She Lives Alone
A review and interview with filmmaker, Lucy Rose
Ellis Reed reviews She Lives Alone, a rural gothic short from emerging filmmaker, Lucy Rose. He also discusses the film with Lucy for Horrified...
In horror terms, the name Maud might be a lucky charm right now. As well as gracing the acclaimed début of writer-director Rose Glass(1), it also appears in the latest short from Lucy Rose, which is another very fine piece of filmmaking.
FrightFest goers might already know it. As a twelve-minute rural chiller, She Lives Alone (Lucy Rose, 2020) played as part of the short film showcase(2). It’s an accomplished piece of short-form cinema, mixing high quality scares with beautiful presentation, great sound design, and a generous serving of thematic depth. It’s had a very respectable festival run, including Out on Film – which is an LGBTQ+ film festival in Atlanta(3) – and the Leeds International Film Festival(4).
The film itself is a rural gothic horror about a woman called Maud. She lives alone on the moors of Cumbria, oppressed by a ghost and the trauma it represents. It’s a simmering performance by Rachel Teate, whose dominant emotion is not fear but repressed anger. Also present is the well-meaning Eleanor (Lauryn Elise), who, in a brief house call, is clearly alarmed by her friend’s isolation. The scene between them is a masterclass in unspoken history, and there’s enough backstory here to fill a feature film – but Rose (very wisely) doesn’t try to cram it all into fifteen minutes. Instead, the important points are deftly hinted, following the edict of ‘show, don’t tell’ (and sometimes not even showing, but simply making understood). We certainly feel there was, or should have been, more than friendship between Maud and Eleanor – which is intriguing food for thought when we consider the period setting of the story and the relationship between Maud and her supernatural tormentor. She Lives Alone is a film with a strong LGBTQ+ subtext, which, befitting the setting and gothic style, is left to simmer just below the surface.
Completing the dramatis personae is the ghostly presence herself (Karen Littlejohn), who, as you might expect, increasingly appears as the story unfolds. Judged purely as a genre piece in the style of The Woman in Black (Granada, Herbert Wise, 1989), She Lives Alone is already a success; the scares are carried by gorgeous cinematography and great sound design, courtesy of Lizzie Gilholme and Die Hexen. Even so, there’s a lot more to the film than supernatural horror. The tropes are there to serve a deeper theme of repression and trauma, supported by intelligent writing and great performances. Lucy Rose is not only technically gifted but brings a distinctive new voice, sensitive to the subtext of gothic horror. Catch the film as soon as you can, because it isn’t one to miss and comes highly recommended by Horrified.
After watching She Lives Alone, we had the opportunity to speak with Lucy Rose to discuss her work and experience of the horror genre.
Ellis: I know you’re a huge fan of Shirley Jackson, but who’s your most recent discovery? Is there a more obscure or maybe brand-new author who really made an impression on you?
Lucy: Shirley Jackson is a master of terror and her work is something I constantly return to if I need to exorcise some dread. If it couldn’t be Shirley Jackson and it had to be someone more current, I’d have to choose Carmen Maria Machado, who writes beautiful and raw fiction and creative non-fiction (all of which feature dark tones and strokes of horror). She has an incredible voice and tells important stories. Her two books share a shelf with Shirley’s in my house.
E: You found your passion for horror in 2018 when you binge-watched the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (Flanagan Film, Mike Flanagan, 2018): ‘I had found something I had been looking for my whole life, Horror, and it was there the whole time.’(5) Was there a particular scene that felt like a eureka moment? Does coming to the genre later in life give you a unique perspective on it?
L: I was twenty-two when I first watched The Haunting of Hill House, still young and coming to terms with who I was. The Haunting of Hill House articulated the haunted house in a language I understood. My relationship with horror is and always has been quite complex. I’ve always loved the gothic genre, ghost stories and folklore, but because of my own traumatic experiences, horror was something I was sensitive around because of how triggering I found it. It wasn’t until I started coping with my own experiences that horror became accessible for me, and not just accessible, but cathartic. I think that’s why most people enjoy horror because it becomes a therapy of sorts for things that are difficult to face up to in real life. Someone once told me that because I was so scared all the time I would write good horror. I laughed it off. But I learned that actually, because I understood fear so well, and because it’s something I feel so ardently in my own life, crafting it came quite naturally.
E: She Lives Alone has the look and feel of a classic ghost story, and not just because of the period setting. In your interview with Film Hub North, you mentioned that you’d been reading older stories and watching their adaptations.(6) Which were most successful, and how did they influence your creative process? What are the most important factors for making this genre work on screen?
L: I’ve always loved the traditional gothic and ghost stories. I can’t really explain why, but I suppose the mystery of the subconscious was something that drew me in, even from a young age when I was messing around with ouija boards to escape or to make the other things in my life seem less scary. Revisiting these influences, stories and experiences were crucial because when I put them together, that was my key to stepping over into horror and exploring the realm of the macabre, disturbed and chilling.
If I had to choose one gothic film/book that influenced me while I was writing She Lives Alone, I would have to say Rebecca (both the novel by Du Maurier, and the film by Hitchcock), just because of how terrifying I found Mrs Danvers, and specifically how still she was in frame like a spider (which is something I tried to bring to Mother’s screen presence). The home itself felt like it was on the verge of unravelling, reflecting Mrs De Winter’s state of mind and that too was crucial while writing She Lives Alone. The house, in a haunted house story, must reflect the character, like it is looking in on the character and trapping it.
E: As well as being genuinely scary, the film benefits from beautiful cinematography (Lizzie Gilholme) and sound design (Die Hexen). How did those collaborations work in practice?
L: My relationship with Lizzie is so important to my creative process. Lizzie has been my best friend for a long time. She knows so much about me and why I tell the stories I do (and vice versa). A lot of our shared experiences allow us to voice specific emotions and themes visually and through the writing. I think because I have such a personal relationship with my DP, it makes for greater storytelling. She has seen me during my lows and my highs, and she understands the stakes of why I need to tell certain stories. Though it’s unconventional, Lizzie is there from the conception of my ideas. Having her there from the get-go means she knows the story as well as I do, and it means we can meditate and reflect on our visual ideas for a really long time.
Working with Die on She Lives Alone was a dream. I loved working with her because she allowed herself to connect emotionally to the story and the character. We had really open and honest conversations about the themes and the character. She’s incredibly talented, a siren, and her mind is a vault stock full of chilling scores and sounds.
E: The urge to bury or suppress things is a big theme in the film. Maud tries to scratch out a ghostly message and later tries to bury her mother’s bible. You’ve talked about Rachel Teate’s performance and ‘the feeling of constantly suppressing her anger.’(7) Her scenes with Eleanor, too, hint at buried emotions. Do you see this as an integral part of all gothic horror, or is it more an aspect of this particular story?
L: Absolutely yes! An important stroke of the gothic genre is romantic or sexual repression. Many of the traditional gothic genres look into the transition from girlhood to womanhood, and it’s something I identified with a lot as I was growing up and making that transition myself. I think the reason it’s such an interesting transition is that it often comes much earlier than it’s meant to. We’re expected to grow up fast and learn to protect ourselves. We’re taught not to wear or say certain things from the moment we understand social relationships and threats. I think for Maud, she’s just hyperaware of threats around her. Everyone and everything is a threat – even if it’s not. Of course, Maud wants to be with Eleanor, but she is so afraid and angry because she’s been hurt before, that she’ll not let anyone in and buries threats that get too close.
E: I was really interested to read the following from your interview with Queer Creatives: ‘[Shirley Jackson is] incredible. And people deny it, but she was definitely a queer woman. You can just tell by the way she writes women.’(8) How’s the horror genre doing in terms of LGBTQ+ representation? Coming late to horror fandom – how does it compare to society at large in that respect?
L: I think in general, real and authentic representation is something we’re still trying to get more of across genres. When I look back to early gothic or horror novels, there are so many buried same-sex relationships and LGBTQ+ Identities written into the work. We’ve now moved into a time where more overt relationships and identities are seen as acceptable, though very rarely are they centre stage – they’re usually assigned to a secondary character or subplot in mainstream media. Looking to the past, Shirley Jackson is a good example of subtextual representation because I often read her work and found that female relationships carry such playful tension between them. It could easily be canon.
Representation is beautiful. It allows us to see other perspectives. We’ve been watching the default perspective for about a century now and I think it’s time to share the platform with more diverse voices and stories. Lots of people are scared of diversity, but it’s such a beautiful thing. It connects us. In the same way, you’d listen to a friend speak about their own traumas and you’d hold their hand and listen, we must become okay to sit and listen to another person’s truth. I’d love to see more authentic representation in horror specifically, just because it’s a genre I’m getting lost in more and more. Right now, it feels like the genre is taking more and more risks as time goes on.
E: When a lot of people think of ghost stories, they think of fusty academics and crumbling stately homes. As well as being proudly LGBTQ+, you’re also proudly working-class. Does the gothic (or even just horror) have anything to tell us about class? Does your background shape your approach to the genre and the stories you tell?
L: I think we need more working-class stories when it comes to gothic and horror. Particularly gothic because one of the biggest tropes is, as you say, crumbling stately homes. Because so much of the gothic genre revolves around power dynamics, there is usually money because money is power in a capitalist society (which we are living in). Usually, a character who is in want of money (as a means of survival) is thrust into a world of riches, and we watch how it challenges them. We rarely see working-class narratives on this backdrop. Speaking to history, those working-class lives were lived and they mattered. There must be a misconception that only the rich can face important traumas (important enough to watch). More so, things that happened in the Victorian era have had an absolutely colossal effect on day-to-day life of working-class lives today.
E: I know you’re looking to finance your next film, which is another rural horror. Are you ready to tell us anything about it? Are there any other horror subgenres you’d really like to tackle? And are there any that just leave you cold?
L: I think I’ll continue to tackle the gothic genre, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s a genre that is so ingrained into my identity and I find it is constantly challenging me and posing interesting questions about how much we’ve actually evolved as a society (we haven’t). My next script is another rural gothic piece, inspired by my one of my favourite folktales, Bluebeard. I’ve been working on the script for 2019, so I’ve had to be so patient with it. I really hope I get to make it. It’s ambitious, it’s filled with dread, and it covers really important subject matter. Hopefully, 2021 offers me some good luck.
Many thanks to Lucy Rose for taking the time to answer our questions. We thoroughly recommend She Lives Alone and invite you to watch the trailer below.