AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth's History of Horror's showrunner on women's role in horror

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Jan 25, 2021, 3:50 PM EST (Updated)

When the first teaser dropped for AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth's History of Horror, two thoughts raced through my head. The first was a giddy exaltation of FINALLY! As someone who grew up chasing down creature features, slashers, and every bit of ghoulish gore I could in my local video rental store, I couldn’t wait to see some of the biggest names of horror come together to talk about its rich and wondrous history.

But that second thought was a buzzkill: "Where are the women?"

Sure, the teaser featured The Exorcist's Linda Blair. But amid glimpses of Rob Zombie, Stephen King, Eli Roth, Robert Englund, Quentin Tarantino, and Greg Nicotero there wasn't a single female filmmaker. And we know there are plenty of incredible ones making scare-you-senseless horror. So what gives?

To find out, SYFY FANGRRLS reached out to AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth's History of Horror's showrunner Kurt Sayenga, who assured us this teaser just scratched the surface of the show's deep-cut talent pool.

"There's plenty of women in the series, for sure," Sayenga said. "And on both sides of the camera. There are plenty of women on my staff and three of the five editors were women, two of producers and all of that. The issue of representation is much reflected in horror films, as it is anywhere else in the filmmaking industry."

Sayenga provided a long list of women who will appear over the course of the seven-episode series. On it was iconic horror actresses like Tippi Hedren and Jamie Lee Curtis, plus producers Barbara Muschietti and Julie Corman, writer Diablo Cody, directors Ana Lily Amirpour, Catherine Hardwicke, Karyn Kusama, Mary Harron, and Jen and Sylvia Soska, as well as film scholars Jen Moorman, Morgan Woolsey, Tananarive Due, and Kier-La Janisse.

"One thing I discovered when we first started doing the research," Sayenga shared, "was this bed of feminist critics and how deeply into horror films a lot of them were. And their writing on it has really been interesting. Kier-la Janisse, who wrote House of Psychotic Women [An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films], that was very influential on us as we were putting this show together."

Since that teaser, AMC has released a clip that shows off many of the names above discussing the connection of women and feminism to horror.

"That comes up a lot, actually, in each of the specific episodes," Sayenga said. "Several women make the point — but are coming at it in different directions — that the cathartic aspect of these films, particularly the slasher films and the vampire films." He explained how some women look at vampire films as a power fantasy that challenges rape culture. "Kristin Bauer van Straten talks about how she played the role of Pam, who is this badass vampire in True Blood. It's basically the complete opposite of the way she feels [in her life]. She's said when men walk we never have to worry about where you're gonna park your car in a parking lot and to bunch your keys in your hand. Where, for her, it's a constant thing. But, when she's playing this vampire, she's completely awesome and scary and can kick anybody's ass."

Vampires get their own episode on AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth's History of Horror. The premiere tackled zombies, giving a lot of love to AMC's The Walking Dead, while Episodes 2 took on the slasher subgenre, right in time for the release of Halloween. Other episodes offer insights into ghosts, demons, and "killer creatures," each focusing on a different subgenre, its history, and its socio-political meanings. 

"Horror is something that can reflect the times we live in," Sayenga said. "Slashers were really good, really interesting from that perspective and what kind of social anxieties fuel these films? What leads to things like torture porn? So much of this reacting to what's going on in the culture and to America tortures people, so then we make films that actually show the torture that we imagine is going on behind closed doors."

"The possession episode ("The Demons Inside") is probably the most overtly feminist of all the episodes, in a lot of ways," he pondered. "A lot of those films, when you're looking at Repulsion and The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, Jennifer's Body? They're all very much about a woman's place in society." When planning what movies the show would cover, including the canon classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby was a given. But Sayenga told me he was determined to include the Kusuma/Cody horror-comedy, which was met with mixed reviews upon its release. "All these films are usually about women struggles, but [Jennifer's Body] is actually a film made by women to specifically comment on films about women's struggles."

All that and more is coming up on AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth's History of Horror, as well as appearances from Get Out director Jordan Peele, Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller, horror make-up master Tom Savini. But this might not be all! Sayenga told me that as proud as he is of this show, there's still so much to be said about horror. And he shared some big-name directors he couldn't secure this time around but would love to for a possible second season.

While AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth's History of Horror was shooting its interviews, Guillermo del Toro was interested but too busy to participate, as he was on the Oscar campaign for The Shape of Water, which would go on to win Best Picture and be the first horror film to manage that honor since The Silence of the Lambs in 1992. Sayenga had also hoped to wrangle an interview of Jennifer Kent, the acclaimed director of The Babadook, "But she's based in Australia and was in the middle of making a movie (The Nightingale, which has since won honors at the Venice Film Festival)." But his white whale was, of course, the co-creator of Halloween. "John Carpenter, who's a famous curmudgeon, and difficult to get ahold at the best of times," Sayenga sighed before rallying, "Maybe Season 2."

Maybe Season 2 indeed!

AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth's History of Horror airs Sunday nights on AMC.

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