Women have always dominated the horror genre in some way; whether it be through passive roles in line with abjection and the male gaze, or the strong female representation that has been much more prevalent over the past ten years. Horror — already a broad genre — becomes even more of an extensive label when we start to explore female-centric topics as seen from the female gaze.
To celebrate Women in Horror Month, I’ve put together a list of the best women-directed horror films from the past decade. From revenge and grief to love and motherhood, it’s a list that includes a wide range of themes. (There’s also, coincidentally, a lot from 2017 — which was just an all-round fantastic year in cinema!)
Knives and Skin (2019, Jennifer Reeder)
Fusing elements of horror into a coming-of-age story, Knives and Skin follows the lives of small-town residents after the disappearance of one of their own — Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). With the teenagers given narrative agency as their parents fall into crisis, Jennifer Reeder completely flips the trope on its head, blending her own eccentricities with dark comedy in order to explore the heavy theme of grief.
Its captivating cinematography explores hues of pinks, purples, and blues in order to complement the film’s soothing, dream-like atmosphere. Reeder aimed for realistic depictions of grief, which she described as being an “extremely personal and eccentric” process. This is more-than-achieved when, for example, Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), wears one of Carolyn’s dresses over a t-shirt (and later one of her bras) while teaching her music class. Knives and Skin has a real Lynchian feel to its story and structure and, with themes reminiscent of cult-classic Heathers, it’s definitely worth your time.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017, Issa López)
Issa López delivers a dark fairytale with a potent commentary on the horrific violence and political corruption of the ongoing drug war in Mexico. While working on an assignment, Estrella’s (Paolo Lara) class is disrupted by gunfire outside the school; her teacher gives her three pieces of chalk that will grant her three wishes — but this isn’t your usual fairy tale. With her mother missing, Estrella wishes for her to return, only to be met with haunting visions of her ghost. Estrella then joins a gang of children who are all trying to navigate the brutalities of organized crime and the ghosts they create.
Tigers Are Not Afraid doesn’t romanticize the lives of gangsters, instead focusing on those left behind — the children and their subsequent trauma. Despite its adult themes and the fact the children are forced to mature, they are still shown as little kids who fret over teddy bears and soccer balls. On the topic of losing her mother at a young age, López said: “You don’t realize that you’re dragging a ghost behind you.” In this case, the children cannot escape from the ghosts of war.
Revenge (2017, Coralie Fargeat)
Female directors are changing the rape-revenge genre for the better, and there’s no better example than Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. Jen’s (Matilda Lutz) romantic getaway with her wealthy (and married) boyfriend Richard (Kevin Janssens) is disrupted when his obnoxious friends arrive a day early for their annual hunting trip. As Jen was supposed to be a well-kept secret, tensions build at the desert home — until Jen is eventually raped, murdered and discarded. Or so they think.
The film keeps the violence against women to a minimum, but in a refreshing change for the genre, we get to see all the gory, disgusting violence towards men. It just goes to show how powerful films can be when told through the female gaze. To watch Jen rise like a phoenix and get her revenge is as transformative as the journey she goes through. Despite its tough themes, Revenge manages to be a visually gorgeous, blood-soaked revenge thriller. Every shot is utter perfection.
M.F.A. (2017, Natalia Leite)
Much like Revenge, M.F.A. is another woman-directed rape-revenge film that provides a progressive take on the genre. After the accidental death of her rapist, art student Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) becomes an unlikely vigilante as she sets out to avenge college girls whose rapists were not charged. As we can’t all go around seeking vigilante justice, the film also shows the realistic hardship of rape cases through its supporting characters.
M.F.A. is a film where women go to great lengths to protect one another because no one else will do it for them, especially not authority figures. It reflects the real-life horror of rapists facing little-to-no consequences, while their victims suffer them all — often repeatedly. It’s a dark film, but one where we can connect to (and cheer on) the idea of killing rapists as justice. Despite some issues where Noelle’s artwork is only considered ‘good’ after she suffers a traumatic event, M.F.A. is a mesmerizing slow-burn, and Eastwood is captivating as the lead character.
The Love Witch (2016, Anna Biller)
Anna Biller takes the ugly archetype of a witch and transforms her into the embodiment of femininity, resulting in the gorgeous and sociopathic Elaine (Samantha Robinson). Desperate to find a replacement for her recently murdered husband, Elaine becomes a witch and relocates to Arcata, California to start again. She rents a beautiful apartment in a Victorian home and uses her charms to seduce and control men. When she finally meets the man of her dreams, Elaine’s desperation to be loved drives her to murder and insanity.
Submerged in a vibrant and stylish aesthetic — reminiscent of 1960s Technicolor film — The Love Witch is a film made for women that truly encapsulates the female gaze. Biller said: “I thought it would be interesting to create a film around the idea that a woman’s love is so toxic that it can actually kill.” Little girls grow up with fairytale worlds that get destroyed once they get to know how men really are; Elaine goes crazy looking for qualities in men that she can’t find because she’s still chasing a fantasy. The Love Witch is a seductive and spellbinding feminist story that reminds us that women are flawed and also have perverse desires.
Good Manners (2017, Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra)
Good Manners is one of those films that starts out relatively simple, before spinning completely out of control. Clara (Isabél Zuaa), a lonely Black nurse from the outskirts of São Paulo, is hired by Ana (Marjorie Estiano), a mysterious and wealthy white woman, as the nanny of her unborn baby. Against all odds, the two women develop an intimate relationship, seemingly curing their shared isolation. However, one fateful night changes things forever as the birth of Ana’s baby transforms this lesbian love story into an outright monster movie.
Immersive from the start, Good Manners is able to be entertaining, intense and thrilling, whilst also making an insightful commentary on class politics, sexuality, and motherhood. It’s also a modern take on the werewolf story — with exceptional gore and body horror to boot. It might sound like an idea that’s been done before, but I promise it’s never been as unique or original as this. (The less I say, the better!)
American Mary (2012, Jen and Sylvia Soska)
The horror community didn’t know what hit them when Jen and Slyvia Soska released their sophomore film, American Mary. It follows Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), a young medical student who, desperate for cash, applies to work at a strip club. The owner, Billy Baker (Antonio Cupo), happens to be in need of a medical professional to patch up a man bleeding in the club’s basement. Offered $5,000 to help — with no questions asked — Mary accepts the money, but soon finds herself pulled into the underground world of body modification surgery.
American Mary is part feminist-revenge and part gruesome body-horror, though the horror elements of body modification aren’t there for shock value but genuine artistic merit. The film features real members of the ‘body mod’ community, whose outlandish characters are friendly and well-adjusted individuals. The real horror comes from Mary’s traumatic encounter with her sleazy med school professor (David Lovgren) and her desire for revenge. American Mary has a lot of cool factors and pays homage to both body horror and European cinema, but the gruesome practical effects are its most impressive feat.
The Lure (2015, Agnieszka Smoczyńska)
Set in the ’80s, two mermaids — Golden (Michalina Olszańska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) — meet with rock band Fig n’ Dates on a beach in Poland. They accompany the band back to a nightclub where they regularly play, and begin performing as strippers and backup singers. The mermaids soon become their own act, known as The Lure, but things start to spin out of control when Golden develops a taste for blood and Silver falls in love with the band’s bassist.
The Lure is a gorgeous horror film, incorporating elements of the musical and fairytale as it provides a unique reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with some unpredictable twists. Agnieszka Smoczyńska called the film a “coming-of-age” story that reflected her life, since her mother ran a nightclub, though the inclusion of the mermaids allowed the film to not reveal too much of herself. As the mermaids are treated extremely poorly by the men they meet on land, Smoczyńska revealed that this is a metaphor for immigrants who go to America for a better life, only to be abused by the locals.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour)
Set in the Iranian ghost-town Bad City — a site of crime, death, and loneliness — A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night tells the story of a vampire (Sheila Vand) in a chador who stalks the town’s habitants at night, though they are usually unaware of her presence until it’s too late. The Girl soon meets the young Arash (Arash Marandi) who lives with his heroin-addicted father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh).
Advertised as “the first Iranian vampire western,” Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature is a stunning film shot in monochrome black-and-white. Its exact genre is hard to define as it incorporates so many — romance, noir, horror, western — but they’re all blended together effortlessly. Though the story unfolds at a leisurely pace, the film is filled with eye-catching, dramatic visuals and an exquisite soundtrack. Girls are often scared to walk home alone at night because of predatory men, but Amirpour flips the narrative to deliver a postmodern vampire tale that sees a woman enforce justice.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)
Lynne Ramsay is one of the best female directors out there. While her films tend to deal with depressing social drama, We Need to Talk About Kevin borders on social horror due to its quite unnerving subject matter. The film explores the tumultuous relationship between Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) as she struggles to cope with his increasingly malevolent behavior. At 15-years-old, Kevin commits a truly horrific act of violence that sparks the age-old ‘nature vs nurture’ debate.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is utterly depressing, but its masterful filmmaking and intriguing story make it hard to look away. Ramsay’s tense and atmospheric film demands your attention and offers a disturbing hypothesis. Evil children are a staple in horror, but they aren’t always as terrifyingly explored in such a recognizable reality. What exactly is a mother’s worst nightmare? It’s probably this film.