The horror genre is and has been undergoing a wave of evolution to incorporate a more diverse array of voices. Not least among this evolution is the drive to support talented contemporary female horror filmmakers–indeed, in recent years especially, some of the most talented genre filmmaking has been accomplished by the likes of Karyn Kusama, Jennifer Kent, and Ana Lily Amirpour among others.
While the genre is certainly seeing a wider acknowledgement of the talents of its female directors, it’s also important to recognize that female horror directors have a long history of innovative, talented works whose contributions shouldn’t be forgotten by genre fans. Here are the ten best female directed horror films, each a great work that has influenced the genre and cemented its status in horror history.
10. The Hitch-Hiker (dir: Ida Lupino, 1953) – Prime Video, Tubi
A man hitchhikes on the side of the road. It becomes clear early on that things are not what they seem–we soon note the car abandoned with a pair of dead bodies on the road. The hitch-hiker is a serial killer–hitch, kill, rob, repeat. Some time later, two California men pick up a mysterious hitch-hiker… the very same man who has been killing his way from Illinois to California on his way down to Mexico.
Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker is often classified as a film noir, but it clearly shares intellectual lineage with a number of evil-hitch-hiker and road-murder horror films since. The multi-talented Lupino was an actress, singer, director, and producer (indeed one of the most prolific female filmmakers of the 1950s), and while The Bigamist (1953) is perhaps her most famous film, The Hitch-Hiker is easily her most famous film noir/horror film.
9. Humanoids from the Deep (dir: Barbara Peeters, 1980) – Prime Video, Shudder, Tubi
The fishing village of Noyo, California is shocked when one of their anglers reels in what by all appearances can only be described as a monster. One of the anglers’ young sons falls into the water and gets dragged under the surface. Corpses begin washing ashore. These shocking events are but the precursors to a much larger issue–they discover the village is under siege by humanoids from the deep (a shocker, given the title).
Humanoids from the Deep echoed Lovecraftian themes and updated the model of similar 1950’s and 1960’s genre films like The Horror of Party Beach (with a modern exploitation bent). Director Barbara inherited the Corman project–originally called Beneath the Darkness, after Joe Dante turned it down. The film certainly endures it share of controversy: after Peeters wrapped filming, Corman criticized the project for its lack of what he considered essential to an exploitation project, namely a number of scenes where the ‘humanoids’ explicitly raped women. He instructed Second Unit Director James Sbardellati to shoot supplemental shots with explicit interspecies rape, and changed the title–clearly enraging both crew of the original shoot and Peeters herself (understandably so), who wanted her name removed from the project (she was refused, along with star Ann Turkel). Make what you will of this troubled production history, but modern audiences can still appreciate the cult classic glory of Humanoids from the Deep and acknowledge Peeters’ exceptional contributions to the film.
8. The Slumber Party Massacre (dir: Amy Holden Jones, 1982) – Prime Video, Shudder, Tubi
The classic 1982 slasher film The Slumber Party Massacre was originally written by the distinguished American writer Rita Mae Brown as a parody of the slasher genre. Director Amy Holden Jones interpreted the film, however, in a more straightforward manner than the script was initially written for, ultimately causing the film to stand out as a slasher with a lot more humor than had been the norm for slasher films of the era. Following high school senior Trish Deveraux as she decides to throw a slumber party (one soon to be crashed by a power-drill wielding psychopath), the film suffered mixed critical responses but was commercially successful, earning $3.6 million on a $220,000 production budget and eventually growing to cult classic status.
The film was Jones’ first feature as director following a series of projects as editor, and the director reportedly chose the script from a number of options. (She actually had to turn down an offer to edit Spielberg’s 1982 classic E.T. in order to do so.) The film was shot by Jones’ husband Michael Chapman, and Jones ultimately secured financing for the picture. Jones showed an aptitude for strong pacing and creating a memorable slasher ‘feeling’ that remains memorable to this day, spawning two more Slumber Party Massacre films and a Sorority House Massacre trilogy of films as well.
7. Pet Sematary (dir: Mary Lambert, 1989) – The Roku Channel
The Creed family moves from Chicago to Ludlow Maine following Louis’ acceptance of a new physician position. They’re informed of a notorious ‘pet cemetery’ in the woods behind their new home… a cemetery beset by local legends that something isn’t quite right there–the ground is ‘sour’. When their cat dies due to the busy highway running proximate to their property, they bury the cat in the cemetery (misspelled ‘Sematary’ on the sign beside the locale)… and it comes back. Being one of Stephen King’s horror works, it naturally (or perhaps unnaturally) escalates from there.
Pet Sematary wasn’t director Mary Lambert’s first directed feature but it was, at the time, her biggest. Critically derided in its day (Leonard Maltin called the picture a “BOMB”), but the film went on to make a highly profitable $57 million on an $11 million budget (in today’s dollars, $120 million on a $23 million budget). The film became truly iconic, with the performance of young Gage Creed (played by Miko Hughes) burned into the public consciousness thanks to Lambert’s direction.
6. American Psycho (dir: Mary Harron, 2000) – Prime Video
Mary Harron’s American Psycho gave us a critical, interesting visual metaphor for the sociopathic extravangances of the 1980s elite in the character of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). Bateman, a yuppie New York investment banker, has a hobby: he’s revealed to be a vicious serial killer, gleefully preying on women, work colleagues, and finally the wider public. The film was based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name, and followed by a direct-to-video sequel with literally no relation to the original.
American Psycho was released to wide acclaim and a decent, profitable financial return. The film’s initial Sundance Film Festival reception was mixed, with admirers praising the film’s clever script and Bateman’s gleeful and believably murderous performance, and critics chastising the film for its often hard-to-watch violence.
5. Jennifer’s Body (dir: Karyn Kusama, 2009) – Starz
A strong horror-comedy is very difficult to pull off. Mastering that divergence in tones is rare, but Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body is one of the best examples in years. Amanda Seyfried plays Anita “Needy” Lesnicki, whose friendship with local popular cheerleader Jennifer (an excellent Megan Fox) is complicated by an unrequited implied set of romantic feelings (so evident in the subtext). When Jennifer drags Needy to see a ‘big city band’ named Low Shoulder, a suspicious fire breaks out. In the chaos, Jennifer finds herself compelled to enter the band’s suspicious van against Needy’s advice, and, well, events happen that lead Jennifer to become inhabited by the demonic spirit of a succubus. When young men start showing up dead, it’s up to Needy to figure out what is happening, and what entity is now inhabiting Jennifer’s Body.
Underrated in its day, Kusama nails the complex balance of horror and comedy (from a script by Diablo Cody), while Seyfried’s ‘Needy’ and Megan Fox’s terrifying yet sympathetic turn as Jennifer are both commendable. It has since been widely reappraised for its innovative, critical thematic implications, solid entity design, and strong command of tone–a funny, dark tale turning traditional high school horror on its head. Kusama has gone on to have an excellent career directing genre cinema (don’t miss the filmmaker’s fantastic but very different 2015 film The Invitation). The importance of her contribution to the burgeoning wave of top-tier female horror filmmakers can’t be overstated.
4. The Babadook (dir: Jennifer Kent, 2014) – AMC+
Amelia Vanak is an exhausted widow, raising her young son Samuel alone. The couple were in an accident on their way to the hospital for Amelia to give birth, resulting in the death of the husband and locking Amelia in both the difficulties of parenting a difficult child alone and a non-stop grief spiral that has long since taken over her life. Their lives change when one day they find a mysterious children’s book called Mister Babadook, about a terrifying entity that gets increasingly dangerous after you let it in. After reading the book, the entity starts invading their lives… and it wants her son.
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is a complex story of grief, resentment, the difficulties of single parenthood, and the ways a family copes in the context of an increasingly volatile entity attempting to batter its way into their lives. It’s among the most harrowing horror films of the 2010s (my personal favorite), marked by a stunning central performance, wonderful creature design, and an upsettingly tense conclusion. It’s an incredible film, thanks in large measure to Kent’s fantastic directorial vision.
3. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (dir: Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014) – Netflix
Ana Lily Amirpour was a revelation with her feature debut A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, an Iranian vampire horror-western hybrid that’s as excellent as it is novel. The film takes place in an Iranian ghost-town named Bad City, and they soon discover that the town is being plagued by a lonesome female vampire. It’s a haunting and original tale, with strong feminist themes alongside a rich portrayal of the dark underbelly of modern Iran.
The film established Amirpour as one of the most important emerging international horror directors, and the filmmaker has gone on to direct The Bad Batch and Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, both stunning genre-bending works. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is one of the most moody, visually engaging vampire tales of recent memory, and it should absolutely be remembered with Cronos and Let The Right One In as a top-tier modern international retelling of the vampire mythos.
2. The Invitation (dir: Karyn Kusama, 2015) – Netflix
The Invitation is another stunner from Karyn Kusama of an entirely different subgenre as Jennifer’s Body. A slow-burn, claustrophobic thriller, what it misses in flashiness it more than makes up for in sustained tension, carrying a great reputation among fans of the genre. Logan Marshall-Green plays Will, a man with a tragic past who received a mysterious dinner party invitation from his ex-wife Eden. He travels to the dinner party with his girlfriend Kira, immediately feeling odd in their formerly-shared home alongside the strange vibes of the party itself. As the dinner escalates in tension, his suspicions and volatility increase, culminating in an incredible ending with huge implications for such a small, contained film. Kusama shows her mastery of suspense and tension, just as she showed great skill in the horror-comedy landscape with Jennifer’s Body.
Marshall-Green excels as Will, and his emotional portrayal drives the film towards its nigh-inevitable conclusion. Boasting a strong script, exceptional performances, and some serious twists, The Invitation is a strong genre vision that’s been embraced by critics before finding a larger audience on streaming. It’s definitely a horror-thriller that isn’t to be missed, showcasing fine acting talent and a fantastic directorial vision for Kusama (directing from a script penned by her common collaborators, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi). It’s a film that cements Kusama as a horror director to watch, which makes her forthcoming Dracula adaptation all the more exciting.
1. Revenge (dir: Coralie Fargeat, 2017) – Shudder
The ‘rape-revenge’ thriller is deservedly a controversial staple in exploitation horror cinema since its most well-known early example in the infamous I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981). More recently, the genre has undergone a reformation with a strong slate of more feminist, less exploitative, more thoughtful take on the subgenre. One of the strongest of these reinterpretations in recent years can be found in Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. Jennifer, an American socialite, is ‘the mistress’ of her married neighbor Richard, who she accompanies to the latter’s secluded desert home for a weekend getaway. His hunting buddies arrive early, prompting controversy but culminating in a raucous night of drinking. Richard leaves the next morning, and his friend Stan attempts to have sex with Jen (an offer she soundly rejects), but the villainous Stan refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. He rapes her, and Jen refuses to forget the crime; the three chase her, she falls off a cliff, and they leave her for dead. Except she doesn’t die… cue the ‘revenge’ portion of the film.
Revenge is a well directed update of the classic controversial subgenre. Fargeat manages to establish the stakes of the crime without sexualizing it, and Matilda Lutz gives an exceptional performance as Jen moves from victim to vengeance personified. It’s a truly exceptional piece of filmmaking with strong writing, well executed action, and a great ending, showing how these sorts of films can be redirected into thoughtful, modern, feminist directions.
Surely this is just a brief exploration of the myriad contributions female filmmakers have made to horror history, but each film on the list is an important and influential example in its own right. With Nia DaCosta’s Candyman on the horizon alongside Dracula adaptations from Karyn Kusama and Chloe Zhao, just three high-profile examples among a host of innovative future films, women continue to change the horror landscape for the better.
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