“Do you like horror movies? Too bad—you’re in one now!”
That’s how writer-director Sylvia Soska describes Hellevator, the latest project with her twin sister, Jen. It’s a horror-themed game show where contestants descend into a basement, facing their worst fears on every floor. If they can’t handle what they find there, the elevator moves on without them: Think of it as Survivor meets Dante’s Inferno.
It’s their first foray into television, following their indie film work in 2012’s American Mary, a smartly feminist revenge fantasy that helped earn the Soska sisters (aka the “twisted twins”) a loyal cult following. In addition to a second revenge flick, Vendetta, out this year, they’ve teamed with Jason Blum’s powerhouse horror production company to bring Hellevator to the small screen.
“You’ll lose if you’re doing it just for the money,” says Jen. “Taking a ride on the Hellevator will make you face your fears and show you what you’re made of.” We couldn’t think of anything that might scare this fearless duo, so we sat them down for a chat about horror trends, succeeding as female creators in the thriving indie industry, and what they’re wearing for Halloween.
What is it about elevators that makes such good fodder for horror?
Sylvia: Identical twins and elevators have a rich horror history, or at least that’s what repeated viewings of The Shining have taught me. An elevator makes for a perfect transport between different chapters of an interactive horror movie, which is what Hellevator essentially is. There’s a limitless unknown creeping in the darkness as it opens on floor after floor.
Jen: There’s essentially one cable, one big cable, holding the whole thing up. My mum used to work for an elevator company ages ago for a while, and she told me if you knew how little was holding them up, truly no one would take them. Any time I’m in a really packed elevator, I think about that. There’s really also no way to ride an elevator without your personal space being compromised or having that awkward silence slowly riding with a stranger.
Hellevator also sets up the classic “don’t go in the basement” scenario by challenging people to go in the basement. Have you filmed an episode yet with a basement you wouldn’t go into for any amount of money?
Sylvia: I’m probably a terrible judge because I love things that would put most good-sensed people off. The scarier, more creepy and terrifying the basement or Labyrinth (as we call the final bottom floor challenge for Hellevator), the more I want to go down there and play!
“Watching final girls in horror films gave me a sense of strength, growing up very unpopular and constantly picked on.”
Jen: The Labyrinth is in the basement of the slaughterhouse that we film in and is our most terrifying challenge each week. And I do indeed watch the contestants who are clever and brave enough to even make it to that round and think, “They must be insane, I’d never want to go through there!”
When (woefully misinformed) people start arguing with me that horror isn’t feminist, one of my first counterarguments is always that it’s not only full of feminist themes, it’s also a great arena for actual women like you guys to create independent cinema and build a creator-controlled industry. Can you talk a little about what the process has been for you, coming up as indie creators in this business, and then moving from that to working with Blumhouse for Hellevator?
Sylvia: It’s been very odd because we deal with sentiments like that all the time with these false gender tropes about horror. We grew up watching horror movies with my mum; it was the ultimate girl time. Watching final girls in horror films gave me a sense of strength, growing up very unpopular and constantly picked on. Horror is a genre for survivors. If you’ve ever been to a horror convention, you know that the horror community consists of the most kind, genuine, and thoughtful people. I think that the people who get it just get it. People like Jason Blum who have vision and follow-through, who create the trends rather than trying to chase them. I have been blessed with the opportunity to take all of my weirdness and apply it in my field of work. Hopefully, people will start to form opinions based on facts rather than headline journalism, which is where a lot of these misinformed [people] get their “insight.”
Jen: I hear that all the time, too, and wonder where anyone would get such an ignorant notion. The horror genre, more so than any other genre, is a very feminist genre. Just look at the final girl archetype and watching her transformation over the years from the sweet, virginal Laurie Strode [from Halloween] to the beat-you-senseless-and-take-charge Ellen Ripleys. I remember watching Alien with my mum and being so scared in that final scene with her and the cat and the alien. I didn’t want to watch to see what was gonna happen to her, and my mum told me that it was gonna be OK. Ripley always wins. What that statement meant to me as such a young girl really had a lot to do with the woman I became. The women in these films weren’t side characters or someone’s relative or someone’s girlfriend. They existed on their own value without their existence being defined purely by their relationships to some male character. You can’t say that about most genres.
And the women behind the camera! Alice Guy alone made over 700 films, many of which ended up being attributed to male crew members, as women at that time weren’t considered capable of such a feat. She was indeed among the first to use a camera for fictitious works. So, in that way for me, it’s a responsibility to not only continue to do strong work, but to bring people’s attention to the strong work being done or that has been done by women. It’s been a wonderful battle working with Jason Blum and Blumhouse as they are very supportive of women and us and our work. We’re in fact working on the right film to make together and we couldn’t be happier.
Speaking of Blumhouse, Jason Blum is a total powerhouse in the industry at the moment. Based on your experience, what kinds of things need to shift for the industry to allow women that kind of power and influence in their own production companies?
Sylvia: Filmmaking is all about storytelling. I could never tell a story about a person as well as a person who has lived that experience. We see so many critics and audience members complaining that we don’t see enough women or POC represented properly in cinema, but if those aren’t the people behind the scenes telling the stories, how can you hope to get accurate representation? What I like about Jason and Blumhouse is that they are tastemakers who aren’t afraid of being different. They have a film coming from Jordan Peele called Get Out, which is a horror film that also deals with racism in a very clever way. Being a fan of both, I was ecstatic when I read that news.
“For the last 32 years, I have functioned as a team. When I talk to any of my friends who are also directors, I have no idea how they tackle everything that gets thrown at them.”
Jen: Hiring them, for one thing. It’s a vicious circle. Women don’t get hired, they apply and fight for jobs. They lose out to men who hire their friends, saying, “Oh, she doesn’t work enough,” or “Well, she’s never made a film at this budget,” and it’s because they never get the opportunities to. However, it happens for men all the time. They’ll go from one no-budget indie to Spider-Man and no one bats an eye or questions his ability to make that leap.
Do you find that working side by side has given you guys more power in your filmmaking, or has it ever felt like a hindrance?
Sylvia: For the last 32 years, I have functioned as a team. When I talk to any of my friends who are also directors, I have no idea how they tackle everything that gets thrown at them. Jen and I divide and conquer on our sets. We can talk without even having to do more than a look; it’s a perfect partnership. I suppose we could direct separately, but that sounds like it wouldn’t be half as much fun!
Jen: We could both work individually, but I don’t see why we’d ever want to. It is a hard industry, particularly so if your age and gender often come under attack as a hindrance rather than a benefit. Just being two young and ambitious girls starting out in this industry is a real challenge. I don’t understand how one young guy can be seen as an auteur, no problem, but even with all the features and shorts we’ve made, people still hem and haw over whether we ought to be considered directors or not. There is absolutely strength in numbers, and we’ve been through some really tough times. I can’t tell you just how much of a comfort it is to have someone as strong and capable as Sylv by my side.
Lately it seems gothic horror is making a comeback with things like Penny Dreadful, Dreadpunk, arguably things like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and of course Crimson Peak. Are you seeing anything new coming out of this phase, or does it feel like a retread?
Sylvia: There are so many subgenres within horror, a person could spend a lifetime trying to make a film for each and still never come close. I love gothic style; it reminds me of the ’90s where we were obsessed with the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. I will have to check out Dreadpunk. I adore A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. I think Ana Lily Amirpour is a genius, and she should be given a billion dollars so we can keep getting her unique gems of films.
Jen: I find it fascinating as I have noticed quite a few films following this trend, and in the case of many, including A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, they are independent films. I think studios spend too much time trying to find out what the trend or next big moneymaker is without actually listening to what the fans want. Fans are outspoken and direct. You see their tastes reflected in indie films far more so than that of studios. I hope there are more gothic horror films, there’s just something so seductive about that subgenre of horror.
“I adore A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I think Ana Lily Amirpour is a genius, and she should be given a billion dollars so we can keep getting her unique gems of films.”
Earlier this month, Movie Pilot put out a list of 53 “best” directors that flippantly explained that no female horror directors were good enough to be in the list, while mentioning you guys and Mary Lambert as “almosts” that just didn’t quite rate. Is this why you enjoy making revenge films?
Sylvia: Aw, man, they said that? It sucks because there have been writers on that site that super support us, but I’m used to the “not good enough” label. You grow a very thick skin in this industry. My goal is to just keep working and making films that I enjoy making. Once you start making your art for someone else, then it’s not your art, anyway. Besides, everything I do is mostly to amuse Jen.
Jen: That’s really insulting and you never see anyone shit on male directors like that. And certainly not as often. It’s really an uphill battle trying to win over the ignorant and opinionated. I don’t think a lot of these so-called “reviewers” will appreciate our body of work until we’re long gone. It’s like we say in American Mary: “No one appreciates artists and their work. Usually you have to die and then everyone goes around saying what geniuses you are.”
What are some of your favorite films to watch this time of year?
Sylvia: You know, The Guest is the film I never grow tired of watching. I can have the worst day and put that on and my day is sexy and cool. I am pretty much obsessed with horror movies; my favorites for right now would be Pontypool, Martyrs, Audition, I Saw the Devil, Excision, Resolution, Kill List, Suicide Club, Halloween, The Exorcist, Creep, Funny Games, Taxidermia, Pieces, Blue Velvet, Julia, We Are Still Here, and Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Jen: Oh, wow, SO many! Dead Ringers, Trick ‘r Treat, Tokyo Tribe, Interview With the Vampire, Scream (every Scream film in the franchise!), Black Christmas, I Saw the Devil, Suburban Gothic, the list never ends. Especially if anything comes on TV. Then it’s pretty much blasphemy to not watch! [laughs]
What are you guys going as for Halloween?
Sylvia: So far, I am going as Batgirl, Spider-Girl, I have a masquerade costume, and my Hellevator costume. So far only four Halloweenings for us this year!
Jen: I’m going as Harley Quinn, and I got the cutest Captain America costume! We’ll also be hitting Magic Castle for their Halloween celebrations, so we’ll be dressing all fancy masquerade style.
Illustration by Max Fleishman