Karyn Kusama

By Katherine Farrimond

Over the last ten years, Karyn Kusama has made a significant contribution to cinematic horror. Her two horror features, Jennifer’s Body (2009), a teen comedy about what happens when your best friend starts eating boys, and The Invitation (2015), a slow-burning paranoia film about a Hollywood Hills dinner party haunted by loss, social anxiety and cults, represent very different engagements with genre hybridity and the terrifying nature of everyday social relations. Most recently the short, “Her Only Living Son,” the final segment of the female-directed horror anthology film XX (2017), asked what raising a demonic son might tell us about masculinity and contemporary culture. Her film work and interviews reveal a filmmaker fascinated by the potential of genre to tell meaningful, intimate stories, as well as one who, frustrated by the limits of both studio and independent productions, takes a creatively pragmatic approach to her work.

Throughout her career, Karyn Kusama has experimented with genre, from her interventions into the sports film (her Sundance-winning Girlfight, 2000) and science fiction (Æon Flux, 2005) to her most recent take on the noir crime thriller (Destroyer, 2018). Beyond this, she has declared an attraction to “hybrid” genre films, [1] and notes that “some of the most important movies of my development are still the movies that dare to take genre or take a conventional narrative shape and then infuse it with ideas and visual poetry and humor.” [2] Her two horror features are marked by generic hybridity. In the case of Jennifer’s Body (2009), she describes the “tricky tonal exercise navigating between three genres: comedy, horror, and teen angst,” [3] while in interviews around The Invitation (2015), she has described the film’s “emotional horror,” [4] its “very black comedy” [5] and the influence of paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. [6] It is this tonal instability that makes these films so compelling. In Jennifer’s Body, the stylized lollypop gothic aesthetic and fast paced jokes trouble the film’s representation of death in a community and the intensities of teenage friendship. In The Invitation, the comedy of manners is underpinned by its protagonist’s paranoia, and haunted by earlier cult narratives, before turning to frenetic and violent horror.

Her interviews reveal an appreciation of horror films as able to reveal “something ugly about our world that is just too devastating to face in any sort of real way. We need horror to assert that teenagers can basically be incredibly thoughtless and cruel, or sometimes a man's ambition will lead him to do something so horrible that you end up impregnated by Satan himself,” a theme that might equally apply to Jennifer’s Body and to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a film that Kusama has cited as a key influence. [7] Horror, for Kusama, can “actually create the dialogue everyone's dying to have about real things.” [8] This has resulted in an approach of “finding your meaning through the backdoor of the plot,” [9] and using horror as a tool for examining those devastating, ugly issues. Indeed, “Her Only Living Son” is an unofficial sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, a film that Kusama has expressed a “complicated” [10] admiration for, given its themes and the history of its director. For her, the short functions as a reflection on “a society that has a hard time punishing a certain kind of man for his violence and for his transgressions against humanity,” [11] as the now-teenage son of her Rosemary avatar, Cory, commits acts of appalling violence which are disregarded by his school. The decision to make the film as both tribute to Polanski’s film, and as condemnation of the absence of consequences for privileged men’s violence powerfully reflects Kusama’s ambivalence.

She expresses a touching attachment to her characters, and to the way that horror enables issues to come to the surface via the unlikely or extreme scenarios of the genre. For Kusama, the horror of Jennifer’s Body is less about cannibalism and satanic ritual, and more about competitive and co-dependent relationships between young women. The film is also about small towns, class, and social capital. She says “I know those girls, I was one of those girls,” and recognizes the awkwardness of “feeling a little smarter than where you’re coming from, but not having any of the social graces to really articulate that.” [12]

Similarly, The Invitation is a film that allows Kusama to deploy her own discomfort with the social world. As a female director, and one whose work has predominantly focused on female protagonists, she has frequently been asked by interviewers to reflect on the experience of making a film with a male lead. Her responses to this tend to foreground her identification with Will, the protagonist: “I am so aligned to him, and understand his paranoia, and his loneliness, and his social anxiety really well.” [13] She also focuses on those aspects of his character and responses to the situation that are rarely seen in representations of men: “a male character who’s grappling with these feelings of isolation, and of being watched and evaluated,” [14] and who is “outside of the status quo, unable to engage or simply surrender to a ‘good time’.” [15] In many of her interviews about the film, Kusama draws attention to the film’s “horror of manners,” [16] and its characters’ struggle to break the unspoken relations of hospitality and guest, even in the face of increasingly troubling events at the dinner party at the centre of the film. In many ways, the film is about the horrors of politeness and social niceties.

Kusama’s interviews also reveal a preoccupation with grief and with the complexities of public mourning in her horror films. Deaths are at the centre of both The Invitation and Jennifer’s Body. In the former, Will and his ex-wife are grieving their young son, killed accidentally several years previously, and in the latter, several townspeople are killed in a bar fire. Both films explore the negotiation of mourning in social and institutional life. In The Invitation, Will has to navigate a dinner party where his ex is extolling the virtues of her new spiritual approach to death, one that advocates a complete refusal of the pain connected with loss. As Kusama asks, while the idea of being able to turn off our pain like a tap might be appealing, “what does that mean—not just for him, but for us as a larger society—what does it mean to negate our pain, or to seeing that as useless? What it boils down to for me is that it’s pretty horrifying.” [17] At the same time, it is clear that Will’s ongoing pain has become alienating, embarrassing and uncomfortable for his friends. The film’s concern about politeness overlaps with the expectation that grief be neatly managed, not overly drawn out or allowed to spill over into arenas where it is not welcome. Kusama describes Will as the “wet blanket” at the party which is “a very transgressive place to be.” [18]

Jennifer’s Body also addresses these themes, often in more explicitly comic ways. On hearing a student screaming for his life in the woods, a well-meaning teacher misinterprets this as the healthy expression of sadness at the deaths of family members, teachers and fellow students in the fire. The band who performed on the night of the fire become venerated as heroes, and their music the “unofficial anthem of unity and healing” which the band exploit as a charity single, of which 3% of the profits go to the community. A cult of memorial takes hold of the school and the media, as the commemoration becomes increasingly divorced from the events that inspired it. Kusama notes that “I liked the idea of memorials starting really bountiful, filled with a lot of care, and then just get decrepit and lose the sense of people really remembering.” [19]

However, this exploration of complex themes through genre is always informed by the complexities of getting films made in the first place. A frustration and pragmatism about making films emerges throughout Kusama’s discussion of her career in general, and her horror work more specifically. The backdoor through which meaning can be found is sometimes one of genre by necessity. She observes that, particularly as a woman working in Hollywood, genre films “get made a little bit faster” [20] than straight dramas. In interviews with Kusama, there is a clear pull between a love of horror and a desire to tell different, less saleable stories that risk never being made, or only reach a tiny audience.

Following a career trajectory that began in independent cinema (Girlfight), took in two studio productions (Æon Flux and Jennifer’s Body), and then returned to indie filmmaking with The Invitation, Kusama is well-positioned to reflect on the compromises that both studio and independent productions entail. While independent filmmaking allows for creative control over editing, pace, and final cut, studios mean the “infrastructure to get movies made” [21], but can also mean that the film may be gutted in the final edit, as famously happened with Æon Flux. [22] It is this dichotomy between autonomy and resources that Kusama argues is particularly felt by women filmmakers for more than straightforwardly creative reasons:

“it's extremely frustrating when I see the careers of some of my male counterparts who are given those things: they’re given both financial resources and a large degree of creative autonomy and respect […] there's a part of me that can't accept that creative autonomy for women translates into an economic ghetto […] I don't want to recommend that other women continue along it because you can't sustain it, if you have a family, if you have a mortgage to pay, if you have rent to pay, if you want to put food on your table, you can't live on the salaries that come from these micro budget films.” [23]

In making Jennifer’s Body, however, Kusama was able to close the gap between creative control and studio support, something which she attributes to the role of Diablo Cody in the film’s production: ‘‘It was key that she had just won an Oscar and was in the very, very distinctive and unusual situation of being a ‘famous screenwriter.’ […] She had a certain amount of power so we could introduce a new idea, or alter an existing idea without executives breathing down our necks.” [24]

While Cody’s star-writer power enabled them to make the film without too much studio intervention, it, along with Megan Fox, who played the eponymous character, was also the centre of much of the distain that Jennifer’s Body attracted. Throughout her interviews, Kusama was, and remains, effusive about both women and the professionalism and care they brought to the project. She discusses Cody’s dialogue enthusiastically, [25] and speaks extensively and affectionately about Fox’s sensitivity to the character. [26] In particular, she is keen to emphasize not only the seriousness with which Fox approached the film, but also the significance of this role to Fox’s career: “she wanted to not take herself too seriously but that she wanted to be taken seriously in the process of making the movie […] She knew that she had a lot to prove with the movie, and she was really open to trying different things and talking about her character.” [27]

The film, however, was released in an environment where women like Fox and Cody—women who, in their different ways, both embody a confluence of outspokenness and sexuality—were directly in the firing line of dismissal and loathing from both film critics and burgeoning online misogynists. As Kusama observed in 2016, “it was just unfortunate timing, I guess.” [28] Alongside the praise of her work, Cody had attracted negative attention since her first film, Juno (2007), for both her work (as relying on unrealistic, overstylized “quirky” dialogue) and her public persona (much attention has been drawn to her former career as a stripper, and to her feminism), [29] while Fox was understood as both bimbo sex-object for her work in the Transformers franchise and her pin-up status, and as ungrateful and untalented for her public criticism of Michael Bay, the franchise’s director, during the summer preceding the release of Jennifer’s Body. [30] Speaking during the film’s promotion, Kusama notes that “The hostility that you read towards Megan and Diablo in that community makes me feel like they’re a bunch of American terrorists sitting in their basement waiting for their dinner to be made by their mom. I hope it’s meatloaf.” [31]

And while Cody’s involvement in the film deflected some of the usual studio intervention, the marketing too was a different issue. During an on-set interview, Kusama was already expressing concern that the film would not be marketed in a way that would best serve the film she had made: “I wouldn't be surprised if the marketing was much more about selling the provocative elements of the story […] They're going to use probably the sexuality and some of sort of the teenage lust element which is the very thing we're sort of skewering in the movie.” [32] Ultimately, these suspicions proved correct, and, despite its feminist sensibility, Jennifer’s Body was promoted by 20th Century Fox as “a movie about Megan Fox looking hot,” [33] rather than a film “made by women and about women […] a movie for girls.” [34] This has led Kusama to emphasise the importance of taking a more active role in the marketing process, as she reflects that “I see now how it is really important to push back on the poster, the trailer, the press notes […] It's really important to have that dialogue with people who are getting your movie out into the world to see if they see the same movie.” [35]

The Invitation has presented different marketing challenges. As another hybrid horror, and a film where the plot turns precisely on questions of genre (is this a horror film? Is Will entirely paranoid?), promotion proved a challenge. Having learned from the experiences of Jennifer’s Body, and with the freedom granted by an independent production, Kusama commented that “It’s a challenge to market the core narrative ideas of a film, particularly when it’s a psychological thriller that builds steadily on the suspense but doesn’t give away its secrets for a while,” [36] and that the decision to work with Drafthouse on distribution was informed precisely by their shared sense that “people need to go into this film as cold as possible,” [37] adding that “I hope we’re doing a good job with The Invitation in at least promising people an insane ride, if they are willing to accept that patience will be rewarded.” [38]

Kusama’s career has been about making meaning in popular forms, and loving the way that genre can enable encounters with topics that drama may not. She is continually working to find ways through the gendered limitations of both studio and independent film, in order to tell personal, interesting stories through genre. Her passion for horror films in particular is palpable, and she cites 2008’s Let the Right One In (“a masterpiece” [39]) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) [40] as films that deploy horror in sophisticated, exciting ways. Whether through the gloss, irony, and prickly urgency of Jennifer’s Body, the paranoia, claustrophobia and social dysfunction of The Invitation, or the reflection on contemporary cultures of violence, acceptance and motherhood of “Her Only Living Son,” Karyn Kusama’s horror films represent a passionate continuation of this tradition.

Notes

1. Katie Rife, “The Invitation’s Karyn Kusama on New Age cults and fighting for your vision,” The AV Club, 12 April 2017.

2. Staci Layne Wilson, “Karyn Kusama - Interview with the Director of Jennifer's Body,” Horror.com, 17 September 2009.

3. Scott Macaulay, “Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body,” Filmmaker Magazine, 9 September 2009.

4. Todd VanDerWerff, “Karyn Kusama's brutal new film explores the horror of religion and dinner parties,” Vox, 9 April 2016.

5. Katie Rife (See Note 1).

6. Girls on Film, “From Girlfight to The Invitation: Karyn Kusama,” YouTube, 18 March 2016.

7. Britt Hayes, “‘XX’ Director Karyn Kusama on Evoking ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and Living in an Upside Down World,” Screen Crush, 17 February 2017.

8. Headgeek, “Karyn Kusama and Mr. Beaks Anatomize JENNIFER'S BODY!Ain’t It Cool News, 18 September 2009.

9. Ibid.

10. Britt Hayes (See Note 7).

11. Jonathan Hatfull, “Karyn Kusama on XX, Jennifer’s Body, Breed and why ‘horror is where we’re at’,” Scifi Now, 28 April 2017.

12. Ryan Turek, “Exclusive Interview: Jennifer’s Body Director Karyn Kusama,” Coming Soon, 9 September 2009.

13. Katie Rife (See Note 1).

14. Christina Radish “Karyn Kusama on The Invitation, Working as a Female Director, and Ambiguous Endings,” Collider, 8 April 2016.

15. Kav P, "Interview: The Invitation Director Karyn Kusama on Purposeful Diversity and Complicated Characters,” The Mary Sue, 12 April 2016.

16. A term suggested by interviewer Britt Hayes (See Note 7).

17. Nick Allen, “Freedom of Mind: Karyn Kusama on The Invitation,” Roger Ebert, 6 April 2016.

18. Christina Radish, “Karyn Kusama on The Invitation, Working as a Female Director, and Ambiguous Endings,” Collider, 8 April 2016.

19. Ryan Turek (See Note 12).

20. Jack Giroux, “Interview: ‘The Invitation’ Director Karyn Kusama on Crafting Her Unsettling Thriller,” Slash Film, 8 April 2016.

21. Nick Allen (See note 17).

22. For more on this see Adam B Vary, “‘I'm Not Going Away, People’,” Buzzfeed, 8 April 2016.

23. Sarah Dobbs, “Karyn Kusama Interview: XX, Women in Horror, Scary Movies in Times of Adversity,” Den of Geek, 8 May 2017.

24. Scott Macaulay (See Note 3).

25. Ryan Turek (See Note 12).

26. Headgeek (See Note 8).

27. Scott Macaulay (See Note 3).

28. Rachel Simon, “Why Jennifer's Body Got So Much Hate, According To Director Karyn Kusama,” Bustle, 12 April 2016.

29. For more on Cody’s public persona, see Katarzyna Paszkiewicz, “When the Woman Directs (A Horror Film).” In Genre, Authorship and Contemporary Women Filmmakers, eds. Mary Harrod & Katarzyna Paszkiewicz, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018, pp. 44.

30. Robert Quigley, “Megan Fox vs. Michael Bay: A Timeline,” The Mary Sue, 20 May 2010.

31. Ryan Turek (See Note 12).

32. Staci Layne Wilson (See Note 2).

33. Adam B. Vary (See Note 22).

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Kav P (See Note 15).

37. Dan Solomon, “Karyn Kusama On Finding The Perfect Team To Make The Invitation Creepy As Hell,” Fast Company, 4 May 2016.

38. Girls On Film (See Note 6).

39. Sarah LaBrie, “Director Karyn Kusama talks about her ensemble horror film The Invitation,” The Verge, 22 Mar 2015.

40. Todd VanDerWerff, “Karyn Kusama's brutal new film explores the horror of religion and dinner parties,” Vox, 9 April 2016.


Dr. Katherine Farrimond is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. Her research explores gender and sexuality in contemporary media. Her monograph, The Contemporary Femme Fatale was published with Routledge in 2017, and she has published numerous articles and book chapters on representations of girlhood, femininity, sexuality and the uses of the past in popular culture. She is book reviews editor for Feminist Theory Journal and co-managing editor of REFRAME. You can find her on Twitter @KMFarrimond.


Additional Resources on Karyn Kusama

Bibliography of Further Reading

Farrimond, Katherine, "Supernatural hymens and bodies from hell" in Roberts, Jude, and Esther MacCallum-Stewart. Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy: Beyond Boy Wizards and Kick-ass Chicks. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Kooyman, Ben. "Whose body? Auteurism, feminism and horror in Hostel Part II and Jennifer’s Body." Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, vol 1, no. 2, 2011, pp. 181-195.

Select Filmography

Destroyer, 2018, director

Halt and Catch Fire (TV series), 4 episodes, 2014-2017, director

XX (Segment “Her Only Living Son”), 2017, director, writer

The Man in the High Castle (TV series), 2 episodes, 2015-2016, director

Masters of Sex (TV series), 1 episode, 2016, director

The Invitation, 2015, director

Speechless (short film), 2013, director

Jennifer’s Body, 2009, director

The L Word (TV series), 1 episode, 2007, director

Æon Flux, 2005, director

Girlfight, 2000, director, writer

Frequent Collaborators

Martha Griffin (producer, Girlfight, Æon Flux, The Invitation)

Phil Hay (writer, Æon Flux, The Invitation, Destroyer)

Matt Manfredi (writer, Æon Flux, The Invitation, Destroyer)

Theodore Shapiro (composer, Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation, Destroyer)

Nick Spicer (producer, XX, The Invitation)

Plummy Tucker (editor, Girlfight, Æon Flux, Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation, Destroyer)


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