Roxanne Benjamin

by Geneveive Newman

Roxanne Benjamin. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Roxanne Benjamin. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Roxanne Benjamin tells a story that might have been her introduction into horror: when she was nine years old, Benjamin really, really wanted a pair of sparkle-laced tennis shoes. When she told her friend Jessica, Jessica got the shoes first. One day, Benjamin and Jessica walked home from school along the side of a creek. Under a bridge, they saw a dead muskrat. Maybe because they were nine, or maybe because she was feeling sassy in her new shoes, or maybe for no reason at all, Jessica insisted Benjamin kick it. When Jessica threatened to leave Benjamin alone on the side of the creek with the dead muskrat, Benjamin finally agreed to do the deed. She pulled back her foot (in regular shoes) and punted the rotting, putrid muskrat right at Jessica where it exploded spectacularly. Maggots and gore tangled in the other little girl’s hair, smearing and sticking on her clothes and ruining her prized sparkle-laced shoes. [1]

Benjamin’s horror is like that moment—visceral, poignant, and completely rooted in common events and everyday life. Her body of work covers a large swath of contemporary anthology horror films, with credits as a producer, writer, and director. And with the addition of Body at Brighton Rock (2019) and the announced Night of the Comet (as of now, this is still pending, but Benjamin has turned in a requested script for the remake), she has added feature films to her oeuvre.

Hannah Fierman in “Amateur Night” in  V/H/S , a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Hannah Fierman in “Amateur Night” in V/H/S, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

In an interview for Fangoria, Benjamin explains that the anthology format holds a particular appeal for her as a filmmaker; perhaps it reconnects her with her television start on the show Medium. She explains that she loves the idea of working in TV “because you get to work with so many different directors” and that “that’s what the anthology format allows you to do. […] It’s a very interesting collaborative process that’s completely different than what you go through on the set of your standard feature.” [2] This collaborative process seems to hold a genuine appeal for Benjamin. In her many anthology contributions, she has worked with forty-four different producers, twenty-three different writers, and twenty-two different directors across V/H/S (2012), V/H/S 2 (2013), Faults (2014), The Devil’s Candy (2015), Southbound (2015), and XX (2017). [3]

For Benjamin, though, there is more to anthology films than the many voices they represent. Benjamin is adept at using the medium to its fullest to produce keenly innovative films. Scott Tobias, writing for The AV Club, explains that Benjamin uses these “shorter format[s] to shape intimate, homemade, innovative shock effects.” [4] He says that in 2012’s V/H/S this approach “heightens the [found footage] gimmick’s strength,” even while it limits “the time usually given over for mundane filler.” [5] Now, some might say that this is the point of anthology-style storytelling—cutting out any lag and dross that might happen in a more traditionally styled narrative—but Benjamin’s work as a producer on V/H/S exemplifies how these collections of character-driven stories can fully exploit the loosely connected stories format with adroit framing of the narrative.

In 2015’s Southbound, which Benjamin produced, the pacing evident in V/H/S is employed not to highlight found footage, but instead to really showcase the different characters and their individual storylines. Southbound is made up of five segments, each about people driving across the desert confronting fears, personal demons, sins, and the most foul secrets. The segments are often tight, the camera work close-up and sometimes invasive. The dark in these segments is always terrifyingly opaque; daylight, somehow, maniacally bright. Benjamin also jumped in to write and direct one of the segments, “Siren,” which follows three friends and bandmates as they fall into the clutches of an evil cult.

 The bottom line is that Benjamin knows how to work the film to knock the audience just enough off-kilter to make even the most mundane details horrifying. In a 2019 interview with Michael Gingold, she says, “Everything I write has some sort of weird, quirky element to it. I don’t know how to not do that.” [6] This quality isn’t lost on the critics. When Southbound came out, David Ehrlich of Rolling Stone, wrote that it, “gets under your skin because it knows there’s nothing scarier than realizing that—no matter how far you drive—the evil in your rearview mirror is always closer than it appears.” [7] Ehrlich isn’t the only fan. Movie review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes gives Southbound a solid 80% rating. In a saturated field of anthology films, Benjamin’s stands out as just a little bit grittier, just a little bit nastier, and even more fun.

Benjamin’s XX, arguably the movie that garnered the most attention for her, includes a writer/director credit for the segment “Don’t Fall” and a co-writer credit for Annie Clark’s (musical artist St. Vincent) “The Birthday Party.” XX is a female-driven anthology with the only parameters given to the segment creators that segments had to be directed by women and star female leads. In his review for The Verge, Bryan Bishop praises both of the segments Benjamin worked on, saying “My personal favorites were ‘The Birthday Party,’ thanks to its wonderful irreverence and pitch-black sense of humor, and ‘Don’t Fall,’ which on a sheer execution level is a rocket-fueled nightmare trip full of images I’m still thinking about.” [8]

Breed Wool in “Don’t Fall” in  XX , a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Breed Wool in “Don’t Fall” in XX, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

“Don’t Fall” is a creature-feature of sorts in which four friends on a camping trip are beset by an ancient evil that turns one of them, Gretchen (Breeda Wool), into a bloodthirsty monster. One of Benjamin’s critical choices was to never explain the nature of Gretchen’s monstrosity, but when we do see her, her resemblance to the Algonquian Wendigo and also the presence of petroglyphs open up some interesting questions about the role of indigenousness and gender in the horror genre. [9]

Kate Erbland explains that “Benjamin wanted to present the kind of flawed female character that’s been lost in vague calls for ‘strong female characters.’” [10] In that same interview, Benjamin tells Erbland, “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 … Which, ultimately, is like the least feminist thing I’ve ever seen. That’s completely backwards.” [11]

This is a consistent intention even in Benjamin’s earlier work. To great effect, she uses classic horror tropes, playing up the familiar aspects while subverting pervasive sexist stereotypes. “Don’t Fall,” for example, relies on shots that create feelings of isolation for the characters (and also the audience). She pushes the boundaries with spatial transgressions, again keeping the characters and audience just slightly off-kilter. And she plays with the trope of the Final Girl. [12]

In Southbound, her work also focuses on telling women’s stories, including female characters who are smart and savvy, but also flawed and easily influenced. “Siren’s” Ava (Hannah Marks) and Kim (Nathalie Love), two of the bandmates, are eager and willing to accept help from strangers who are very strange. But Sadie (played with a quiet realness by the perfectly cast Fabianne Therese), the ignored voice of reason, keeps pointing out the weirdness of the situation and tries unsuccessfully to keep them all safe. “Don’t Fall,” though, is where we see Benjamin’s interest in classic representations of female monsters and femininity really push against ideas of what a female character can and should do in a film.

Theatrical one-sheet for  Body at Brighton Rock , a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Theatrical one-sheet for Body at Brighton Rock, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Following her first feature, Benjamin’s upcoming project, a remake of the 1984 campy, post-apocalyptic film, Night of the Comet. As of March 2019 Benjamin has completed a script for the film. [13] The original story provides Benjamin the subjects she does best with, strong female leads. The film follows two young women battling zombie/cannibals after a comet has struck, leading to apocalypse. Like Brighton Rock, this film promises good things for Benjamin, and women in horror, for the future intriguing projects.

Perhaps each one of her experiences and films have led to Benjamin’s first feature film, a horror-adventure story called Body at Brighton Rock. The narrative follows a park ranger named Wendy (Karina Fontes), who, in the tradition of Benjamin’s flawed female characters, is a screw-up. Wendy doesn’t follow directions, doesn’t do what she’s expected to do, and winds up lost in the park, and soon finds a dead body. She must stay with the body overnight until EMTs and the coroner arrive. This is a much quieter film than some of Benjamin’s previous work. In that quietness, it is reminiscent of many canonical horror films. But perhaps its most notable ties are to The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

The connections to Blair Witch derive primarily from a misconception that it is impossible to get lost in America after the advent of global positioning systems (GPS). This misconception frames both films’ narratives and leads to the terror and carnage that befall both Heather in Blair Witch and Wendy in Brighton Rock. It doesn’t seem coincidental that both feature a strong female protagonist, flawed, perhaps even a little unlikable. That unlikability is part of the dynamic. As Benjamin puts it, “‘A character doesn’t need to be likable. They need to be interesting.’” [14]

More compelling, though, is the feeling of a connection to Texas Chainsaw. Of course, these are two very different films. Body at Brighton Rock is about a hapless young woman who ignores the rules and ends up facing both mental and physical threat because of it, and Texas Chainsaw is about a murderous family of misfits and their random and tragic encounter with a group of twenty-somethings. The gore is limited in Body at Brighton Rock and Texas Chainsaw, the latter of which feels far gorier than it actually is. But there is another layer to both of these films. Both of these films follow a complete hero’s quest, which is something of an anomaly for horror.

Karina Fontes in  Body at Brighton Rock , a Magnet release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Karina Fontes in Body at Brighton Rock, a Magnet release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

The hero’s journey is a coming-of-age framework found in many movies, probably most recognizable in adventure stories. As we understand it now, it was originally conceived by scholar Joseph Campbell as a three-part structure (departure, initiation, and return), with each of the parts breaking down into some seventeen pieces. Horror, though, tends to focus primarily on the underworld part of the journey, occasionally narrowing even further into what scholar Evans Lansing Smith calls the nekyia. [15] Smith explains that “The descent to the underworld is the single most important myth for the modernist authors.” [16]

This descent is also fairly important to films, and perhaps horror filmmakers especially. The whole point of an underworld journey is for the hero to make it over the threshold. In horror, that’s usually where the film ends, if not stopping just before that cathartic moment, leaving the resolution somewhat in question. Smith writes that, “the nadir of the nekyia evokes the eye of death, after which the revelations proceed and lead eventually to rebirth.” [17] Horror, of course, features death (threatened or actual) as a way to push the characters toward some kind of change, to the cathartic moment, and in the best cases, leaving the audience feeling mythic rebirth. Wendy, like Tobe Hooper’s Sally Hardesty, not only gets to the threshold and crosses it; she has a resolution that gives the audience a real sense of her growth from her adventure.

In the final scene of Body at Brighton Rock, Wendy is seen laughing at all that’s happened to her. This moment in particular shows her spiritual, mythic relationship to Sally Hardesty. Benjamin’s work on this film as writer, director, and producer provides young female horror fans with a story in which they can see themselves, and perhaps through which they might also begin the process of moving from adolescence to adulthood.

Notes

[1] This story appears in the following interview: ArieScope, HORRIFIED! Episode 2.11 Roxanne Benjamin, 2017.

[2] Michael Gingold, “Q&A: Producer/Director Roxanne Benjamin Takes a Trip ‘SOUTHBOUND,’” FANGORIA®, February 4, 2016, http://fangoriaarchive.com/qa-producerdirector-roxanne-benjamin-takes-a-trip-southbound/.

[3] Gingold, “Q&A.”

[4] Scott Tobias, “V/H/S,” Film, October 4, 2012.

[5] Scott Tobias, “V/H/S.”

[6] Michael Gingold, “Q&A.”

[7] David Ehrlich, “‘Southbound’ Movie Review,” Rolling Stone, February 4, 2016.

[8] Bryan Bishop, “XX Is a Rambunctious Horror Anthology Made by Four Promising Female Directors,” The Verge, February 17, 2017.

[9] For more on this see the chapter “Opening Up” in Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton University Press, 1992).

[10] Kate Erbland, “Rising Horror Filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin Doesn’t Want Audiences to Fear ‘Flawed Female Characters,’” IndieWire (blog), April 26, 2019.

[11] Kate Erbland, “Rising Horror Filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin.”

[12] Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws.

[13] Josh Millican, “Script Completed for NIGHT OF THE COMET Remake at Orion,” Dread Central, March 12, 2019, https://www.dreadcentral.com/news/290899/script-completed-for-night-of-the-comet-remake-at-orion/.

[14] Kate Erbland, “Rising Horror Filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin.”

[15] The nekyia is the segment of the Hero’s Journey in which ghosts are invoked in order to answer questions about the future and impart wisdom and omens. It is situated within the katabasis or underworld portion of the journey.

[16] Michael Gingold, “Q&A: Producer/Director Roxanne Benjamin Takes a Trip ‘SOUTHBOUND,’” FANGORIA®, February 4, 2016, http://fangoriaarchive.com/qa-producerdirector-roxanne-benjamin-takes-a-trip-southbound/.

[17] Evans Lansing Smith, “Doorways, Divestiture, and the Eye of Wrath: Tracking an Archetype,” accessed July 29, 2019.


Geneveive Newman is a PhD student in Film and Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her Master’s Degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on onto-epistemological phenomenology, horror media, and film philosophy. She has published and presented work on mental illness in horror, queer temporality, and (de)colonization in horror media. You can find her online at her website and podcast, Open Ivory Tower.


Additional Resources on Roxanne Benjamin

Bibliography of Further Reading

Carol, Borden. “The TIFF Midnight Madness Blog: SOUTHBOUND: Interview with Director Roxanne Benjamin.” The TIFF Midnight Madness Blog (blog), September 17, 2015.

Corrigan, Kalyn. “Annie Clark and Roxanne Benjamin Talk XX.” ComingSoon.net, February 13, 2017.

Hatful, Jonathan. “Roxanne Benjamin Talks Southbound and Making Female-Driven Horror.” SciFiNow, August 15, 2016.

Miller, Jenni. “The Female Directors of XX Are Exorcising Their Demons Onscreen.” The Cut, February 17, 2017.

Nichols, Amanda. “Bradford-Native’s Fourth Film to Hit Theaters This Year.” The Bradford Era, April 12, 2018.

The AFI FEST Interview: SOUTHBOUND Director Roxanne Benjamin.” American Film (blog), October 4, 2015.

Filmography

Body at Brighton Rock (producer, writer, director) 2019

Final Stop (writer, director) 2018

XX (producer, writer [“Don’t Fall” and “The Birthday Party”], director [“Don’t Fall”]) 2017

Horrified (self) 2017

Southbound (producer, writer/director [“Siren”], actress [Claire]) 2015

The Devil’s Candy (co-producer) 2015

Faults (producer) 2014

V/H/S Viral (co-producer) 2014

V/H/S 2 (producer, actress [zombie, “A Ride in the Park”]) 2013

V/H/S (producer, set electrician, production manager) 2012

Chickens (film short) (producer) 2010

Frequent Collaborators

David A. Smith (producer Body at Brighton Rock, XX, Southbound)

Simon Barrett (producer/writer V/H/S, V/H/S 2; director V/H/S 2)

David Bruckner (producer V/H/S; writer Southbound, V/H/S; director Southbound, V/H/S)

Tyler Gillett (producer V/H/S; writer V/H/S; director V/H/S; cinematographer Southbound, V/H/S)

Brad Miska (producer Southbound, V/H/S Viral, V/H/S 2, V/H/S; writer V/H/S Viral, V/H/S 2, V/H/S)

Radio Silence (producer Southbound, V/H/S; director Southbound, V/H/S; writer V/H/S)

Chad Villella (actor Southbound, V/H/S)

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (actor Southbound, V/H/S)


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