Genre filmmaking has a reputation as a man’s field. That goes for audiences as well as filmmakers. To the novice, it’s easy to see why. For a long time women’s bodies have been used to titillate male adolescent horror fans — shrieking, squirming, disposable ciphers. Academic studies of gender and horror cinema such as Carol J. Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws and female-fronted films changed the landscape of the genre, proving women could terrify audiences just like men, and that women were watching — but also craving stories they could relate to. The popularity of horror heroines like Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien proves the need for women who aren’t simply victims. But there’s room for all types of narratives and characters for, about, and by women — including the Freddies, Jasons, and Michael Myers of the world. Here, we discuss 50 horror films directed by women that feature a range of tropes and ideas. In our current cinematic climate, where only five percent of studio releases have a woman behind the camera, we hope you’ll support more women making movies that scare the hell out of you.
In My Skin
New French Extremity director Marina de Van explores the alienation we — and particularly women — often feel regarding our bodies in this dark, body horror-driven tale of self-destruction.
The Slumber Party Massacre
Amy Holden Jones turned down a job editing Spielberg’s E.T. so she could direct 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre, written by feminist writer and activist Rita Mae Brown. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and revels in a parodic account of the slasher genre, where the guys make all the dumb decisions and the murderer gets chased by a bunch of high school girls. Also, hooray for scenes featuring young women (here, all-star athletes) talking and acting like actual teenagers.
Slumber Party Massacre II
Roger Corman — King of the Bs and mega producer who helped kick-start the careers of many now-famous directors (including Martin Scorsese and James Cameron) — was one of the rare producers in the early days of genre filmmaker offering directing gigs to women (in this case, Deborah Brock). While not nearly as clever as the first entry in the Slumber Party Massacre series, there’s something to be said for the film’s ridiculous villain who wields an electric guitar drill.
Ida Lupino was a pioneering director whose career spanned the ‘40s and ’50s — a time when you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman behind the camera. Her 1953 film The Hitch-Hiker — about two men held at gunpoint by an escaped murderer — has a reputation as the first film noir directed by a woman. But the movie’s psychological horror and gritty realism wins it a spot on this list.
Nomadic vampires roam dusty small-town back roads by night, stirring up trouble and slaughtering for fun. The undead in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark don’t rely on bloodsucking romanticism. Theirs is a life of brutality where vampirism is akin to addiction and madness.
Mary Harron adapted Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (previously considered unfilmable), showcasing the chameleonic talent of Christian Bale — here as a psychopathic investment banker who spends the 1980s at absurdly trendy restaurants, comparing business cards with his colleagues (when he’s not killing them), and
seducing terrorizing women. Harron’s satiric twist and sharp visual style created the perfect environment for the slick serial killer.
Trouble Every Day
Claire Denis treats us to a cannibal love story (Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle) where hunger for flesh and human longing are one.
Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, has established a fascinating career of her own. Other entries in her filmography might speak more to outright horror, but there’s something endlessly weird and wonderful about her debut feature, the story of a surgeon who holds a woman captive by amputating her limbs. Blending quiet horror, fantasy, and erotic drama (one might even say dramedy), Lynch created the strangest fairy tale of the ‘90s.
Messiah of Evil
American Graffiti screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz directed this Lovecraftian oddity about a zombified cult that takes over a seaside town. Messiah of Evil has a disquieting, Euro-horror feel — part of its surreality stemming from investors taking over the project once the budget ran out. Luckily, it works.
Canadian twin filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska created an antiheroine in Katharine Isabelle’s (Ginger Snaps) titular character without forcing audiences to give respect or approval — all too rare in female characters. There are a lot of gray areas in the Soskas’ story about a disenchanted medical student whose career takes a dark turn when she enters the world of underground surgery and extreme body modification.
A bloody portrait of female rivalry and friendship, director Karyn Kusama brought Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody’s vision of high school hell to the big screen.
Emily Hagins directed the 2006 zombie horror flick Pathogen when she was only 12 years old. Her films tend to draw on personal stories, which means these are real teen characters and not the invention of a middle-aged man.
Neo-giallo Amer, from directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, is a tribute to the Italian thrillers from the ‘60s and ‘70s, featuring stylish murder set pieces, lots of female flesh, and cringe-worthy violence. Amer is a trilogy tale told from the female perspective, sharing observations about female sexuality and anxiety — not unlike Polanski’s Repulsion.
A group of soldiers at a remote military outpost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the 1800s meet a mysterious stranger who shares a horrifying tale of cannibalism. Antonia Bird’s darkly comedic Ravenous draws parallels between the consumption of flesh and our material culture of excess.
Kei Fujiwara starred in the gear-grinding, transgressive Japanese cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man. She went heavy on the gore in her second directorial effort, Organ — which also explores the limits and horror of the human body.
The Captured Bird
Former Rue Morgue magazine editor Jovanka Vuckovic is having an exciting year. She’ll be working on her feature debut with legendary horror author Clive Barker — an adaptation of his short story “Jacqueline Ess” — originally part of Barker’s Books of Blood. Game of Thrones actress Lena Heady will star in the movie. Vuckovic will also direct an entry in an upcoming all-female horror anthology, XX (along with Karyn Kusama, Mary Harron, and Jennifer Lynch). Her short film The Captured Bird was produced by Guillermo del Toro and centers on a little girl whose chalk drawings lead to the discovery of ferrying supernatural creatures.
A semi-sequel to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ blood-soaked classic Blood Feast, Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner is another gastronomic gore show.
Stephen King adaptations tend to be unpredictable, but music video director Mary Lambert (Madonna, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Annie Lennox) added some genuinely creepy and atmospheric touches to 1989’s Pet Sematary. Come for the creepy cat, stay for the Ramones song.
Humanoids from the Deep
Roger Corman-produced films are known for their exploitation style, with a thread of social commentary throughout. Barbara Peeters’ 1980 film Humanoids from the Deep is no different, combining elements of ‘50s monster movies, Jaws, and gender/racial subtext (told through scenes of rape, corporate betrayal, and gory violence). It should be noted that Peeters’ version of Humanoids was tamer than Corman knew his intended audience would expect, so he brought in another director to add the titillating footage. According to IMDb: “Actress Ann Turkel once said why she chose to do this film: ‘It was an intelligent suspenseful science-fiction story with a basis in fact and no sex.’ However, with the filming of additional footage, the sex content changed.” But Corman and company were no mere schlocksters. The work of his directors in the producer’s New World Pictures canon demonstrates a thoughtful history underneath the sometimes sleazy exterior.
The artist of a thousand faces, Cindy Sherman, made an office-set horror film starring the famously squeaky-voiced actress Carol Kane as a killer, plus Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn. It’s camp, social satire, and unapologetically low-budget. Fans of Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series will appreciate the understated feminist perspective about women in positions of power.
A Night to Dismember
Sexploitation film goddess Doris Wishman was making films for nearly three decades by the time she filmed 1983’s A Night to Dismember. It was her take on the slasher film craze happening at the time, but almost half the movie was destroyed by a disgruntled lab worker, leaving Wishman to quickly pick up the pieces. “This movie pretty much forges a genre of its own. The pace moves like a bullet, loosely throwing together erratic violence and dreamy visuals with the collage aesthetic of an early Guided By Voices record,” writes author Joseph A. Ziemba. “Soundtrack cues comprised of Jazzercise schlock, spooky library music, and wailing 80s shit-rock overlap. Dialogue is dubbed in the ‘Wishman Style,’ which means that we hear voices, but don’t see mouths moving. Or we hear voices while the camera focuses on an ashtray. The violence is snail-paced and gentle, possibly because no one wanted to hurt themselves with the real knives and axes that were in their hands. Dismember is a bizarro trash-horror experience that trumps most any other. You’ll never be bored.”
Stephanie Rothman, known for directing feminist-minded exploitation films like The Student Nurses, and prolific exploitation filmmaker Jack Hill both contributed to 1966’s Blood Bath — about a lunatic artist who believes he’s a vampire and boils the bodies of women in a large vat. Due to all the confused reshoots, Blood Bath sometimes feels like watching three movies at once — but its atmospheric qualities linger in the mind.
After spending the ’60s making some of sexploitation’s most bizarre features with then-husband Michael Findlay and pursuing a solo career in the pornography industry of the ’70s, director Roberta Findlay turned to horror and action films during the Reagan years, many of which are abysmal, unpleasant creations shunned by even the hardiest exploitation mavens. However, Tenement is the director’s best feature, as cheap and sleazy as any other Findlay production, but possessed of a tension and cruelty that generates real suspense. Despite ridiculous costumes for the marauding gang members (which make them look more like an MTV dance troupe than street thugs), their ruthlessness leads to some very disturbing sequences in which boilerplate action film rules of engagement are ignored. The cowering residents of the besieged apartment building are all fair game, from sweet old ladies to innocent youngsters, and the film accelerates its pace as the villains chase their prey up one flight after another. Tenement is no lost classic; at certain points a suspension of disbelief is required that many viewers won’t be willing to muster, and it’s a bottom-dwelling exploitation drama to the core. Still, the film provides visceral thrills that might surprise those familiar with (and dismissive of) the rest of Findlay’s catalogue, and a 2005 DVD release of the film makes it more accessible to the curious.
High school goths! Demonic mirrors! Rainbow Harvest! Karen Black! Yvonne De Carlo! If this doesn’t compel you to see Marina Sargenti’s 1990 film Mirror Mirror, there is no hope.
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare
I hope some Joe Schmo movie producer or recycle-happy studio supporting Saw XCIX or the same male directors making the same supernatural sequels will one day wake up and remember that a woman, Rachel Talalay, directed a successful entry in a long-running horror series. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was supposed to be the last film in the series, but a strong box office performance kept the franchise alive. It’s by no means a perfect film, but it does feature an ass-kicking protagonist (like many of the Freddy films).
Blood & Donuts
Vampires, donuts, and David Cronenberg as a crime boss. Just do it.
Kiss of the Damned
Xan Cassavetes’ sexy, moody vampire tale Kiss of the Damned evokes the erotic undead films from the ’70s. It’s a refreshing take on the vampire genre that explores relationships and responsibility.
The Rage: Carrie 2
I’m always a little surprised that more women haven’t directed a Carrie film. Brian De Palma’s 1976 movie has some great subversive qualities, like the book, and isn’t afraid to shatter male fantasies — spinning off of Stephen King’s original story. As our own Tom Hawking wrote, “it’s not so much sex that’s the issue here — it’s puberty, and in particular female puberty, with the book’s constant emphasis on blood an ever-present reminder.” I won’t tell you that The Rage: Carrie 2 (sometimes referred to as “emo Carrie”) is a great movie, but if you’re curious where the series has wandered…
Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce offered this entry in the Carrie canon, starring Chloë Grace Moretz. “It’s a strange thing to say about a movie so obsessed with the red stuff, but this Carrie is bloodless,” writes A.A. Dowd.
A great ‘80s creature feature by Genie Joseph (as Eugenie Joseph) that goes bonkers with the special effects.
A ghostly, gothic mystery from actress Axelle Carolyn about a widow who retreats to an isolated Welsh cabin following a suicide attempt and the tragic death of her husband. Critic Scott Weinberg writes: “What’s most interesting about Soulmate is that its writer/director is a serious fan of hack’em up slash-fests that are knee-deep in carnage and/or crazy monsters — yet her first film is most assuredly a ‘supernatural drama’ in every sense of the phrase.”
The most talked-about aspect of Laura Lau’s Silent House was that it was presented as a single-take movie (but actually filmed in 12-minute takes and edited so as to appear seamless). If there’s one other reason to see the 2011 film, it’s for star Elizabeth Olsen, whose impressive turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene left audiences wanting more.
Oh hi, Julie Delpy directed and stars in a movie about Countess Báthory, who murdered young girls — reportedly to bathe in their virgin blood to retain her youth. It’s not a straight horror film, as the actress-director explains: “It sounds like a gothic [story] but it’s more a drama. It’s more focusing on the psychology of human beings when they’re given power.”
A lot of women were killed at the time because the men were busy at war—that’s all they knew [how] to do over three generations of wars—and they became less and less capable [of ruling] countries. The women started taking over in small castles—not the king or anything like that. In small areas, she’d rule the castle. The switching period is the Renaissance period when men realized they were losing control and that’s when the witch hunt thing started to get rid of women, more or less. Báthory might have been a victim to show to people that women cannot be powerful because they become crazy and kill people.
Elisabeth Fies is a Jill of all trades: actress, writer, producer, film festival founder, academic, screenwriting/filmmaking mentor, and more. Her 2009 film The Commune: A New Cult Classic was awarded Best International Picture at Bram Stoker Festival. “When Jenny Cross has to spend summer vacation with her deadbeat dad in his creepy commune, she thinks clean living and boredom will kill her. But some fates are worse than death.”
Horror fans will remember director Angela Bettis as the star in Lucky McKee’s underrated horror film May. The duo swap roles here, with McKee starring in Bettis’ debut feature, Roman. As anyone familiar with the work of both artists, there is no easy way to categorize the 2006 film about a lonely and obsessive man who yearns for a human connection. The emphasis on relationships instead of gore (though there is some of that) is what Bettis does best.
Porn star and filmmaker Lizzy Borden (aka Janet Romano-Zicari) looked to the life of serial killer Richard Ramirez to inspire her disturbing 2002 XXX film, Forced Entry. The making of the movie was recorded in the PBS Frontline documentary American Porn, which led to Borden’s prison term for distributing “obscene materials.” The extreme nature of her work was explored in Salon’s 2002 article Porn Provocateur. Janelle Brown writes:
It didn’t take long for Lizzy to establish herself as a woman who went where no woman, and most men, would dare to go. The covers of the films that she has produced are difficult to even look at, covered as they are with hardcore snapshots of sex and blood. There’s Cannibalism, a horror-porno in which various internal organs are consumed after an orgiastic release. There’s the Sexually Intrusive Dysfunctional Family series, which features such props as a decapitated pig’s head. Cocktails features a grinning girl with a filth-smeared face and a bowl underneath her chin. (Forced Entry, fortunately, has no cover art.) Sex in Borden’s films is almost always violent. Urine, excrement, blood and spit are prominent. Many films feature witches, Satan, robots, aliens and assorted otherworldly creatures. No orifice goes unviolated, and the more revolting the means, the better.
Borden’s response to claims that she’s degrading women? “Everyone gets degraded. I mean, even if she was a secretary in the office, she’s going to get some kind of harassment, whether sexual or verbal — you know? So this is normal. Women get degraded every day, and so do men.”
A Visit from the Incubus
Anna Biller makes movies that look like they’ve been ripped from the pages of ’60s or ’70s genre filmmaking. Her 2001 short film A Visit from the Incubus combines elements of Westerns, vaudeville, ’60s vampire films, and musicals.
Of Dolls and Murder
The subject matter might be more frightening than the film itself, but this 2012 documentary on dollhouse crime scene creator Frances Glessner Lee (the founder of Harvard’s department of legal medicine and the first program in the nation for forensic pathology) deserves mention. Bonus: the film is narrated by John Waters.
Hood of Horror
Spoofing old-school anthology horror films and hip hop culture, Stacy Title’s Hood of Horror stars Snoop Dogg as a Tales from the Crypt-style narrator. “Snoop Dogg cuts an impressive figure as our guide to the hood, but he’s not a great actor, and his entourage (a couple of ‘hos with spooky contact lenses and/or fangs) looks like runners-up in an amateur Halloween costume contest,” writes Cinefantastique. “Fortunately, the supporting cast shoulders the acting burden well, with old pros like Ernie Hudson (GHOSTBUSTERS) and Jason Alexander (SEINFELD) breathing a little life into scenes here and there.”
Indie scream queen and director Shannon Lark has been championing women in horror for quite some time. She co-founded the former Los Angeles-based Viscera Film Festival (supporting female filmmakers) with writer and filmmaker Heidi Martinuzzi. Her short film Lip Stick centers on “a lonely woman with an overwhelming obsession of masturbation, [who] must extricate herself from what consumes her every moment.”
Hong Kong New Wave figure Ann Hui made this odd little horror-comedy about the bizarre events happening amongst a group of strangers. Hui’s latest movie, The Golden Era, is China’s Oscar submission at the upcoming 87th Academy Awards. Her recent work focuses on social issues of her home country, but films like this and The Spooky Bunch are genre-savvy.
Death in Charge
Devi Snively participated in 2007’s Directing Workshop for Women (one of eight women), presented by the American Film Institute, where she created Death in Charge. “In the tradition of E.C. Horror Comics, this cautionary tale examines life through the eyes of Death who gets derailed when an impatient single Mom carelessly mistakes the scythe-carrying cloaked one for her tardy babysitter and leaves Death to care for her precocious 9-year-old daughter.”
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook was a hit at Austin’s Fantastic Fest this year, sweeping the Best Actor/Actress/Picture/Screenplay award categories. “The Babadook is a child’s tale brought to life by a lethal combination of fear and grief, and as Amelia’s already tenuous affection for her son threatens to sever completely it adds a moving, psychologically devastating layer of terror to potential supernatural threat,” writes Film School Rejects’ Rob Hunter. “It’s a simple tale, wonderfully told, and pretty much guaranteed to send chills coursing through your body.”
The Party Is Over
Venezuelan-born filmmaker Gigi Romero shot her 2011 short film Se acabó la fiesta (The Party is Over) for an Internet film festival (she was a finalist). It’s a tense, original slice of horror that doesn’t take the obvious route in a story about a man who wakes up with a mysterious woman in his bed.
This is the Kickstarter-funded project of 13-year-old horror fan Emily DiPrimio. It’s a throwback to the slasher films of the 1980s that uses only practical effects. This girl knows what she’s doing.
DeGenerazione / “Prospettive”
Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, is currently celebrating the festival run of her latest film, Incompresa. But in 1994, she was putting her own mark on the genre with her entry “Prospettive” in the anthology DeGenerazione. “Shot for free by everyone involved, Degenerazione is an incredibly enjoyable mess of creativity over cash, putting to shame most no budget horrors of the last decade or so thru’ sheer cheekiness alone,” writes Ashton Lamont.
Hide and Seek
Kayoko Asakura’s chilling 2013 short Hide and Seek (a festival favorite) finds a young girl and Koto [traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument] teacher having a very bizarre lesson. Learn more about her debut feature film It’s a Beautiful Day in this interview. “I thought I would like to make a slasher horror film, which had a main female character being a serious killer,” she says. “I wanted her to be an unusual female character. I mean she is not very feminine. So from this standpoint I had the idea for the story of this film.”
Danielle Harris is best known to the horror community as a scream queen and star of the Halloween series. She made her directorial debut with the horror-comedy Among Friends in 2013 (she also stars in the film). It has an ‘80s bent to it, in the vein of April Fool’s Day or Happy Birthday to Me.
The Mafu Cage
“One of the most compelling and uniquely dark films of the psychotic woman subgenre, Karen Arthur’s adaptation of Eric Westphal’s play You and Your Clouds stars Lee Grant as Ellen, an astronomer who lives with her feral sister Cissy,” author Kier-la Janisse writes. Arthur was “the first woman to win a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series (for an episode of Cagney & Lacey).”
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Another refreshing, evocative take on the undead genre from Ana Lily Amirpour, whose “auspicious debut feature is a sly, slinky vampire romance set in an imaginary Iranian underworld.”