Entertainment

Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska break into the boys' club of horror movies

Vancouver twins Jen and Sylvia Soska are leaving their feminist mark on the male-dominated world of horror and comic books.

Twin sisters talk about remaking David Cronenberg's Rabid and writing Black Widow for Marvel

Filmmakers Jen Soska, centre, and Sylvia Soska appear on the set of Rabid, their remake of David Cronenberg's classic horror, in Toronto. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

If there's a book on how to be a female storyteller who's inoffensive to the Hollywood establishment, twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska would probably send a chainsaw through it in one of their films. 

The Vancouver-born horror writer-directors have dedicated much of their careers to doing things female filmmakers aren't expected to — tackling the male-dominated horror and and superhero genres. Their remake of the David Cronenberg classic Rabid comes out next year and they're also putting their spin on one of Marvel Comics' key female characters by writing new issues of Black Widow.

Upending horror's penchant for portraying women as victims is a large part of their motivation, the Soskas say, following an appearance on a "women in horror" panel at this month's conference for the Directors' Guild of Canada. 

"We gotta make sure everybody gets murdered!" said Sylvia.

'Insane' pressure

That kind of thinking earned them a cult following, and the twins landed on many "female horror directors to watch" lists after American Mary, their 2012 movie about a medical school student who moonlights as a surgeon performing extreme body modification.

Sylvia Soska discusses the reality that inspired American Mary:

Sylvia Soska, alongside her filmmaking sibling Jennifer, talks about how the real-life outrage and injustice felt by sexual assault survivors inspired their 'terrifying' character American Mary. 'She gets to be powerful.' 1:27

Though American Mary gave them indie horror cred, the Soskas will have a bigger spotlight — and face greater scrutiny — ​when their Rabid remake is released next year.

"When you handle a piece as iconic as anything from David Cronenberg, there's an insane amount of pressure and you have to know what you're getting into," said Sylvia. 

The essential story remains the same: A young woman named Rose is disfigured in a motorcycle accident and wakes up in a hospital only to find out she has transformed into something not quite human after experimental surgery. 

But the Soskas' version comes with their own feminist perspective.

We may have written [the comic] as a Black Widow script.—  Sylvia Soska

The horror of Rabid "isn't limited to the body horror or the biological stuff, it's the actual horror of being a woman living in this world, too," said Jen, pointing to the scenes in which men incessantly touch Rose. It's a discomforting sensation female viewers pick up on, she added.

But the sisters are quick to add that they don't treat their female lead with kid gloves.

If anything, "there's a lot more suffering for Rose. You live in the mentality of a woman in this world."

Sylvia, left, and Jennifer on set of Rabid, which comes out next year. (Amanda Matlovich/Back 40 Films)

Powerful, capable, angry

Rabid is not their only dream project. Their take on Black Widow — which focuses on Natasha Romanoff, one of Marvel's Avengers — will launch in January. The character, played by Scarlett Johanssen in the movies, was previously killed in the comics by a deranged Captain America and resurrected. 

The Soskas squeal from delight when asked about it: "We're sooooo excited!"

"We got to bring her back as a purely powerful, very capable and very angry woman," said Sylvia.

"She's like: 'I need to go somewhere where I'm not an Avenger. Where this bad mood and this lethal training actually have a really good purpose.'"

The twins let it slip that the "good purpose" is hunting down child sex traffickers.

Jen and Sylvia discuss their take on Black Widow:

Jennifer (left) and Sylvia Soska, the twin Canadian filmmakers Marvel tapped to write a new comic series about Natasha Romanova (aka Black Widow), outline what's different about their forthcoming take on the popular Avengers character. 1:09

They also let it slip that they'd like to direct the next Black Widow movie. (The first is to be directed by Australian Cate Shortland.)

"We may have written it as a Black Widow script," Sylvia said of the comic. 

"Black Widow 2 could be a rated-R movie. And rated-R movies do really well. It would be really cool to see Scarlett Johanssen rip apart everyone."

'Last frontier'

While not shy about touting their achievements, the Soskas are also cheerleaders for other women in the industry, especially those directing horror and action movies. They love the success Patty Jenkins had with Wonder Woman, for instance, but would also love to see a woman direct a superhero franchise led by male characters, like the Avengers.

They've also earned the respect of women directors who came before them. Mary Harron, who spooked the world in 2000 with American Psycho, is one of their mentors. She gave the Soksas notes on their early script for Rabid.

"I think horror is still a kind of last frontier, you know, for women," said Harron, who was also at the DGC conference.

"It allows you to have a lot of freedom in your content. You know, you don't have to have a wonderful consoling message. If you want to do something dark, that's the area to do it," she said.

"I'm excited to see what they'll come up with."