Going into XX, it’s easy to look at each of the respective shorts as representing a different horror sub genre. The Box, as we’ve covered elsewhere, is psychological horror at its’ finest. Annie Clark’s birthday party is a nice slice of horror comedy, served up with a hilarious stinger to tie everything together in the short’s closing seconds. Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son is sure to polarize audiences with what exactly it turns out to be. Sofia Carrillo’s segment (which serves as the intertitles) is a beautifully animated stop-motion journey through the forgotten domestic totems of another age, and actually made me nostalgic for trips with my mom to St. Louis’ secondhand stores circa 1989.
Then, there’s Roxanne Benjamin’s contribution, Don’t Fall.
Don’t Fall is unique in XX in that it feels the most at home in an anthology. It has the sensibilities of a Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt segment, polished up a bit and with way more money in the budget. The story of a group of campers’ excursion into a forbidden desert and the fate they meet there, Don’t Fall is short, sweet, and to the point, and it’s all the better for it, giving viewers a much needed jolt after the comedy of The Birthday Party and segueing them into Only Living Son with some truly amazing practical creature effects. It’s perhaps the experience that Roxanne Benjamin brings to Fall that gives it that EC Comics Ambiance. She’s the closest the horror world has right now to a real-life Cryptkeeper, an impresario extraordinaire of bite-sized horror. As one of the producers behind the immensely successful V/H/S series and 2015’s Southbound, she helped to simultaneously salvage the concept of the horror anthology while introducing it to a new generation, making viable again the format that once defined such powerhouses as Amicus.
Energetic and engaging, I’d almost think I was talking to a comedienne taking a break between sets at the Comedy Store and not the woman who’s revitalized an entire subgenre. Benjamin cracks jokes with such a subtle ease that they flow directly into her answers, and I find myself giggling so much I keep losing my train of thought. It was my pleasure to sit down with her to learn how she brought the visually arresting Don’t Fall to life, and to get her unique perspective on the role and advancements of women in the horror world.
Preston Fassel: How did you get involved with XX?
Roxanne Benjamin: Through Todd Brown, the producer. I’ve known him for a long time from the film festival circuit. He reached out to me to see if I was interested in talking to Annie Clark about producing her section of the movie. And I was, “Sure!” And I met her, and we got along, and I co-wrote her section, which I produced. And then they needed another director for the final section, so I wrote a treatment, and off we went!
PF: Where did you come up with the idea?
RB: I wanted to make something very pulpy. Kinda dime store horror pulp, y’know? It was just taking old tropes and having fun with them. That was the genesis of it. And I wanted to set it out in the desert because I feel like we have a lot of those tales in the woods, so I wanted to do a desert scenario, but with the familiar “these kids sure shouldn’t be here! This will end well for no one.”
PF: Did you have a concrete mythos in mind for what’s happening in the short?
RB: Nope! Just made it up. I just made it up in my brain. (laughs) It originated from the sort of tales I heard as a kid, literally sitting around a campfire, where there’s always some story about this place you’re not supposed to go, whether it’s a house or some piece of land that’s protected by an ancient evil. That kinda thing. In this case it’s not necessarily evil, it’s just, like, here’s a bunch of privileged kids tromping all over this sacred shit like they own the place. And it’s kinda like, “Well, you don’t.” (laughs) Almost like the Earth rising up to fight back, that’s kinda like what she becomes, a part of this place, and therefore it’s protector. How well that comes across in twelve minutes? Not quite sure!
PF: I was really impressed with the creature effects How much of that was practical?
RB: All of that was practical. All of that was practical except for—it’s not even creature, it’s the fall, the actual fall down the hill, we had to do that obviously with VFX. My VFX team is amazing. But all the creature stuff is practical effects. Josh and Sierra Russell, who worked with me on Southbound, on David Bruckner’s section, that’s all them, too. They’re amazing.
PF: Where did you shoot Don’t Fall?
RB: Up in Vasquez Rocks, near this horse ranch. Kinda perfect, because it had everything that we needed. Which never happens. You’re always kinda scattered to the wind. This checked all the boxes, which was great. As soon as I saw it I was, “this is perfect.” There was even a lookout point across the valley where we could do that pullout shot at the beginning where you see how far up they are. That they’re literally in the middle of nowhere. Which, for something that’s a small budget indy, normally you wouldn’t be able to get that kind of shot. My DP was able to pull it off in pretty short order.
PF: It’s a beautiful opening.
RB: I wanted it to feel very epic. We shot it in three days… Trying to work in these pieces where it feels bigger than it is was very important to me.
PF: How have you seen the role of women in horror change since you got involved in the industry? Benjamin: I don’t know how to answer that, honestly. I feel that I have a very myopic view, because I started working with Brad Miska, writing for him, and working for the parent company that was partnered with his website doing production and acquisitions. And then we made the V/H/S movies. So, like, from there I’ve just been making movies and working with a lot of female department heads, and creatives, and producers, and writers, and editors on all of these different projects. So I feel like I have kind of a rose-colored glasses experience, in that regard… I don’t know. It’s great that these pieces are written, and please don’t stop writing them, but I haven’t seen much of a change, either. I don’t know what the answer is. I’m, like, one person.
PF: Oh, no, I was just wondering, like, your own personal experience.
RB: You do notice it particularly in TV. The statistics back it up, there are more first-time TV directors that’re men than there are women, and I hear—I talk to other female directors in genre, who have genre features under their belt, and they’re going in for TV jobs and being told that they don’t have enough experience, that it might be too big of a risk for the studio to take, and you see that three first-time directors worked on it that were all men. And you’re, like, wait. That’s categorically showing the problem. It’s very real to all of us. But, again, I don’t know how to fix that. Not that you’re asking me to, but, after a week doing prep for a movie that’s very female-centric, it kinda feels like there’s this weird weight, that you’re supposed to have the answer, the solution to the problem. So as a producer not having an answer, and as a director not having an answer, it’s very frustrating because you’re supposed to be the people able to make decisions. It’s like a weird feeling.
PF: What do you think it is about the horror genre that makes it a bit more female-friendly than the non-genre film world?
RB: The audiences are primarily female. As much as it might seem like the marketing is geared towards a male audience, the audiences are primarily female. And I think it’s one of the few kinds of movies that needs to be seen in a theater, to be collectively experienced. I know before I started making movies, whenever I would go see horror movies it was always with a huge group of girlfriends. So I fee like that is very much a cultural phenomenon. And I never felt any sort of animosity from other female filmmakers or female creatives in the industry. It’s always been extremely inclusive. So, again, I don’t know if I’ve had the rose colored glasses experience. If so, knock on wood. I know that not everyone has.
PF: What was your favorite horror film of 2016?
PF: Any particular reason?
RB: (stunned silence) Have you seen it?
PF: I haven’t. I was supposed to see it at Fantastic Fest last year but I had to give up my seat because the time conflicted with another movie I’d already committed to see.
RB: Oh my God! See it immediately! Oh my God! It is SO amazing. Find a way to see it. So good. The best horror movies, to me, are about something other than the plot. Which sounds silly to have to say out loud, but it’s not just… Raw is about sisters. That’s really what I can break it down to. And it’s just tense, and fucked up, and really funny, and TRUE. It has a sincerity to it that’s hard to put into words, but you’re completely invested in the story, the characters… You don’t know where it’s going. Which I feel like, in horror- You write about horror films. You write about the horror industry. I’m sure you’ve seen so many horror movies where, it’s ten minutes in, and you know exactly where it’s going.
PF: Oh, yes.
RB: And it can be a fun ride. But you know exactly where it’s going. But I felt like I didn’t know where Raw was going. And you were along for the ride.