Macabre Movie Monday: 15 Women Behind the Horror

Welcome to the annual segment of OcTerror that focuses on a category of films rather than paying attention to era lines. These reviews may ignore the boundaries of good and bad in favor of expanding the definitions of what horror can be. In the past, we’ve looked at remakes & reboots, sequels, Asian horror, and more. Since I spent much of 2021 lamenting the lack of female filmmakers in anthologies, I wanted to focus on the additions to the genre that come from directors, screenwriters, and producers who often aren’t in the majority.

A popular misconception is that women don’t enjoy horror, or if they do then they’re miscreants and against the norm. As we’ve seen from the past years of OcTerror, though, horror comes in all shapes and sizes, and all genders are perfectly capable of feeling (and enjoying) fear on film. In horror, compared to other genres, women are seen and heard more often onscreen. Behind the scenes, however, men still largely control the narratives with key designations as writers, directors, producers, and more. Women have contributed to this genre since its inception, but publicity and attention rarely focuses on the quality of their work compared to their male counterparts. While this list focuses on key roles in filmmaking, I also want to express my appreciation for the work women have done in practical and special effects, make-up and costuming, and other vital parts that make the movie whole. With the Women in Horror movement over the past decade and more avenues to create than before, women behind the camera are finally making their moves. I’ve only selected fifteen films out of hundreds, but we can already see what kind of horrors have been brought to the screen by these filmmakers.

Macabre Movie Monday presents…

The Velvet Vampire (1971). In the latter half of the 20th century, vampires shirked their monstrous reputations and became creatures of the erotic. This turn is well demonstrated in Stephanie Rothman’s feature about a couple who visit a mysterious woman in the desert, only to find she may be looking for a different kind of good time. The film has moments of horror and exploitation, but Rothman’s handling of nudity and her vampire set this apart from other flicks of the early 70s. Celeste Yarnall is captivating as Diane LeFanu, and I wish the film was more from her perspective rather than Lee and Susan. While the acting is a bit hit or miss, the aesthetic atmosphere of the desert scenes, the rich costumes, and the dream sequences make this memorable. This is a queer-coded film as Diane doesn’t just target the hunky Lee but seduces Susan as well. However, par for the course, the last quarter of the film strikes back against the sexual freedom of the vampiric and instead offers consequences. Most of the movie is built on mystery and Gothic sensibilities, and the horror is a little low because of that. The essence of the erotic plays a bigger part than anything bloody. Still, if you’re a fan of 2016’s The Love Witch, you can find its ancestress here in a powerful and beautiful vampire. If you’re tired of the abstinent or nocturnal undead, then let The Velvet Vampire seduce you.

The Godsend (1980). If you see a small blonde child in a horror movie, there’s a 75% chance they’re up to no good. Based on the novel by Bernard Taylor, this film follows the Marlowe family after a mysterious woman leaves her newborn baby at their home. Over the course of little Bonnie’s childhood, tragic accidents befall her siblings, and her adopted father (Malcolm Stoddard) begins to suspect she may have something to do with it. The first ten or so minutes are a great example in tension as Angela Pleasance steals the scene just by sitting and staring intently. Every word she does speak adds to her mystery and creepiness. Every young actress who played Bonnie embodies a perfect balance of wholesome innocence and the kind of sociopathy that means you would never give her a pair of scissors. The production design is lovely: from the country house and its rolling hills to the artistic apartment, from how the costumes change over time, from the way some characters seem to age. However, the pacing of the film is interesting as the first half moves very quickly and the second drags a little in its attempt to build tension. Some of the acting is too over the top, but mostly works. Rather, with Gabrielle Beaumont’s direction, this film has a kind of classic quality to it that lends to an easy rewatch. Are there a few too many close-ups to build suspense? Yes. Has the countryside ever looked more idyllic? Perhaps. If you’re familiar with ornithology then you’ll catch onto the story rather quickly, but the film satisfies and rewards in garish fashion. This is one creepy kid that will steal your affection.

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982). Directed and co-written by Amy Holden Jones with Rita Mae Brown, this film does its best to play with the tropes of the slasher genre and succeeds. While it may not be a wholly Feminist film due to production needs (there’s a long shower scene with a lot of male-gaze elements), it nonetheless contributes new blood to horror in an entertaining fashion. Trish decides to throw the titular slumber party while her parents are away, inviting members of the basketball team; leading up to and during the titular event the girls and several others are attacked and killed by a drill-wielding murderer who has recently escaped. First off, while the attacks with the absurdly long drill do feel a little repetitive after a bit I love the phallic symbolism of it against the girls, like there’s nothing subtle here. The decision to reveal the killer early on in the film changes many of the popular dynamics in slashers. Here it’s not about the mystery of who is doing this but rather it’s all about survival and puts more of a focus on the girls. It reminded me in some ways of Halloween where it feels completely random that these girls are being attacked by this film’s version of the boogeyman, but, unlike in Carpenter’s film, they’re prepared to some degree to fight back. The film has all the requisite elements of a slasher: T&A, blood and gore, etc. The small details are what give it special oomph. I love that when the first woman is attacked the music doesn’t start for a few seconds and there’s something incredibly chilling about that silence, especially as no one noticed or heard her being attacked; that’s a very primal fear as a woman. A lot of the elements probably hit differently for female viewers than male, like the attentive neighbor. Overall, The Slumber Party Massacre delivers its own take on the slasher genre that, while not doing anything overtly new, makes subtle moves forward for women in horror. 

Near Dark (1987). This was the year of the neo-Western vampire. Between Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark in Oklahoma and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys in California, 1987 was a good year to be seduced by the allure of the night. Compared to the latter, however, this feature focuses more on the ‘wilder’ west of cowboys and outlaws. After meeting a beautiful drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright), Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is sucked away from his small town and has to learn how to co-exist with the nomadic vampire family. Now, even though Caleb is the main character, most of the posters feature Bill Paxton as the leather jacketed, troublemaking Severin. Although Mae is charged with teaching Caleb how to hunt, it’s Severin who provides the sharp, machismo contrast to Caleb’s humanity. And, unlike many other vampire films, we have a subplot about Caleb’s family searching for him which ties up nicely in the end. Many of the shots, especially of the landscape, are gorgeous. The romance between Mae and Caleb feels a little too automatic for me to buy into it completely, but the allure has never really been about that—it’s always been about living forever, right? The film has cool sequences like a bar brawl, and the music by Tangerine Dream compliments the strange mix of genres we have going on. This film would make a great double feature with The Lost Boys, but, overall, it’s a story that never gets old.

Pet Sematary (1989). Adapted by Stephen King from one of his darkest novels, Mary Lambert’s exploration of grief and trauma asks us how far we’d go to be with a loved one again. After a tragic death at the Creed’s new home in Maine, Louis makes the decision to visit the sour ground beyond the Pet Sematary in the hopes of undoing death. I’ll be honest and say I think the best adaptation lies somewhere between the original and its 2019 remake. Much of the action and capture of the film feels more like a made-for-TV movie than something cinematic. The acting, especially the heavier moments, doesn’t quite work. Sometimes the pacing feels rushed when it would work better to slow down in these moments. Despite that, this has become almost a classic of horror because of the inherent darkness of its plot. Fred Gwynne as friendly neighbor Jud is one of the redeeming factors, and his heavy Maine accent drawls dialogue in such a captivating way. The make-up and prosthetics are memorable in how decay, violence, and death are rendered onto the body. A few subplots, like Zelda or the wendigo, are either largely ignored or not fully tied into the main plot. Still, for its faults, this is one of the better King films and has a certain confidence in its execution that can’t be ignored. Worth at least one watch for fun, but whether a return to the Pet Sematary is warranted or not is up to the individual.  

Mirror Mirror (1990). For the first twenty or so minutes of this movie, I was firmly watching this because I’d assigned it for this list; it had the automatic feel of a made-for-TV special with a low budget and little care. However, by forty or so minutes in, I was invested in this story about an outcast teenager who takes revenge by utilizing the demonic powers of a mirror. Rainbow Harvest carries this film as Megan, the epitome of an early-90s goth, as she mourns the loss of her father and adjusts to life in small town (and small-minded) Iowa. Marina Sargenti takes more than a few interesting directions, utilizing common tropes and shots, to either play with or against tropes in horror. A reoccurring voyeuristic shot from the mirror’s perspective constantly puts viewers on edge. The screenplay—by Annette and Gina Cascone—seems appropriately inspired by Carrie, but gives it a more female-focused edge by having Megan care more about friendship than boys (a quick subplot) and having almost all of the characters (including villains) be female. There’s a campy subplot that involves a female antagonist running for class president by the merits of her boobs, and for some reason the supporting cast is color-coded in shades of blue. While Mirror Mirror may be somewhat inspired by 1976’s Carrie, I’m intrigued by how much this film seemed to possibly inspire the 2013 remake directed by Kimberly Peirce. As far as scares go, the film is initially rather light as it builds tension but then ups the stakes and adds mild gore as it goes into the climax. More than a few of the revenge scenes added a touch of creativity to otherwise done tropes (shower scene, anyone?). Overall, this feels like a cult classic with the right amount of camp to entertain.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). This film is many things: an examination of the vampire mythos, a portrait of addiction, an Iranian spaghetti-western, a romance, and so much more. It also features one of the most realistic and best cats on film I’ve ever seen. Arash (Arash Marandi) works to support his addict father in Bad City, toiling amidst the drug dealers, sex workers, and homeless who are lost, hopeless, or dreaming of a better life. Eventually, he meets The Girl (Sheila Vand), a mysterious figure who wanders the city at night and may be more than she seems. You can see the love and care Ana Lily Amirpour has put into the script and direction in every word and shot of the film. She not only understands the vampire mythos but works with it in familiar frameworks to create something that still feels entirely new. The black and white cinematography is reminiscent of so many impressionist or classic monsters and captures the characters and landscape beautifully in every scene—whether it is a tender moment to “Death” by White Lies or a pit full of bodies. Vand’s performance, one of few words, manages to be unnerving when need be or perfectly human the next, full of some emotion you don’t have a word for but just feel in your heart. Additionally, the use of The Girl’s chādor to not only emulate a cloak, but also be true to the culture is genius. The commentary on addiction, while at times on the nose, is also so layered that you could watch this film numerous times and uncover a new kind of vampire each time. It is a film full of Gothic sensibilities and beauty, the occasional moment of humor, and, yes, horror too. If you’re tired of European vampires and victims who swoon then this film is definitely something to sink your teeth into.

Goodnight Mommy (2014). First, I knew the final twist before watching because it’s been years and it’s hard to avoid that kind of spoiler. Second, if at all possible, watch this not knowing. Directed and written by Austrian aunt and nephew, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, this atmospheric film captures the anxiety of two twin boys when their mother returns home with her face wrapped in bandages. As her behavior grows increasingly unfamiliar, Elias and Lukas begin to question whether the woman is actually their mother. This is a film that you’ll want to watch again and untangle because it’s intentionally vague and ambiguous, which is both a pro and a con. Much of the tension in the first half is built off of the mother’s bandaged appearance (very Eyes Without a Face) and her behavior. This is ratcheted up and twisted in the second half where a good amount of our violence comes into play. Twins are naturally a trope of horror because something about them leans into the uncanny, but the performances by Elias and Lukas Schwarz really sell the heart of this. We get light moments of brotherhood—playing in a hailstorm, exploring a cornfield, rescuing a cat—contrasted against the darkness of fear and loss. While the violence does not lean into extremity, something about its simplicity makes it feel worse. Like, the sensation is familiar enough to transfer onto the audience. The climax and final twist really do affect the entirety of the film in new ways, and I hope many of you can go into this spoiler-free. With or without knowing, Goodnight Mommy may leave you wishing for yours.

The Invitation (2015). What amazes me about this film is how visually and tonally different it is to Karyn Kusama’s earlier Jennifer’s Body. Within the first five or so minutes, it was like putting aside my assumptions and adapting to what the film would give me. A group of friends, close and estranged, gather for a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills. Among this group is Will, a quiet and intense man, and his ex-wife Eden, who seems to float through the evening in her happy new life. During the evening, Eden, her new husband (Michiel Huisman), and some of their new friends invite the group to release the pain in their life. Understandably, this causes conflict. While I expected the most obvious plot of this film, I was surprised by the driving force behind it. Since the mid-2010s, we’ve had many examinations of grief: The Babadook, Midsommar, The Mimic. Everyone suffers trauma and loss in their life at some point; this film, then, taps into the natural urge to find catharsis and healing—to escape pain. Is it better to move on or to suffer? I like how the film pits this question against its characters and our suspicions of them, because we never fully trust anyone at this party. Even Will, our protagonist, lashes out when confronted with his fears. While most of the pace sets up the tension between people and their relationships, the climax explodes with violence, misery, and the right amount of suspense. Strong performances anchor this film, which does drag a little at times, but the beating heart at its center is fantastic. I’m not 100% sold on the last five or so minutes, even though there is foreshadowing, because it didn’t feel completely necessary to me. Find your invitation tonight and lock your loved ones in with this film.

Raw (2016). I thought I knew what I was getting into with Julia Decournau’s graphic darling. I’d thought I’d seen enough spoilers to not be surprised. I was wrong. Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian, begins veterinarian school and undergoes hazing rituals from the upperclassmen. However, after tasting meat for the first time, she begins to have strange and strong cravings. First, the film has several twists and reveals (which I won’t spoil), and some are executed well and some felt like they needed a little more time. Every reveal, however, heightened the tension and lead to an emotionally harrowing climax. Second, the relationship between Justine and her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), felt mostly organic to me. There’s a caring love and competition between the two, growing up with a controlling mother; just when you think you understand them, the film deepens that relationship in a new way. The horror is slow and graphic, lingering on lurid images and digging its teeth into these scenes in a way others rarely dare. In addition to the more obvious horror, of course, we have the all too real anxieties and horrors of higher education: hazing, new relationships and environments, snobby professors and exams. Additionally, since this is a veterinarian school, we also have graphic images of dissections, animal carcasses, and more. This is not a film for the weak of heart or stomach, but audiences may find theirs strengthened by the love and hunger at the center of this film. Unlike anything I’ve seen or could have predicted, and I’m starving for more like it.

Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017). Directed and written by Issa López, this crime-fantasy has key moments of horror that make it hard to forget—and easy to be afraid. After her mother goes missing, Estrella joins a group of boys to survive local gang violence. She’s also in possession of three wishes and haunted by ghosts who seek justice. There’s a harsh yet delicate blend to the magical realism of Estrella’s fantasies and the real-world violence she’s surrounded by. It’s similar to Pan’s Labyrinth in its quest for escapism, but more honest in its fantastical handling. If you’re at all familiar with “The Monkey’s Paw” then you’ll find homage in Estrella’s chalk wishes. The cinematography is gorgeous, whether it’s capturing fish in a puddle or bodies wrapped in plastic. For an ensemble of mostly children, the acting is well done and brings both necessary innocence and a kind of hopefulness to the screen. These kids are easy to care for, and their losses become yours. It’s a film that will terrify you and make your heart ache in equal turns. Unlike other Spanish-language films I’ve reviewed before, the use of a relatively modern setting and conflict makes this hit somewhat harder than those set further in the past. This is a film that should be watched at least once in all its uneasy, horrifying trauma.

Revenge (2017). If I Spit on Your Grave was the male fantasy of feminine revenge, then Coralie Fargeat’s feature delivers a woman’s perspective. After Jen is raped, she expects her lover, Richard, to stick up for her against his guilty friend. Instead, the men try to kill her; in return, Jen hunts them down. First, this desert setting gives so much suspense, beauty, and newness to this film. Usually we see this cat-and-mouse chase sequence play out in crowded settings with buildings or trees to hide in, but the blank canvas of the sand limits the places to hide. The neon naturalistic color palette of the cinematography is glorious and I love how Robrecht Heyvaert captures not only the setting, but the people within it. Matilda Lutz’s performance as Jen is captivating. Her transformation from sensual seductress to brutal huntress is great. The metaphorical and symbolic elements of the film make the fantasy of this kind of revenge more poignant. The hallucinogenic scene, while a bit predictable, is also a good moment of horror in how it presents trauma, body horror, and what someone will do to survive. The climax is a bit drawn out but also has this nice dynamic to it. I was left wanting a little more to the ending in terms of realism, but—honestly—that also doesn’t matter because this is a revenge fantasy. Overall, if you want a film that looks gorgeous, is covered with blood, and satisfies your violent desires then find your Revenge tonight.

The Nightingale (2018). While Jennifer Kent may be better known for her debut feature, The Babadook, her sophomore effort delivers different kinds of scares. (Note: this is one of the few horror films I watched once and vowed never to put myself through again; so I am working a bit off memory and My Favorite Films of 2019 here). Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict in present-day Tasmania, seeks revenge after members of the colonial force commit atrocities against her family. She’s aided in this quest by Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker who has his own motives. The film, at over two hours, has the same kind of intensity as Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil, but it takes more of a meditative state in discussing the horrors of colonialism on women, indigenous people, and the penal state. Now, the inciting violence for this quest is one of the reasons I can’t revisit this film—it is brutal, unflinching, and truly horrifying. However, even three years since I first saw it, I can’t stop thinking about this movie. Kent’s direction and writing brings out some brilliant performances from Franciosi and Ganambarr, and Sam Claflin makes a suitable antagonist. Unlike many other films from the rape-revenge narrative, The Nightingale seems to know catharsis doesn’t really cure the inherent trauma. And this film is full of them. With lovely cinematography and score, this movie is easy to watch even while being one of the toughest things to watch. Maybe this was marketed as a historical drama with some thrills, but it feels at home in horror. Overall, this is a film I could recommend, but it will also come with some caveats.

Relic (2020). Natalie Erika James’ debut both suffers and is bolstered by its place in the Renaissance period of films. Unfortunately, by 2020, many audiences were tired of the metaphor-as-monster motif that had become prevalent. While I understand the critiques of this film and agree with some, I find, for me, this is a monster that will always terrify. When matriarch Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) health begins to decline due to dementia, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) struggle with how to handle her behavior and the mysterious neglect that has crept over the house. Carried largely by the three leads, Relic takes its time in building to a claustrophobic and terrifying climax. However, for those whose lives have been touched by dementia or Alzheimer’s, this film captures the horror of losing a person you love and meeting the different person they become. It makes the film feel intensely personal and explains some of the disconnect with certain audiences. A scene where Sam becomes lost in the house, unable to find her way back out, always makes me panic alongside her because I’ve been in similar situations. The film does suffer from insufficient lighting which does more to hide what’s going on than build tension. The last moments of the film may make or break the previous plot, but it works for me and always makes me cry. This is a delicate horror movie that doesn’t shy away from aging, familial trauma, or estrangement. Instead, it embraces them and creates something haunting and poignant. 

Candyman (2021). I was hyped from the moment I heard about this “spiritual sequel” to one of my favorite horror films. Even better that it is the first movie directed by a Black woman to top the box office on its U.S. release. That—most of all—is what makes a key difference in how the subject matter of Candyman and Cabrini-Green is handled between the original (directed by Bernard Rose) and this new take. Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a painter, becomes obsessed with a local legend, and his work begins to take on a dangerous life of its own. Not only does this film build off of the previous mythos, but it updates and develops many of the previous themes in a 21st century setting. Racism, gentrification, cycles of violence, white supremacy, and more run rampant as motifs and meanings within the plot. At times, the exposition falls into education with varying success. Many of the supporting characters bring differing dynamics on screen: the protective mother, the ambitious girlfriend, a playful brother, and a helpful neighbor. If 1992’s Candyman was a white academic’s view on the projects and Black trauma, then it’s helpful here to have this reclamation of story by the people directly affected by this particular kind of violence. The cinematography—especially its use of mirrors and reflections—is clean and brilliant. The shadow puppet sequences are haunting in their own way, and I appreciate the extra use of credit time for further depth. Many have pointed out that this is a slow, quiet kind of horror, but it largely uses the same points as the original in a build to a grand, terrifying climax. If you have mild or severe trypophobia, several sequences will definitely trigger that particular disgust. Overall, this is a film I could—and will—watch multiple times because it has so many layers to analyze, but also shares a story worth revisiting. If you haven’t already, grab a copy and say his name.

From this list, it’s clear that certain tropes and narratives lean toward women filmmakers. Vampires, more so than most supernatural phenomena, are highlighted as seductive, dangerous, and thrilling for the chance of freedom from the norm. In contrast to the heavy exploitation and male-driven rape-revenge narratives, women tend to show more empathy and emotional trauma from the violence than the necessary violence themselves, and it adds layers to the storytelling. Women may look at motherhood or children in horrific ways. Throughout all of it, though, audiences can see new perspectives that bring a certain nuance differing from others. It’s my hope that more women will create horror behind the scenes: adapt their stories, write screenplays, direct features, produce new creators, or more. If we love this genre, then supporting the different shapes, sizes, and genders it can come in is part of that. And I’ll keep reviewing them.

Check out the OcTerror Master List for other women behind the screen: I Walked With a Zombie, The Uninvited, The Hitch-Hiker, The Blob, Suspiria, Halloween, The Watcher in the Woods, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Ginger Snaps, Final Destination 2, Final Destination 3, Dumplings, Jennifer’s Body, American Mary, The Woman in Black, Carrie (2013), The Babadook, The Love Witch, XX, M.F.A, The Other Lamb, Censor, and more.

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