We love to keep homegrown Canadian horror on our radar, and The Retreat (2021, dir. Pat Mills) is arriving just in time for the Victoria Day long weekend, where fortunate city folk scurry to cottage country to open up their cabins for the summer season.
Not to skip right over summer, but cottage country is also gorgeous in autumn, as Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (Sarah Allen) well know. They’re a couple at a crossroad in their relationship, leaving the city to spend the weekend at a remote cabin with friends, but when they arrive, their friends are nowhere to be found. As they stumble through their relationship woes, they discover they are being hunted by a group of militant extremists who are determined to exterminate them.
AOAS interviewer Gina Freitag sits down with the director and writer duo behind The Retreat.
Gina Freitag: So I’m a huge Canadian horror fan, and when I saw this movie coming down the pipeline, I was like “Okay, this is right up my alley.” How much of the ‘Canadian horror’ aspect factored into the conceptualization of the film?
[One idea that helps to sort of classify Canadian horror borrows from Canadian literary theory, Northrop Frye’s concept of the ‘garrison mentality’, in which everybody is bound together in a small community, against the vast wilderness, and really the main danger isn’t the wilderness itself that surrounds them, but the dangers posed by the people within the community.]
All this to say, I’m wondering what identifiable parts of The Retreat would you say belong to a sense of ‘Canadian-ness’?
Alyson Richards: I’ve never thought of this question, honestly, about this movie. I mean, I will say we’re both Canadian, the cast and crew is Canadian, everybody who worked on it… Actually, this is our first movie, I think, where everybody is Canadian. Obviously, there is definitely a bit of what you just said about the environment, where it’s a reversal: it’s never actually the environment, it’s always the people. It’s kind of classic.
Pat Mills: The thing that came up is, “Is this in America, or is this in Canada?”, because I think people associate that whole alt-right militia thing with the United States. It’s here as well, and we experience that ‘otherness’ that people just assume is in the Southern United States, but it happens in Canada, whether you’re in the city or in the country and, you know, you can be a victim of just being different and feeling different. Alyson and I have been queer people in those rural spaces where you don’t feel safe, and that’s what Alyson really wanted to explore, and that’s what drew me into this. People assume that Canada is all left-wing and pro-queer, and not racist at all, but we have those problems just as much as the United States, for sure.
GF: And repetitive assumptions are what create a lot of horror tropes, too. The ‘cabin in the woods’ concept, for starters: the remote setting removed from the known territory of the city, the sense of vulnerability.
How did you want to approach that particular trope to make it stand out in this film, apart from other cabin-based horror films?
AR: As this project was developing, there were a lot of common notes saying things like “Oh, it should have a really big twist!” or “What about if one of them was actually the killer?” and what we really wanted to do was not do that. We wanted to make a really simple, grounded horror movie that had real people in a situation that could feel real. The thing that was important was showing real queer characters that aren’t tropey, that aren’t archetypes, that are three-dimensional people, that don’t turn out to be the ‘crazy psycho killers’, and that don’t turn on each other; they just work together. So I think that was really the goal, making a film that feels very scary and real, that also represents a queer relationship in a realistic way.
PM: The thing that is so interesting is that you would think that queer characters would be in the lead of horror films like this, but we’re not. When you do research, we’re secondary characters, or we’re the killer, or we’re the friend. But we’re never actually in the centre of it. And another thing I found pretty fascinating while we were pitching this film is that a lot of people, just because it’s queer, made the assumption that it was comedic and campy.
It’s just so funny that people assume we can be queer in a horror film, but that it has to be this elevated thing, whereas the script that Alyson wrote is a very, very grounded, real story with queer characters at the centre which, oddly enough, when you look at the horror genre, you don’t see much of that. So that’s the thing that I feel makes it very, very different.
GF: That sense of realism really plays well into the darkness of the material, too. The Retreat is a film that, narratively speaking, gets very dark, very quickly. That’s true visually-speaking, as well (the dark woods, scenes at dusk and at night, a lot of dark shadowy interior scenes), which is especially interesting because it contrasts with this idea of being seen and, moreover, being seen through a lens (cameras planted around the woods, the footage Renee finds of them being watched, the killers filming their torture and murder victims, and then you have Renee filming one of the killer’s throats being slit). What are your thoughts on visibility in the film?
PM: I’ve always been drawn to those horror films where you can’t really see it [the villain or monster] or a lot of the violence is offscreen and what you imagine is worse than if you saw it. I find those Saw-type movies don’t bother me as much, because the violence is so in-your-face and blatant. But that quiet, dark, creepy violence is so much more terrifying, the implied violence. I didn’t want to exploit violence against queer people, plus I think it’s also just the very simple symbolism of “You’re filming me? I’m gonna film you, and inflict the same sort of violence that you’re inflicting on me.” It’s just a power-play, and it’s Renee being fucking angry and getting revenge. It’s simple, and I feel like that’s powerful.
GF: It’s definitely an empowering moment. Comparatively, the first queer couple we see in the film, Scott (Munro Chambers) and Connor (Chad Connell) aren’t afforded that same kind of moment. Were there any concerns or thoughts around the “bury your gays” trope with regards to the fate of this couple?
AR: We definitely talked about that a lot. It was really important to us to not have a lot of violence against the queer characters onscreen. We talked about that for sure. But we also felt that they needed that fate to make the stakes real, to give gravity to the situation. They are characters that are fun and that you meet right at the beginning, and if they’re taken away, it gives more stakes to the rest of the story, for Renee and Valerie’s safety.
GF: And as viewers we’re operating under the impression that this isn’t the killers’ first time killing, probably wouldn’t be their last…
PM: …But they fucked with the wrong women, so… (laughs)
GF: Which brings us to one of the few other queer archetypes: the “psychotic killer” whose queerness is monstrous, othering, the source of their psychopathy. Female horror characters in general have suffered through limited character types as well, as victims or psychotic killers, though a few more like the ‘final girl’ have since been added. We also know that horror is riddled with psychoanalytic theory, that Freud’s ideas feed into previous archetypes [Jungian psychology suggests there are 7 Feminine Archetypes: the Maiden, the Mother, the Huntress, the Wise Woman, the Wild Woman (or Mystic), and the Queen.]
Keeping these in mind, how would you describe Renee and Valerie in this context? Or do you find that archetypes in general are just too problematic?
AR: I think the one thing that we tried to do, and certainly I tried to do this in the writing, was really give both of them weight in the story. So, because it’s two women, to not fall into that trap where one’s still really the one that does everything, while the other one is the gay ‘damsel-in-distress’.
I think it was important to have each of them bring value to the scenario. So they each play key roles in what they bring and how they turn the tables on the bad guys. That was certainly something that we were going for.
It’s hard to avoid archetypes completely. What Pat was saying earlier, and I got asked this a couple times yesterday, “What are other representations in horror movies that you can think of where there’s positive gay characters?” And I’m not saying that there aren’t any, but I can’t think of any.
So I think, “well-rounded women” might be an archetype? (laughs) Just to throw that out there. Complicated? Complex? Three-dimensional?
PM: Just to jump on the idea of psychopathy and their queerness, I remember when we were casting the male villain, the Gavin character [played by Rossif Sutherland], and some of the straight male actors wanted to talk about the character. They always wanted to have the backstory be that the villain was in the closet, and that that was causing them to kill the gay people because they were trying to…
GF: … bring some sort of internal conflict outward?
PM: Exactly. And anybody who’s queer knows that people who are trying to push us down and take away our rights, you know what? They’re not gay underneath it all. They’re just bad straight people. And I always was like “That’s not the point.”
That’s not what Alyson’s trying to say: this isn’t High Tension. This isn’t about gay people causing their own psychopathy by pretending to be straight and murdering people. That’s not what we experience and I feel like that’s been done before. I just like how grounded and simple this film was, where this is what actually could happen.
GF: It’s interesting because one of the previous projects that you worked together on, Don’t Talk to Irene, is another narrative that (a) voices frustration over the limitations of social stereotypes and (b) works at dismantling those narrow concepts to give more depth and agency to characters. How has this process differed for you two, from working in comedy vs. working in horror?
PM: I’m always drawn to people who are on the outside, and how they empower themselves to exist. Where they’ve been told certain things, that they can’t actually get to a certain place (that’s Irene’s story), but they don’t actually back down and they pursue what they need to pursue just to survive. And, as simple as that is, it applies to a comedic film like Don’t Talk to Irene, and a horror-thriller film, like The Retreat.
Irene [played by Michelle McLeod] is kind of a queer character. Her best friend is Tesh [Andy Reid], she wants to be a cheerleader, she does not fit in… She kind of represents who I felt like as a child. And I think that Renee and Valerie kinda represent how we feel as adults, you know? Especially when you wanna do a nice little trip outside of the city, but you actually can’t have the comforts that straight people have, because you’re always feeling like “What if that person thinks about me this way?” I drove through America all by myself a few years ago, and it was very scary when I would stop to get gas, like “Oh fuck, I’m in a really gay outfit right now, and I have no idea where I am, but I know I’m in Texas and that guy has a gun.”
So Alyson’s script is really exploring that queer fear of an unknown environment, and straight people just don’t have that feeling. Maybe they do, but they’re not Othered like a queer person, and there’s obviously a lot of homophobia everywhere in the world.
GF: Still a horrible reality. Actually, speaking of isolated environments, how have the lockdowns during this pandemic been productive for you, in terms of laying the groundwork for the next project?
PM: When the pandemic first happened, it really changed the trajectory of The Retreat’s post-production. We had wrapped the film, but it just made the post process longer. But I’ve been really lucky that I’ve been busy and shooting lots… A lot of the protocols that were in place with masks and whatnot did affect the production.
But I think this has been a moment where a lot of people can go back and re-prioritize projects that they’ve buried and put away, because now we aren’t going into the office everyday to work on our projects. So, like everybody else, I’m digging up those projects and I’m redeveloping, and I know Alyson’s busy doing the same.
AR: Yeah, I’m writing a zombie movie.
GF: Amazing, can’t wait for that! In the meantime, with Pride Month coming up (though AOAS celebrates LGBTQ+ films year-round) I’m curious: if you had the opportunity to program a double-bill or a movie marathon to spotlight key queer horror films that left a lasting impression on you (or horror-adjacent films with favourite queer characters/readings) alongside your own film, what would you prioritize?
AR: Okay, I’ve been thinking about this because I had to come up with a list of like “Top Ten Movies” that influenced The Retreat — this is a total cheat, it’s a neo-noir crime thriller — but I think Bound [dir. Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski]. It’s like a genre movie, 1996, where the gay characters are so great in it.
PM: I was gonna say the exact same thing.
AR: Were you? Amazing.
PM: Bound. It’s Bound.
AR: And that is why we work together. (laughs)
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The Retreat is available on VOD platforms on Friday, May 21st.