Nightmare Royale #18: The Spiritualized Vengeance of Karen Lam (On the Women Who Bring the Change, Pt. II)Columns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better),Movies/TV,News John Skipp
Yes, my friends, here at Nightmare Royale, it’s still “Women In Horror Century.” (Just seven months and 85 years to go!) This time, the kickass creator in question is writer/director Karen Lam, whose hauntingly violent and provocative second feature EVANGELINE comes out on DVD tomorrow (already streaming on iTunes and Amazon as we speak).
EVANGELINE is a strange beast indeed. At first glance, it could be easily tagged as just another horror riff on the well-worn female revenge saga (innocent young woman, beset by deranged sexual predators, taking matters at last into her own wet, red hands). And if that were all there was to it, it’s still a taut and immensely stylish one, with some nasty and gripping scenes indeed.
But somewhere deep into poor Evangeline’s grim victimization, Lam drops a stunning psychic bomb. It’s a vision of Eva’s soul, chained to a chair in a windowless room, helplessly experiencing what is happening to her body but completely unable to resist.
But she’s not alone in the room. There is a demon in there with her. A demon that means her no harm. A demon that can help her. If she only lets it in…
At this point, EVANGELINE transforms from a movie you’ve probably seen before into something I’ve sure as shit never seen before, weighing the soul-cost of vengeance against the ugly thrill of killing the worthless fucksticks who just robbed you of your life. More than a little like THE CROW, but with a much keener and more aching sense of karmic accountability and transcendence. And a shimmering beauty to even some of the ugliest moments: Terrence Malick meets LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, with frat boys, war veterans and God.
I first learned of Lam through the late, great Viscera Film Festival, which made a point of showcasing genre fare by female directors. Her short DOLL PARTS (which thematically presages EVANGELINE) showed me a filmmaker with immense precision, unflinching intimacy and an artist’s flair for the painfully macabre. She followed it with THE MEETING, a hilarious black-comic take on an AA-style gathering for serial killers, which won Best Film and deserved it entirely.
As a fan—and with all this in mind—I asked her a couple of questions about being a woman in horror. All the hows and the whys. Her excellent responses are below.
JOHN SKIPP: You started in the biz as a lawyer and producer. Lemme ask you: Why are there far more women producers than directors? And how did this help fuel your career as a director?
KAREN LAM: For me, it was a no-brainer. I have a degree in English Lit, minoring in music and comparative religion, and a financial background. Producing was a natural fit: I could read/analyze scripts and then deal with all the financial and legal issues for putting together films. I wasn’t the type of producer who was an on-set wiz—I had a producing partner who had a line-producing background—so I dealt with everything else.
I think for a lot of women, producing is a way of running the show that takes a lot less ego. It’s about solving problems, organizing and getting things done, and often being happy with a supporting role. I would never have been a director or writer if I hadn’t been a producer first. Even now, a lot of how I run the set is based on what I learned from my training as a corporate manager and as a producer. The set is my workplace, so I keep things running as smoothly as I can. People think it’s really creative, but most of the creativity is in the writing and the planning. Directing is about executing the vision, and that means being a good boss.
SKIPP: EVANGELINE is a female revenge story with a deep metaphysical core. To me, the most powerful element was the struggle inside her soul: the better angels and hungry demons of her nature, waiting for her go-ahead to engage in mercy or mayhem. What brought you to this angle of attack? Also, if you would, discuss the balance of beauty and hardcore horror in your aesthetic.
LAM: I love images that are beautifully macabre. I’m not attracted to hardcore ugliness, but I believe my natural aesthetic is toward seeing art in the world around me. I painted at a very early age, I’m a classically trained pianist and I studied fashion design before dropping out and going to law school—with the intention of starting a fashion line. I’m influenced by the art direction of Floria Sigismondi, photographs by Irving Penn and Joel-Peter Witkin, so that probably comes across in the films.
EVANGELINE is influenced by my own philosophical struggles between revenge and justice. In Christianity and most world religions, we are told that forgiveness is crucial to our soul’s salvation. We will never be free if we carry the burden of anger and hatred in our hearts. And yet, when I see what is happening in the news, I don’t think justice is served when we continually turn the other cheek. Evangeline’s struggle is the struggle I see happening in the world around me: How do we vindicate the victims, while not escalating the violence?
SKIPP: What’s your relationship to horror, as a genre and/or an emotional ingredient of your work?
LAM: I grew up immersed in horror literature, so I have a much broader definition of what constitutes horror. In cinema, I think the industry—and even the audience—have a narrow view of what is considered horror, but we need to expand those definitions and push against the structures. I love the horror-themed anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, and what always strikes me is the wide breadth of literature that the term “horror” encapsulates. There is always a sense of dread and unease that draws me in, but then everything else is wide open. I hope to be able to explore this in all of my projects, whether they’re features, short films, web series or television. I think the boundaries are already starting to erode, and I’d like to take that further.
As for my own artistic voice, when I first started making movies, it was a challenge to think about what defined me, but I find the more films I make, the less it even crosses my mind. Your voice evolves from the work, and then it’s impossible to separate who you are from what you create.
SKIPP: To what extent does gender have anything to do with how or why you make movies?
LAM: For me and my work, I don’t think it’s possible to take gender out of the equation. I have a lens through which I view the world and write my stories. It affects which stories I’m attracted to and the characters I want to develop, and when I’m directing, my specific gender lens affects how I cast, where I put the camera, how we put the films together. And now, with the imbalance in our industry, I can’t imagine not making movies or writing. People need to see stories from both men and women on screen, whatever the size of that screen. I don’t think we as a society can function or evolve without achieving a better balance. It affects the men in our world just as significantly.
SKIPP: To what extent has your gender influenced studios/production companies and audiences receiving your work, up or down?
LAM: We’ve been incredibly blessed to have EVANGELINE screen around the world, and our world premiere was at the Monsters of Film Fest in Stockholm, Sweden, where gender balance is an issue for their country as a whole. What was incredible was seeing how engaged both men and women were with the issue, and how it affected their viewing of the film. They were not just interested in what they saw on screen, but the balance of men and women in key creative positions. The screening and discussions afterward had a profound effect on me, and continue to influence how I move forward with my work.
I’ve been working professionally in the film and television industry since my 20s, and I realize that I never felt any resistance stemming from my gender until I started writing and directing. As a producer, I didn’t think there was a glass ceiling, but the moment I switched tracks, I slammed into the wall so hard my forehead bruised. A lot of what I have experienced is systemic: People say things, and none of us seem to react until much later. We normalize what we hear until we see it in writing. There is much more awareness now, and I’ve met so many amazing female directors, especially in the horror community—I owe a huge debt to Heidi Honeycutt, Stacy Hammon, Shannon Lark and the Etheria/Viscera organizations for giving me the support and community I needed to go down this path.
SKIPP: So what do you hope to express to your audience, when you go to the dark place?
LAM: I hope that my films affect people; whether they love or hate them, it’s more important to me that they talk about what they’ve seen and that it sticks with them. I’m offering up a position, ideas and hopefully imagery that provokes a reaction.
SKIPP: Much as I love everything I’ve seen to date, THE MEETING is still my personal fave. It’s soooo funny; but in the paraphrased words of Homer Simpson, it’s only funny because it’s true. The awful things being said by these homicidal guys are being said with the ring of utter sincerity, in an atmosphere of trust. This is the real deal. How did you pull that off?
LAM: I wrote and directed THE MEETING after working for five months as a series director on a true crime series for Investigation Discovery, VERY BAD MEN. The series profiled serial killers, rapists. I watched a lot of footage of interrogations and confessions, and spent a lot of time in the heads of narcissists and psychopaths. The short was cathartic for me, because you can’t work with real-life pain like that without having a conduit. It ended as a dark comedy because it was the only way I could get through the material every day. I had to turn off my own conscience and find the gallows humor in what I was doing.