When Julia Ducournau took the stage at the midnight Toronto International Film Festival screening of her film Raw on Monday night, she acknowledged that she does not look like your typical horror filmmaker. "They’re usually a lot hairier," she said.
Dressed in a slinky black dress and bedazzled Louboutin stilettos but in an effortless Frenchwoman way, she looked more like a leading lady than the writer-director of a film so gory it had audience members wincing and shielding their eyes. And this particular late night audience welcomed — even clapped for — blood and guts.
Ducournau, along with festival darling Ana Lily Amirpour, whose latest film The Bad Batch also thrilled audiences at TIFF, are changing the face of horror, not only by subverting the notion that gore is best left to the men, but also by creating films that are more than just gratuitous violence porn. While Hollywood views the genre as B-movie cash cows, these writer-directors are elevating horror to acclaimed fodder for the film festival circuit. Just ask the jury: Raw claimed an International Critic’s Prize at Cannes and The Bad Batch earned a Special Jury Prize in Venice.
As filmmakers, the two women have a lot in common. Both favor special effects over CGI. Both are prone to layering synth-heavy electronic music over their goriest scenes. Both employ a biting humor, sometimes literally. In fact, both Raw and The Bad Batch deal with cannibalism. However, the ways in which they approach storytelling, visually and through dialogue, is what makes them unique, equally compelling young talents.
Written in English and featuring an eclectic cast of crowd-pleasers including Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey, Amirpour’s Bad Batch is sure to find a wider audience than her acclaimed 2014 Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Described by the director as “a psychedelic Western,” the film is centered around Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), who finds herself cast out of mainstream society, as part of a “Bad Batch,” and left to fend for herself in a mesmerizing Mad Max-esque landscape, ridden with cannibals who quickly devour her arm and leg.
While it’s easy to draw parallels to immigration policy and Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border, the story stems from a more personal experience. “I started writing it at a time when my reality and my personal life were going through a lot of savage changes, and whenever that happens you sort of re-figure out who you are,” she said. “So I had this picture of a girl in the middle of desert missing an arm and a leg and bleeding, but still alive. How she would go on and make it? That’s how I felt at the time.”
To figure out how to remove Waterhouse’s limbs with minimal CGI, Amirpour turned to her “special effects guru magician” Tony Gardner. “We built a nub — a piece [Suki] wore on her body — and her arm would be behind her, and then we removed the arm,” she explained. “What you see looks really fleshy and real.”
Ducournau, on the other hand, turned outward, towards her imagined audience, to find inspiration for her French coming of age cannibal film Raw. “I wanted to make a movie that subverts the audience’s morals by making them like a character that suddenly started acting in a way that we would construe as inhuman,” she says. “So I thought about the three taboos of humanity: murder, incest and cannibalism.” The director quickly scrapped murder (“You see it in every movie”) and incest (“Way too dark for me”) and settled on cannibalism, which fit with her preoccupation with the human body.
Set in the horrific environment of "frosh week" — traditionally, a weeklong Canadian collegiate bacchanal, more or less — the story follows a veterinary student named Justine (Garance Marillier) as a series of extreme hazing rituals transform her from an introverted vegetarian to a hedonistic party girl with an insatiable thirst for human flesh. What appears onscreen is brilliantly horrifying (and occasionally LOL), but Ducournau likened production to summer camp, during which the crew was eager to dip their fingers in fake blood and feed on fake flesh (it’s made from the same stuff as Gummy Bears).
Female characters in horror films are often there to be scantily clad and brutally murdered, but Amirpour and Ducournau grant their protagonists nuanced arcs and, whether eating or being eaten, a badass sensibility. Evidently it’s time to rethink the look of horror films and horror directors, but for those who aren’t ready for that, Ducournou is offering to bridge the mental gap. “I haven’t shaved in a couple of weeks," she said.
Watch the stars of TIFF do a dramatic reading of Drake's "One Dance."