Anyone who has experienced heavy stuff at any point in their life knows that trauma is not something you just get over. It’s a long road to recovery, and you meet many demons along the way. Anthony DiBlasio’s 2018 film Extremity does what horror does best and makes a monstrosity of the post-traumatic introspection and growth process.
The film follows Allison (Dana Christina), a young traumatized woman who, in an effort to battle her demons, signs up for an extreme haunt. What follows is a brutal ordeal that tests her boundaries and her mental limits.
True to its title, Extremity features intense scenes with plenty of ultraviolence. Beatings, coercion, and government torture techniques are all employed to the haunt’s willing participants– and that’s after they get rid of their phone at an undisclosed location. Does that violence serve a higher purpose? The haunt’s creator believes so.
As of January 1st, Extremity is streaming on Amazon Prime. To celebrate, we’ve got some exclusive photos with the filmmakers and cast of the film, along with a quick sit-down with Extremity screenwriter Rebecca Swan.
DC: To begin, these haunt-goers of Extremity willingly sign waivers and relinquish control of their bodies and minds in order to get these thrills. There are heavy parallels to the BDSM community in here, did you have sexual gameplay in mind when you were exploring power dynamics and control here?
RS: We tried to stay away from sexual gameplay at the haunt. I think because the movie is already extremely brutal, plus the fact that Allison’s backstory is dripping with sexual abuse. In an early draft, I think before Anthony came on as director, David Bond (producer/writer) and I put in a scene in which one of the women who works at the haunt (Nell) violently shoves a fake penis into Allison’s mouth. Corinne Ferguson (producer) about had heart failure and demanded we take it right out. In retrospect she absolutely made the right call. But to our defense, it did have relevancy to Allison’s struggle, and it’s good to try risky things in early drafts.
DC: Allison decides to volunteer for this experience despite her therapist’s vehement objections. The therapist then segues into a finger-wagging at horror films themselves as “cheap smut.” Where did the choice come from to use this story as a way to examine the power of the horror genre?
RS: Early on in the scripting process, I came up with this. It’s possibly a tad on the nose, but it seemed to be the right idea. Bond really fell in love with it. And it’s not the only horror movie in-joke on display. I felt comfortable with this kind of in your face humor because we honestly tried to stay away from the things that could have made this movie cheap smut. I don’t even really consider Extremity horror. I call it dark drama.
DC: That might rile some horror fans, but I wouldn’t disagree with the label. Continuing on the therapy thread, between the well-meaning but harsh therapist and the sadistic showrunners at Perdition, Extremity seems wary of those who presume to know what would best heal another person. Was this attitude there from the jump, or did it develop somewhere along the writing process?
RS: Early on it became clear to me that we needed this element for the movie to have some kind of substance. It is certainly about what happens when you poke a monster with a stick: The monster eats you. And it’s also about reversing the traditional roles of the victim and the boogeyman. It’s what I feel makes the story satisfying.
DC: In Perdition, Allison is beaten, confined, drowned, and compelled to destroy a representation of her fear all in the name of “helping” her overcome her past. The film presents the journey towards self-acceptance as a violent process. Do you feel that this is a universal truth, or one more central to your own life?
RS: That’s a huge question. The idea of having to tear down everything in order to emerge anew and rise from the ashes is rather potent and I think holds some truth. And certainly destroying one’s own ego can be terribly violent in an internal struggle kind of way. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, it was on set during the filming of this movie that I grappled intensely with my recent decision to gender transition. I walked onto set as Scott, and by the night of the wrap party I knew I was Rebecca. There might be some correlation. Maybe the themes of the movie pushed me to deal with my own personal dilemma. I don’t know. Hopefully this answer doesn’t come off as too self absorbed.
DC: It doesn’t come off that way at all. It makes the story deeply personal in an illuminating way. So then in your experience, how does the process of writing a horror movie fare against watching and engaging with horror as catharsis?
RS: It’s all interconnected. When I write a horror movie I try to feel what the characters are feeling. I also try to torture the villains as much as the innocent characters. In a rich horror movie, I believe all the characters should be flawed and tortured. I love it when the scary monster has their own private catharsis as well.
DC: Speaking of monsters, many horror stories make a monstrosity of fear and the past in the form of ghosts or spirits. Those elements are present in Extremity, but the choice to channel Allison’s story through extreme violence and intensity is an interesting one. What prompted that choice?
RS: Allison definitely has her ghosts. The mother character is a ghost for sure. It’s funny, I never really thought about it this way until your question, but I think Extremity is kind of a ghost story. It certainly didn’t start out as one, though. Originally it was purely about abuse and surface horror. As the backstory developed it became more about the terrible past that haunts and controls Allison. I think Bond and I decided, almost in an unspoken way, that Allison’s transformation would occur through extreme violence and brutality. She’s beaten physically and mentally throughout the entire movie. It’s really rather cruel. But she subjects herself to this harsh treatment voluntarily and for most of the movie she’s begging them to go even harder. She’s a deeply sad and troubled character. I feel sorry for all the characters. They’re all broken and disconnected in some way.
All photos: Steven Shea