Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre. More information is available at the WiHM website.
It’s a setup sure to be familiar to genre-savvy viewers: a group of friends decide to get away for a weekend and wind up somewhere curiously isolated. The locals don’t exactly give them a warm welcome, but their minds are too focused on the good times ahead to care, blissfully unaware of the danger that awaits them. What happens next is usually easy to predict, though often an enjoyable enough diversion.
Laurel Vail’s What Metal Girls Are Into leans hard into these genre expectations only to gleefully overturn them. In this particular story, three female metalheads embark on a fun weekend trip, intent on headbanging to their heart’s content at a three day metal festival. They arrive at their base for the weekend, a disquieting and remote rental home surrounded by desert, and resolve not to let the lack of WiFi or the over-friendly and intrusive landlord put a damper on their plans. Until they discover something gruesome in the freezer, that is, and things take a sinister turn — but for whom?
What Metal Girls Are Into earned numerous accolades on last year’s festival circuit, including Best Short Film Director at Cinepocalypse film festival in Chicago and Best Short at Lake Geneva’s American Horrors Film Festival, and for good reason. It’s a bold and thrilling ride, at turns tense and chilling and wryly comic, with tonal shifts carried by sharp writing and acting choices.
Above all else, however, is its unabashed defiance. As the #MeToo movement continues to spark conversation and change across so many areas of the social and political landscape, and as the metal community in particular continues to navigate its own reckoning with misogyny and sexual assault, the protagonists of What Metal Girls Are Into and their message seem especially urgent and necessary.
As part of our Women in Horror Month celebration here at Cinepunx, I spoke with What Metal Girls Are Into writer, director and co-star, Laurel Vail, via email about the film.
To start things off, could you talk a bit about how this project came to fruition?
I’ve always wanted to shoot my own thing. I have tried writing things in the past, but they were often too long or big in scope to ever make on my own. I think I started writing this in late 2015. Maybe a #YesAllWomen inspired type of thing? I think that happened that year. Then, I took a long time off while I was dealing with depression. I found a new treatment (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) and was able to start doing things again. I still wanted to make it happen before the end of the year since I knew I’d have some time off work for the holidays. So in July 2016 I started working out the budget and location scouting, etc. I booked the location in August to lock in the days before the new year. Then it was all about raising money for a while, which I did through Indiegogo. That part was the worst, but I couldn’t have made it without that money. I already had most of the cast in mind when I was writing and revising, so I only auditioned 2 roles. I had some crew picked out and my line producer helped me take care of the rest of the crew and other production needs. So then it was a 5 day shoot in Joshua Tree, CA.
In the way you’ve constructed the film, you effectively balance humor and genuine dread and tension in a way that is not only entertaining, but also believable. How did you approach maintaining that balance in tone?
I made sure my actors were really prepared in terms of character and we talked about how everything should be real and serious for them. Then the audience can find the situation funny. If they played it up as being funny it wouldn’t have worked. It had to be treated as real from their side.
The film is an interesting blend of horror comedy, buddy movie and social commentary, explored through the fairly unique and under-explored perspective of metal fandom, and captures that perspective in a way that registers as very authentic. How familiar were you with the metal fan community prior to making this film?
Hardly at all! I have a friend who is a huge metal fan, so I knew I’d have that as a resource. I chose it because I wanted a big metal-scored climax scene (was very inspired by Fury Road) and I needed the characters to be die-hard fans or else the story doesn’t work. It was an easy decision to make them metalheads.
On a similar note, I noticed that the film boasts a very unique credit: “Metal Consultant.” How important was it for you to capture the metal fan culture authentically and to what extent did the metal consultant’s expertise factor in to shaping the characters and story?
It was extremely important. The worst thing I could have done was just make up some characters based on a cliché, especially since I’m an outsider and getting it wrong would be insulting to the community. I wanted it to be something where they see a bit of themselves on the screen. Metalheads are rarely portrayed in movies, and so often they are some kind of punchline. I didn’t want that.
My metal consultant was so excited to help me because we don’t have many friends who are into metal at all. I told him the kind of metal I tend to like and described what I needed for the climax. He started sending playlists. I told him I needed a band that some might like and others would make fun of and he sent a list of options. There was even a scene that was cut out where Mattie monologues about a band that broke up and got back together, and I was able to give him a break up year range based on her age and he came back with Bolt Thrower. They disbanded in September 2016 after a member died, but that’s how specific we got. If I left the scene in the film, it would have been a summer 2016 period piece.
I also went to a few metal shows and brought the two actresses to one as well, so they could experience the energy. I don’t really listen to metal, but I will go to metal shows with him because they are very fun. I do wear earplugs, though.
One aspect of the film I found particularly striking is the soundtrack, which features guitar virtuoso Catherine Capozzi and a number of great metal bands. It seems like a no-brainer to integrate metal into the story given the subject matter, but the music almost seems like its own character at times, and adds a lot to the atmosphere. What were your considerations in choosing which songs to include?
The first one picked out was the climax song, “Deadfall” by Benediction. I needed a nice quiet start and then it builds and builds until a big crescendo. When I edited, I had cut it without music because I was waiting to get in touch with the band and record company. Once I got the clearance, I dropped it in and it fit almost perfectly. I tweaked it a tiny bit for timing, so the intro is longer and there is maybe a chorus removed, but otherwise all the beats just lined up!
The next I picked was by a band that Emory really likes, called Castrator, an all female, super feminist band. They were really supportive during my fundraising campaign as well. I thought the intensity was great to open the film with, so the audience has no doubts about who these women are.
I had a couple songs as temp tracks for the transitions, and my composer replaced one of them, but we decided to leave the second (Carcass) because it fit the feeling of the moment when the film takes a dark turn.
As far as my composer, Catherine was amazing. Every time she sent me something, I had very few notes, sometimes none at all. She just got it. She got all the humor and the suspense. She was referred to me by some filmmaker friends from Boston (Michael Epstein and Sophia Cacciola), which is how I ended up with someone from far away — I live in L.A.
I feel like the music is the narrator. The score is often making the punch line. After working on editing for a few months — this was my first real film to edit — I couldn’t tell if it was still funny. Her score made me laugh at it again. Plus, the theme song at the end is so catchy. I love it. The sound track is actually available on iTunes and other places.
As I was watching, at points I couldn’t help but feel a kind of catharsis in seeing these women triumph, especially in the wake of the Me Too movement. It felt like a direct response to the normalization of the toxic culture of oppression and physical and sexual violence against women that is finally under widespread scrutiny. What would you say your primary concern was in telling this story?
I think anytime you make some kind of feminist statement in public, in any medium, you’re inviting harsh criticisms, not only from misogynists, but also from other feminists. Did you go too far? Did you not go far enough? Things like that. I was worried there would be a Q&A after the Screamfest screening I attended and that I’d have to deal with some guy asking if I hate men and other such nonsense. Luckily there wasn’t time before they had to clear the theater for the next screening, so it didn’t come up. I’ve also managed to avoid it on social media. The response has been very positive, so I think I did alright!
I was also terrified people wouldn’t laugh, but they did and it was great.
Finally, what’s next for you creatively?
I need to get more writing done. My plan is to have more writing samples plus this film and try to get a manager this year. I could go for it now, but I think bringing more to the table will be better.
I think once I pay off this film debt (I went over budget!) I can try to do another short on my own. Maybe a little less ambitious to save money. I’d also like to develop a Metal Girls feature. I’m still working on deciding what that would look like though.