February marks the beginning of Women In Horror Month, an event created to celebrate the amazing women working in the genre, from directors and producer to the iconic scream queens. Despite what certain horror producers may think, there are a plethora of talented and demented women creating diabolically poignant pieces of horror cinema. In a genre that is so often described as misogynistic and exploitative, it can seem easy to dismiss it and not address its long history of interrogating societal fears. But, women have been working against, and sometimes with, those conventions just as long as any man.
To help you celebrate all month long, we’ve compiled a list of 10 horror films directed by women to put on your watch list. But don’t confine your honoring of women in horror to just February; they deserve your attention and support all year long.
American Psycho, dir. Mary Harron
Everything superficial about American Psycho appeals to the kind of masculine, wide-eyed, dorm room energy of boys of a certain age—its sleek quotability, retro aesthetic, sardonic wit, and extreme violence are all, well, pure Bret Easton Ellis, literature’s resident teenage boy. And while Ellis may have crafted his tale of a absurd Wall Street serial killer with his own anger and transgressive style in mind, director Mary Harron grants her film adaptation of the novel with a entirely different, yet no less fascinating lens through which to view the world of Patrick Bateman. And who better to craft a killer of women than a woman herself?
American Psycho might be funny—scratch that, it’s hilarious—but the horror grows with each passing frame, building in Bateman’s victims on screen, building in us, and building in the character himself as reality starts to slip away. The film’s germane, eerie satire of American capitalism and wealth only deepen some truly terrifying sequences of murder and mutilation that speak to the horrors of misogyny and power. Yet so much of that depth owes itself to Harron’s camera, which doesn’t linger on these women’s bodies and ask us to revel in their destruction, but rather remains tight on Christian Bale’s face, clothes, hands—the apathetic instruments of a society that values nothing but money.
Okay, this is starting to sound like more dorm room analysis, but it only takes one good watch to enthralled by this movie for a lifetime. Come for the controversy, stay for the cultural commentary, and return time after time for “I have to return some video tapes.”
Blue My Mind, dir. Lisa Brühlmann
Sure, we’ve seen plenty coming-of-age stories, but have you seen one where the girl turns into a mermaid who can’t stop eating her parents’ goldfish? No? Then Blue My Mind is right up your alley. It combines skin-crawling body horror with the existential angst that any teenager is bound to experience. Swiss director Lisa Brühlmann captures that fear of trying to fit in and combines with surprisingly loving female friendships and fish scales.
Blue My Mind follows Mia, a young girl who has just had to move and start at a new school, which is most teens’ worst nightmare. New people, new social dynamics, and no friends mixed with the beginnings of puberty; it is a breeding ground for insecurity. To solve her problems, Mia decides to try and impress the cool girls by smoking cigarettes, binge drinking, and shoplifting just to be accepted as one of them. While it seems to be working, she realizes that something fishy is going on with her body—literally. First it’s a hunger for her parents’ goldfish. Then webbing grows between her toes. Then, her skin starts to shed. It’s a slow, painful transformation that has Mia questioning who her parents really are. She buries this physical changes to try and keep up with the partying. But she can only last for so long.
While puberty manifesting through body horror isn’t anything new, Brühlmann makes it aquatic, while also sprinkling in some touching moments of female friendship, something that can be unusual in depicting young teen girls. It is a quieter, more contemplative piece of horror that reflects Brühlmann’s care for these characters.
Bound, dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski
Before they made it big with The Matrix, the Wachowskis’ debuted their directing careers with this neo-noir thriller centering on scheming leather-clad lesbians. After ex-con plumber Corky (Gina Gershon) falls for whip-smart seductress Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the pair conspire to steal $2 million from the latter’s mafioso boyfriend.
“People at other studios would read the script and say, ‘If you change Corky to a man we’re really interested,’” said Lana Wachowski in a 1998 interview. “And we were like, well, that movie’s been made a million times, so we’re really not interested in it.”
It’s not just the progressive gender and sexuality politics that separates Bound from other run-of-the-mill crime thrillers—the zippy twists and turns keep you on your toes while the genuinely sweet romance compels you to root for these laudable, lovable women. Juggling these two genres is an ambitious venture, but the palpable chemistry between Corky and Violet provides a firm anchor. Plus, because it’s a Wachowski flick, the characters wear totally rad 90s-style shades that objectively rule.
In My Skin, dir. Marina de Van
The New French Extremity movement has historically been notorious for its brutal misogyny and exploitation. Careless depictions of violence against women’s bodies can sometimes come across as torture porn, but it’s possible to avoid this with the right person in the director’s chair. Marina de Van, along with fellow French Extremists Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat, managed to scrape out a solid space for herself among the hordes of male directors with her daring film In My Skin.
Esther, played by de Van herself, is a seemingly average woman. She has a career, a boyfriend, and surface-level happiness—everything a 30-year-old woman is “supposed” to have. After an accident leaves her leg bloodied and decimated, she finds herself fascinated by the festering wound. What begins as semi-innocent poking and prodding slowly transforms into a full-on obsession as Esther advances from mercilessly cutting into her own leg to chomping into her own flesh.
Esther’s self-mutilation may hold myriad meanings: self-harm, personal and sexual dissatisfaction, addiction, and loss of control to name a few. Though In My Skin does breed more questions than answers, it ultimately serves as a thought-provoking character study of a woman’s downward spiral into madness.
MFA, dir. Natalia Leite
MFA joins Revenge as one of the few rape-revenge films directed by women, again adding a fresh perspective to subgenre built on exploitation. This film, though, takes a much more realistic view of the horrors of rape, as a Masters student, Noelle, is assaulted by a classmate at a party. It is a film that addresses the very real horrors that plague college campuses around the world and the lack of resources available for survivors of sexual violence.
After her assault, Noelle’s eyes are opened about how rampant this sexual violence is on her campus and the amount of blame placed on the survivors’ shoulders. Pissed off, she decides to take justice into her own hands, fulfilling the fantasy of killing your local rapist(s). She dons a short, hot pink wig and takes to campus, hunting down frat boys who have demeaned too many women. These violent acts opens up a new side of Noelle, letting her tap into a darker side of her creativity. This film has an interesting message about the power of trauma and tapping into that power to unleash something, whether than be violence or a new painting.
MFA is a difficult film to watch because of its realism; it doesn’t water down the act or its unrelenting side effects, which is what makes it so successful. Leite portrays the reality of the situation with care and respect, never demeaning Noelle, but rather showing her tumultuous mental state that can render you helpless, terrified, and angry. Leite lets Noelle experience this range of emotions, while also having her perform these acts of violence that you can’t help but cheer for.
Near Dark, dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow is possibly one of the most well known female directors working today, with a best director win for her film The Hurt Locker (2008). She is also known for her work on Point Break (1991) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). She has never wanted the fact that she is a woman to affect the kind of films she makes, and has had a knack from the beginning of creating enticing and suspenseful action films. However, one of her lesser known and oft forgotten and/or ignored films is her vampire Western, Near Dark (1987).
I have always been a fan of vampires, but in recent years that is a fact I’ve been made to feel ashamed of. While I understand the apprehension to the often overused and underutilized creature of the night, it has always upset me that vampires haven’t gotten a redemption arc. Vampires allow for incredible world and lore building and are up for so many different interpretations that it is impossible not to have fun with them.
Following a similar storyline as Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys —which coincidentally came out the same exact year—Near Dark is a story about a young man named Caleb (Caleb Colton) falling in love with a girl named Mae (Jenny Wright) who just so happens to be an undead creature of the night who sucks blood and runs with a nasty crew of outlaw vampires.
It is more than a little frustrating that The Lost Boys beat Near Dark to the punch by coming out a mere three months earlier in July 1987 while Near Dark came out in September. Near Dark, while still relatively well-known and directed by the famous and wonderful Kathryn Bigelow, got swept under the rug in the wake of the Lost Boys’ crazy punk-vampires.
It would be easy to say that if you liked The Lost Boys then you would most certainly enjoy Near Dark, but I believe that Bigelow’s film deserves a spotlight of its own, free from the idea that is exactly like another genre film about vampires and horny boys. Other than the overall basic plot —boy falls in love with girl, girl is actually a dark and mysterious woman who corrupts the boy forever and teaches him lessons about life—which can arguably be found across many genres of film let alone the horror genre, the two films differ drastically. Namely, in tone and execution.
While I would not categorize Near Dark as a bleak drama by any means, it is still considerably darker than The Lost Boys and the parts that are humorous are also just as disturbing. Bill Paxton plays Severen, an incredibly violent (and incredibly sexy) outlaw cowboy vampire who at one point in the film gleefully slits a bartender’s throat with the spur on his cowboy boot and functions as the epicenter of everything that makes the film as terrifying as it is badass. Bill Paxton is the powerhouse of the entire film, somehow managing to be incredible charming and absolutely disgusting all at the same time.
Similarly, when Caleb is turned into a vampire, he is given no choice and at first isn’t even aware of it. Eventually he must leave his family to keep from hurting them and is given no other choice but to join the gang of outlaws that Mae runs with. It is never shown as an adventure, it feels much more like a kidnapping. Near Dark feels very dynamic both in its storytelling, and in its ability to make a film about vampires be terrifying without the vampires ever looking like anything other than human beings. Maybe, just maybe, the part that is terrifying about vampires isn’t the parts of them that are supernatural, but the parts of them that are human. The parts that are cruel, violent, hedonistic, and self-serving.
Raw, dir. Julia Ducournau
We’re first introduced to the character of Justine (Garance Marillier) in Junior, director Ducournau’s 2011 short film debut. Acting as a loose prequel to Raw, Junior follows 13-year-old Justine as she endures the revolting process of puberty—skin is shed and bodily fluids ooze, but eventually she metamorphosizes from a tomboy into a “conventionally” beautiful young woman. In Raw, 16-year-old Justine sets off to veterinary school and discovers another secret her mercurial body had been harboring: a taste for human flesh.
Brilliantly melding body horror with coming-of-age drama, Raw improves upon its predecessor’s blood-stained blueprint, more intensely exploring both the psyche and physicality of the teenage girl. Justine’s newfound penchant for cannibalism acts as a metaphor for both puberty and burgeoning sexuality, as well as the inevitable burden of heredity. It’s also unexpectedly relatable, emphasizing the underrepresented horniness of teenage girls with uncomfortable candidness. Remember those sleepless, sweaty nights? Remember gazing at boys with such a primal lust that your nose starts to bleed? Remember the heavenly satisfaction of eating a human finger for the first time? No? Oh. Never mind, then. I was just kidding, haha! A harmless jest!
Raw is a welcome addition to the New French Extremity resurgence, and Ducournau has firmly solidified herself as an upcoming director to watch.
Revenge, dir. Coralie Fargeat
Revenge made a splash last year as a knife to the eyes of the male gaze. It rewrote the idea of the rape-revenge film with a New French Extremity twist. The film follows the transformation of Jen, played by the extraordinary Matilda Lutz, as she is raped and left for death by her boyfriend and his nefarious buddies. Set in the desert and soaked in neon colors, bright reds, and pounding music, Revenge is a blood-soaked film about the hunted become the hunter.
The film begins with a scantly-clad Jen stepping off a helicopter with her Ken doll-like boyfriend, Richard. They’re on a clandestine lovers’ getaway, as Richard is unsurprisingly married with children. But their retreat is cut short when Richard’s two friends, Stan and Dimitri, show up early for a hunting trip, massive guns and wide eyes in tow, ogling Jen’s tanned body. Her friendliness is taken as sexual advances, and Stan takes what he feels he deserves. Instead of punishing Stan, Richard instead tries to kill Jen, pushing her off a cliff to quiet her forever. But instead he unleashes a rage-filled woman who is bent on enacting revenge for her rape and attempted murder.
Fargeat adopts the tropes of the rape-revenge genre to make the viewer aware of how the female body is viewed, whether sexualized or ruined. It can be an uncomfortable experience, but Fargeat wants the audience to revel in that experience and understand how we are conditioned to view women on screen. Through a peyote-fueled self surgery, a gnarly foot injury, and a nude-and-bloody chase scene, Revenge takes the rape-revenge film to the extreme, delivering something unexpectedly empowering through its violence.
Rust Creek, dir. Jen McGowan
It isn’t a secret that the rural lower class is portrayed as ruthless hicks in horror film. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Deliverance, rural populations are seen as stupid, evil, and violent. In her newest film, Jen McGowan rewrites that narrative and offers a new perspective on what horror has deemed “evil rednecks” while also creating a powerful version of the Final Girl.
College student Sawyer is driving to a job interview from college when she gets lost in the middle of nowhere. Two men clad in camo pull over to “help” her but their good intentions are a rouse for a good time. She swiftly rejects their advances, running into the woods, bleeding, freezing, but determined to survive. Sawyer is initially presented as a spoiled brat, who can’t survive without her manicure, smart phone, and heated car seats. But this vision is shattered as she fights for her life and literally rips off her fake nails in the name of survival. As she stumbles through the woods, she comes across a meth cook, Lowell, who defies her expectations; he isn’t out to kill her, but protect her from the corruption of the town’s police force.
The relationship between Sawyer and Lowell is a touching one rarely seen in horror, which makes the violence all the more devastating and the stakes so high. You aren’t just invested in Sawyer’s survival, but Lowell’s, too. McGowan flips the table on the typical tropes of the Final Girl and violent hicks to create a more thoughtful, not any less violent, horror film.
XX, dir. Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic
This anthology horror film features shorts from all women directors, including glam-rock queen, St. Vincent. They cover topics from marital anxiety and monsters lurking in the desert. Each represents what their respective directors bring to the genre without trying . Kusama, Benjamin, and Vuckovic are all familiar with horror, writing, producing, and directing their own feature-length or short films. St. Vincent is the only newcomer, but that doesn’t prevent her from creating a feature, “The Birthday Party,” that holds its own among the other three talented women.
My personal favorite of this quartet of horror is “The Box” directed by Vuckovic. A woman and her son are riding the train and sit next to a man with a bright red box. He lets the son look into the box, and afterwards, the son refuses to eat. As the film progresses, each member of the woman’s family refuse to eat and begin to waste away while she helplessly watches. In the film’s tragic end, the woman rides the train every day, searching for the man with the red box to see what was inside.
The other three films are just as strong, creating a unique horror anthology that stands out among the several V/H/S installments. And just because these are women filmmakers does not mean there is any lack of gore; rather, the stories feel more thoughtful. There is no forced frame story, only a bizarre stop-motion video of a dilapidated dollhouse. It is a testament to the strength of women in horror and their wealth of creativity.