On the heels of my review of Sorority Row here on Monster Land, I was contacted by the director of SR, Stewart Hendler. After I recovered f...
Interview with Stewart Hendler of Sorority Row
As we’ve seen in the past with films like feminist Rita Mae Brown’s Slumber Party Massacre, it can be hard to make a horror film with a positive message for women. How did you set out to do just that?
All horror movies are (or attempt to be) morality tales, so there’s a built in structure that allows you to use them to make a statement. I’m a big fan of the genre, but not particularly proud of how it treats women, so I wanted to do something different with Sorority Row.
When I read the script, it appealed to me because it examined a very particular and very bizarre subset of American culture—the sorority. Built on the principles of sisterhood and service, I truly believe that sororities are not intrinsically bad institutions, but they’ve evolved to a place where their founding ideals are clouded by the ancillary activities—like drinking, debauchery, and the quest for a “good husband.”
SR’s script was clever because it celebrated the idea of “sisterhood” but condemned the misappropriation of that word. I wanted to point that out in the film, and make a movie where the girls who worked together survived, and those who were only out for themselves paid the ultimate price.
You’ve mentioned that you’re a fan of 80’s horror films like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street. Who are some of your favorite final girls in horror?
There are a bunch of resourceful, smart, empowered final girls in horror, but for some reason I just love Sidney Prescott in Scream. She feels like the first true modern final girl, and that movie sees both her and Gale Weathers—a totally different take on the empowered female—survive.
What in your personal experience inspired you to make a horror film with a positive feminist message? Are there any notable women in your life who might have influenced your point of view?
Well there are honestly too many to count. I don’t have sisters, but I have grown up with amazing female friends and a mother who would give any crazed killer a run for his money.
You've compared your film to Scream numerous times. What about Wes Craven’s movie inspired your critique of the sorority system?
A couple things. First of all, it was the first film that took at look at the genre from a bird’s eye view, simultaneously sending up and celebrating the clichés. It also broke the rules in a way that rewarded characters for relevant virtues (like courage, strength and integrity) as opposed to antiquated ones (like chastity and conformity).
At the end of the film we end up with three final girls. Rumer Willis, Caroline D’Amore and Briana Evigan strut away as the sorority house burns to the ground. How did you come up with this ending configuration of powerhouse women?
Well Cassidy goes without saying. She’s the obvious moral compass of the story; she’s against the prank and ensuing cover up, and therefore deserves to live. She is not virginal though, and I thought that was important.
Ellie’s character, to me, is about redemption, and I like the notion that although she didn’t step up early on to prevent the accident, she fights through her fear and eventually comes into her own as a woman—thus saving the day.
Maggie was a bit tricky, but there are a couple things at play. For one, Cassidy and Ellie have to save her as penance for their participation in the death of her sister; she redeems their misdeed. Secondly, she’s a very self assured, smart, empowered girl, and in my mind that wins her the right to live.
But, when you look at the coda, I think it could be argued that her survival is more complex than that. Maggie is also the only girl who rivals Jessica’s self serving bitchiness, and we end the film with Maggie at center stage within the rebuilt Theta Pi. I think it’s left to debate whether she truly “survived” the incident, or is doomed to go down the same wrong track.
Caroline D’Amore’s character Maggie ends up sleeping with Jessica’s (Leah Pipes) boyfriend and would have died according to the formula of any other T&A slasher. What where you trying to do differently?
This is mostly answered above, but I’m very against the notion that sex = death, and tried to subvert that wherever possible.
The film is highly critical of the Greek tradition. We’re you ever a Greek yourself? And if so what did you pledge?
I wasn’t part of the Greek system, which is perhaps why I find the whole thing so fascinating. My parents were, as were many of my friends, and like I said before, I don’t think the film is binary in its analysis of the system. Sororities and Fraternities preach some good principles, but the movie certainly tackles the potential negatives within the modern Greek system.
If the film were an outright condemnation of Sororities at large, Cassidy and Ellie would have probably not been Greek. But it is, after all, the notion of “sisterhood” that allows them to survive to the end.
You've hinted that you might continue in horror if the material is fun and has a voice. Can you elaborate on what this means for you as a director?
I really love the movie we got to make with Sorority Row, but the vast majority of the horror scripts I read are pretty run-of-the-mill. I obviously like the genre’s potential to play with conventions while giving the audience a good scare, but I’m also excited to try something new. We will see—hopefully this won’t be my last horror film though!
Critics have come down hard on the film, calling it nothing more than a rehash of Mark Rosman’s “The House on Sorority Row” What do you say to that type of comment?
Well, I’m incredibly heartened to see that many people understood what we were trying to do—play with the clichés and make a movie with a message—but if people miss that and dismiss the film entirely, that’s really their loss.
Horror is never reviewed fairly, but I think a critic who didn’t notice what were doing might want to brush up on their genre history—it’s a pretty accessible film.
What about horror interests you as a genre?
I think I alluded to it above, but I love the genre because it has such a well-established langue at this point. The conventions and consequences are so entrenched that you can really play with the message by either subscribing to or subverting those expectations.
Unlike most horror fare, the tits and gore in your film seem to have a purpose. How did you use the conventions of the slasher film to make a statement?
I’m glad you thought that, because the whole notion of female sexuality was something we were playing with. From the girls playing a sexually charged prank on Garrett, to their snide critique of one another (“What is this, the dry hump Olympics?” “Does silicon float”) to Chugs sexual nonchalance (“I don’t have time for catch me rape me,” “Cheers slut”), everything was designed to put sex and sexuality in the fore, and hopefully stir the pot a little bit.
As for the T&A, I’d be lying if I said every bit of nudity in the film was there to make a subversive statement, but the big moment when Jessica forces the Riley to disrobe definitely was. The shower scene in these movies is required, but hopefully there’s something thought provoking about girls using their physicality as a power play against one another. The spat where Jessica attempts dominance by forcing Riley to drop the towel only to be countered by Riley’s confidence in her “perfect tits” was definitely intentional.
There’s one last thing I think is relevant. You’ll notice there are no redeemable male characters in the film at all. From Andy (obviously) to Kyle, Mickey, Garret and the Senator, each one is fundamentally flawed.
Even tertiary male characters in the background are almost always 2 dimensionally sex crazed jerks (“Chugs, give me a beer, and a BJ!” to “I just got tested it’s cool,” to “Danny give me my shirt—come and get it!”).
Read more about the DVD and Blu-Ray release of Sorority Row at Shock Till You Drop
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