y’know, if meritocracy had anything to do with women directors being hired, we wouldn’t have had to make a movie like XX. So we still have a lot of change, a lot of work to do. Sorry. But this is not a hill to die on. And we’ll keep going… and thank you, Preston. We really appreciate the coverage and the support. We need it now more than ever. So thanks, so much.