Women in horror is a hot topic today. While discussions of female representation in film directing has long been a topic of conversation on Film Twitter and elsewhere, an interview with horror producer du-jour Jason Blum opened a fresh dialogue on the subject this morning.
In the interview, conducted by Matt Patches, Blum states, “There are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror.” On at least one of those counts, he’s right, provided you mean “directors working in the top grossing films dominated by big studio pictures” when you say “directors”.
The state of things when it comes to women in the director’s chair is dreadful and the numbers back it up. As indicated in the Polygon piece, a study of the top 1,100 grossing films released between 2007 and 2017 found that “95.7 percent of all directors were male and 4.3 percent were female”.
That’s abysmally low. Anyone that pays attention to indie film knows, however, that it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of who is out there actually making interesting and unique films, just of who is being allowed to make ones that get massive studio support and bring in huge swaths of money. There’s not a lack of female filmmakers eager to make films, there’s a lack of opportunity being provided to female filmmakers that are already doing so, and even worse a lack of opportunity for female filmmakers who haven’t yet gotten their chance.
The real issue at hand here is that studios of all sizes are less likely and less inclined to offer their projects, particularly those with guaranteed distribution and glitzy marketing budgets to women. This issue is larger than Blumhouse and its one that I feel pretty strongly about.
Put another way by Alejandra Gonzalez (@Sick__66) on Twitter, “The problem is that [women] are not even considered a majority of the time to PROVE that capability and THAT is shitty. If a man is more suitable and qualified for a job, fine. But let me show you what the fuck I can do.” Blum either articulated his sentiment poorly or he’s not paying quite as close of attention to the world of indie film as we’d hope.
While Blumhouse has put out three films helmed by female directors, none of them have been given a theatrical release and while each of them falls into the “genre” category, none of them can accurately be described as horror films. I’m inclined to believe Blum’s claims that he’s actively seeking female filmmakers to helm horror projects but I’m also inclined to believe that he’s maybe not looking all that hard.
There are and have always been plenty of women working in horror and doing great work. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that when given the opportunity to, as Alejandra put it, show us what the fuck they can do, female filmmakers often make stellar, memorable work.
So without any further discussion, let’s take a look at a small smattering of films that absolutely prove that.
Directed by: Julia Ducournau
Julia Ducournau’s directorial debut is a taut, moody coming-of-age drama. It also happens to be about cannibalism. When examined more closely this grisly and beautiful horror drama is also a nuanced and atmospheric exploration of female sexuality, the pressures we place on children, the dizzying hedonism of the modern world, and the horrors of the occulted changes that come with the territory of growing up, particularly for young women. Coming of age is a common trope in film. It’s often one of the most horrific periods of a young person’s life, but rarely is it treated as such, and it’s rarer still to have a story of a young woman’s coming of age actually be told by a woman.
Featuring a stunning, restrained performance by Garance Marillier as Justine, Raw delivers on its promise of bloodshed and shock but also serves up social commentary and a symbolically rich tale of hunger and drive. Such a specific, peculiar, and powerful film is well-served by the strong directorial sensibilities and the authorial voice that Ducournau at turns elegantly and brutally employs.
Raw is available to stream on Netflix
American Psycho (2000)
Directed by Mary Harron
I’m not here to dither with you as to whether American Psycho is a horror film. I am, however, keen to shine a light on the film as a fascinating feminist dissection of 80s consumerism, toxic masculinity, and dissociation both by its main characters and the women that are in many ways reduced to set-dressing for Bateman’s horrific shrine of male fantasy and self-gratification. Screenwriter Guinevere Turner, and in turn director Mary Harron, took Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial and often protested novel and were able to turn it into a deliciously macabre and equally critical meditation on men’s violence, both literal and psychological, towards women and towards one other.
In Turner’s words, “I very much think it’s a feminist film. It’s a satire about how men compete with each other and how in this hyper-real universe we created, women are even less important than your tan or your suit or where you summer and to me, even though the women are all sort of tragic and killed, it’s about how men perceive them and treat them.”
American Psycho can be streamed via Shudder or with an Amazon Prime or Hulu subscription
Always Shine (2016)
Directed by Sophia Takal
One of the lesser-seen films on this list, Sophia Takal’s Always Shine is none-the-less one of the most interesting. In the great tradition of Bergman’s Persona and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Always Shine is a tale of female friendship gone sour, or at least gone strange. The film follows two friends as they take a trip to Big Sur to reconnect. Both women are actresses of varying success and it has been a long time since they really connected and spent much time together. You get a distinct feeling that they used to be very close, their relationship possessing that unique intimacy that only friends who were once arguably family can muster.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case, jealousy and infighting rear their unwelcome heads and the reunion takes a turn into the horrifying and eventually into the surreal.
While stories of male ambition, and strained friendship among men, are common in film there are far fewer films that turn their eye towards female ambition or female relationships troubled by similar things. Those that do, namely the aforementioned Mulholland Drive, are most often crafted by men who do not have an innate understanding of these relationships, namely because they haven’t truly been part of one. Friendship on film is something that’s difficult to get right and while I cannot personally speak to its sincerity here, Takal’s film feels distinctly female and distinctly honest. As a result, the depth and surreality that we are treated to also rings true and is all the more upsetting as a result.
Always Shine is a Shudder streaming exclusive
Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Directed by Ana Lily Amanpour
Widely known as “the first Iranian vampire western”, Ana Lily Amanpour’s feature debut is a stylish, often terrifying horror yarn about a “lonesome vampire” in the fictional Iranian ghost town, Bad City. The film is shot like a messy, beautiful fever dream and we’re treated to one hell of a soundtrack as we navigate our way through the twists that Amanpour weaves into her vampire narrative.
A young Iranian woman who feels at home on a skateboard and listens to indie rock is hardly the classic image of a vampire, and we’re not that accustomed to sympathizing with the “predator”, even in this post-Twilight world. A predator that preys on those that prey on others though? I can kinda get behind that. Amanpour is particularly interested in subverting your expectations and preconceptions and her film does a masterful job of it.
In Amanpour’s words, “What’s interesting about this girl and about people is that what you see is never what you get. You can have whatever [peaceful] bumper stickers on the back of your car, and then get out and shoot a dog,” Amirpour says. “I’m interested in expectations not being met… including preconceived notions of this girl and what she looks like, but also about everyone.”
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night can be streamed on Shudder
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Directed by Amy Holden Jones
The humble slasher film has a reputation and not an unearned one. Notoriously conservative, the average slasher (at least in pop culture) sees a crazed killer, usually, one with a creative or thematically appropriate mask, stalking and murdering young, nubile teenagers caught in the act of making questionable choices.
Cutting down binge drinkers, drug users, and perhaps most notably promiscuous teenagers in the throes of passion, the slasher is often interpreted as a knife in the hand of the long arm of the supposed Silent Majority. The slasher generally imparts bloody lessons steeped in traditional conservative values, acting as a modern boogeyman and scaring teens into good behavior. That the good behavior in question most often consists of keeping a tight leash on your sexuality is often discussed in horror and film circles and a casual examination of your average slasher film seems to back it up.
The other not-so-savory reputation that slasher films have earned for is for paradoxically depicting sexual behavior while punishing it on screen. Many slashers seem to have a curious propensity for striking when their female victims are topless, for example.
A film with a name like The Slumber Party Massacre seems destined to be more of the same, the name itself conjuring similar lustmord images of sexuality and death intermingling. You picture co-eds in negligees being stabbed. The poster does nothing to dissuade you of this idea, and while the film does deliver on it that delivery is couched in often hilarious and equally sly deconstruction of the male gaze that is so notoriously employed in these films.
The Slumber Party Massacre franchise is noteworthy for being exclusively helmed by women, and it’s no accident. That the film turns a critical eye towards the established tropes of the genre is also no surprise, with its script being helmed by Rita Mae Brown, a novelist, activist, and noted feminist. It’s direction handled by Amy Holden Jones, one of a small number of female filmmakers to work in exploitation film in the 70s and 80s.
The film lampshades the ridiculousness and wanton and aimless brutality of its killer, a motiveless mass-murderer with a penchant for power drills. The killer’s decidedly phallic weapon is frequently framed as a large mock-penis held at waist level, brutalizing and maiming anyone that gets in its way for seemingly no reason other than that they were there. The film employs all the tropes of the slasher and the exploitation film, with blatant and abundant nudity and clumsy sexual innuendo but it does so in service of its critique.
The boys and men of the town the girls live in are positioned as predatory, spying on and staring at the girls, thinning the boundary between this blood-crazy killer and the simple gross male predation of the early 80s. The male gaze is harnessed by the filmmakers and is in turn, ridiculed and rendered inert.
This embrace and dismantling of the male gaze is shared by some of the protagonists as well. Namely, Valerie, who inverts the male gaze that dominates the film and the genre. We never see her naked, which is noteworthy in this kind of film, and we also see her casually reading pornography, turning the ever-present objectifying lens around. By inverting the male gaze she is in effect immune to it. In the end, she is the one that is able to save the day by brandishing another highly phallic weapon and saving her friends.
What’s even more fascinating about the film is that it was released in a very straightforward way, no mention of this critique is included anywhere. It was released as though it were any other slasher film, and the fact that many filmgoers were exposed to a biting satire of the very thing they came to see is absolutely delicious.
The Slumber Party Massacre can be streamed via Amazon Prime
The above are just a small number of truly excellent horror films helmed by women. There are obviously dozens if not hundreds more than I have space or time to list here, but there’d be even more of them if we worked as a community, and as people, towards making sure that all people of vision that want to make films are given the same opportunity to make great work.