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Not Your Scream Queen: Portland Horror Film Festival Bolsters Female Voices


The vampire Lilith plays with her food in Monica Demes' feature film "Lilith's Awakening."

The vampire Lilith plays with her food in Monica Demes’ feature film “Lilith’s Awakening.”

Courtesy of Monica Demes

This year, Portland Horror Film Festival is flipping the script by trying to get more women behind the camera. In honor of Women in Horror Month, founders Gwen and Brian Callahan waived submission fees for female directors. In only its second year, the festival’s count on female directors jumped from six to 15. That’s more than double the amount of female-directed spooky flicks than last year.

“Women are very underrepresented in horror movies,” Gwen said. “Most of the time, they’re treated as little more than objects. I think that made it much harder for women to be taken seriously in horror … it’s up to the director to take the time to explore that.”

Monica Demes is one of the many directors that submitted during the month of February. Her film “Lilith’s Awakening” is a psychological art house vampire thriller with a feminist twist.

Growing up in Brazil, she hungrily watched every vampire movie she could find.

“Since I was a little girl, I was always attracted to the moment where the girl was bitten,” she said. “And she’s taken to the darkness … and she will never see her family or her friends again, she will never see the sun again. But there’s something so good about that bite that she can’t help it.”

Of all the undead films, Demes loved Terrence Fisher’s 1958 “Dracula.” With Christopher Lee as Dracula, the protagonist, Jonathan, travels to the vampire’s castle to take up a librarian job. After his fiancee is taken by Dracula, Jonathan fights for her honor and saves her from his clutches. Although the film fascinated her, Demes says it always left a bad taste in her mouth.

“They would kill Dracula in the end, and the woman is not rescued to have her own life, she’s rescued to become a wife,” she said. “She could have powers over all the beasts in the world, but in the end she has to go back to Jonathan … who sells houses. I was always upset about that ending. So that’s the moment when I decided this has to change, someone has to do something about this.”

Monica Demes' "Lilith's Awakening" is the first feature film to come out of the David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts at the Maharishi University in Iowa. 

Monica Demes’ “Lilith’s Awakening” is the first feature film to come out of the David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts at the Maharishi University in Iowa. 

Courtesy of Monica Demes

And she did. She made a short film called “Halloween” that caught the eye of David Lynch. In 2014, he invited her to his Graduate School of Film at the Maharishi University in Iowa. Her film “Lilith’s Awakening,” is the first feature to come out of the program. It flips the Dracula narrative by tracing it back to the first woman, Lilith, who was cast out of the garden for her disobedience.

“Lilith’s Awakening” tells the story of Lucy, a suppressed and lonely woman stuck in a loveless marriage with Jonathan. She finds solace in her dreams, where a vampire named Lilith urges her to tap into her inner darkness. After a friend of her father’s makes a pass at Lucy, her inner Lilith awakens and wreaks ultimate havoc.

“The film makes a lot of games with Dracula. We use the names of the characters, but we are working with a woman who is powerful instead of Dracula, and that’s Lilith, a symbol of woman’s strength.”

Izzy Lee also serves up female-fronted revenge in her short film “For A Good Time Call…” A gory play on the idea of “revenge porn,” Lee’s protagonist is your typical heterosexual frat boy that learns a gruesome lesson.

“He decides that he is going to record a sex tape with his girlfriend in secret and not tell her about it and upload it to the internet,” she said. “She finds out and her life is turned upside down and she wishes that very bad things happen to him.”

An arrogant man posts a private video of his girlfriend to the internet and pays the price in Izzy Lee's "For A Good Time, Call..." 

An arrogant man posts a private video of his girlfriend to the internet and pays the price in Izzy Lee’s “For A Good Time, Call…” 

Courtesy of Izzy Lee

Her wish comes true in the form of a bloody vengeance demon.

Tara Price also gives us unsettling, pun-driven horror in “Earworm.”

“It is one man’s battle for his sanity,” she said. “It’s psychological with a little bit of gore.”

Price’s unsettling short film about a song that takes corporeal form is sure to make your skin crawl.

“I don’t want to overgeneralize, but it seems to me if you look at a lot of the films directed by women this year, there’s a lot less gore in the films directed by women, but a lot of more creepiness,” Gwen Callahan said. “They don’t rely on just blood and guts to scare us. There’s a much more layered approach to their storytelling. We need to make room for that.”  

Thanks to the Callahans and these filmmakers, we are getting fresh horror films with women who do more than just scream.

Portland Horror Film Festival will be at the Hollywood Theatre from June 8 until June 10. If you want to hear more about “Lilith’s Awakening,” Sophia Woodward who plays Lucy will be doing a Q&A onstage at the festival on Saturday, June 10.

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