A horror movie that lingers well past the telling and disturbs our sense of well-being (at least temporarily) is a work of art. It’s a genre rife with slashers and forgettable (but fun) “teen dating crowd” flicks, but very few leave a scar. That takes talent and skill. And maybe, even, the feminine touch. Female creatives have the ability to sneak in, join us in the dark, uncharted subconscious, and then hit hard. The bleeding doesn’t stop for days. So much for the ‘gentler’ sex, right?
This is what Canadian horror writer and filmmaker Karen Lam does best. She never misses either. Bullseye. She knows what you’re afraid of and what disturbs you and goes right for the jugular. She openly admits to her own fears and sets out from there. “I only write and create what gets under my own skin…” she tells us in the Q&A below. Maybe that’s one of the reasons she connects so well with her audience, and elicits such a strong emotional response to the horror she ’causes’ on screen.
She knows how to tell a good story while often tackling some sensitive issues. Her second feature film Evangeline is a supernatural revenge fantasy about a young girl who is raped and killed by a group of sociopathic frat boys and comes back from the dead for justice. The short film The Stolen is a dark fairy tale where an innocent little girl is tricked into making a fateful wish…
Both these films (our favorites here at MsHorror) are also visually stunning, a rare treat in horror movies.
You can watch The Stolen below and also the trailer for Evangeline.
Before we get to our Q&A here’s a little bit more about our guest. Karen Lam is an ex-lawyer, former Investigation Discovery producer, and a cat lover, who makes adorable hats and sweaters as well as award winning horror movies.
She started working full time in the television and film industry in 2000 and has made an indelible mark on the horror genre. Her work has garnered numerous awards, including Best Director and Best Film, and extensive screenings at international film festivals. In addition to feature films and shorts, she’s also written and directed a web series, Mythos. In 2016 she worked as a story editor for the SyFy television series “Van Helsing” under showrunners Neil Labute and Simon Barry. Later this year she’ll be working on her third feature film. And did we mention she’s also written a novel?
So here she is, a formidable storyteller, a lady who’ll scare the hell out of you, entertain you, but also force you to think – Horror Writer/Director, Karen Lam.
According to author Douglas E. Winter: “Horror is not a genre, it is an emotion. It is a progressive form of fiction, one that evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times.” As a filmmaker and writer of horror fiction, how would you describe horror?
Karen Lam: I think horror creates the feeling of deep visceral dread, perhaps a fear for our own mortality or that of our characters.
Do you agree that horror cannot be so easily categorized and is indeed more fluid than other genres? And isn’t this emancipating for creators of horror?
Karen Lam: I prefer a wider definition of genre so that we encapsulate more than just slasher films. I hear people tell me that they don’t like horror films but when you dig into it, it’s more often that they don’t like slasher films. When you look at films programmed at genre festivals around the world, it’s clear that the term “fantastic” is more fitting. It allows for the genre-bending films that defy any one description. As a filmmaker, expanding the genre makes you feel freer to create something original and not feel stymied by what’s tried and true.
When did you start developing a taste for the macabre? What were your favorite ‘scary stories’ as a child?
Karen Lam: My dad used to tell me really dark fairy tales every night before going to sleep, which I loved. One of my favourites was Bluebeard, which I used as the basis for my first short film, “The Cabinet.”
How did you become a filmmaker? Why this ‘genre’?
Karen Lam: I started in the film industry as an entertainment lawyer and a financial producer. I didn’t start writing or directing until about ten years ago when I applied for (and got) into the National Screen Institute (Drama Prize), a film training program in Canada that also funded short films. It set me on this path. I can’t imagine working in any other genre. It’s the only thing that ever comes out of my brain.
There are all kinds of categories within the horror ‘genre’; slasher, suspense, Gothic, supernatural, even alien abduction. What kind of themes/styles do you like using to elicit fear in your viewers?
Karen Lam: I use a lot of Asian horror but mainly because I love the aesthetic and the kinds of scares. I watch and read quite a lot of Gothic horror, especially in literature, as well as crime thrillers. I like suspense and dread more than I like outright gore, and I love programs that use the macabre well.
Which horror authors and directors have influenced your work?
Karen Lam: I grew up with Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier, Neil Gaiman, and of course Stephen King. I love Asian horror like the Park Chan-Wook, Takeshi Miike, the Pang Brothers (anything from Tartan’s Asian Extreme, really) but also Stanley Kubrick, Michael Haneke, the Coen Brothers. I’m lucky to count Tank Girl director Rachel Talalay as a personal mentor and real-life friend.
You are a successful director and producer, with many awards and accolades under your belt. But how hard was it to gain recognition as a female director in an industry (and genre) largely dominated by males?
Karen Lam: It’s a matter of numbers and opportunities. Getting the chance to make films, to work in the industry as a writer or director is a daunting task. It’s hard enough to get your foot in the door — there’s so many talented people and so few positions. Adding the systemic barriers and the opportunities just makes it so much harder. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the support and chances I have in the Canadian system, which has let me make the films. How well the films work with audiences after that is a matter of trial and error.
Why do you think there’s a gender gap in this genre?
Karen Lam: There are so many reasons, but most stem from access to financing. Getting enough money and resources to make a film is a huge challenge for all of us. I’m lucky that my background was in finance and producing before I even considered writing or directing. It meant that I had a solid handle on at least part of the job.
Do you think more women than men are inevitably drawn to the work of female horror writers and directors like yourself? Or is the gender of viewers pretty even?
I find that women tend to approach me more to discuss my career and role in the industry, but the audience numbers are pretty well split down the middle.
Your feature Evangeline is a rape revenge film. How did this theme evolve? What’s been the general reaction to the movie?
Karen Lam: I only write and create what gets under my own skin so sexual assault, ideas of revenge and retribution…it’s how I’m reacting to my world and my own worst fears. I’ve had strong reactions on both sides, but that’s typical. I create films to start a dialogue so if it gets a reaction, I’m satisfied.
Your short film The Stolen is both eerie and disturbing. You’ve also used the main character, the little girl, in a more recent web series called Mythos. Where did the character and idea/s come from?
Karen Lam: I’m not sure but I think Essie started first as a short story. It was about a little girl with a big secret: she had found a fairy locked in a cave and was visiting it every day. It was called “The Stolen Boy” but when I adapted it to a short story, the title didn’t make any sense and then I found the poem. I was really influenced by Holly Black’s YA series about urban fairies and wanted to create something that was aesthetically closer to my filmmaking style.
What’s the most challenging project you have worked on?
Karen Lam: Probably my first feature film, Stained. I seriously had no idea what I was doing, and no idea that I had no idea… 😉
How do people react when you tell them you make horror movies?
Karen Lam: People tend to be surprised. I was told by someone at a business meeting that I was “off-brand.” Apparently, he expected someone in cosplay. I told him I pass for civilian.
What advice would you give to other women who’d like to make horror movies?
Karen Lam: Follow your heart, not what you think people expect. The great horror films from recent directors, the ones that really make an impact like The Babadook or A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, are ones that came from an original POV. Audiences know authenticity when they see it.
What scares you?Karen Lam: Demons.
What’s your favorite horror movie?
Karen Lam: Audition, by Takeshi Miike. A Clockwork Orange, but maybe that’s more comedy.
I hear you’re working on a novel…can you tell us about it.
Karen Lam: It’s called “Don’t Lie to Me” and it’s a little like American Gods meets the Wizard of Oz. I still can’t believe I wrote a novel.
What’s on the agenda in 2017?
Karen Lam: I’m currently working in the writing room of a new SyFy television series and my first full tv script will be this season. When I’m finished the contract in April, I’d like to get my next feature film off the ground for this fall. I’m also set to start work on a documentary feature and maybe another short film. There’s so much to do, so little time!
A huge thank you to Karen Lam for this great insight into filmmaking and the horror genre. It’s been a pleasure.
Please scroll down for Karen Lam’s full bio