Vanishing in Vancouver – A female horror film opens the Women in Film Festival

Photography by David Feuillatre

Courtesy of Opiate Pictures

By Katja De Bock


 Filmmaker Karen Lam in front of her first flat in Kerrisdale, Vancouver, on January 14, 2014. Photo by Katja De Bock

Filmmaker Karen Lam in front of her first flat in Kerrisdale, Vancouver, on January 14, 2014. Photo by Katja De Bock

When Karen Lam walks by the Louisa Apartments on Kerrisdale’s East Boulevard, she laughs out loud remembering how she once almost set the building on fire trying to cook a meal.

A highly educated Asian-Canadian from Manitoba with degrees in English literature and law, Lam never learned how to cook until she moved into her first Vancouver flat near Arbutus and West 41st Ave.

That’s twenty years ago now and Lam has moved on to become an incessant cook, passionate tuque-knitter and oh, one of the world’s few female horror film directors.

Her second feature, Evangeline, about an abused college student seeking to avenge her perpetrators, will open the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival(VIWIFF) on March 6.

In 1993, Lam needed an inexpensive flat providing easy access to UBC. Kerrisdale was offered no distractions for the avid student. Squabbles with elderly neighbours about the central thermostat in the cellar of the apartment building were a daily routine.


 Filmmaker Karen Lam in Kerrisdale, Vancouver, on January 14, 2014. Photo by Katja De Bock

Filmmaker Karen Lam in Kerrisdale, Vancouver, on January 14, 2014. Photo by Katja De Bock

Who knows if murder was on her mind in that dark Kerrisdale cellar, but creepy cellar-like torture chambers with devilish spirits are abundant in Evangeline, which was partly shot at UBC. The campus eerily made headlines for unsolved sexual assaults, which happened throughout 2013.

The supernatural revenge fantasy deals with freshman Evangeline (Kat de Lieva), who is missing after hanging out with an enigmatic, violent fraternity leader (Richard Harmon) and his pals. Beaten and left for dead in the woods, Evangeline finds herself trapped in a supernatural nightmare, and starts a violent quest to avenge her perpetrators.

In spite of a brutal storyline and mesmerizing visual effects, the film is not mere entertainment for the bloodthirsty. It asks the question whether it is better to turn the other cheek or risk losing one’s soul to hatred, and what is true justice.


Inspired by B.C.’s missing women


Courtesy of Opiate Pictures

Courtesy of Opiate Pictures

Bits and pieces found through daily newspaper perusal inspired Lam’s impressive body of work, including shorts, television series and two feature films. The Robert Pickton case, a Port Coquitlam pig farmer who was convicted of murdering six women and charged in the deaths of an additional twenty, made her sad and angry.


“I only write when something gets under my skin and I’m sort of angry about it,” Lam says. “As a woman, that you can disappear. And based on whom you know and your connections to the greater society, if you fall off the grid, you can be lost and no one will ever find you again. And I find that really tragic.”


Asian action cinema a childhood recollection

True cases as well as inspiration from Asian films and stories like the classic Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub result in Lam’s revenge stories.


Mail AttachmentInterestingly, Lam associates Asian action movies with happy childhood memories, out-time from study and work, the family gathering in front of the television with a pile of Asian movies on VHS, loudly snacking on meaty treats.

“Watching the films was probably a time for bonding with my dad. I was the oldest and he always treated me a bit like a boy,” says Lam. “If I covered my eyes from a scary part, he’d stop, rewind and say, ‘You missed the good bit.’ I think I learned to appreciate a good decapitation!

“We’re Asian, so movie nights were never silent. And it was always food oriented, so my mom would always get us meat snacks: pepperoni sticks, or she’d make braised chicken gizzards and eggs that we would eat cold. I still think good action or thriller films require meat snacks as accompaniments.”


Gaining ground on male territory


Courtesy of Opiate Pictures

Courtesy of Opiate Pictures

Although Evangeline has premiered on international film festivals in Sweden and Toronto, Lam says she feels nervous about screening the film in her hometown at VIWIFF. Opening the festival, which celebrates women’s artistic achievements in film, with a horror thriller is a first.

“Karen is an accomplished filmmaker, Evangeline is a beautiful and well crafted film which deserves to be seen,” says Carolyn Combs, Executive Director of VIWIFF. “We are proud of Karen as she successfully pursues her work in a genre traditionally dominated by men and highly respect and appreciate the perspective she brings.”

“I think it’s really ballsy of them,” says Lam, who won the festival’s 2013 Women in Film Artistic Innovation Award. “It’s a statement of how far we’ve come and where we are going next in this industry. It’s not all one thing. The young female directors coming up, a lot of them are really interested in genre – why shouldn’t we be expanding our horizons?”

According to Lam, there is still an unspoken hesitation in the entertainment industry to allot bigger budgeted productions to women.

“I hear that women don’t direct CGI [computer-generated imagery], they don’t do action, they don’t do genre and don’t do these commercial ventures. And yet, what I am saying is that, yes, we do! In fact, this is all I do,” says Lam, who put her own equity on the line to finance Evangeline, a low budget production.

Lam is certain most of her films pass the Bechdel test, which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Death with a touch of comedy

However, in her entire body of work, one short, The Meeting, which will also screen at VIWIFF, stands out. The comedic thriller deals with a support group for serial killers who lose their cool when a woman visits the session.


Karen Lam 1“It’s my first comedy, and it was my first time working with actors in a different way,” says Lam. “It still fits in the horror market, but to me, what I really like about it is that it is so character driven, it’s less about my visuals and more about just letting these performances come out. As a director, it was fun to explore that.”

Evangeline opens the Women in Film Festival on Thursday, March 6 at 7 p.m.

The Meeting is shown on Saturday, March 8 (International Women’s Day!) at 7 p.m. together with the black comedy Finsterworld.