Imagine you found yourself with 10 minutes of free time and an empty Google search box open before you. Now imagine you were to type in ‘List of Horror Film Directors’ and clicked search. Whose names would you expect to see? Presumably, the Big Names of Horror would be near the top of your list: Hitchcock, Carpenter, Craven, Raimi, and so on. Sure enough, when Google obligingly brings up its list of ‘Horror film directors frequently mentioned on the web’, those directors appear in the first tranche of images, along with other familiar faces: David Cronenberg, George A. Romero, and Dario Argento – Horror’s high priests, in other words. But as you start working your way along the line of 49 names and images, you will be struck (if not surprised) by the fact that it is 100% white and 96% male. You have to wait until number 44 to find a female director (Sylvia Soska), and then hop along a few more spaces to Mary Herron at number 47.
What makes this scenario so dispiriting is that female directors are responsible for some of the most frightening, stimulating and outré horror cinema available, particularly in the last decade. This list attempts, in its own limited way, to redress this genre imbalance. Craven, Carpenter and Cronenberg are fantastic filmmakers, absolutely, but there are so many other scary stories to sample. These are the women bringing them to life.
A Girls Walks Home Alone at Night – Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour (2014)
One of the all-time great horror debuts is this astonishingly good Iranian vampire film from Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour. Its monochromatic world is both effortlessly stylish and deeply atmospheric, portending both seduction and danger in equal measure, and the film populates this landscape with characters who are as sharply drawn as Sheila Vand’s fangs. As with many vampire narratives, sex and desire are prominent themes, but Amirpour avoids attenuating the complexity of her female characters by reducing them to alluring-yet-dangerous stereotypes. To direct one of the best vampire films ever made for your feature debut is an undeniable statement of intent: even if Amirpour never makes another horror film (her ‘cannibal love story’ The Bad Batch notwithstanding), her claim to be one of this generation’s most exciting female directors has been well and truly staked.
American Mary – Dirs. Jen and Sylvia Soska (2012)
The Soska Sisters (also known affectionately in horror circles as the Twisted Twins) helm this gloriously gory body-horror-meets-female-revenge schlocker. Although there is an obvious and acknowledged debt to the work of body-horror groundbreaker David Cronenberg (the sisters’ latest project is a re-make of his 1977 film Rabid), these sisters are no mere imitators. The story of a gifted medical student who resorts to practising unorthodox body modification surgery as an answer to her mounting debts comments on everything from the fetishization of the transformative/transformed body through to attitudes and responses to sexual violence. Like many films on this list, there are some tough scenes here, and therefore it is absolutely not going to be a film for everyone – but for those who like their horror bloody and with a side of social commentary, this more than delivers the goods.
The Babadook – Dir. Jennifer Kent (2014)
An exquisitely conceived film about grief and repression, and the monstrous forms they can assume. Essie Davis is phenomenal as Amelia, who is struggling to raise her son Samuel single-handedly after the death of her husband. Every word she speaks and facial expression she makes suggest a woman on the verge of being overwhelmed by her situation, but who is fighting to keep everything together, and the eponymous monster at bay. This is a film whose chill seeps through your skin and into your bones, and in the figure of Mister Babadook, Kent has created one of contemporary horror’s greatest characters. This is a genius piece of filmmaking, and deserves to be recognised as a masterpiece in the chronicles of the genre.
Dans Ma Peau [In My Skin] – Dir. Marina de Van (2002)
This arthouse film, directed and written by - as well as starring - Marina de Van, is, arguably, the most disturbing entry on this list, as well as being perhaps the most difficult to bracket within a clear or uncontentious definition of Horror cinema. After injuring herself at a party, in which her leg is sliced open, Esther (de Van) becomes increasingly fascinated with the image of her lacerated and bleeding body. It jolts her out of the suffocating conventionality of her life and into a heightened awareness of her physicality. This should not be taken to mean that the film in any way fetishizes her self-cutting as a voyeuristic spectacle of pain; these scenes are deliberately de-eroticised, and the physical and psychological pain Esther experiences is never less than devastating to watch. This is Horror that invites – even desires – you to look away from what you’re watching rather than revel in it, which makes it the anti-Hostel or anti-Saw (though it precedes both). This is a film about pain, and so I recommend it very cautiously, but it’s also an astonishingly gut-wrenching response to those horror films (classic and contemporary) which treat women’s suffering as a form of depersonalised pageantry.
Honeymoon – Dir. Leigh Janiak (2014)
A film sadly seen by far too few people, Leigh Janiak’s feature debut is an intelligent and original loose take on the cabin-in-the-woods subgenre, and showcases her extensive and detailed appreciation for, and knowledge of, Horror. References to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be read into it, although Janiak twists and reorders them into her singular exploration of the transformation of female identity after marriage. This is the ultimate nightmare honeymoon, and Rose Leslie is particularly good at ramping up the creep factor. Definitely not one for newlyweds, but for everyone else, this is well worth a look, and would make an excellent double-feature with Jessica Hausner’s horror-inflected mystery-drama Hotel.
Jennifer’s Body – Dir. Karyn Kusama (2009)
Written by Diablo Cody (best known as the screenwriter of Juno) and directed by Karyn Kusama (XX and The Invitation), this comic-demonic film is animated by a keen feminist energy, playfully deconstructing Horror’s obsession with the virginal teenage girl and flipping it on its head. This is high school with (literal) blood and guts, powered by career-best performances from Megan Fox as the eponymous Jennifer and Amanda Seyfriend as her nerdy best friend Anita. Though not particularly scary, this is Horror wearing a big (and twisted) smile, and it’s a huge amount of fun.
Raw – Dir. Julia Ducournau (2016)
Along with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Julia Dicournau’s sensational cannibal film Raw has been the most exciting horror feature-debut of the 2010s. An admirer of the genre from a young age (she says she ‘accidentally’ watched Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the age of 6), Ducournau goes straight for the viscera with this confrontational, full-blooded and unrelenting assault on the viewer’s senses (and sensibilities). Whether you read it as a savage critique of our insatiable desire for meat-eating, or just as a good old-fashioned anthropophagic family drama, this is a film to squirm and shriek at as the characters take (literal) bites out of one another.
Tigers Are Not Afraid [Vuelven] – Dir. Issa López (2017)
A brutal and devastating film set in the cartel-dominated barrios of Mexico City, and follows a band of children orphaned by the nihilistic and ubiquitous savagery of the country’s drug war. López combines the razor-sharp sting of reality with elements of fantasy and fairy tale, in a style reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. It is both shatteringly contemporary and strangely familiar, using classical ghost story tropes – such as the dead returning to seek justice – to examine the emotional impact and legacy of violence. This is an incredibly confident and visually striking feature debut, a ghost story which shows Horror at its most human, even in the face of inhumanity.
Trouble Every Day – Dir. Claire Denis (2001)
I debated whether to include Claire Denis’ sophomore feature on this list. The fact is, Trouble Every Day is not a film I like, or one that I would recommend. In fact, I’m not sure whether it’s a film Denis wants you to like, although she certainly wants you to respond to it. It’s very difficult to describe the plot or narrative, since both are oblique verging on the wilfully unintelligible, but the focus of the film are two different couples, with one member of each pair exhibiting cannibalistic or possibly vampiric behaviour, with the film following each couple through to a very uneasy resolution. What makes this film so troubling is the juxtaposition of its experimental narrative and its refusal to explain itself, with explosions of brutal, stomach-churning sexual violence: one scene towards the very end is especially difficult to sit through. Denis clearly understands this, and she uses the power of Horror to test (and transgress) the limits of our tolerance for what she is showing us. It is not that films depicting extreme sexual violence cannot be claimed for feminist analysis (Carol J. Clover famously does so for Mair Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave, perhaps the most notorious of American rape-revenge horror films), but Trouble Every Day almost actively refuses this kind of neat interpretation. This is a work from a director who has complete power over her audience and she knows it. On that level at least, it’s a film that will stay with you for a very long time. It’s up to you whether it does so for the right reasons.
XX – Dirs. Sofia Carrillo, Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark [St. Vincent], Roxanne Benjamin & Karyn Kusama (2017)
A four-part anthology of Horror shorts directed by women (with an additional animated framing narrative directed Sofia Carrillo), XX became a milestone upon its release as the first Horror anthology to be helmed by female directors. As with any portmanteau film, some of the stories are more effective than others, Jovanka Vuckovic’s ‘The Box’ being my personal favourite. What marks this collection out though is its unapologetic showcasing of both emerging and established genre filmmaking talent. Although there is nothing here that is wildly original, its work as perfectly enjoyable late-night viewing, being both a smart engagement with Horror cinema’s past as well as a calling card for its possible future.