By Claire Graman
We have a Halloween Special for today’s blog post: Women and Horror Films!
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, horror films have been hugely important to the history and art of cinema, from Nosferatu (1922) to Psycho (1960) to The Blair Witch Project (1999). But what you may not know is how many women have directed horror films, and often prominent women at that. For example, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow directed a violent vampire flick as one of her first films.
Why is this? Several possible reasons exist. For example, producers often make very profitable horror films on a low budget. With lower risk, production companies may relax their biases against female directors. Another reason, ironically, is that the genre’s misogyny inspires female directors to make films that parody and critique the genre. Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and Jennifer’s Body (2009), both female-written and directed, mock the slasher genre and its assumptions about women’s power and sexuality.
Why Women Direct Horror Films
But what I think draws women to horror is its power to explore and alleviate cultural anxieties. As Get Out (2017) proved, a good horror film can look at specific fears (in this case, racism) while also tying them to the universal human experience of terror.
Sexism also creates anxieties, and the media often makes women into victims and monsters. Today we’ll look at three critically acclaimed, woman-directed horror films and how they play with ideas of gender and fear.
A note of warning: none of these films are appropriate for children and all three deal with issues of trauma. Be sure to research for triggers and content before watching.
The Love Witch (2016) by Anna Biller
Filmed in sumptuous color with anachronistic design, The Love Witch follows a beautiful witch who only desires to be loved. All her spells and potions backfire, however, leaving a trail of dead men in her wake. It’s a strange little film with odd pacing and often inscrutable characters, but also delightful with enchanting visuals and quirky humor. The heroine explicitly rejects feminism and avers her commitment to societal conceptions of beauty (with wigs, make-up, and dresses) and femininity (being passive and pleasing to men). Biller, the director, shows that none of this makes her happy or resolves her trauma. In the end, this masterful film depicts the witch as both and neither victim and monster, looking at the deeper complexity of gender and personal fulfillment.
You may think vampires have been done to death, but have you seen a hijab-wearing, music-loving, skateboard-stealing vampire? Described as an Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western, the film follows various residents of fictional, crime-ridden Bad City. Here, in a mash-up of Iranian and American culture (reflecting the director’s background), people speak Persian but drive classic muscle cars. A James Dean-ish young man and a mysterious young woman (the aforementioned vampire) fall in love, but will he figure out her connection to a rash of mysterious deaths around the city? Beginning with its title, this film explores issues of power. For example, in one scene, the vampire brutally kills a cruel pimp, reversing gender dynamics and making her a memorable anti-heroine. An entertaining exploration of ethnicity and gender, A Girl Walks Home Alone is a classic.
An impressive directorial debut, the Australian film The Babadook quickly gained international acclaim for its unique story and haunting visuals. The movie centers on a recently widowed woman and her young son as they are tormented by a monster from a mysterious picture book. Critics read the film as powerful allegory for grief. I must admit I had trouble watching this film, because a large part of it consists of a child screaming. This element underscores its feminist horror: the mundane but very common anxiety and stress that accompanies parenting. Harkening back to the classic feminist horror of Gothic novels, The Babadook shows that horror is never far from home.
While the films discussed here are definitely artsy and indie, feminist and women-made horror films of any stripe are abundant. From sci-fi horror, horror comedy, pure schlock, and more, there’s plenty for the horror fan. So, this Halloween, get out there and broaden your horror horizons!