February is a month buzzing with celebrations. For fans of horror cinema, that includes Women in Horror Month — which supports female genre artists and “seeks to expose and break down social constructs and miscommunication between female professionals.” Women in the film industry still face struggles, and genre cinema is frequently and unfairly disregarded by critics, but the female filmmakers creating works of horror today have a unique vision that is breaking new ground and continuing a tradition of women and fright films that started with pioneers like Alice Guy-Blaché. Here are fascinating quotes from some of horror cinema’s female filmmakers (several who will be directing the upcoming all-female horror anthology XX) who discuss everything from creating strong female characters to what it means to be a woman working in the genre.
Mary Harron, American Psycho and The Moth Diaries
While Mary Harron has garnered praise within the horror genre, she does not associate herself exclusively with the genre, as we see in keenly observed dramas like I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page. In an interview with The Believer, she explains how that distance from horror film conventions gives her edge:
I always say to my husband: I make unpopular versions of popular things. I make a horror film and it’s not a horror film. None of my genre movies function as genre movies. When people see the conventions, they think they’re going to get the straightforward genre — I don’t give them that and they get mad. People see that and they think I don’t understand the conventions because I’m not a good filmmaker.
The fiercely independent Soska sisters, Canadian identical twin filmmakers, are inspiring for the way that they have made idiosyncratic, confrontational feminist horror films like American Mary, a Cronenbergian chiller set in the body-mod community. In a revealing interview with The Hairpin, the Soskas talked a little about the creative tradition that their work hails from:
Jen: People ask us, “Why do you do this? Why do you speak out so much?” It’s because I want it to be easier for other women. Because there are so many girls who come to us and say they want to be directors. We always say, “Are you sure?” [laughs] Because it’s real shit at times. But it feels wonderful in a way to be trailblazing so that maybe, in a way, if we go through this that we set a precedent . . . it’s going to be easier for other girls down the line.
Sylvia: There are so many women, like Alice Guy-Blaché and Dorothy Arzner, so many women who came before us and made it easier for Jen and I to do what we do. And there’s a lot of men who are super supportive. Like Michael Luisi, the head of WWE studios. He hired us because he wanted to bring our feminist ideals to their movies. He realized that there’s a whole branch of their audience they weren’t reaching out to. It’s not as bleak as it seems, but it’s definitely going to be a battle that will go on until I’m in the grave, for sure.
Hélène Cattet, co-director of Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
In interviews, Belgian filmmaker Hélène Cattet often does not distinguish her voice from her husband Bruno Forzani’s. But in a recent interview with Cinema-Scope Magazine, Cattet explains how that duality is also expressed in their giallo-inspired films:
Amer takes the point of view of a female protagonist […] This time it’s a male point of view. We have approached the two films with the mix of our points of view as male and female directors so the two films complete each other. In Amer, the fantasy objects were the men — here, in this one they are the women. As we love playing with fear and desire to increase the excitation of the main characters and submerge the audience in their own labyrinthian minds, these fantasies are sometime oppressive and nightmarish but they are ultimately about the fear of the unknown and of the main character’s own dark side. It’s about what he or she projects onto the others.
Xan Cassavetes, Kiss of the Damned
Xan Cassavetes, the daughter of American indie icon John Cassavetes, defied expectations by making her vampire film an expression of her love of the erotic vamp films of European directors like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. In an interview conducted for the Venice Film Festival’s website, Cassavetes talks a little about her fascination with sexy, empowered women:
I suppose thinking of vampire films I think of women usually being the alluring and powerful predators. I am as enchanted by a beautiful woman as anyone and see them as mysterious creatures who often don’t know their own power or how to navigate it which is so interesting and touching to me. A woman who is either distinctly moral or immoral is always fascinating to me and this film has characters who are both, although this does not mean one is the outright villain and one isn’t. There is a fine line between integrity and righteousness just as there is between realism and cynicism and I liked exploring this through female characters, who never really are portrayed as having these dilemmas or qualities as much as male ones.”
Jennifer Lynch, Chained and Boxing Helena
While it’s tempting to stylistically pigeonhole Jennifer Lynch as the daughter of David Lynch, Jennifer makes her own movies her own way. She a took 15-year hiatus between her first and second feature to raise her daughters. And she bounced back with Chained after disastrous behind-the-scenes drama compromised her vision for horror film Hisss (see behind-the-scenes doc Despite the Gods for more on Lynch’s hellish experience making the movie). So it’s not surprising that Lynch doesn’t see herself as a “female” horror filmmaker, as has explained in an interview with SBS:
I don’t go up to another film director and say, Boy, you are a great male film director.’ So what’s curious to me is why it’s so gender specific with me. I get a lot of questions about ‘How could you make a film with this kind of subject matter?’ How could you do this as a woman and a mother?’ My answer: women can be terrible! Have you ever been to high school? Girls have as much love in them as they have viciousness because they’re human beings. Violence and horror films are not gender specific.
Kimberly Peirce, Carrie (2013)
For Kimberly Peirce, director of the boundary-busting LGBT drama Boys Don’t Cry, universal themes stem from specific dramatic circumstances. She explained to About.com that, while she thinks her adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie is specific to its female protagonists, it is not just for or about women:
Let’s just say, I think it’s a tale that everybody can relate to. Right? Men, women, young, old. I think that everybody can love this tale. Sure, I mean, it’s no denying that there’s something female about it in that essentially it has a period in it. Right? I don’t know how many movies have periods. I certainly don’t know how many movies have girls throwing tampons at other girls. A lot of the major relationships: you have a mother, you have a daughter, you have Carrie with these two amazing girls. Sue, who ends up feeling guilty for what she’s done to Carrie and that motivates her to ask her boyfriend to take care of Carrie. Then you also have Chris, who gets pissed off and annoyed every time somebody helps Carrie. First the teacher, then her friend Sue, then her father. It was very challenging to me that you had a girl like Chris who was very much like Sue who got to the point where she slit a pig’s neck and ended up pouring blood on another girl. I felt you needed to track the changes all the way through. So yeah, there are definitely girl elements to it, but I think everybody can relate to it.
Jovanka Vuckovic, The Captured Bird and The Guest
Before making atmospheric horror shorts, Jovanka Vuckovic rose to prominence as the former editor of Rue Morgue. Vuckovic is a unique, much-needed female voice in an otherwise male-dominated field. In her films, Vuckovic’s invigorating feminist perspective sets her apart, as she explains to Toronto Film Scene when describing her upcoming adaptation of Clive Barker’s “Jacqueline Ess”:
In the horror genre, women are more often seen than they are heard, and it’s something that women sometimes feel in their DNA as they struggle to shatter the glass ceiling. Tragically, the word ‘feminist’ still incites fear in some men. There is a pervasive and catastrophic misunderstanding of the word, which is actually pretty benign — it means equality for the sexes. Feminism is not anti-men. This is one of the reasons why I fell in love with ‘Jacqueline Ess’ when I first read it decades ago. Here, amongst all of this extreme splatter fiction, was a horror story about a strong woman whose impulse was to embrace the monstrous side of herself that emerges after a traumatic event. ‘To you who dream of sweet, strong women, I leave this story,’ Clive writes. How can a female horror fan not immediately fall in love?
Karyn Kusama debuted her first film Girlfight at the age of 27, which won the Director’s Prize and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes. She’s since directed movies in a variety of genres, including sci-fi (with Aeon Flux) and horror, including the Megan Fox-starring Jennifer’s Body. In an interview with Horror.com, Kusama discussed the genre and femininity, and portraying the horror from a female perspective:
I love horror movies. I think, for me, a lot of the great horror films are driven by female characters, and I would say that some of the true classics, in fact, are driven by female characters. So for me, horror films and feminism as an idea are fairly complementary.
In an interview with BOMB magazine about Girlfight (a sports drama centered on a female boxer), Kusama spoke about her desire to create powerful women:
There are not enough difficult, complex women on the screen. The idea that a woman could be emotionally moving and powerful, and in possession of herself and her body, is not something that we see in film because so much of a woman’s physical sense of self when acting seems to be a performance for other people. I wanted to see a woman become physically powerful on that screen.
After winning an Oscar for Juno, Diablo Cody’s first produced script was for Jennifer’s Body, a coming-of-age comedy that also happens to be a send-up of slasher film tropes. In an interview conducted by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks at the Castro Theatre (recorded and transcribed by the good folks at Twitch), Cody described what drove her to write her divisive “feminist comedy”:
One thing I’m obsessed with is that I don’t think women are allowed to be anti-heroes. They’re not allowed to be flawed. The same week, for instance, that [Jennifer’s Body star Megan Fox] got lambasted for talking about Michael Bay, Shia LeBouf — who I also like as an actor — came out and started sassing about another director, and he’s [seen] as refreshing and honest while Megan is seen as this horrible bimbo who should never work again. That’s the way those two stories were interpreted and it had never been more obvious to me how aggravating it is that women are not allowed to be as complicated as men. We get shoved into these little boxes. It’s weird. I’ve experienced it myself.
Axelle Carolyn, The Halloween Kid and Soulmate
A horror writer for IGN and Fangoria, Axelle Carolyn went on to act in films like Centurion and then to direct her own horror movies. In an interview with Fatally Yours, Carolyn talked about some of her favorite horror heroines:
Amongst directors, Kathryn Bigelow. I’m also very curious to see what Jovanka Vuckovic is going to do now; she did such a great job with Rue Morgue! As a writer, how could I not mention Mary Shelley? And as an actor, I admire what Barbara Steele managed to do, playing all those strong villains. She was the closest thing to a female Vincent Price, I guess. Or Bette Davis towards the end of her career: she perfectly captured both the strength and the vulnerability that some women tend to have as they grow old. Most horror actresses play a fair share of victims (hence the name scream queens), but I personally find that no fun whatsoever. I’d rather be the villain! Even if that means that most of the time, the make-up artist is told to make me look old, sick or insane, rather than pretty and fresh.
Stephanie Rothman, The Student Nurses and Blood Bath
Making movies with essential B-movie producer Roger Corman gave filmmaker Stephanie Rothman the opportunity to find her voice, while distinguishing her style from her male peers. In this interview with Henry Jenkins, Rothman talks about her time working within Corman’s otherwise exclusively all-male stable of directors:
There were no women hired by him to work in production, while I was directing. I was the first woman he ever hired to direct, and the very small number of women who directed films for him after me, made them long after I was gone.
There was no gender divide and no mutual support when I worked there, because directors met each other infrequently and it was usually in the process of passing each other coming in or out of meetings with Roger. We were all involved in our own projects and there were no shared working spaces, such as offices or sound stages. Furthermore, our backgrounds and areas of interest, judging by our films, were different.
The Student Nurses was very successful. Some critics welcomed its unapologetic feminism. It made a lot of money for Roger and he wanted me to make a sequel to it, but I wasn’t interested. I had said all I wanted to about student nurses, and so he hired a series of male directors to make the sequels.
I never watched them, so I cannot say if they contained any feminist ideas. But the lesson Roger derived from my film’s success was that you could make exploitation films whose narratives included contentious social issues, including feminism, and he consequently encouraged his directors to do it.
Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook may be her directorial debut, but it has been hailed as one of the scariest recent horror films, earning the resounding endorsement of The Exorcist director William Friedkin: “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.” Kent talked to the Washington Post about her experience as a novice female director who also happened to making a horror film:
A lot of people, when I spoke to them, as a woman, and said, ‘Oh, I’m directing a horror film,’ it was like I was directing a snuff film or porno or something terrible[…]The view on horror is that bad[…]Women do love watching scary films. It’s been proven, and they’ve done all the tests. The demographics are half men, half women. And [women] know fear. It’s not like we can’t explore the subject.