WIHM: A Bloodcurdling Bouquet of Nine of the best Female-Directed Horror Films
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by Alyson Faye.
According to The Guardian newspaper article (2018) of the 1100 films surveyed in the last 11 years, only 4% were directed by women. So that’s 22 male directors hired for every woman. Of those female directors typically they had shorter careers than those of their male counterparts with over 80% never asked back to direct a second film.
So it’s tough being a woman in the film making business, therefore it’s perhaps surprising how many horror films in the last decade or so have been directed by women, and not obscure ones or arty ones but mainstream hits that millions have watched and streamed, like Netflix’s Bird Box (2018).
I have picked nine of the best and all are ones I’ve watched. Therefore they are accessible via DVD, streaming or wide cinema release.
If asked to name one female director I suspect most film fans could come up with just one name :- Kathryn Bigelow- who won best director Oscar in 2009 for the massive hit The Hurt Locker (2008).
And it is Bigelow (rather the exception to the rule) with her lengthy and hit-filled directing career that I shall begin with. In 1987 (and it’s only her third credit) Bigelow directed and co-wrote the now cult neo-western vampire film, Near Dark, starring a trio of actors straight off her then- husband James Cameron’s Aliens; Lance Henriksen Bill Paxton, who is memorable in this film and Jenette Goldstein (Private Valdez- remember her?)
Unusually Near Dark tells the story from the point of view of the bitten human, a farm hand, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and how he changes gradually into a vampire, falls in love and has to fit into a new friendship group of – biker vampire nomads.
Though at the time the film performed poorly at the box office (being overshadowed by The Lost Boys) it has gained traction since and a following.
Bigelow had at first wanted to direct a western, but with the funding not forthcoming she was advised to combine the western idea with a more popular genre- i.e. horror and vampires.
My rating 7/10
In 2014 I kept reading online about a new indie film shot in Adelaide, Australia – The Babadook, by an Australian female writer/director, Jennifer Kent, in her directorial début (prior to that Kent had directed one short and one TV episode).
At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival her film won attention and on the back of that a release in the UK and US which allowed the original $2 million budget film to make over $10 million. Ironically it didn’t click in its native home continent.
The titular Babadook is at first a character in the child, Sam’s, pop-up story book, which is read to him by his widowed mother, Amelia, (Essie Davis). However that is only the beginning of this dark, weird and fantastical tale, as the Babadook changes forms and infects the day to day life of the mother and son. Sam is adamant that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” and not even burning the book works. But then, as we the audience realise, the Babadook is more than it seems and can be interpreted as a number of monsters (both real and imaginary).
This is a rich thoughtful horror/thriller with no easy answers and repays watching more than once. Kent herself said, that she sought to tell a story about facing up to the darkness within ourselves, the “fear of going mad” and an exploration of parenting from a “real perspective” and she “wanted to create a myth in a domestic setting. And even though it happened to be in some strange suburb in Australia somewhere, it could have been anywhere. I guess part of that is creating a world that wasn’t particularly Australian … I’m very happy, actually, that it doesn’t feel particularly Australian.”
The Babadook became one of the best reviewed films of 2014, with prominent and respected British film critic/writer, Mark Kermode, saying it was his favourite film of the year.
My Rating 9/10.
I caught up with The Invitation (2015) on Netflix last year and only clocked the director’s name at the end of the credits- Karyn Kusama, a Brooklyn born writer/director/producer. I’ve noticed how many female directors have many other arrows in their quiver as well- writing/producing. Kusama has had a full-on directing career, crossing over from TV to mainstream films and her latest, a thriller, Destroyer, is streaming currently on Netflix, and stars the big name actress, Nicole Kidman.
I re-watched The Invitation just prior to writing this article, and it pays off for the second time of viewing, as you can slot in all the knowledge you have from the first viewing and enjoy the subtle hints and foreshadowings and the build-up on tension.
The plot:- Will (Logan Marshall-Green) takes his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a dinner party hosted by his spooky ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) in the Hollywood Hills in her gorgeous magazine style house. (To be honest I had such house envy watching this. The huge glass windows and the long corridors and split level eating areas are used brilliantly by Kusama to ratchet up the tension and fear- doors open and reveal miniature moments of strangeness).
The claustrophobic setting, with only the outside garden area being used as a break from the lushly furnished interiors, the ten or so dinner guests and the climbing mounting tension with flashbacks to Will’s tragic past, set the backdrop for the final 30 minutes when hectic violence and madness explodes.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers but in that last half an hour the film switches gears from thriller to horror and the ending blew me away- it is original and daring and gut punches you.
Currently streaming on Netflix or you can purchase it digitally on Amazon.
My rating 8/10
I watched Honeymoon (2014) only this weekend, on DVD, especially for the writing of this article. It’s the début feature of American writer/director Leigh Janiak, and stars Rose Leslie (who has been seen in Game of Thrones) and Harry Treadaway (interestingly both are British actors). This has a tiny cast, and is shot in a holiday cabin near a gorgeous lake in the middle of nowhere, which was actually North Carolina.
It had a $1 million budget and a running time of 1 hour 25 minutes. It begins as a romantic drama, with the two leads honeymooning happily, boating, kissing, cooking etc together before there is the gear change, the tipping point from where there is no going back. In this case a mysterious bright white light shining into the cabin at night. Bea (Rose Leslie) goes missing from the marital bed and is found, naked, bruised, disorientated (but protesting ‘I am fine’ when clearly she isn’t) in the middle of the spooky forest, by her new husband, Paul (Harry Treadaway).
I did have a few issues with the low tech white light and Bea turning up in the forest, as neither entirely worked for me and Bea clearly needed to see a doctor in real life, but in reel life she didn’t, of course.
The second half of the film is devoted to the disintegration of Bea and the honeymoon as she is obviously not quite herself – something did happen out there in the forest.
There is an explanation at the end of the film which sort of works, but isn’t as original as the one in The Invitation. However the two leads do sterling work and if you like indie horror then give it a watch.
It’s available to buy cheap e.g. 50p plus p&p on Amazon.
My Rating 5/10.
Now to a British writer/director/actress the multi talented Alice Lowe, in Prevenge (2016) who wrote/directed as well as starred in this indie black horror comedy whilst she was eight months pregnant and she said no one would hire her for roles. So in three and a half days she wrote the film and the film took eleven days to shoot, mainly around Cardiff, Wales.
Before the film was released, Lowe gave birth to a baby girl, Della, who was able to portray Ruth’s newborn in the film, at ten days old. So – very much a family affair.
The catch here is her unborn child is homicidal and talks to her mum who then follows through on the foetus’ instructions. The foetus and Ruth (Alice Lowe) a widow, are out for revenge- hence the pun of the title, (get it?) for those she holds responsible for her partner’s death in a climbing accident.
This is so messed-up, obviously breaking a few taboos we hold dear about pregnant women but it is just so much fun.
For those of us who have been pregnant and feeling rather mad and bad, and just want to go out there and run riot, well this captures that feeling and then takes it to another wicked level.
I winced and laughed a lot throughout this film.
It got nominated at the British Indie Film Awards.
Available to buy on DVD.
My rating 8/10. I did love this.
I caught this post apocalyptic zombie horror on Netflix last year, and it’s still available- Cargo. It stars, rather unusually, a very serious Martin Freeman and is co directed and written by Yolande Ramke, another Australian actress/screenwriter/director. https://www.yolandaramke.com/about
Cargo is the first Australian Netflix Original Feature film. The film had its genesis in a short seven minute 2013 film Ramke wrote and co-directed (with Ben Howling), which they expanded into a 100 minute feature film.
Ramke said, “… there’s a big difference there in terms of material. You need to start thinking more deeply about things that you want to be tapping into, and expanding the world of the film, and you have to get a lot more detailed and introduce new characters and new layers to the story”.
This is a zombie film with a difference- for it shows how far one father – himself infected by the zombie virus- will go to find a home and protector for his baby daughter, who he carries in his back pack.
Love conquers all, even a zombie outbreak, is the message here. And Freeman is very touching as the sole surviving parent whose journey, both physical and emotional, we watch as he travels through an arid sun-bleached post zombie outbreak outback knowing he will die and turn and time is running out (he constantly checks his hi tech watch for the deadly countdown) for his daughter.
The final scenes were heartbreaking.
My rating 9/10.
Available on Amazon.
Probably the most famous film on my mini list is Susanne Bier’s Bird Box (2018), based on the best selling novel of the same name by Josh Malerman. It was a massive hit – 45 million people turned out to stream it and it starred Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich.
Bier was fresh off the critical hit of the TV series The Night Manager, but she was still a surprise choice to direct this very different material. Like Bigelow, the Danish born Bier, is another exception in terms of female directors, in having a long successful career behind her, since the 1990’s, including her first English language film, Things we Lost in the Fire (2007) starring Halle Berry, and 2014’s Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper co starrer Serena.
She is also a multi award winning director of the Big Three :- Emmys, Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
Brief plot- The film follows Malorie (Sandara Bullock) as she tries to protect herself and two children (Girl/Boy) from malevolent supernatural entities that make people who look at them go insane and commit suicide.
We the viewers never see the monsters, and to live in this post apocalyptic world with them, the surviving humans, must wear blindfolds whenever they go outside and board up their windows. It is another horror film where the characters are deprived of one sense – in A Quiet Place and Tim Lebbon’s The Silence the humans must live in silence and sign as the monsters hunt by sound.
Bullock risks everything – by taking the children (down a river- great sequence) to “.. a compound. We have a community. It’s safe here…” says the voice on the radio.
Despite the massive Netflix viewing figures this film received mixed reviews – and it is a blend of scary horrific moments, but also shaky, corny, poorly written sections – as a whole it just about works but it is disappointing too as it could be so much more.
Available to stream still on Netflix.
My rating 6/10.
To conclude I would like go backwards to the 1950s and give a shout out to the unique career of Ida Lupino, who became virtually the only female director working in mainstream Hollywood film and TV in that period and that was after a two decade career as an actress and at Warner Brothers as a star.
Lupino didn’t direct much horror, but her sixth directorial film the low budget, black and white The Hitch-Hiker certainly contained elements of horror and terror. Lupino also co-wrote the screenplay.
This one is also available on Amazon!
I also want to flag up a low budget indie Brit thriller with horror suspense elements – Make Up (2019) written and directed by Claire Oakley and starring Molly Windsor.
It was shot on a caravan park in Cornwall. It is described on Imdb thus- On a remote holiday park in Cornwall, a young woman is drawn into a mysterious obsession when she suspects her boyfriend has cheated on her.
Oakley has been involved in The Uninvited (2009) which I caught on Netflix not long ago and contains supernatural and horror elements.
The director Claire Oakley emailed me saying “The film is being released by Curzon across the UK in the summer … It is also playing at a few festivals in the UK in the coming months: Dublin, Glasgow & BFI Flare and it will be playing at SXSW in the states too.
In image:- Molly Windsor as the lead character Ruth.
Having read the press notes for the film, it’s not a straight out and out horror but it does contain elements – the lead character is in a way, haunted, and as Oakley writes, “Wandering around the (caravan) parks at night, I noticed there were plenty of opportunities to use the place in a thrilling and creepy way – for instance, the architecture can be used like a maze,” she says. “A caravan park has the capacity to be both dream and nightmare, with only a flimsy plastic wall as the line between the two.” And “There are a few jumps and scares, but I was more interested in creating a disquieting tension,” says Oakley “….where you have the constant feeling that something is coming for Ruth…”
If you’ve enjoyed my article and share my passion for film, horror, etc then you can get in touch via my blog at https://alysonfayewordpress.wordpress.com/ or via Twitter @AlysonFaye2.
Keep watching, feel the reel fear.