Anyone familiar with the work of Jen and Sylvia Soska knows the identical twin filmmakers owe more than a small debt to the early and mid-career oeuvre of David Cronenberg. Like the acclaimed director, the Soskas are both Canadian natives and specialize in “body horror,” the sub-genre exploiting viewers' innate fears of physical disfigurement that was practically invented (or at least taken to a more outré level) by Cronenberg. Over the course of his career, Cronenberg gave us such squeamish classics as 1975's high-rise horror show Shivers, 1983's surreal Videodrome, and the uber-grisly 1986 remake of The Fly.
Given these similarities, it's fitting that the Soskas — arguably best known for their intensely gory body-modification horror film American Mary — are currently in the process of remaking Cronenberg's 1977 movie Rabid, which starred pornographic film actress Marilyn Chambers as a woman who develops a taste for human blood after undergoing experimental plastic surgery. The sisters describe their version as a “love letter” to the elder filmmaker, who was allegedly a fan of American Mary and even agreed to meet with the Soskas in Toronto — at least before scheduling got in the way.
“Being able to remake a Cronenberg movie — and so far it looks like we're the first ones to do it — there is no greater honor for a Canadian genre director,” said Jen Soska, currently promoting Season 2 of the GSN reality series Hellevator, via phone. “David Cronenberg is the king of body horror. I don't think anyone in the world has done what he's done. But in Canada, absolutely he's a national treasure. It's really a love letter to David. He's going to watch the film, and he's going to enjoy it on a level that hopefully…we've even taken dialog from the director's commentary and snuck it in there. It's the most loving love letter that's ever loved.”
For all the qualities they share in common with their filmmaking idol, there is one key difference that serves to disadvantage the Soskas. In an industry that remains woefully unprogressive despite the lip service it pays to liberal causes; they are women, and David Cronenberg is a man. Indeed, even with a total of four feature films under their belt and a fifth on the way (not to mention a segment of the horror anthology ABCs of Death 2), over the last ten years they've watched male contemporaries in their preferred genre move on to blockbuster filmmaking while they continue fighting for mainstream relevance.
“A guy director does one or two horror movies, and he's re-doing Spider-Man,” said Jen. “It drives me f***ing insane. …American Mary, the funny thing is, it connected with critics hugely. It connected with fans hugely. [But] career-wise, everyone when we try to make a film [with them] says, 'Just do American Mary again.' I'm like, I did American Mary.”
“Or,” chimed in Sylvia, “they'll very specifically say they don't want American Mary because it was so subversive and so different that it made a lot of people afraid for the next movie. They're like, 'Well, I don't want these angry feminists here.' And it's like, well, I'm not that angry. The interesting thing is, if you look at Marvel's next line-up…you have the directors of Sinister [Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange], Slither [James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vols. 1 and 2], Clown [Jon Watts, Spider-Man: Homecoming], and What We Do In The Shadows [Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok] [directing the films].”
Not that the Soskas haven't been keeping busy. In addition to running their own production company (Twisted Twins Productions), directing features, and occasionally acting in their own films and others', the sisters recently (and rather ironically) penned a pair of stories for Marvel Comics. “Night Nurse,” a “twisted tale of demonic disease” that they wrote for Secret Wars Journal #5, and “The Ripley,” an Alien homage featured in Guardians of Infinity #8. The grindhouse-loving siblings also co-wrote Kill-Crazy Nymphos Attack!, a graphic novel about a virus unleashed on a small town that turns its women inhabitants into, yes, blood-craving sex fiends.
Did I mention they're also reality TV hosts? Yes, this Friday the Soskas are making their grand, contestant-tormenting return to GSN's Blumhouse-produced Hellevator, which puts its unfortunate contestants through an array of horrifying challenges that test the limits of their endurance. A few weeks back I spoke with Jen and Sylvia via phone about the true crime-influenced Season 2, their love for the kids of Netflix's Stranger Things, why they want to cast the Olsen twins in a remake of Cronenberg's 1988 film Dead Ringers and what Marvel movie they would love to direct.
Check out the interview in full below!
I also talked to Jason Blum a few days ago, and he mentioned that one of the goals for Season 2 is to make it scarier than Season 1. The Soskas' talked a little bit about how you're accomplishing that:
Jen Soska: This season we — it's mean-spirited this season, I'm gonna cut right to it. It was fun for us last season, but this season it's based on the seven deadly sins and true crime. And a lot of the contestants have to reenact these true crimes for their competitions and challenges.
Sylvia Soska: This season, we're definitely not playing around. The first season was very theatrical. This one's very cinematic. It almost feels like being inside a David Fincher film, and not a particularly pleasant one.
JS: You definitely feel trapped in a Blumhouse horror movie this season and you want to get out.
You said that it's based on true crime. Is that going to involve real life serial killers and that kind of thing?
JS: Actually, yes and it also involves very famous haunted places such as the Cecil Hotel in LA. There are some stories based off the phenomenal serial killer stories that have come out of that place.
SS: The most interesting thing is each of our teams…we really had the challenges catered to them. There was a challenge with models. And I think, after the things we made them do on that episode, I don't think they'll ever look at modeling the same. Which is really what you're looking for when you're creating a show like this.
JS: But nobody likes models. [Laughter]
How about your roles this season? Is it pretty much the same as last season as far as the roles that you play within the show?
SS: This season, Jennifer and I are definitely a lot more hands-on. Which makes it a little more interactive and unexpected because in this season, you don't really know what's going to happen. The first big surprise they're going to get is, instead of teams of three, we have teams of four. Right at the very beginning, we pick a teammate that we're going to keep and we're going to keep them locked up in a cell in the basement.
The Labyrinth is gone this season. Now we have the Inferno, because we've really turned up the heat in the final bonus level where if you survive you could win up to $40,000. Which in this economy is pretty awesome.
JS: Yeah, that's really good money. I could not stay in my chair this season. I couldn't help it. Sylv and I had to play more up close with our contestants.
How involved are you guys in creating these challenges?
SS: Jen and I are very lucky to be teamed with the teams that they have at Blumhouse, at GSN, at [Hellevator producer] Matador Content. It's a really collaborative process. It's also a really fun one in the fact that I can say, “Let's throw a tarantula on somebody,” and they're like, “How many do you want this time?” My favorite was how we clearly put our own spin on a few of the challenges and the locations. We are identical twins, which are so popular in horror movies. It's kind of fun to play with that theme in the show.
What's the most frightened that you've seen anyone get?
JS: I don't want to spoil it, but there's a group of Buffys that come in … wannabe Buffys. There's four girls and one of them — I mean, Season 1 we had Andrea, and I think everyone remembers Andrea, because she was the girl who went screaming through the Labyrinth crying and didn't collect any money. This season, do you remember her name?
SS: No, it's a spoiler.
JS: I don't want to ruin it for you…but she was so scared she wouldn't even leave the Hellevator. She was in tears. [They] had to drag her out kicking and screaming. It was so sad for her.
SS: There was a lot more, “I don't want to do this. Oh my God. Do I have to do this?” Which was really — it makes you feel good because you know you're doing your job properly. Then, at the same time, if they're too petrified to move, how am I going to scare them more?
You guys are identical twins. Do you guys have twin icons? What's another pair of twins that you guys look up to?
SS: Actually, that'd have to be the Olsen twins. The Olsen twins were very popular with Full House when we were kids. That's what really got us into acting. Now that we've gone into acting, directing, writing, producing, what I would love to do is remake David Cronenberg's…Dead Ringers. But instead of having identical male twins, you would gender-swap and work with the Olsens.
It”s like my dream. It's almost like a weird gift I want to give back to them for inspiring me that they really don't want. But I think I can convince them. I just want to be like, “You know what, twins? You did your Full House thing. But you're super talented, just show them once how good are and then just walk away. Be like, 'Whatever, we're billionaires.'”
JS: I agree with Sylv, but I'm also now in love with the brothers that have done Stranger Things. …Where did these identical twin directing brothers come from? I'm currently seeking them so if you interview them, say, “Hey. Have you heard of the Soska Sisters?”
SS: There are twins directing Saw, too, aren't there? The Spierig twins? I feel like studios have just started cloning directors and they're like, “There're twins everywhere!”
JS: I'd like to say it's secretly because of us.
What did you guys think of Stranger Things? Have you watched the whole thing?
JS: I've watched the entire thing. We're '80s brats, so from the tone set up right from the beginning, it was incredible. …The little girl with the super powers. Wow. And thank God somebody hired Winona Ryder again because everyone loves her.
SS: Yeah. Absolutely. The actress who played Barb actually wants to play Marvel's Squirrel Girl. I think that would be such a perfect casting. That's more proof of how weird and wonderful the internet is. Everyone is so excited about that show. Hopefully, that means all these big studios are like, “Oh! Look at all the talented kids, let's put them in everything!”
JS: Those kids were amazing. Those were the best kid actors I've since Stand By Me. They're incredible.
They're great. I think there are going to be some stars to come out of this show.
JS: No kidding. Those kids are going to be so hot. I was looking at their credits thinking, “Aw. They've only done like one or two things. I've got to get them before they realize how talented they are.”
SS: They do know.
JS: They do know. They're super f***ing famous. They probably went to Comic Con this year and were like, “Oh wow. I'm like Robert Downey now.”
Are you guys Barb aficionados? She seems to be the breakout character from that show.
SS: Barb was one of my favorites, and I felt what happened to her was so sad. I really wanted to see more from her. But I think the young girl, who played the scientist, I think she's going to be like the next Natalie Portman. She's so utterly talented.
JS: The other kid with the lisp. The one missing his teeth. That kid is legit. I don't even know what it is but there's something I just love about him.
SS: There's this movie that might come together really fast for us and if it's possible that's the kid that we want for it. That kid is just gold.
Okay, I wanted to talk about one of your projects coming up. You mentioned Rabid. I noticed on IMDB — I thought it was a remake, but it's listed as Rabid 2, so it's a sequel?
SS: I don't know who put Rabid 2 down there. They only put me as the director. I think somebody was trying to be kind. But it is not a sequel. I would say it's more like what David did with The Fly where we take the source material and do just more of a re-imagining. But a re-imagining that David Cronenberg wouldn't hate us for.
We're the biggest fans of his and we love body horror. It's really where I feel that Jennifer and I have been able to tell our best stories so far. To get this opportunity, especially to go in something that really tackles a lot of the same issues that we had in a lot of our films that we can really take this and bring it to another level. It's our first movie that's doing a wide theatrical. So for a lot of people, it's going to be the first time they see us not on Hellevator torturing people. They'll be like, “Oh. They direct movies, too.”
JS: Being able to remake a Cronenberg movie — and so far it looks like we're the first ones to do it — there is no greater honor for a Canadian genre director. David Cronenberg is the king of body horror. I don't think anyone in the world has done what he's done. But in Canada, absolutely he's a national treasure. It's really a love letter to David. He's going to watch the film and he's going to enjoy it on a level that hopefully…We've even taken dialog from the director's commentary and snuck it in there. It's the most loving love letter that's ever loved.
SS: I know [David Cronenberg's son] Brandon Cronenberg. We [collaborated on] ABCs of Death 2 in a segment called “W is for Wish.” He was in a pink toga and one of us ripped his heart out and then I put a crystal in it. …I know David likes American Mary and we were going to meet in Toronto but our schedules wouldn't allow it. I haven't heard anything from him yet, but I really want — his approval is almost more important than anyone else's. Even though I know we're so different. Like we're girls, we're religious. He's a dude, he's an atheist.
…Obviously we're going to do a lot more from [lead protagonist] Rose”s perspective because that's more how we would see the world. So it's going to be a real adventure for people. I so wish I could tell you the cool body horror stuff we have up there. But I think people are going to freak out because there's stuff in this movie that has never been done in a horror movie before with the effects. I'm really really super excited.
JS: Any of our fans from American Mary are going to be so stoked because it's really returned to a female classic body horror. Where we started with American Mary, we really complete the thought with Rabid.
It's interesting; American Mary wasn't a huge mainstream hit, but it got a lot of attention, especially in the horror community. I can't help but notice that a male director makes a movie like that and then he's directing Godzilla or something.
JS: Thank God you said it. A guy director does one or two horror movies, and he's re-doing Spider-Man. It drives me f***ing insane. I'm not sure why … American Mary, the funny thing is, it connected with critics hugely. It connected with fans hugely. Career-wise, everyone when we try to make a film says, “Just do American Mary again.” I'm like, I did American Mary.
SS: Or they'll very specifically say they don't want American Mary because it was so subversive and so different that it made a lot of people afraid for the next movie. Cause they're like, “Well, I don't want these angry feminists here.” And it's like, well, I'm not that angry.
The interesting thing is, if you look at Marvel's next line-up, the directors there, you have the directors of Sinister, Slither, Clown, and What We Do In The Shadows. Jennifer and I have had a lot of success now working in Marvel comics. So I think it's something that I don't mind waiting around for. I mean, I've begged all of my people to get a meeting for Captain Marvel. I don't think it's happening. I was trying to get a meeting for Deadpool for ever, ever, ever, ever. Never happened.
It's just being in the right place at the right time. I've seen so many times in my career where I look at somebody and they have success that I wish I had and I'm like, “Aw, man.” But that wasn't my place. I think the place that you're meant to be, you will get to. And as long as you keep working and you make your work undeniable, eventually it'll get through.
But it is frustrating. We've been doing this for ten years. [Rabid] is the first time we get a wide theatrical and every single movie I've tried to do that. But it's nice that it finally came in such a beautiful way. David Cronenberg remade The Fly ten years into his career, and it was something that propelled him to more of a global notoriety. And we're ten years into our career, and we're remaking Rabid.
JS: The prophecy is gonna come true.
Any favorite horror movies recently?
JS: I think The Witch was so bad ass. I've been going around whispering, “Do you want to live deliciously?” to people. It doesn't go over very well.
SS: I just recently saw Green Room. Which I should have seen way, way before. The prosthetics in that and the effects — I have never seen a machete chop done so beautifully. I know that's a sick thing to say but I really loved it.
JS: That was a legit chop.
Don't Breathe is pretty good, actually.
SS: Who directed that one? Do you know?
That's Fede Alvarez. He directed the Evil Dead remake.
JS: Oh! I loved him. I haven't seen something from him in ages. That's awesome.
SS: He's a really cool guy. We met at San Diego Comic-Con. I remember asking him, “Hey. How did you get your actors to go through so much torture and all that blood? It just seemed like it was an awful experience.” And he looked at me, and he's like, “That's what it takes.” And I was like, “Oh. Okay.” He's obviously from the Sam Raimi school of thought, or Hitchcock. Torture your actors.
Well, that actress is in Don't Breathe, so I guess she wasn't too traumatized by it.
SS: She probably liked it [Laughter] That came out wrong.
JS: That came out right.
Hellevator Season 2 premieres this Friday on GSN.