The problems of severe underrepresentation in behind-the-camera roles for women is well documented and been mentioned several times on this blog, so far be it for me to rehash that discussion. However if it is true that women are underrepresented generally in film, it is especially true when it comes to genre film, as is the case with horror movies. It was surprising (and frustrating) just how exceptionally hard it was for me to track down a big enough list of movies to put together this blog post. Most of the movies I could identify were either little-known foreign movies or fringe horror fare – both categories of which have the distinction of being near impossible to try and find a copy for. The amount of conventional horror movies that women have directed is abysmally small, and even in those cases I encountered movies that were out of print or completely missing from streaming (as was the case with Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark). The end result here is a slate of movies that I barely managed to cobble together.
Now before getting into this round-up, let me also highlight some other great horror movies directed by women that I have seen before (again, unfortunately this list isn’t long), and hence aren’t included in this blogpost:
JENNIFER’S BODY (2009) dir. Karyn Kusama
Here is a clear case of a marketing department utterly failing its movie. When I first saw the trailer for Jennifer’s Body, it immediately induced eye-rolls from me. Here, I figured, was a cheap cash-in on the sexual attractiveness of Megan Fox who was fresh off her star-making turn in the Transformers franchise and so I brushed it off, assuming it would be nothing more than wet-dream wish-fulfillment for a bunch of horny boys and men. What the promotional material failed to highlight was that the movie itself is an explicit critique of horny boy expectation that specifically undermines the sex-kitten image of Megan Fox that Michael Bay had built up. Anita (Amanda Seyfried) and Jennifer (Megan Fox) play two unlikely high-school friends in the dreary town of Devil’s Kettle; Jennifer is a cheerleader who intentionally plays into the stereotype while Anita is a much more subdued and bookish type. Ever the more adventurous one, Jennifer drags Anita to a gig of some new hot band in a dive bar, with the intent purpose of trying to hook up with the lead singer. Unbeknownst to her, the band is on the hunt for a virgin for a ritual sacrifice that is supposed to propel them to fame and they mistakenly assume her play-coquettishness for her virginal nature which naturally causes her to be possessed by a malevolent (and hungry) spirit. From here Kusama tries to build up a story that also doubles as a commentary on female sexuality in a male-dominated world, that also seeks to touch on the complicated nature of female relationships, while also taking aim at misogynistic tropes in horror, all the while trying to be a horror spoof in the middle of it all. In other words, the movie has a lot of targets and unfortunately it does not hit many of them well. But while Jennifer’s Body still doesn’t manage to quite live up to its heady promise of vivisecting the male gaze in horror, it is still infinitely more interesting than whatever the promotional campaign of this movie was trying to sell us.
CARRIE (2013) dir. Kimberly Pierce
First off, let’s acknowledge that in a vacuum, there’s hardly anything wrong with Kimberly Pierce’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The direction is sharp, if unflashy; the acting meanwhile by Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore as Carrie and her mother respectively is chillingly effective; and the movie delivers in the thrills and chills department. However, this movie is inextricably linked to the original Carrie by Brian De Palma and unfortunately against that movie Pierce’s adaptation is damningly both derivative and inferior. This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways this adaptation is mildly better. De Palma’s famously male gaze is absent. Carrie White is a much more sympathetic and rounded-out character. Carrie’s mother is less of a crazy religious nut but is played with much more nuance by Julianne Moore; it is clear that she is both damaged and mentally ill and tragically seems to pass her damaged self to her daughter. Similarly all of the female characters here are also treated in a kinder light with the more cruel ones given the chance to show why they are cruel and the kind ones rewarded. But while these additions are commendable, they also are not enough to justify the movie’s existence. By hewing so closely to De Palma’s narrative it begs to be compared to the original and thus finds itself in a problematic conundrum: It is not so different or bad as to be memorable, while not nearly being good enough to move out of the original movie’s shadow. If De Palma’s movie is somehow not available to you, then Pierce’s take is serviceable enough to be worth a watch. Otherwise don’t bother.
NEAR DARK (1987) dir. Kathyrn Bigelow
Perhaps nothing best illustrates the uphill battle female directors face in trying to get on equal ground with their male counterparts than the fact that Near Dark, an undisputed classic directed by one of the most successful female directors of all time, was so hard for me to track down. Completely out of print and absent from every streaming platform in Canada, it took me having to dip into the second-hand market and paying a ridiculously high cost (over $40 CAD for a DVD – the Blu-Ray going for almost $90 CAD was out of my reach) to finally get my hands on a copy. Meanwhile, Near Dark‘s fellow 80s vampire movie peers The Lost Boys and Fright Night are readily available in multiple formats. And this makes no sense because Near Dark is easily the best of the lot. Kathryn Bigelow, ever the master of genre, weaves the Western, the family drama, a biker film, and the vampire flick so seamlessly to create a movie that is humorous, terrifying, over-the-top, and elegantly simple. The movie kicks off with Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) encountering Mae (Jenny Wright) outside of a grocery store where he notes, in typical cowboy fashion, “Sure haven’t met any girls like you”. Of course that turns out to be more true than he realizes as Mae reveals herself as a vampire turns Caleb into one and plunges him into a bizarre midnight world ruled by the undead. Toss in Bill Paxton at his most “Aliens“-level radicalness, an aesthetic that seems to be heavily borrowed from Mad Max, and Bigelow’s excellent talent for shooting and framing an action scene, and you get one of the best cult classics from the era.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992) dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui
Unfortunately this movie has had to live in the shadow of the groundbreaking and – for most of its run – exceptionally great television series. As a result it gets unfairly compared to the TV series because the 90s show is perhaps the first filmed example of an intellectual property becoming “darker” and therefore better. But thirty years later, we have witnessed the advent and eventual peak over-saturation of “dark” interpretations of intellectual properties flooding the market. And just like Zack Snyder’s funeral dirge Batman v Superman gave us fresh appreciation for the underrated genius of Adam West’s Batman perhaps there is room again to appreciate the campier and much more fun original-flavor Buffy. After all this is a Buffy (Kristy Swanson) who belongs in the same high-school as the entire cast of Clueless and the idea of her being the chosen one to battle the undead is simply funnier. Kristy Swanson is arguably a better Buffy than Sarah Michele Geller, being more believable as a vapid cheerleader but also athletic enough to make you believe she could take out a host of vampires. And assisting her is none other than Donald Sutherland as her mentor who seems to relish the chance to be in a silly teenage movie and a young Luke Perry as a drifter who becomes her ally. Most importantly where Mr. Whedon took his creation too seriously, director Fran Rubel Kuzui understands the inherent goofiness of the premise and embraces it camp and all. It is by no means a masterpiece, but it is much better than its reputation.
SOULMATE (2013) dir. Axelle Carolyn
It is true that the best ghost stories are ones that are not just content in scaring us but in haunting us by providing a ghostly mirror with which to reflect on our own regrets, losses, and darker thoughts. In this way Soulmate is an effective ghost tale, chronicling the emotional journey of a widow after she attempts to kill herself in grief. Audrey’s (Anna Walton) recovery involves her escaping to an isolated cottage in the countryside to recuperate and try to piece her life together again. Soon however her idyllic retreat is interrupted by the usual menagerie of bumps, thumps, and mysterious footstep which all leads up to a ghostly encounter. The movie is a decidedly intimate affair, and is infinitely more interested in exploring Audrey’s brokenness than in providing us with any scares, which places it theoretically alongside other great unscary ghost story classics like The Uninvited or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. However, the level of acting for anyone except Walton in this movie is simply atrocious with some scenes particularly playing like a bad night in community theatre. Similarly after spending most of the movie content with simply being a romantic story featuring a ghost, the third act takes a jarring and unconvincing turn into traditional horror. Ironically seeing Audrey tackle her inner demons is much more compelling than her taking on a real one.
XX (2017) dirs. Jovanka Vuckovic, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Roxanne Benjamin
The fact that this horror anthology was strictly marketed as having an all-female director slate and featuring all-female centered speaks to the dearth of female directors in horror Its promise of providing us with a smorgasbord of horror stories from perspectives severely lacking in the genre is inspiring in theory, but falls flat in execution. Granted, even the best horror anthologies suffer from uneven pacing, but XX seems particularly plagued by the format’s inherent problems. In order to make a horror anthology work there has to be some strong theme tying it together; it seems that in XX that conversation about what unites the various stories never got further than “female-led storytelling”. That requires exceptional short-film storytelling to be compelling and unfortunately this anthology stumbles right out of the gate. The first segment “The Box” (directed by Jovanka Vuckovic) is all anticipation with no payoff as a mother watches her family slowly starve to death after her son is shown something in a box by a stranger; ultimately it feels like an Edgar Allan Poe knockoff. Next “The Birthday Party” (by St. Vincent) does a complete 180-degree shift in tone and settles for a comedic farce where Melanie Lynskey plays a mother trying to throw the perfect birthday party for her 7-year old daughter and while it is thematically interesting it is also clear that this is St. Vincent’s directing debut. The third segment “Don’t Fall” (by Roxanne Benjamin) is a conventional horror story about a woman who goes camping with some friends and then stumbles upon a monster who starts killing them off. It is as derivative as it sounds and easily the worst of an already mediocre bunch of segments. Only until the final segment by Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, above) does the movie provide us with a great horror short story about a single mother who worries about what her teenage son is turning into. It is the only short that feels like it has something allegorical to say about the female experience and is easily the best acted of the four. Unfortunately it comes so late in the game that almost every viewer’s goodwill will have been exhausted by that point. At least the stop-motion framing device is truly terrifying and creepy (if you hate porcelain dolls, you might want to look away).