Here’s how much Karyn Kusama adores the 1968 horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby: Even if a major studio gave her carte blanche (and final cut) to remake the chilling Roman Polanski-directed original about a woman (Mia Farrow) who discovers she’s carrying the devil’s spawn, she’d have to turn the offer down. “I can’t go there,” the writer/director tells Yahoo Movies. “Remakes of films I love are a thing for me; it feels like too much responsibility.”
While remakes might not be her style, Kusama — who launched her career with the 2000 boxing drama Girlfight — isn’t shy about wearing her influences on her sleeve. Certainly, her 2016 thriller, The Invitation (one of Yahoo Movies’ picks for the 10 Best Horror Movies of 2016), channeled vintage Polanski in its atmosphere of slow-burning tension. Meanwhile, “Her Only Living Son,” Kusama’s contribution to the recently released horror omnibus XX, is a direct homage to Rosemary’s Baby. (XX is currently available to rent on Amazon and other VOD services, and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 23.)
“Her Only Living Son” involves a single mother, Cora (Christina Kirk), whose son, Andy (Kyle Allen), is on the cusp of his 18th birthday, a milestone age in more ways than one. See, 18 years ago, Cora’s absent husband offered his wife as a vessel to carry Satan’s son in exchange for Hollywood superstardom — the same deal that Rosemary’s actor husband, Guy (played in the 1968 film by John Cassavetes), accepted in Polanski’s film. And now that the boy is of age, his real father has big plans for his future. First, though, Satan’s gotta go through Cora, and he’s about to discover that a mother’s love is just as powerful as the devil’s evil.
“Her Only Living Son” is the fourth of the four scary short films in XX, all directed by female filmmakers, including Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Box), Annie Clark (also known to music fans as St. Vincent; “The Birthday Party”), and Roxanne Benjamin (“Don’t Fall”). Although the individual films do not share characters or storylines, three of the four are united by a common theme: the horrors of motherhood. “The Box,” for example, revolves about a suburban mom (Natalie Brown) who dispassionately watches her family starve themselves to death, while “The Birthday Party” casts Melanie Lynskey as a housewife forced to hide her husband’s dead body on the morning of their daughter’s birthday festivities. “I’ve been trying to understand why that might have happened,” Kusama says of the maternal element that unites XX‘s disparate shorts, one that she says wasn’t planned in advance. “It’s unusual and makes this experiment interesting as a way to see other [women’s] visions of the world.”
Beyond mommy issues, Kusama uses “Her Only Living Son,” to explore what she calls the “domestic violence parable” embedded in Rosemary’s Baby. “I was interested in the notion that the story’s primary evil starts in human form, with this ambitious man who is willing to sacrifice the woman he claims to love for fame,” Kusama explains. “I’ve always wondered what could have happened to Rosemary if she had gotten some help, and I wanted to explore a kind of alternate future for that character in which she gets the opportunity both to assert her independence, but also face the realities of having a really troubled kid.”
The idea of a woman’s freedom being sacrificed for a man’s profit was also at the center of Kusama’s 2009 film, Jennifer’s Body, written by Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter, Diablo Cody. Where “Her Only Living Son,” plays the premise straight, Jennifer’s Body attempted to blend horror and comedy, which didn’t prove to be a winning recipe at the box office. In a lengthy 2016 interview with Buzzfeed, Kusama discussed how the eccentricities of Jennifer’s Body — which have since helped make it a cult favorite — initially defeated the marketing team at 20th Century Fox. “They were so uncertain about really embracing the reality of the movie, which is that it was made by women and about women, and that the ultimate goal was to make a movie for girls,” she said at the time.
The Jennifer’s Body experience came directly on the heels of Kusama enduring another famously troubled female-led mega-production, 2005’s Aeon Flux, and led her to step away from the studio world, where female filmmakers consistently confront more limited career options than their male counterparts. And even as directors like Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVernay are blazing new trails with blockbusters-in-waiting like Wonder Woman and A Wrinkle in Time, Kusama says she feels no immediate desire to helm, say, the next Fast and the Furious movie, even if it does have Girlfight star, Michelle Rodriguez firmly ensconced in Dom Toretto’s extended family. “Those movies have gotten so gigantic, that it’s honestly hard to imagine me doing that,” she says, laughing. “But more power to the people who created a franchise that shows that all kinds of people watch [blockbuster] movies — not just white male teenagers.”
“I’d love to find something between The Invitation and Wonder Woman budgets,” Kusama continues. “Much as I can really love big splashy studio films, I’ve experienced the baptismal fire of making them, and I don’t wish to replicate those experiences anytime soon. I leave it to other women to lead the charge for what I hope will be more opportunities in that field.”
Horror movies, on the other hand, are a field in which women are demonstrably finding increased opportunities…albeit often on their own dime. The low-budget XX joins a wave of handmade, female-helmed horror movies that includes recent success stories such as The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Kusama herself reportedly will be staying in the genre for her next movie, Breed, which is the kind of elusive mid-range studio project she’s been hoping to find. (The film is set to be released by 20th Century Fox, giving them a potential opportunity to correct their mistakes with Jennifer’s Body.) “There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening by women in horror right now, and a lot of it seems to be more self-generated than going through the normal channels of studios and agencies. For right now anyway, I’m just looking to avoid films that are so big, it feels like they need to be managed by armies, not just made by them.”
‘XX’: Watch a trailer for female directors’ horror anthology: