Most horror movies are generally told from a male perspective, despite the fact that studies have shown the audiences for these films are 50% female. There have been some powerful genre movies made by women, featuring feminist leanings and a strong female viewpoint. We wanted to highlight these works — those films that bypass the stereotypical (naked) damsel in distress trope and call attention to the male gaze, sometimes turning it back onto itself. If the only names that come to mind when discussing horror are Hitchcock and Romero, let this list also serve as an introduction to fantastic female filmmakers who enjoy scaring the hell out of their audiences.
Claire Denis’ blood-soaked meditation on desire, obsession, and longing centers on a pair of cannibals (Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle) who indulge their animal appetites with abandon and force us to face some of our most primal fears: being eaten alive, being alone, and losing time.
Kathryn Bigelow’s severely underrated vampire film, Near Dark, follows a ruthless family of nomadic vampires. There’s nary a cape or exotic accent amongst the bloodsuckers, who behave like junkies out for a fix. Darker, grittier, and more grounded in real-life horror than most vampire tales, Near Dark presents a hazy, brutal world akin to a horror-western — far from the typical romantic tableaux we’re used to.
This was American Graffiti screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s ticket to a directorial career — a tradition many Hollywood hopefuls followed during the 1970s (make a genre movie, pray you get noticed, direct another, “respectable,” film). Messiah of Evil was never completed the way the filmmakers originally intended — their budget ran out and investors took over the project — but that disconnect gives the film some of its surreality. A young woman searches for her missing father in a seaside town that is overrun by a zombified cult. Cue Lovecraft-inspired weirdness, nightmarish visions, and a Euro-horror influence that makes Messiah of Evil palpably eerie.
Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho — about a wealthy, narcissistic, and psychopathic investment banker who slaughters his way through the 1980s — highlighted the incredible talent of Christian Bale. But it also made us notice Harron, who cleverly balances the bleakness and bitterness of Ellis’ story (previously considered unfilmable) with smart satire and style through her curious, clinical eye.
Directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani created a glowing tribute to the Italian thrillers of the 1960s and ‘70s (known as the gialli) with Amer. Where those films tend to cater to male audiences, using sex and nudity galore, Amer’s trilogy tale is told from a female perspective à la Repulsion. The film’s dream logic allows viewers to indulge in Cattet and Forzani’s sensual, and sometimes frightening, observations.
Pioneering filmmaker Ida Lupino had an impressive directorial career for a woman during the 1940s and ‘50s, when big-screen opportunities were largely in front of the camera and not behind it. Often cited as the first film noir feature directed by a woman, The Hitch-Hiker blends an anxiety-ridden narrative — about two men held at gunpoint by an escaped murderer — with psychological horror and stark realism.
Legendary producer Roger Corman has given many big name actors and directors their first break, including Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola. Corman did the same with screenwriter and editor Amy Holden Jones, who turned down a gig behind the scenes of E.T. in order to direct her first feature, The Slumber Party Massacre. The film was meant to be a parody of the slasher films that populated the 1980s, written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown. However, Corman took a straight approach to the story. Still, Brown and Jones’ subversive humor, filtered through a female perspective (the men make dumb decisions while the women are more resilient), manages to shine through.
Canadian twin filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska have been leading the way for contemporary female horror directors with their indie debut, Dead Hooker in a Trunk (picked up by IFC), and the recent American Mary. A disenchanted medical student enters the world of underground surgery and extreme body modification where her career takes a dark turn. Ginger Snaps’ Katharine Isabelle leads the twisted character study, and the Soskas allow the antiheroine to flourish without straining to make her likable (a rarity for female characters in general).
Emily Hagins directed zombie horror flick Pathogen when she was only 12 years old. The precocious director’s newest film, Grow Up, Tony Phillips , will be released on Halloween in 2014 (although it’s not a horror film).
Following in the footsteps of her famous filmmaker father, David Lynch, Jennifer Chambers Lynch started her own movie career with a bizarre, provocative story about a surgeon who holds a woman captive by amputating her limbs. The odd mix of quiet horror, fantasy, and erotic drama plays as lurid and downright (delightfully) weird.
Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is set during the 1800s at a remote military outpost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where a group of soldiers meet a mysterious stranger who shares a disturbing tale of cannibalism. Part horror film, part black comedy, part character drama, Ravenous treats the power struggle that develops amongst the men, and the film’s gory premise, as a biting satire on consumption and our culture of excess.
New French Extremity film In My Skin by Marina de Van uses disturbing self-mutilation as a metaphor for the alienation we (especially women) often feel regarding our own bodies.
Think Cronenberg body horror filtered through a Japanese aesthetic when it comes to Kei Fujiwara’s Organ. The director previously starred in Tetsuo: The Iron Man — a transgressive classic that also deals with the limits and grotesqueness of the human body.
Written and directed by women (filmmaker Karyn Kusama and Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody), Jennifer’s Body tapped into high school horror (featuring Megan Fox as a possessed cheerleader) and the dark side of female friendship.
Former Rue Morgue magazine editor Jovanka Vuckovic directed a nightmarish fable about a little girl whose chalk drawings lead her to terrifying supernatural creatures. The short was produced by none other than Guillermo del Toro, and can be watched online right now.