INTERVIEW & STORY BY ELIZABETH TEETS
The Hollywood Theater in Portland Oregon is my favorite place in the entire world. I started going there when I was nineteen and instantly fell in love with its pinkish walls and sprint-filled halls. Along with being beautiful, wicked cool, and haunted, it also has some of the most interesting programming of any theater I’ve ever visited. The first time I peeked my head into the theater and saw the opening number to a Queer Horror, one of the Hollywood’s regular events that starts with a drag show and is finished off by a horror movie, I was beyond floored. I do not remember what movie they were showing, but I do remember how I felt. Seeing Carla Rossi walk on stage is both captivating and horrifying, but you can’t stop laughing. I was hooked from the start. Queer Horror has grown since then, it now routinely sells out weeks in advance, evidence that others feel the same way I do. I sat down with Carla Rossi (aka Portland’s Premier Drag Clown) to talk about Queer Horror and everything empowered lady. This year Queer Horror is only showing films that celebrate bad ass women (The Adams Family Values, Slumber Party Massacre). I wanted to know more about why this decision was made and what exactly makes Queer Horror the coolest show in town.
What Is Queer Horror and how did it come to be?
I won a residency through the Hollywood Theatre and my alma mater Pacific Northwest College of Art where I would have to create three months of programming at the Hollywood. Part of the application was to propose that programming right then on the spot, and my husband has just finished a painting of big red lips with the words "QUEER HORROR" right in the middle of them. Working with that image in my head, I proposed a short horror film festival from queer and allied filmmakers featuring performances in between. The theatre loved it so much that they asked me to become a programmer and do it regularly. Two years later it's my prized baby, we were just nominated for Willamette Week's Best Drag Show (for our ten minute preshows before each movie), and we've sold out four of our most recent screenings.
Can you give us a biography of Carla?
Carla is Portland's premier drag clown. She claims the mantle of "the ghost of white privilege" and that's hilarious because it will never die (her joke, not mine). I'm half Grand Ronde Native and half German and Carla's my way of dealing with my own assimilation and whiteness basically by making fun of white people and the horrible things they do. She's anywhere between 10,000 years old to as old as the Big Bang, being a trickster demon. Historians have a hard time trying to pin her existence down though evidence of her is often found on and off throughout art history. We do know for a fact that in the last century she spent some time as a lounge singer in Weimar Berlin and later mistakenly joined the Manson Family instead of the Partridge Family in the '60s. Her favorite color is money and her favorite flavor is gasoline. She's certifiably terrible.
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Does Carla like Horror movies or do you just make her watch them?
I don't know that Carla genuinely likes anything except money, drink tickets, and other forms of currency. I actually have to break character as Carla a lot when I host because I have to introduce the movies in the context of our programming, and Carla's too stupid to do that. We kind of become a hybrid Anthony/Carla when we host because I'm in drag as Carla and I look like her, but I'm talking as myself because I'm so excited to share why I love these movies so much.
You are only showing films that celebrate women this year, why?
After the election I felt powerless. Some of my best sister witch queens and I were opening ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES the following week, and we couldn't do anything in rehearsal except lay on the ground and smoke weed and mope. And then we decided to recite Wednesday Addams' monologue and Debbie's alongside each other, set to the CELL BLOCK TANGO from CHICAGO, while showing Donald Trump on fire in front of American flag and doing a Stonewall kickline. Women's voices are the voices of resistance, and I wanted to channel that matriarchal power we felt at ADDAMS FAMILY into a whole year of programming in response to what's happening in our world. And besides, like most everything in the world, horror is a very bro-centric, misogynist genre, and everyone knows names like Carpenter or Argento or Craven but we aren't as acquainted with the names of women in horror unless they're "scream queens." But the best work comes from women because they have to work twice as hard AT LEAST to get it made, to be taken seriously—and they're intimately acquainted with real horror in the world.
Are there any films that didn’t make the list this year that you wish you had time for?
Horror's been completely revolutionized just in the last two or three years alone by seriously strong work from visionary women filmmakers, and if these films weren't all so recent I would have loved to show them all—THE BABADOOK, HONEYMOON, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, THE INVITATION (aka the scariest movie I've seen in years), THE LURE, and RAW are just some of them. Not all of them have queer elements, but I'm a strong believer that to exist as a woman or femme in this world has become a kind of queerness, and the importance of stories told by women are just as queer and revolutionary by their existence alone.
How many hours go into planning each QH?
For what's typically a two and a half hour show—including a twenty to thirty minute preshow—it takes at least ten times that to work out the programming, run everything by the theatre and secure the rights, write the press releases, design the poster and put them up, recruit and rehearse with our performers, and figure out outfits and makeup. Not to mention the countless hours I spend consuming Taco Bell after every screening.
Why do you think there are so many empowered women characters in Horror Films of all places?
There's so many incredible female characters in horror and it's been a convoluted journey getting there. These empowered characters literally emerged from misogynist intentions—women were just there to have sex and die in horror films, and final girls emerged as the "pure" and "chaste" do-gooders who functioned as a woman was expected to—she didn't have sex, she didn't take off her clothes, she's not wild or goofy, she babysits. As horror—and particularly slashers—evolved along with waves of feminism, the final girls started fighting back. In (our last screened film) SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, the surviving women gang up and take out the killer together. They strategize. In FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2, Ginny (Amy Steele) goes Freudian and manipulates Jason into believing she's his dead mother before she hacks him with a machete. And just look at Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in ALIEN. Soon the final girl becomes a leader and a survivor—if not a downright trained survivalist—and we're less concerned with whether or not she's had sex or where her morality lies. This recently culminated with two amazing, smart, cunning, plotting final girls via Maika Monroe in IT FOLLOWS and Sharni Vinson in YOU'RE NEXT. These women are more unstoppable than the killers or ghosts or curses they're fighting. And it's become an archetype—an empowerment fantasy about finding strength and surviving in the face of patriarchy—that only becomes more and more explicit as women actors and writers and producers and filmmakers gain more voice and agency in front of and behind the camera. Look at A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT—Dracula is no longer preying on women. Dracula is a woman and she skateboards through her city at night protecting other women from monstrosities embodied by men.
What can someone who has never been to QH expect?
With a sold-out theatre packed full of almost 400 queers and allies, it's going to get loud. It won't be obnoxious, but our audience gets rowdy. We yell at the screen when it's unavoidable. We laugh really hard and long. Films and scenes you've never expected take on a whole new life and meaning before your eyes—like when we showed FRIGHT NIGHT, and the vampire opens his cape to the weird kid Evil Ed before turning him into a vampire and says "You'll never have to worry about being bullied again." Scenes like these gain a whole new relevance and emotion with this audience. They can also expect Carla to never stop talking (my current record is a 47-minute intro, but I was really depressed after the electoral college did nothing and I promise not to talk that long ever again) and to pull out her vape pen—Galadriel the Elven Queen—and show it off at least once.
Who are your favorite witches in Pop Culture?
Obviously I was head over heels for THE VVITCH and the coven in that. MALEFICENT is another hero of mine and I still can't believe that Disney made her film anti-patriarchy rape survival story. I love Faye Dunaway in SUPERGIRL as the witch who lives in a funhouse. My very favorite kind of witches are the earthy Satanic dirt witches who live on the outskirts of society and exist solely to terrify and oppose men—women like Meg Foster in LORDS OF SALEM, the witch in the '80s classic SUPERSTITION (it's amazing, try to find it and watch it!), and Gaga in AMERICAN HORROR STORY. I personally identify as a Satanic feminist witch and these ladies give me life. But so do the Sanderson Sisters in HOCUS POCUS. From the witches of childhood stories to the witch heroes in the movies I love today, I can't get enough of powerful women existing in spite of society, being fabulous, and twisting mens' folly to their will. And, like I and three other drag queens endlessly argued over in our intro to THE CRAFT, I am indeed the Nancy.
More info about Queer Horror and Carla Rossi can be found below:
The Hollywood Theater can found at hollywoodtheater.org.