I met Jovanka Vuckovic this weekend. It was the second and last day of the Suspect Video and Fangoria-sponsored Torontonian convention Horror-Rama and I stepped behind the curtain to sit in on Jovanka Vuckovic’s Hangout session: to listen to her answer questions about her career and her future plans. I didn’t go into the Hangout with plans to write an article this time. I have written about Jovanka Vuckovic before: specifically about her creating the film adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story The Last Will and Testament of Jacqueline Ess.
But in the midst of hearing about her time at Clive Barker’s house, an anecdote or two about Guillermo del Toro, her plans for and a few more details about Jacqueline Ess, her views on diversifying the roles of women in film as characters and creators, and advice about not necessarily requiring film school to direct a film Jovanka Vuckovic revealed something for the first time that day.
She told us that she would be writing and directing a short film based on Jack Ketchum’s story “The Box.”
I’ll admit that up until that moment I’d never read anything of Jack Ketchum’s, though I watched and loved The Woman that was adapted from his novel a few years ago at the Toronto After Dark. And I definitely heard of him in the horror community: as he is generally highly regarded there. So after being among those who got to hear the news publicly for the first time I just had to find this short story and piece together, in my mind and based on Jovanka’s works and thoughts, just how this might go down.
There was one thing that Jovanka Vuckovic mentioned in her Hangout that really stands out for me: her need to bring her voice to the work in question. As someone who looks at a creator’s own personal bent or slant, and as a creator myself, I can tell you that this is really important and also challenging when you are working in another’s world.
Or someone’s sandbox. A box is created to contain something. It can be put together, and it can be taken apart. It can have beautiful red wrapping paper on the outside and look like a pretty present. It can be a heavy burden or something incredibly light. The thing to remember about a box is that it’s hollow on the inside: perhaps, dare I say, even bigger on the inside. A box has nothing inside of itself except for what you put into it, or how you make it …
Or what you might see in it.
After being introduced to Junji Ito’s bizarre and Impressionistic horror manga Uzumaki this past weekend, it’s tempting for me to say that just as spiral patterns are prevalent in nature and culture, so too are boxes prominent in human society: if only as metaphors. Boxes can be homes and coffins. They can also be check lists and labels. They can carry tools that build, repair, and take things apart.
Children play in boxes and imagine them to be something else.
The way I see it, these considerations are important in speculating just what kind of creative sensibility and voice Jovanka Vuckovic might bring into “The Box” of Jack Ketchum. And in order to ponder further on that, there will be some story spoilers.
“The Box” is a story about a man who watches his family slowly and peacefully starve to death after his son gets a peek at a stranger’s box on a bus ride. This box is like a twisted version of Pulp Fiction‘s MacGuffin. However, unlike that film’s briefcase we only get to see the box once: and even then we never know what’s inside of it. It’s gone: slipped back into the night. But, at the same time, this isn’t true.
The true horror of the story is the fact that the protagonist watches everyone he loves understand something he can’t, seen from that box, while slowly and gradually fading away: leaving him alone and desperate to find that man and his box again so he can finally feel what his family feels, and join them.
Jovanka Vuckovic is no stranger to families, death, and particularly children in horror. She isn’t even unfamiliar with Impressionist or the abstract: the Kafkasque in storytelling sensibility. All you need to do is view her short films The Captured Bird and The Guest to see that much. But here is where Jovanka’s voice comes into play with something like “The Box.”
It’s only in retrospect that I realize that she is making this film for Magnolia Pictures and XYZ Films’ all-female anthology XX and it makes so much sense. At the Hangout, Jovanka told us that she is going to make the film version of “The Box” from the perspective of the mother as opposed to the father. You might think that this doesn’t make a difference, but it does. It really does.
I already have my own speculation as to what was in that box. The story narrator’s son, who looked inside, told his father that he saw “nothing” in the box. At the same time, the man who carried it claimed it was a present. What if the box contained the truth: that life is meaningless in itself and the acceptance of such is positively liberating?
Then you also have to take into account that the father character makes a point of stating that he has always carried a deep sense of detachment and separation from the rest of the world: from all other people including his own family. At the same time, the father believes in routines and order. He believes in protecting and helping his family. He just can’t let go of needing to live so that he can continue that role: and it’s only at the end that he realizes that this role no longer exists. He has no emotional shelter — no box — around him any more. He needs to find a new one.
Now think about this. It’s very clear that society has different roles and classifications for the female gender. There are various expectations for women, some spoken and others not, that they have to struggle with every single day. And motherhood is loaded with even more cultural assumptions and scrutiny. A mother tends to be seen as always related to her family unit, particularly to her children. But a mother is also a woman and a human being first: someone who can’t always relate to people, even her loved ones, all the time. Sometimes she just doesn’t understand her family: and feels distance from them and the guilt that comes with it. Sometimes she needs her own time away from societal and familial obligation and deep down in a place she doesn’t always want to look feels the burden and wants to be rid of it all. In this way, a mother is a person who has to reconcile her own individuality with her family-identity: or a lack thereof.
What happens if her family finds that box and realizes that all of these roles are pointless? There is her love for her family and her sense of obligation. Would she hold onto it with a death-grip towards the very end? Would she be afraid of dropping that heavy burden off of her shoulders? Would she fight to save their lives? Or, at the end of the film, would there be a shift from the personal into the frighteningly transcendent? Would she finally accept the inevitable and realize that she — and they — are and can actually be free?
It would be quite a challenge: to create something that could become a feminist existential horror genre film: a very poignant and human story. But this is all speculation on my part. There is just so much potential here and we will only know if Jovanka Vuckovic turns this “Jack in the Box” inside out after the film is shot this December.