It’s that time to celebrate the spooky and the frightening, and all-things woman. I don’t know if there’s any genre that’s been as discussed regarding gender as the horror film. Is it progressive or reductive? How do women define horror? Well, for this week’s top 5 we’re looking at how women define horror by getting behind the camera. We picked our top 5 favorite horror films directed by women. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
Pet Semetary (1989)
I’ve talked several times, both on the podcast and in written form, about how Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Pet Semetary is the scariest movie ever made – and that I’m pissed the upcoming remake is being helmed by two dudes. Lambert was considered an odd choice to helm this movie at the time and the movie’s failure to be a massive hit ended up doing irreparable harm to her career. But what we get is a woman who understands the tension and the increasing terror of a family wracked with grief. From the close-ups on Zelda’s crooked body or the Dutch angles employed when Rachel sees Judd Crandel’s house at the end, Lambert emphasizes this small town is out of wack. And she wasn’t afraid to make you believe a small child got hit by a semi-truck. Go watch Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Semetary after this and see just how in-depth Lambert tried to be in respecting this movie.
American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho is one of my favorite movies of all time, and only about .5% of that is because Justin Theroux is in it. Director and co-screenwriter Mary Harron (along with Guinevere Turner) crafted a movie that played expertly in 2000, but has only aged better (and I hate saying that) in 2018. These two women understood the toxic masculinity that existed in the ’80s, that existed in 2000, and that exists today. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman is every dude-bro who’s ever given me shit for not caring about some weird political thing – “we have to end poverty….and stop consumerism in young people” – while simultaneously being a sociopathic murderer…..okay, I’m not saying ALL men are sociopathic murderers. When the camera gazes on Bateman, it’s his own eyes gazing on himself, and Bale is perfectly cast. I know Bret Easton Ellis says he hates this movie, and he’d be wrong. (Does he not remember Rules of Attraction AND The Informers exist? Because I do.) One of the best feminist films that’s a horror movie for any woman. Ask me whether I like Huey Lewis and the News and see how quickly I get the hell out of dodge.
Near Dark (1987)
I took a horror film class a few years back and my professor showed us Katherine Bigelow’s vampire Western, Near Dark. I’d seen it numerous times and was so happy. The rest of the class could not get over “how ’80s” it felt. This was not the sharpest group of students. Bigelow’s film is a fantastic blend of ’80s vampire lore – blood transfusions and AIDS allegories are heavy here – and a nostalgic love for the old West of John Ford’s day. The story follows Caleb (Adrian Pasdar are his most adorable, though the film would not play well post-#MeToo) as he falls for a girl who happens to be a vampire. Did I mention her “family” consists of Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein (aka my favorite part of T:2), a creepy ass kid, and Bill freaking Paxton? If you thought Bigelow made surfing bank robbers look cool, you haven’t see what Bill Paxton with fangs can pull off. It’s AMAZING!
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
This was the film that ended Karyn Kusama’s career for awhile, made many say Diablo Cody was a hack writer, and turned Megan Fox into a punchline. Times have gotten better. This movie about a teenage succubus is utterly brilliant. It was in 2009 and it is in 2018. Megan Fox was born to play Jennifer Check, a teenage girl objectified by men who gets to fight back by killing boys. I have an essay in my back pocket about how the movie is a rape allegory using Carol Clover’s thesis on possession films, but no one’s taken me up on it. I quote this movie regularly. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s frightening, and it’s gory fun. And it makes fun of Maroon 5, which I can support.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Full disclosure, I haven’t watched Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian vampire film since it came out in 2014 but I loved it at the time and many elements of it are still seared into my brain. Sheila Vand is utterly captivating as the lonely vampire known only as The Girl. The movie itself is, like Near Dark, both a love story and a vampire movie. Once The Girl meets Arash (Arash Marandi), she’s forced to decide whether finding a mate to cure her loneliness is worth killing what makes him human. The best, best, best moment involves the two and a record playing White Lies’ “Death.” I listen to this song a lot and I always think of the suspense happening in the scene. It’s brilliant.
The Babadook (2014)
I love the many layers of this film from Jennifer Kent. You can enjoy it at face value as a freaky horror/supernatural film. Or you can view it as an allegory for depression and grief. Neither lens is wrong and either will provide a rich, terrifying experience. Plus the acting is top notch. Especially from the young boy who goes from irritating to endearing and back throughout the film.
American Psycho (2000)
Young actresses often go nude to show the world they are Serious Actors. Christian Bale, on the other hand, the darling of such delights as Swing Kids and Little Women, turned into a psycho. His Patrick Bateman is so hilariously disturbing that I could easily find myself first intrigued by his charm, then annoyed by his ceaseless mansplaining about every imaginable topic, and then dead.
The Invitation (2015)
Karyn Kusama’s slow burning horror/drama doesn’t race to its point. It takes its time, building tension in effective ways. Is our main guy a little crazy? Or is he right? Or is everyone completely nuts? Just when you think you know what’s happening, it turns out you don’t. And it all comes together in a final shot that sends chills right down the spine.
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
This movie would never have worked with a male director. It needed the attitude and humor to mock all the final girl stereotypes we know so well. Amy Jones digs right into all those tropes and male fantasies, from the titular slumber party to an escaped mental patient, creating something of a parody while also subversively skewering the genre. It isn’t perfect. But it’s sure a lot of fun.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
What can I say? I enjoy a good comedy/horror film too. And this one is definitely NOT so five minutes ago. I have to admit part of my current love for this film is that the original screenplay was written by Joss Whedon, who was supposed to direct. But they gave it to Fran Rubel Kuzui instead and it is a thing of hilarity. And horror. And Pee Wee Herman gets his arm chopped off and Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry stole my heart in high school.
I’m a big horror fan, but I admit it’s only recently I’ve actively sought out horror films directed by women. This is a major oversight. Given the nature of horror as return of the repressed, women are very well-equipped to construct terrifying, shattering narratives that subvert or totally upend a historically male-dominated genre. So here are a few female-directed horror films that have caught my attention.
Julia Ducournau’s narrative of university hazing, sisterhood, and cannibal cravings is one of the weirdest and finest recent horror films. A veterinary school hazing ritual goes wrong and a freshman begins to experience some rather intense cravings for raw flesh. Raw is an excellent coming-of-age story that twists and turns and throws the viewer off-kilter. Aesthetically stark with an undercurrent of nasty humor and a surrealist bent, Raw is just so damned delicious you’ll want to have another helping.
The Babadook (2014)
Never mind Hereditary – The Babadook is the best contemporary horror film about grief. Jennifer Kent crafts a gorgeous and truly frightening film about a monster haunting a mother and son that makes use of some fairy tale tropes to explore the relationship between the parent and child, and the parent’s sense of anger and grief at a boy whom she tries not to blame for her husband’s death. Rather than just being a good scary movie, The Babadook has something profound to say about the nature of depression and how to cope with it.
The Love Witch (2016)
Yes, I love this film. I love every Technicolor, feminist moment of it, from the back-projected arrival of Samantha Robinson as the Love Witch herself, to the final, horrifying image. There’s something profoundly satisfying in watching a woman destroy every man in her path.
The Invitation (2015)
If slow-burn horror is your thing, The Invitation is among the best of its kind. A dinner party that goes slowly, inevitably wrong, this one builds the tension brilliantly, developing the characters and the plot without telegraphing too much information or spending too much time on exposition. By the time you hit the last ten minutes, it all makes perfect, horrible sense. Truly one of the best horror films ever made.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
There are going to be those who argue with me that The Hitch-Hiker isn’t a horror film, but y’all keep calling Psycho horror, so here we are. Lupino is one of the few female directors to come out of the classical period of Hollywood, and she did it with her own inimitable style. The Hitch-Hiker is every bit a horror film, from its claustrophobic interiors to its tense standoff and almost supernatural villain. This is basically a home-invasion movie, but in a car.
The Invitation (2015)
I stumbled into The Invitation purely by fluke at a film festival. My background in director Karyn Kusama is quite weak and my knowledge of the actors doesn’t go much beyond the “Hey! That guy!” range. However, the move stuck with me long after. Kusama rises above a limited shooting budget to craft a legitimately scary movie. The last shot is absolutely stunning among contemporary horror. Check it out if you haven’t.
The Hitch-hiker (1953)
My girl Ida. In classic Kim fashion, I came to this movie through fairly nerdy territory. I found myself buried in a William Talman binge after watching a lot of Perry Mason reruns. All I can say is, “Hamiton Burger! What are you doing? Mr. Mason wouldn’t approve”. I’ve also expressed my fondness for Edmond O’Brien a number of times on the podcast as well.
American Psycho (2000)
Mary Harron directs this perennial horror cult-classic. This film truly stands as an eye-opener for yours truly. Not only is Harron’s crafting of this film flawless, but equally delightful is seeing Christian “Jack Kelly” Bale grow passed Newsie age and put on a suit. (I don’t care about the whole psycho killer thing!).
Pet Sematary (1989)
Evil scalpel wielding children. Yikes. It is thanks to this late-1980s, Mary Lambert directed horror film that I’m still unable to walk by a bed in the dark. I jump in. Poor Fred Gwynne.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
I’m cheating here a bit. I’m not a horror aficionado. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker received a tremendous amount of attention when it premiered. While it isn’t a horror film, anything about bomb technicians is going to be of the thriller variety…adrenaline, you know. I may or may not have taken an interest in this movie because of a pre-almost everything, baby Jeremy Renner. While I came for the then unknown Renner, I stayed for Bigelow’s always top-notch, action, directing expertise.