In the late 2010s, the #MeToo movement ripped the guts of film industry, exposing a disgusting history of misogyny, harassment and sexism that women faced in Hollywood. Not to mention women’s commercial exclusion from important roles in the filmmaking process.
Horror movies weren’t immune. The horror genre has profited for decades off of scantily clad, virginal women being chased by serial predators and other sexist and harmful stereotypes that affect the female experience in real life. A history then of horror movies directed by women is critical to understanding a new feminist Hollywood.
Film critic, Jessica Parant, offers the following interpretation of what feminist horror movies can be.
Feminist horror, for me, engages with the feminine experience and uses the gruesome fantasy of horror to lay bare the actuality of what it is to be a woman, and it is not all rainbows and roses. Through engaging with the various themes of horror from rape-revenge, motherhood/sisterhood, coming of age/ageing, mental illness and sexuality, these types of horror films are able to address the damaging impact of the oppressive patriarchal system on the collective feminine body. As well, feminist horror gives legitimacy and a voice to the monstrous feminine by allowing women to express where their deepest and darkest internal struggles take them.
Feminism in horror movies is only getting stronger with the proliferation of new, innovative and genre-pushing female film directors. If you are looking for a fresh approach to the classic genre, check out this list of horror films directed by women and support more women filmmakers.
In 1975, Amy Jones served as Martin Scorsese’s assistant while he directed the exploitation vigilante film Taxi Driver. Years later, Jones turned down the opportunity to edit Steven Spielberg’s E.T. for this 1982 directorial debut. This film follows a slumber party’s dark demise at the hands of a serial murderer who fetishizes power tools. Although this was still a bloody horror with standard nudity screen time for the 80s, the complexities of female friendship, isolation and trust were weaved throughout a storyline catered to the female experience. Despite having a female director, this film received flack for it’s exploitation of women, which Jones defended by comparing her directorial work to male directors who did not receive the same criticism for their own exploitation style.
As the daughter of a rice and cotton farmer, Mary Lambert followed her passion of art when she graduated from Rhode Island School of Design. Her career started by directing wildly popular music videos, such as Madonna’s Like A Virgin, Material Girl and Like A Prayer, to name a few, then soon began working on her feature directorial debut starring Jodie Foster. Pet Sematary was adapted from Stephen King’s 1983 novel on a budget of $11.5 million, grossing $57.5 million at the box office. When a family moves to a small town in rural Maine, their young daughter’s tomcat dies in a horrific accident. The father takes neighborly advice and buries the family pet’s body in a mystical graveyard some claim to have resurrecting powers. Haunting spirits reveal themselves and wreak havoc on the family, resulting in a bloody fight for survival.
A shy goth newcomer in town is outcasted by the local high school, and finds solace in a mysterious antique mirror she finds in her new home. Living with her widowed mother, the teenager unknowingly becomes possessed by the mirror’s demonic powers and her world is tormented by freak incidents. Sister screenwriting duo Annette and Gina Cascone penned this screenplay, which was directed by Marina Sargenti.
Japanese filmmaker Kei Fujiwara directed and starred in this film adapted from a play her theater company produced. She plays the one-eyed sister of a high school teacher who leads a gang of organ thieves. The sickening practices that take place in their underground slaughterhouse are exposed by undercover detectives, one of which has an identical twin. As the storyline evolves, common misogynist horror themes are revealed through virginal victims and maternal sexual abuse.
French filmmaker Claire Denis wrote and directed this twisted, existentialist slasher laced with sex, murder and cannibalism. When two American honeymooners visit Paris, the husband finds himself reconnecting with an old college flame whose sickening cannibalistic sexual urges lead to deadly consequences for her innocent male victims. Unforgettable scenes of suspense and torture will leave you feeling light-headed and eager to meet the end of this bloodbath film.
Inexplicable self-mutilation forces your eyes to stay open in this disturbing story of a woman with a seemingly perfect life. When a horrific laceration in her leg unveils her own cannibalistic desires, the young woman must fight her urges in order to escape suspicion and worry from her loving boyfriend and disgusted co-workers.
NYU alum Karyn Kusama directed this cult comedy riffing off time old horror tropes, with a studious good-final girl playing opposite of the sensual blood-sucking seductress. When an attempted virginal sacrifice goes wrong, the victimed non-virgin becomes possessed and must feed on flesh to maintain her destructive super strength.
The Soska Sisters were fed up with their stereotypical role offers in the acting business, so they decided to get behind the camera and stir up some trouble for the male dominated industry. In this drama horror, a medical student plagued with debt finds an underground world of misfits in desperate need of her budding surgical expertise. The feminist perspective is executed through a gory storyline based on body dysmorphia and how minor modifications can lead to major irreversable reprucussions.
Daughter of Hollywood actor-director John Cassavetes, Alexandra “Xan” Cassavetes wrote and directed this erotic horror. A screenwriter falls in love with a beautiful woman at a local video store, but it doesn’t take long before her blood-sucking secrets come to light. When the visit of her vampiress sister, a leader in the vampire community, causes bloody chaos, the two lovers are put to a test that unfolds in this modern gothic thriller.
Kimberly Peirce’s debut directing work won Hilary Swank’s Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt starred in her second feature Stop-Loss (2008). By 2013, she was directing this third adaptation of the infamous 1974 Stephen King novel with Julianne Moore on center stage. With the star actress being a minor playing a high schooler for the first time in this adaptation’s history, this film ditched exploitative explicit nudity and instead focused on compelling acting. This modern take on a classic story follows the shy daughter of a paranoid, protective mother whose sheltering causes her daughter to become a bullied misfit at the high school. Cyber bullying meets self mutilation and revenge in this film that reportedly used 1,000 gallons of fake blood.
Prior to her directorial work, Axelle Carolyn spent time in front of the camera as an actor, and behind the keyboard as a journalist. Two years after the release of her first two short films, she came back for blood with this chilling feature. After the devastating death of her husband, a widow’s disturbing struggles with psychosis lead her to a horrific act. The terrifying film opens on an extremely graphic failed suicide attempt and evolves into a haunting supernatural tale with sinister spirits.
Inspired by the 1837 fairytale The Little Mermaid, this salacious genre bending horror follows two performing mermaid sisters in a 1980’s Polish beach town. While one sister longs for love from a local boy, the other’s fantasies of a vicious attack on the town slowly build into a disturbing reality.
French film writer-director Julia Ducournau studied screenwriting in Paris before she released her own award winning short film Junior at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Five years later, she sent audiences on a thrilling ride with her feature directorial debut Raw. A veterinary student endures first semester hazing rituals that challenge her vegetarianism lifestyle, and take a gruesome turn when she gets a taste on what she’s been missing out on her whole life.
Anna Biller’s directorial work has gained a cult following due to her artistically elaborate aesthetic and campy appeal. In her self-written and directed feature The Love Witch, audiences are taken on a 35mm journey alongside a young witch whose well-intentioned love spells lead her potential lovers to death. Watch the trailer and you will certainly become entranced by the smooth, saturated cinematic approach to another world.
When a wealthy married CEO and his mistress squeeze in a romantic getaway before an all-boys hunting trip with his friends, company creeps in early on their isolated villa. It doesn’t take long before the creepy power-hungry men set their twisted eyes on the young woman, and a series of traumatic events leaves her for dead. Writer-director Coralie Fargeat paints a visually stimulating world that exposes audiences to the unimaginable and keeps you rooting for bloody retaliation.
More feminist movies directed by women
- The Velvet Vampire (1971), Director: Stephanie Rothman. Shot in Mexico, this erotic tale follows a couple who falls victim to a vampiress’ seduction in a secluded desert.
- The Mafu Cage (1978), Director: Karen Arthur. A twisted relationship between incestuous siblings takes a deadly turn when the insane younger sister’s desires lead her to destructive mania.
- Humanoids From The Deep (1980), Director: Barbara Peeters. Despite having a female director, this sci-fi still fulfilled horror stereotypes of the era with graphic nudity and a storyline centered on mutant creatures raping women of a small village.
- American Psycho (2000), Director: Mary Harron. The turn of the new century brought this satirical psychological horror about a hedonistic Manhattan financier whose perfect life slowly unravels as his psychotic tendencies lead to deaths all around him.
- Silent House (2011), Director: Laura Lau. This US remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film tells the story of a terrorized family in the isolated countryside, through a “real-time” one-take shooting approach.
- Among Friends (2012), Director: Danielle Harris. Writer and star Alyssa Lobit crafted this comedy horror about a fun murder mystery gathering that reveals more serious motives for an evil partygoer.
- The Strange Color Of Your Body’s Tears (2013), Director: Hélène Cattet. French filmmaking couple Cattet & Forzani present this visually pleasing surreal cinematic experience following a man’s chilling quest to find his missing wife.
- The Babadook (2014), Director: Jennifer Kent. Kent adapted her own short film into this creepy story of a single mother whose home becomes haunted by the destructive monster in a children’s book, insighting hallucinations and mania within her and her young child.
- A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), Director: Ana Lily Amirpour. This Persian horror film incorporates drug addiction, a seductive vampire and spaghetti western stylization into one unconventional and compelling cinematic masterpiece.
- Prevenge (2016), Director: Alice Lowe. What’s better than British humor? A British comedy slasher film shot in under two weeks, while starring a visibly pregnant actress playing a widow whose possessed foetus leads her on a killing spree.
- Always Shine (2016), Director: Sophia Takal. Complexities of female friendships stand front and center on this journey with two actress best friends who reconnect on a trip that leads to a suspenseful breaking point.
- Berlin Syndrome (2017), Director: Cate Shortland. Stream Netflix’s novel adaptation that follows an Australian backpacker whose one night stand locks her in his Berlin apartment, leaving her desperate for a way out.
- Blue My Mind (2017), Director: Lisa Brühlmann. Inspired by the teenage experience, this Hungarian coming of age film offers a terrifyingly realistic idea of how a powerful mermaid’s puberty experience would affect those around her.