It’s Women in Horror Month, which means we’ll be celebrating the contributions of women to our beloved genre throughout February!
The struggles of women directors in the film industry are immense. Even in an era of equal rights and mutual respect, a recent study revealed that 80% of female directors only made 1% of the feature films released over the last decade. The Hollywood Reporter summarized:
Adding age to its latest study on Hollywood representation, USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative has uncovered sobering evidence that the lifespan of a female director’s career is a lot shorter than that of her male counterpart’s.
Analyzing the gender, race and age of the directors of the 1,000 top-grossing films from the past 10 years, the researchers found that 80 percent of the female helmers were “one and done” — that is, they made just one movie from 2007 to 2016. This percentage rose to 83.3 percent for women of color. By contrast, 54.8 percent of the men directed just one film during that span (with Asian and black male directors faring slightly worse, at 60 and 62.5 percent, respectively).
Horror seems to be ahead of the curve when it comes to celebrating and enabling women filmmakers, as their contributions are becoming more evident and significant. The films below are just a few that prove women are powerhouses of horror, capable of helming terrifying genre offerings with the best of them. Enjoy!
The Invitation (2016, Directed by Karyn Kusama)
Official Synopsis: While attending a dinner party at his former home, a man thinks his ex-wife and her new husband have sinister intentions for their guests.
The Invitation hovered near the top of my 15 Best Horror Films of 2017 list, as it absolutely blew me away, haunting my subconscious ever since I first experienced it. Karyn Kusama’s exploration of shattered relationships is more than just top-notch horror; it delivers intense suspense and genuine dread without relying on gore or ghosts. If you think M. Night Shyamalan knows how to pull a twist, check out The Invitation and marvel a truly terrifying final reveal.
Pet Sematary (1989, Directed by Mary Lambert)
Official Synopsis: Behind a young family’s home in Maine is a terrible secret that holds the power of life after death. When tragedy strikes, the threat of that power soon becomes undeniable.
Pet Sematary has been called (by me) “The last truly great horror movie of the 1980s.” Mary Lambert’s script succeeds, in no small part, by sticking close to the source material (that being Stephen King’s bestselling novel). The film shocks and terrifies throughout without relying on standard “tricks” or repeated tropes. We’ve got zombie pets, a brain damaged ghost, a crippled sister hiding in the attic, creepy kids, and beautifully brutal practical FX.
American Mary (2012, Jen and Sylvia Soska)
Official Synopsis: The allure of easy money sends Mary Mason, a medical student, into the world of underground surgeries which ends up leaving more marks on her than her so called “freakish” clients.
American Mary cemented “Twisted Twin” directors Jen and Sylvia Soska’s reputation as up-and-coming masters of 21st Century horror. They’ve since directed a handful of other films, stared in their own reality series (Hellevator), and are currently working on a remake of David Cronenberg’s Rabid. In 1987, Clive Barker helped define body horror with his mutilated Cenobites in Hellraiser. With American Mary, the Soskas have redefined the subgenre in an era where the alarming modifications featured in Hellraiser have become hallmarks of youth culture.
American Psycho (2000, Directed by Mary Harron)
Official Synopsis: A wealthy New York investment banking executive hides his alternate psychopathic ego from his co-workers and friends as he delves deeper into his violent, hedonistic fantasies.
Lionsgate may have had ulterior motives for selecting a female director for American Psycho. The source material, the bestselling novel by Brett Easton Ellis, had enraged feminists following its release. The book was accused of glorifying violence against women and Ellis was deemed a misogynist. Thus, having a woman direct the film adaptation was a way to curb backlash. But whatever factors influenced her selection, Mary Harron’s American Psycho turned out to be one of the most lauded horror movies of the 2000s—no easy feat!
Jennifer’s Body (2009, Directed by Karyn Kusama)
Official Synopsis: A newly possessed high school cheerleader turns into a succubus who specializes in killing her male classmates. Can her best friend put an end to the horror?
Jennifer’s Body is a guilty pleasure; pure horror bubble gum! But there’s surprisingly solid subtext beneath the irreverent skewing of youth culture and millennials, hidden behind teenage lesbian experimentations and black comedy. It examines issues like virginity, emerging female sexuality, and empowerment while subverting common “victim” and “final girl” tropes.
Near Dark (1987, Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)
Official Synopsis: Cowboy Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) meets gorgeous Mae (Jenny Wright) at a bar, and the two have an immediate attraction. But when Mae turns out to be a vampire and bites Caleb on the neck, their relationship gets complicated. Wracked with a craving for human blood, Caleb is forced to leave his family and ride with Mae and her gang of vampires, including the evil Severen. Along the way Caleb must decide between his new love of Mae and the love of his family.
More than a decade before vampires would become antiheros in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries, Kathryn Bigelow completely flipped the subgenre on its head with Near Dark. But her film is more than just a vamp flick; the story of a nomadic family always on the run brings genuine human drama to the film’s core. But don’t expect watered down, sparkling romantics in Near Dark—these vamps bite hard!
Chained (2012, Directed by Jennifer Lynch)
Official Synopsis: Bob, a cab-driving serial killer who stalks his prey on the city streets alongside his reluctant protégé Tim, who must make a life or death choice between following in Bob’s footsteps or breaking free from his captor.
Just watching Jennifer Lynch’s Chained feels like a subversive act. The story of a psycho-sexual serial killer and the unwilling protégé he keeps chained to his floor plays out like a 90-minute gut-punch. It’s more than just a story of survival; as the protégé transitions form slave to the draconian master to culpable participants in the atrocities committed, it’s a struggle for the young man’s very soul. This one is hardcore, loaded with triggers, and definitely not for those with delicate sensibilities.
Ravenous (1999, Directed by Antonia Bird)
Official Synopsis: In a remote military outpost in the 19th Century, Captain John Boyd and his regiment embark on a rescue mission which takes a dark turn when they are ambushed by a sadistic cannibal.
Antonia Bird did more than merely helm one of the best horror movies of the 1990s with the historical cannibal epic Ravenous, she probably saved the entire production from doom. Original Ravenous director Milcho Manchevski vexed producers to no end, demanding additional money to accommodate nearly daily re-writes—negotiations that delayed the start of filming. When he was replaced three weeks into shooting by Raja Gosnell, the cast threatened to revolt. It was Robert Carlyle who recommended his frequent collaborator for the director position—and the rest is history!
Carrie (2013, Directed by Kimberly Peirce)
Official Synopsis: High school can be tough for many teenagers, but for Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz), it’s especially hellish. A shy and awkward teen being raised by a religious zealot (Julianne Moore), Carrie is frequently the target of bullies. But Carrie has a secret talent: She can make things move with her mind. One fateful night, an especially cruel prank at her senior prom pushes her over the edge, and Carrie unleashes her telekinetic powers on all who get in her way.
When we stop comparing Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie to Brian de Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller like it’s a contest (which it absolutely isn’t), it’s easy to see what a brilliant films each one is in their own right. Peirce’s version feels tragically relevant in an era of cyber-bullying and increased violence on high school campuses across the country. Chloë Grace Moretz is brilliant as the young telekinetic pushed to fatal extremes and Julianne Moore is chilling and effective as the zealot Margaret White.
Silent House (2011, Directed by Laura Lau and Chris Kentis)
Official Synopsis: Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is working with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to renovate an old family home to prepare it for sale. Long vacant, the house has no utilities, forcing the trio to rely on battery-operated lanterns to light their way. Sarah becomes separated from her relatives and soon finds she is trapped inside the cabin, with no contact with the outside world. Panic turns to real terror as the young woman experiences events that become increasingly ominous.
Laura Lau co-directed Silent House with Chris Kentis, and also adapted the screenplay from Gustavo Hernández’s original film La casa muda. It’s an impressive, immersive experience that follows a hunted protagonist with a single lens for what appears to be a single continuous shot (similar in presentation to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope). While this may seem like a hook or a gimmick, the execution is flawless and absolutely contributes to the pervasive sense of dread throughout. And even though we are privy to everything that happens in Silent House, a twist ending will have you second guessing everything you just saw.
Check back for more articles and lists celebrating the contributions of Women in Horror all month long!