Horror, in front of the camera is dominated by female protagonists. Since the beginning women have been at the center of almost all large horror franchises specifically in the slasher and home invasion subgenres. Take a minute to name the last horror movie you saw where a woman wasn’t the focus?
That being said, this doesn’t extend to women behind the camera. In fact, only 11% of Horror film crews were women (based on the top 500 grossing movies). That means that only 11% of the directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers were women. When the focus of many of these stories are women, you would expect that number to be higher, but it isn’t.
If you weren’t aware, February was Women in Horror Month. It’s a time to celebrate in horror both in front and behind, on the small or the big screen. Shudder, AMC’s horror streaming service even gave one-month free subscription last month and had curated lists of films celebrating women in horror. One of the ways to see more women picking up the camera in horror is to support the ones doing the work already and uplift those who are up and coming. Effectively no one can pull a Jason Blum and forget that women directors exist.
February may have ended, but since March is dedicated to Women’s History and women in horror deserve to spotlighted all year long, make sure you check out these great horror films and add these directors to your watch lists.
Raw, Written and Directed by Julia Ducournau
There are few horror movies that make me close my eyes, but that honor in 2017 went to Raw the French-Belgian horror film directed by Julia Ducournau. Although film made its debut in 2016, it wasn’t until 2017 that it received wide circulation in the United States. In Raw, we follow vegetarian veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier) as she is initiated into her first year of advanced schooling and forced to eat meat for the first time. What follows is an uncontrollable urge to eat and need to eat some of the people closest to her. The film is as much a coming of age tale as it is a cannibal movie and the beautifully shot film consistently attempts to make you feel uncomfortable.
Ducournau proved in one movie what some try to prove their entire horror careers, making the audience feel a lot with only a little. Having also written the script, Ducournau was able to build tension between Justine and the people in her class, her love interests, and even her sister. Ducournau was also able to craft a hard-hitting twist that stuck with me after the film closed.
Raw is available to stream on Netflix
Revenge, Written and Directed by Coralie Fargeat
Coralie Fargeat is a French director whose debut film Revenge topped many Best Horror of 2018 lists, including ours. In her 2016 film that got a wide release on VoD in 2018, Fargeat took the typical rape-revenge horror trope and turned into a story of transformation, agency, and strength for our main character Jen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz). With the majority of these films being directed and written by men, like Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave, there are usually pieces of the female protagonist’s personality and struggle that is overlooked.
By also writing the screenplay for Revenge, Fargeat explores Jen’s transformation that is a truly satisfying revenge fantasy. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Jen takes everything into her own hands while still dealing with the emotional and physical trauma she experienced. We watch as she turns the predatory men into quivering prey. Not to mention, the amazingly choreographed final fight scene which made my top fight scenes of 2018 list.
Revenge is available on VoD.
The Love Witch, Anna Biller
70s horror is filled with cult classics, in 2016’s The Love Witch, Anna Biller is able to catch that creepy and campy charm with her tale of a modern-day witch named Elaine (Samantha Robinson) aiming to steal the hearts of men. As the beautiful witch tries to find a man who will love her she finds that her magic works too well and leaves string victims in her wake. Biller is able to make a movie feel like a 70s romp while also telling a character story around Elaine that sees her go from in control to the brink of insanity when she finally meets the man of her dreams.
The movie isn’t revolutionary but it is a watch that I don’t think anyone but Biller could have created. throughout the movie, she is also able to show a dynamic battle of the sexes in this older era. Elaine has strength but her obsession with love sees even those who care her for her in the wrong, in her eyes, there is only one to love her, her way.
The Love Witch is available on VoD.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven), Written and Directed by Issa López
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a 2017 film that hasn’t been available outside of festivals. The film is a dark fairy tale about five children trying to survive the cartel violence in Mexico. Haunted by her mother, 10-year old Estrella rallies the children as they fight for survival using fantasy as their escape. With three wishes and the ghosts of the dead not far behind them. Throughout the film, the horror is not only in the well-executed visuals but also in the knowledge that this violence and the disappeared are very real.
The film is a blend of adventure, fantasy, and horror and it sticks with you long after the credits roll. There is much that can be paralleled to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, but Tigers Are Not Afraid ultimately creates a space of its own in the genre. The children must be tigers, warriors who have been through the bad but have survived, but they must also retain the goodness in their hearts and remember that they are princes too. The acting is solid, especially for the young actors, and López’s script is transcendent.
López has recently signed a deal to write and direct a supernatural revenge thriller for Legendary, and I’m anticipating that it will be her break into the US market.
Tigers Are Not Afraid will be available on Shudder later in 2019.
XX, Written and Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark, Jovanka Vuckovic, Karyn Kusama
Made up of four shorts, The XX is a 2017 horror anthology written and directed entirely by four women, Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark (also known as St. Vincent), Jovanka Vuckovic, and my personal favorite Karyn Kusama. Each short showcases different elements of horror, absurdity, slow burns, creature features, and body horror, presenting them from the lens of women. The Box, directed by Vuckovic is a slow-burning short that shows that a mom will do anything for her child. The Birthday Party, directed by St. Vincent shows a woman barely holding it together behind the scenes putting a grand party in front of them. Don’t Fall, directed by Roxanne Benjamin is a creature feature about friends just out in the desert for a good time. Finally, Her Only Living Son, directed by Kusama shows a single mother dealing with a child that just isn’t right but protecting him from his absentee father.
Each short tells a self-enclosed story that is masterfully direct and flexes the directorial muscles of each woman with each embodying different subgenres while telling much deeper stories than their run times suggest. If you’re looking for a film that has it all, this is it. It’s a quick watch and one you won’t regret.
XX is available to stream on Netflix.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Written and Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Released in 2014, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the feature-length directorial debut of Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s a genre-breaking noir film that focuses on a female vampire. Set in Iran, the film both defies the vampire subgenre and pays homage to it. The film is a Persian-language/American vampire western – the first of westerns in the language. The film takes place in an Iranian ghost-town named Bad City. Dressed in a chador and skateboarding through the streets, this lonely vampire comes into the life Arash, a man dealing with a drug-addict father and fighting the drug dealer in their lives.
It’s a western with teeth and this black and white film should be on your must-watch list for horror fans and film buffs alike. She also directed the Bad Batch in 2016 which topped lists that year as a great cannibal survival horror.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is available to stream on Netflix.
Silent House, Written and Directed by Laura Lau
Based on a Spanish-language film of the same name, La Casa Muda, Silent House was written and directed by Laura Lau. Coming out in 2011, the film focuses on a girl trapped inside her family’s vacation home while cleaning it with her Dad and becomes unable to contact the outside world. This is all while supernatural forces haunt the house. But, it isn’t what it seems.
The film does a phenomenal job in making you question whether this is a haunting or a home invasion in the beginning and when the turn happens you feel it. Shot as a real-time film is, lasting only 88-minutes – the length of the of supposed true event – Lau shot the film as a single take following Sarah, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and does an amazing job at making you feel the fear and showing you the perspective of this woman fearing and fighting for her life. The film also explores the effects of trauma in a way the only horror can.
Silent House is available on VoD.
Pet Sematary, Directed by Mary Lambert
Somethings, dead is better. That being said, there are two Stephen King adaptations I repeatedly come back to, the first is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the other is Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary. Every October I participate in 31 nights of horror, meaning that I watch at least one horror movie a day and Pet Sematary is one film that always makes the rotation.
With the remake of the film coming later this year, it’s important to remember the masterfully shot original and remember just how terrifying the sister hidden in the room is, how the film inspired many to check under the bed, and made us scared of semi-trucks. The film is a long look at grief and even though some parts of it haven’t aged too well because it was made in 1989, the core of the film and story make it a classic.
Pet Sematary is available to stream on Hulu.
The Babadook, Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent
When The Babadook came onto Netflix in 2014 in the US it had everyone shaking. The Australian film is written and directed by Jennifer Kent. The Babadook is a haunting that pushes itself forward through a creepy children’s book and delves into the depths of grief of a single mother losing herself to motherhood and loss. Kent uses everything from the wording in the book, grey tones, a claustrophobic house, a misbehaving child, and jump scares to build a movie that scares you when you both see the Babadook and hear the dook-dook-dook.
Seriously, watch the trailer above, this book is terrifying.
If you’re looking for a freight with a deep and well explored theme of grief, look no more. It also serves as a testament to what can happen when a woman is in charge of telling a story of motherhood. As a mother, Amelia deeply cares for her son, but is experiencing the very real weight of letting her own health and needs fall away after the loss of her husband. The depth in the film is furthered by its ending, unsettling, yet triumphant.
The Babadook is available to stream on Netflix.
The Invitation, Written and Directed by Karyn Kusama
Dinner parties suck, dinner parties where your ex is present are worse, and yet Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a study in the most uncomfortable situation in the world. The film is slow build up of angst, fear, and makes your stomach sink as the night’s festivities continue. It’s beautifully shot, building a sense of claustrophobia, making you feel as uncomfortable around these people as Will is. As his fear rises, so does yours, and as he’s gaslit into believing he is being too aggressive, too paranoid, it all hits.
Taking place in one house, Kusama pulls off a thrilling masterclass in leaving the audience in a state of terror — that moment before the fear, writhing in anticipation and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Kusama often makes lists about women in horror with Jennifer’s Body, which is a favorite of mine, but The Invitation is the best example of her handle and deep understanding of the genre.
The Invitation is available to stream on Netflix.
Honorable Mention: Suicide by Sunlight, Written and Directed by Nikyatu Jusu (Short)
Short films don’t get enough love, especially when they can be the break into feature length. I first heard of Nikyatu Jusu from the Graveyard Shift Sisters website, an online resource dedicated to the scholarship surrounding the experiences, representations, achievements, and creative works of Black women and women of color in the horror and science fiction genres run by Ashlee Blackwell. After watching a promo for Suicide by Sunlight, a short film about a Black woman vampire whose melanin allows her to walk in the daytime, I fell in love.
Her other short films, Flowers, Say Grace Before Drowning, and Black Swan Theory are beautifully told stories and are available to watch on her website. Make sure to keep tabs on when this Sundance selected short becomes available to watch.
These may be my favorites but there are many more horror films out there by women that are examples of the deep story telling that the horror genre is capable of. With so many women as the leads in horror, it’s time to add women behind the scenes as well. As this list shows, women get spooky too.
What’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.