Horror is often categorized as a very masculine genre, both in film and literature. Conventional wisdom in this case manages to be both wrong and right at the same time. Studies have found that audiences for horror films tend to be about 50% women. The number of women producing, directing, and writing horror, that reflects the larger Hollywood picture, where women in these roles remain a minority.
That isn’t to say there aren’t any female-helmed horror movies out there. There’s just fewer of them. Today, we’ll look at a handful of films directed by women.
American Mary, The Soska Sisters, 2012
American Mary is the second film from the sister duo of Jen and Sylvia Soska. Staring Katherine Isabelle, of the fantastic Ginger Snaps, it is the story of a medical student who becomes involved in the underground body modification scene.
“The story follows medical student Mary Mason as she becomes increasingly broke and disenchanted with the surgical world she once admired. The allure of easy money sends Mary into the world of underground surgeries which ends up leaving more marks on her than her so-called ‘freakish’ clientele.”
American Psycho, Mary Harron, 2000
Bret Easton Ellis may have hated the pick of director and the resulting movie, but he never has anything nice to say about anyone. Mary Harron both helmed the film and adapted the novel, giving us Christian Bale impersonating Tom Cruise as a serial killer. I was late in seeing this movie — I finally watched while hopped up on pain killers following surgery and had to ask people if the movie was really as funny as I was finding it.
Perhaps the greatest gift Harron has given the world with this film is the endless collection of gifs suitable for all occasions.
Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow 1987
Now, everyone knows Kathryn Bigelow as the first female Best Director Oscar winner and director of action movies like Point Break, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty. But for years, many horror fans knew her as the woman behind a fantastic cowboy infused, Western style vampire movie. Starring most of the cast of Aliens, Bigelow makes an excellent argument that vampires really belong in the wide open spaces of the American South and not in rain-soaked Transylvania. One of the best vampire movies of the modern era; if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.
Jennifer’s Body, Karyn Kusama 2009
A rare horror film both written and directed by women, Jennifer’s Body was Diablo Cody’s follow up to her critically acclaimed Juno. Needy and Jennifer are high school best friends, until Jennifer is used as a virgin sacrifice by an ambitious indie rock band. Since Jennifer wasn’t actually a virgin, the ritual allows a demon to take up residence in her body and turns Jennifer into a boy-munching succubus. Diablo’s script plays with the codependent and competitive nature of teenage friendships; it also features two teenage girls who are unapologetic and unashamed of their sexual activity, a real rarity in the genre. Though the movie was ravaged by critics, I personally found it a smart, engaging little film with a satisfying closing note.
Silent House, Laura Lau 2011
A remake of an Uruguayan film of the same name, Silent House stars another of the Olsen sisters in a twisty tale of what happens to a young woman trapped in a decaying house with her father and uncle. The film unfolds in real time and uses some sleight of hand to appear to be one continuous tracking shot, which lends a sense of urgency to everything that happens on screen. Unsettling, confusing, and disturbing, this is an unusual and ambitious film that’s worth adding to your to-watch list.
In My Skin, Marina de Van, 2002
In My Skin is part of the New French Extremity movement of horror films, a wave of movies that focuses on extreme visuals and intense storylines examplified by films such as Irreversible and Haute Tension. Though many of the movies feature female protagonists, it’s an incredibly masculine movement, and de Van is one of its rare female members. Esther is a high achieving professional who begins to relieve her stress with self injury and her absorption and fascination with her body leads her to horrific places. de Van also stars.
Warnings for extreme violence and gore.
Pet Sematary, Mary Lambert, 1989
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Pet Sematary is about exactly what the name says — the local creepy pet cemetery. The cemetery is on sacred Native American burial ground or some such racial nonsense, and what gets buried there doesn’t always stay dead.
The movie is notable for stars Tasha Yar and Herman Munster and having one of the creepiest little kids ever committed to film.
Slumber Party Massacre, Amy Holden Jones, 1982
Though these days she likes to distance herself from it, this is the slasher film written by Rita Mae Brown, which makes it a double rarity — a horror film both written and directed by women. The slasher genre in particular has a very poor reputation as misogynistic in its portrayals of sexually active women picked off in elaborate ways by a hulking male killer. SPM is one the earliest films of its kind to broadly acknowledge the not-exactly-subtle sexual aggression in the movies, playing up the phallic weapon of its “Driller Killer,” down to a symbolic castration by the film’s Final Girl. There are boobs in the film, because there always are, but this is a smarter film than the title implies. Skip the sequels, though.
Parts of this post appeared as part of 2013’s 31 Days series.