Mapping Contemporary Cinema

A short guide to the Soska sisters

Soska 2To a serious cineaste, identical twins Jennifer and Sylvia Soska may not be instantly recognisable names. Any critical appreciation of their work rests solely on their second film American Mary (2012), which garnered mixed reviews. Their films are associated with the “splatter anti-aesthetic” (Crane 157) of Herschell Gordon Lewis, a filmmaker who emphasised gratuitous violence over coherent narrative in a bid to maximise box-office receipts. At first blush, then, one could dismiss the Soska sisters as schlockmeisters who make films with little artistic merit. The sisters, however, occupy a fascinating place within the contemporary cinematic landscape. The Soskas critique misogynistic stereotypes of women through their films and their directorial persona, appropriating conventional narrative constructs and visual signifiers of female characters and playing then against the grain in an erotic spectacle of body horror and pornography. This feminist self-reflexivity asserts an equality between men and women in their capacity for violence, and warns of the catastrophic disruption misogyny causes to gender relations.

Whereas female horror filmmakers like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook (2014)) have depicted female interiority, the Soska sisters are more interested in societal structures and how they reinforce patriarchal excess. Their use of horror tropes to explore power relations echoes the early works of Wes Craven, one of their acknowledged influences (Leader). Like Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), victims of violence in the Soskas’ films are faced with two options: they can either submit and face annihilation, or they can seek revenge. These victims are often women, violated by men in positions of authority. These positions, such as the priesthood in Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), are revealed to be rife with misogyny, allowing men the opportunity to assault women with impunity. The only way that women can avenge themselves is to take matters into their own hands, often with brutal consequences.

The Soska sisters’ films can be considered as rape/revenge narratives. Here, a character, often female, seeks justice for sexual assault by tracking down the perpetrators, mutilating their rapist in revenge and becoming as “violent as her assailant” (Clover 123). This violence is justified by the narrative’s focus on the victims’ reaction to their assault, intensely detailing how the victim processes their ordeal. One of the most infamous rape/revenge films is Last House on the Left (1972) in which a girl is brutally abused by four escaped criminals. After her death her parents seek revenge, and in the film’s most notorious scene, the girl’s mother fellates one of the rapists, only to bite his penis off. Critics have argued that films such as Last House on the Left have “little social merit” (Wells 87) due to their highly conservative law of retaliation, in which they frame savage revenge as a just punishment. Such films have also been criticised for their inherent misogyny. The fellatio/murder sequence provides the audience with the erotic gratification of seeing a woman in a submissive position, and then seeks to absolve itself by framing the sex act as one of righteous revenge. Yet, others have championed rape/revenge films as vital in an era where violence has become normalised in news and popular culture, especially against women. By making the audience watch “the unspeakable, the unimaginable and the unthinkable” (Wells 88), the viewer is forced to accept that sexual assault is not simply a harmless spectacle; it is violent and traumatic for the victims. Such a message is timely considering recent scandals involving revenge porn and leaked photos of celebrities in intimate situations and the election of Donald Trump, who has bragged about sexually assaulting women.

Soska 1American Mary exemplifies the rape/revenge narrative. Mary (Katherine Isabelle) is initially an anxious medical student, desperate to become a surgeon. After being raped by her lecturer Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), Mary undergoes a personality change. Kidnapping Dr. Grant, Mary subjects him to multiple surgical procedures, including the amputation of both his legs. Post-rape, Mary wears fetishistic latex dresses and immaculately straight hair in place of her usually dishevelled appearance. There are multiple shots of her applying makeup with intense precision. By presenting a controlled exterior, Mary attempts to suppress her trauma by suggesting that it has not affected her. Yet Mary’s uncanny appearance signals how her desire to take control is a consequence of the emotional and psychological damage resulting from her attack. Her new outfit evokes comparisons with another abuse victim who violently assaults men, that of Asami, the female lead of Audition (1999); a film the sisters claim accurately depicts “the true psychopathic nature of a woman” resulting from the violence of men’s actions (Krischer). Mary becomes “cold as ice” (Kiy) after the assault, speaking in a bland, neutral tone reflecting her lack of emotional engagement.

The Soska sisters rationalise their character’s revenge by deploying ironic black humour. In T is for Torture Porn, their contribution to The ABC’s of Death 2 (2014), a group of misogynistic pornographers degrade Yumi (Tristan Risk), a woman auditioning for their film. They force her to take her dress off, slap her breasts and push their fingers down her throat. Yumi sits on a chair in the middle of a room, isolated, as the ringleader films her from a handheld camera, roaming up and down her body. The Soskas cut to the camera’s point of view, evoking Gonzo pornography, which uses point of view camerawork to create the illusion that the viewer is part of the scene. Yumi’s evident discomfort at her treatment, however, forces the audience to consider the latent misogyny of the genre; a woman is gazed at and reduced to a sexualised object. Yumi avenges herself by revealing her tentacled genitalia. She proceeds to punish the men, anally raping them while laughing demonically. Humour is generated through an intertextual reference to tentacle rape pornography, a genre whose very name implies violent sexual sadism. The allusion is emphasised by Yumi’s archetypal Japanese name and bright blue manga style eyes. By reversing the traditional gender roles of tentacle rape, the Soska sisters offer a rebuttal to the inherent misogyny of the genre.

While the sight of abusers receiving karmic justice may seem satisfying, the brutality of their punishment raises questions about the reactionary nature of the rape/revenge film. Yet the Soskas frame their revenge narratives as the logical conclusion of power relations in a patriarchal society, where a woman’s recurrent oppression, objectification and violation will eventually result in tensions coming to a head, culminating in acts of violence. The eruptions of violence echo films of the New French Extremism, another cited influence. These films foreground bodily “penetration, mutilation and defilement” (Quandt 19), either in sex or through violence, as a way to dramatise social and political tensions. For instance, Frontier(s) (2007) hyperbolises “the crises of the banlieues” (Austin 283) and France’s fraught race relations, depicting a narrative that revolves around a clash between a group of young immigrants and a family of cannibalistic neo-Nazis. The violent spectacle of Dead Hooker in a Trunk, American Mary and T is for Torture Porn serve as a manifestation of female rage against misogyny. In the Soska’s world, sexuality has been corrupted from something pleasurable into a way for men to subjugate women. For women to break free of the patriarchy, they must violently displace their oppressors and take their power back.

Yet characters are also shown to manifest their anger at the system by altering their outward form to frustrate fetishisation. American Mary also explores how body modification can bridge the gap between physical appearance and an individual’s perception of themselves. The character of Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg) wishes to have her genitals removed, explaining that she wants to appear like a doll, who can be naked ‘and never feel ashamed’. Female nudity features heavily in slasher horror films of the 1980s, where promiscuous young women are shown naked and then are violently killed. Ruby wishes to escape being sexually objectified, and feels the only way to do so is to physically de-sex herself. The Soskas celebrate Ruby’s desire for self-definition. Her surgery is scored with gentle piano music, suggesting that while the procedure may seem shocking, especially the closeups of her severed labia, it brings Ruby closer to a state of grace, where she is comfortable with her appearance and feels liberated from the objectifying gaze.

Soska 3The Soskas also rework long standing horror stereotypes into feminist celebrations of sexuality in their directorial persona. In a photo taken for an interview with ‘Bitch Flicks’ (2014), the sisters stand in a doorway in identical blue dresses, clearly referencing The Shining’s (1980) iconic twins. Yet instead of the immaculate outfits of the original, the Soskas wear blood splattered dresses, their legs bare as they stare into the camera. Identical twins have traditionally been either objects of pornographic fetish, such as adult performers Shana and Roxy Lane, or of a de-sexualised evil, such as the twins in The Shining. By incorporating elements of sensuality into their evocation of an iconic horror image, the sisters blend the two stereotypes together, disrupting the dichotomy that reduces women to objects either of arousal or fear. An active disruption of cliché is evident in the sisters’ interviews, which simultaneously emphasise their cheery demeanour and their fascination with violent horror films.

Born in Canada in 1983, the sisters’ interest in horror films was sparked by a viewing of Poltergeist (1982) at the age of nine (Williams). After an unsuccessful stint as actresses, they switched to filmmaking, producing Dead Hooker in a Trunk for $2500. This caught the attention of Eli Roth (Schildwachter) who encouraged them to make American Mary, a film inspired by an April Fool’s Day prank Jennifer had found online (Rose). Their interviews involve them talking over one another and giggling over subjects like pornography, video games and World Wrestling Entertainment. As well as Audition, the sisters cite Martyrs (2008), Excision (2012) (Leader) and Hellraiser (1987) (Woloschuck) as major influences on their work. All three films focus on the experiences of active female protagonists dealing with trauma, a theme that features heavily in the sisters’ oeuvre.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, the sisters have constructed a unique brand that distinguishes them and their films from other directors. Their presence is as much a draw to the film as the quality of the film itself. The sisters emphasise their persona by appearing in their own works, in a similar manner to Hitchcock’s cameos. In See No Evil 2 (2014), for example, they play two corpses in a morgue. They also host their own television show, Hellevator (2015-), where contestants tackle horror themed challenges for a cash prize (Thompson), much as Hitchcock was involved in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962). While Hitchcock’s persona was built on a certain aloofness, the Soska sisters are highly personable. They freely give interviews and maintain an active social media presence, posting on Instagram and Twitter about witchcraft, spiders and comic book characters. Their publicity photos frequently feature them clad in low-cut and tight fitting dresses, with stylised Goth makeup. While their apparel may evoke male sexual fantasies, the sisters neuter this via their clever and iconoclastic personalities and the style and content of their films. The sisters create a space for female horror fans where sexual stereotypes are transformed into assertions of female individuality, sisterhood, anger and critique.

The work of Jennifer and Sylvia Soska blends an appreciation of horror cinema with a celebration of female sexuality and a pointed critique of misogyny. By appropriating elements of both horror and pornography that reduce women to sexual objects, externalising the rage felt by women in such positions, the sisters celebrate female empowerment. They solicit a male audience to confront their position of social dominance and they disrupt gender stereotypes that reduce women to objects of male pleasure. In an age where gender equality is the subject of heated debate, and the presence of Donald Trump in the White House appears to legitimise the misogynistic treatment of women, the brutal and challenging films of the Soska sisters raise necessary questions about gender relations in the 21st century.

References

Austin, Guy. “Contemporary French Horror Cinema: From Absence to Embodied Presence.” A Companion to Contemporary French Cinema. eds. Alistair Fox, Michel Marie, Raphaëlle Moine and Hilary Radner. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. 275-288. Print.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

Crane, Jonathan. “Scraping Bottom: Splatter and the Herschell Gordon Lewis Oeuvre.” The Horror Film. ed. Stephen Prince. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 150-166. Print.

Kiy, Elizabeth. “Talking with Horror’s Twisted Twins: An Interview with the Soska Sisters.” Bitch Flicks. 1 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.

Krischer, Hayley. “A Battle to the Grave: An Interview with the Soska Sisters.” The Hairpin. 30 Oct. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

Leader, Michael. “Jen & Sylvia Soska on American Mary.” Film4 Blog. 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Quandt, James. “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema.” The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe. eds. Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011. 18-25. Print.

Rose, Steve. “The Soska Sisters are the new faces of horror.” The Guardian. 11 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.

Schildwachter, Zach. “Tying One On With The Twisted Twins- An Interview with Film Makers Sylvia & Jen Soska.” The Bloodsprayer. 19 Jun. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Thompson, Simon. “Horror Queens The Soska Sisters Talk Bigger Budget ‘Hellevator’ Season Two and Their ‘Rabid’ Remake.” Forbes. 7 Oct. 2016. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2000. Print.

Williams, Aaron. “Exclusive Interview: The Soska Sisters of Dead Hooker in a Trunk.” Coming Soon. 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

Woloschuk, Curtis. “Jen and Sylvia Soska on American Mary.’ Filmmaker Magazine. 29 May 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Written by Ethan Lyon (2017); Queen Mary, University of London

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