Happy Women in Horror Month! As I’m sure many others would agree, the horror genre can often feel incredibly male-dominated. Violence against women within these films is usually prominent, and in a world obsessed with inflicting this same violence in reality, being able to reclaim such a powerful tool as the horror movie is a very great thing. Besides which, this is a genre which naturally links itself to feminist thought. Traditional aspects of horror such as vampire lore, the final girl, slasher film tropes and the revenge plot all revolve around feminist themes, and it is not surprising that much academic discussion in this area concerns gender. In any case, after watching as many female-directed examples as I can find, I’ve firmly decided that women make the best horror movies. Take a look at the nine films below, and I’m sure you’ll agree.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
Dark, stylish and atmospheric, ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ is the Iranian vampire Western we never knew we needed. A sparse narrative cloaked in monochromatic tones illustrates themes of gendered violence, as the eponymous Girl hunts down villainous men. Vampire movies and feminist discourse have always gone hand in hand – the symbolic neck bite forming a transferal of agency – and Amirpour exploits this natural kinship whilst adding her own original mark to the genre. For ‘A Girl’ is a quiet, brooding movie, moving from character to character at a pace that some may find too sluggish. But this hesitance to over-embellish in a field that can so often be flamboyant is what gives the film its strength; the small moments form something so much greater, and it is the overall mood of the piece, rather than one scene or another, that marks it as a classic for feminist horror.
Jennifer’s Body (2009), dir. Karyn Kusama
When I came to re-watch ‘Jennifer’s Body’ in honour of Women in Horror month, I had been led to believe that it was an awful movie. IMDB suggested a complete fail, the general reputation of the film was “terrible teen film that was funny when you were fifteen”, and my own memory had failed me.
How wrong I was.
The fact that ‘Jennifer’s Body’ is rarely seen as the feminist masterpiece it deserves to be remembered as can only be attributed to the dominance of male perspectives within the industry. (I’m only half joking). Whilst I can admit that not everything in the film works – a lot of the dialogue is cheesy and a few jokes miss the mark – as an overall piece this horror comedy excels in making a brash statement about the lives of teenage girls whilst paying homage to classic horror tropes. Jennifer, as a traditionally objectified “popular girl”, develops a taste for blood after an occult sacrifice gone wrong, and hence begins to consume the young men who have obsessively chased her for so long. There’s so much to unpack beneath the surface (too much for an article such as this) but expect a longer essay on this underrated film sometime soon.
Near Dark (1987), dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow is one of the names that first comes to mind when thinking of female filmmakers; she is the only woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. When speaking of her films, there is usually a distinction made between her later, bigger budget films (‘The Hurt Locker’, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’) and the early thrillers that placed her on the map (‘Point Blank’, ‘Blue Steel’).
Bigelow’s only venture into the horror world comes in the form of vampire western ‘Near Dark’. The film has become something of a cult classic, due at least in part to the inspired way she fuses the moody, desolate landscapes of the American West with the high-fantasy, grandiose traditions of vampire lore. ‘Near Dark’ successfully takes elements from both to create something new in a tired genre, retaining age-old tropes whilst re-vitalising the vampire rhetoric with a modern twist.
Office Killer (1997), dir. Cindy Sherman
Just from reading the title, it’s fairly obvious that ‘Office Killer’ is not going to be a serious prestige film. Ranking in perhaps the lowest position of all movies respect-wise, ‘Office Killer’ takes up the role of direct-to-video horror spoof, as it follows mousey office worker Dorine in her efforts to slaughter her entire workplace. Every single victim is a caricature, from the bossy office manager with a penchant for theft to the cruel co-workers who taunt Dorine for her quiet nature, but any insertion of depth into these characters would surely defeat the point of the film. These people represent the everyday irritations of working life, amplified to the point where poor Dorine simply can’t cope with it anymore. The gory murder scenes and poorly-executed humour are all part of this horrendous B-movie’s flawless charm – and there’s even one line that actually had me laughing out loud.
Pet Sematary (1989), dir. Mary Lambert
‘Pet Sematary’ is pivotal in many ways. It’s a popular Stephen King classic, it was originally offered to horror virtuoso George A. Romero, and its eventual director – Mary Lambert – was known mostly for her work on music videos pre-1989. There’s a heavy expectation, then, on the results of such an adaptation, and this expectation can only be doubled when a female filmmaker is involved.
To Lambert’s total credit, the film is absolutely bloody terrifying.
Horrors of the late eighties and early nineties can often suffer from the ‘cheesiness’ of the era; such films often do not age well. Direct, wooden dialogue, cheap special effects and predictable plotting are frequent blockades to fond remembrance of these films. ‘Pet Sematary’ inevitably falls to some of these failures – the script is a little clunky, the acting a little embarrassing, the jump scares a little foreseeable.
Fortunately, it’s easy to forget all this once the real terror kicks in.
Without giving anything away, once this film starts with the real horror of the story, Lambert delivers her true talent behind the camera. Several scenes are so frightening I’ll probably never erase them from my mind. One could argue that this success is entirely down to King – the basis of the twisted story is, after all, his creative output. Lambert, however, takes this material and is never once afraid to present it in all its ugly glory as she pushes horror tropes to their limits.
Raw (2016), dir. Julia Ducournau
Back in 2016, tales began to circulate of a cannibal film that left audiences literally reaching for the sick bags. The cause of such visceral response was Julia Ducournau’s debut ‘Raw’, a masterful exploration of young sexuality, societal expectations, and the trauma of taboo. All of this inherently feminist goodness is wrapped up in 99 minutes of careful character focus – so much so that it’s a shame that all ‘Raw’ seems to be remembered for in the mainstream is its grisly scenes. Those watching for torture porn will be disappointed; though ‘Raw’ is gory, the use of body horror is limited to emphasise its impact on the story as a whole. Instead, ‘Raw’ uses cannibalism as a metaphor for a coming-of-age tale that is startlingly relatable to anybody that has had trouble balancing the paradox of university peer pressure, and a patriarchal society that declines women pleasure. It is hard not to feel for teen protagonist Justine – even as she indulges in her new-found taste for blood – and this empathy is due to Ducournau and lead actress Garance Marillier’s conscientious efforts. ‘Raw’ is a fantastic example of why women deserve their place in horror, both on and off screen.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953), dir. Ida Lupino
‘The Hitch-Hiker’ is the first American film noir directed by a woman, and its historical impact cannot be understated. Though the film is technically more of a crime than a horror, the psychological games played within the plot more than justify its inclusion within the genre. The film takes place in Mexico and is about two travelling friends who make the well-intentioned mistake of picking up a hitch-hiker during their trip. Soon, the man’s violent tendencies become clear, and the travellers find themselves at gunpoint, forced to help the hitch-hiker escape.
The plot is a little predictable, but nonetheless allows director Ida Lupino to focus her efforts on the claustrophobia of the moving vehicle, and the fear of the unknown hitch-hiker’s capabilities. A particular strength of the film is the recurring issue of sleep – the villain’s eye remains open regardless of his state of consciousness, meaning that the two travelling men are never quite sure whether he is awake or otherwise. This constant impending danger and lack of hope to escape make ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ the classic it truly deserves to be recognised as.
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), dir. Amy Holden Jones
Boobs! Gore! Questionable decisions! An escaped maniac stalking young women for no apparent reason other than pure bloodlust! Sleepovers! Innuendos! More boobs! Super obvious phallic references! Even more boobs!
‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ truly has it all, and by “it all”, I mean it every 80’s slasher trope you love and hate in equal measure. With a running time of a little over 75 minutes, this is not a film that establishes a well-oiled and complex plot. Rather, this is a film that takes delight in its own tastelessness. There is no room for an overly critical eye when watching ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ – though it is interesting to consider the impact of a female director on a genre so obsessed with violence against women. How does the male gaze transfer when the minds behind the film in question are female? Is Amy Holden Jones’ lens inherently feminist? Is the high level of nudity an empowering choice by a female crew, a mockery of the state of cinema, or simply an act of compliance with the patriarchy? For a stereotypical slasher, ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ doesn’t half conjure up a minefield of feminist thought, and it’s for this reason that it earns its rightful place on this list – though the mindless violence is pretty fun, too.
Trouble Every Day (2001), dir. Claire Denis
Watching ‘Trouble Every Day’ is like browsing an art exhibition at a glacial pace, each luxurious display deserving of the time spent studying its details for every hint of meaning. Striking shots of bloodied faces, the muted everyday of French working life, and the naturalistic beauty of naked skin make up just some of the components of this piece. Denis truly knows how to work a camera in order to create a full experience, rather than simply a story, and this in combination with the sparse script produces a film that does not hold the viewer’s hand through a basic plot, but instead lays the groundwork for independent thought. Connecting the uncaged feminine sexuality with the violent nature of bloodlust, this is a film that can be revisited time and time again, each bringing a new meaning for the viewer. Beautiful, raw, and touching, ‘Trouble Every Day’ is the perfect addition to any feminist cinematic list.
Special Mention To: American Mary (2012), American Psycho (2000), The Babadook (2014), Organ (1996), A Night to Dismember (1983)
I obviously haven’t been able to watch every female-directed horror, but if there’s any you really recommend please let me know @tinyfilmlesbian!