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20 Essential Horror Movies Directed by Women

20 Essential Horror Movies Directed by Women: Jennifer's Body / Fox Atomic

Jennifer's Body / Fox Atomic

It’s strange that in a genre that has relied so heavily on the participation of women as final girls, horror movies have garnered so few female filmmakers in comparison to the amount of men that have sat in the director’s chair. The reasons for the lack of women directors are many, but an important and obvious one to note is how often females are passed over for jobs in the entertainment industry, not only making it harder to craft a horror film that might reach mainstream theaters, but also, making it extremely difficult to build a resume, further delaying opportunities that might lead to the big feature length film. On the flip side, some women who do wind up directing their own films choose not to announce their big step forward in the name of womanhood, for fear that drawing attention to their sex might pigeonhole them into a category of filmmaking deemed for a woman to work on. However, sometimes the reason why cinephiles aren’t more aware of female filmmakers is the same reason why so many independent male filmmakers go unheard of: A lack of spotlight. With this notion in mind, it is an honor to show some love for these very deserving ladies, and their inspiring projects that demand to be seen.


THE VOICES
Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis)’s fourth feature film offers a unique insight into the mind of a serial killer, from a rare, seemingly innocent perspective. Ryan Reynolds stars as Jerry, the last guy you’d suspect of murder, in this underrated horror comedy about a man who works at a local plant, lives alone, and occasionally has conversations with his Bull mastiff and a red tabby cat. Despite his best intentions to fit in with society and quiet the voices in his head, Jerry finds that a life regimented by medicine only brings the devastation of reality. He’d rather shed his prison and live a brighter life, even if it is at the expense of other peoples’ safety.


WISHING STAIRS
It’s always refreshing when a film comes along that servers as a reminder to the horror community that women can be just as scary as men, and that’s exactly what director Jae-yeon Yun’s 2003 spooky supernatural drama does. In the film, Yun Jin-seong and Kim Sohee are best friends who take ballet together at a Korean boarding school. Outside of their dorm, there is a stairway that’s rumored to contain magical wishing powers. Normally, it only has twenty-eight steps, but if you happen to ascend up the stairway when a twenty-ninth step appears, you can ask the fox to grant your wish, and wake to find it happened. However, when Jin-seong uses the mystical passageway to beg for an advantage over her friend in the ballet competition, she realizes all too late that the price for enabling such jealousy must be paid in blood.


GOODNIGHT MOMMY
A tale of tragedy, this film tells a story where everyone is at fault and everyone suffers. In this deeply disturbing, intentionally slow-paced dramatic thriller, two identical twin boys come to believe that a stranger has replaced their mother after she comes back from reconstructive surgery. Looking and acting inhuman, their mother morphs into a monster, becoming a shrill, abusive, wicked shadow of her former self, who seems to almost derive pleasure from punishing her children. As the film carries on, it appears more and more that the boys’ outlandish theory may actually hold some legitimacy.


DON’T LOOK BACK
Jeanne has always been known for writing excellent biographical novels about popular icons in society, but for her newest project, she decides to dive deep into the past of a much more mysterious subject: herself. Involved in a severe car crash at an early age, Jeanne has never been able to remember anything that happened to her before she was eight years old. Now, as she tries to dig into the roots of her childhood, all she finds are lies, deceit, and extreme alterations in her present day-to-day life. Jeanne discovers that in order to uncover the truth about her current affairs, she mustn’t shy away from the possibility that the accounts of her childhood will only bring her more pain. Director Marina de Van plays with perceptions and keeps the viewer off balance with small, subtle changes in the furniture, the pictures on the walls, and eventually, even people. Like the vision of someone stuck in a never-ending nightmare, this film evokes a unique sense of terror derived from a lack of stability in a world that’s evolving at a rapid rate, making the viewer feels just as crazed as the character within the story.


THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE
There are many haunting images from this film that leave a lasting impression and give this little horror flick a distinctive identity that differentiates it from similar entries during the ‘80s slasher craze. One scene in particular that stands out is the illustration of a girl cleaning up her own blood in an attempt to trick the man chasing her down the halls of her high school into believing that she has left the room that he’s currently ransacking. Spoiler: he finds her anyway. The idea that a person could escape her predator, run away, hide, and remain completely silent, but still be outed by the wound her pursuer inflicted upon her is so self-defeating that it is utterly petrifying and proves that when a maniac goes up against an unsuspecting individual, he’s probably going to win. Despite its solitary moments of terror, this film works on a comedic level as well, using self-aware humor and gender reversal to provide some much needed laughs in order to properly balance the frightful thought of a madman with a power drill on the loose who takes advantage of high school parties while the parens are away.


JENNIFER’S BODY
Needy’s always had to clean up Jennifer’s spontaneous, ill-advised mistakes, thrusting her into the “mom” role simply because she’s more responsible, but as of late, Jennifer’s newest misfortune has Needy assisting Jen with her biggest bundle of boy troubles yet – she can’t stop eating them. Needy may have spent her entire life in Jennifer’s shadow, as she stood back and watched her best friend reign as the most popular girl in school, but now that Jennifer has been reborn as a succubus, Needy suddenly finds herself in the spotlight, as the only person who can finally put an end to Jennifer’s massacre of teenage boys. Infused with the power of Hades to literally rip men apart before ravenously devouring them, it’s easy to point out metaphorically how Jennifer has become one of women’s feminist icons in the horror movie universe. However, this film is about much more than that. While some may witness this film at a surface level and dismiss it as nothing more than a bunch of campy one-liners, the truth is that Jennifer’s Body isn’t just directed (and written) by a woman, it’s made for women. By telling the story through the perspective of a girl who’s worried about the well being of her best friend, the film taps into the act of sisterhood, and takes a more effeminate approach to horror. In tackling the taking down of the demon through a familiar parasitic relationship that many women experience in high school, this story could completely remove the gore, and just be a tale of two lifelong friends calling it quits, long overdue. As Jennifer grows more powerful and influential, Needy’s light threatens to be eliminated for good, but that was true long before Jennifer became a she-devil from hell.


PET SEMATARY
While most horror films concern themselves with the notion of fighting for survival, this Stephen King adaptation stands apart from the pack with its urging of the acceptance of death. Touching, but terrifying, this film offers an exploration grief, and the lengths to which people mourning will go to absolve themselves of their woes. Stuck in the stage of bargaining, Louis Creed can’t bear the thought of living the rest of his life without his adorable son, Gage, who died on that awful, dangerous highway road by their home. Unable to let go, Louis buries his son in an ancient Indian burial ground, hoping to reanimate him. There’s only one problem: the soil’s turned sour. The toddler that digs his way out of his own grave and stumbles back to his father’s arm isn’t the innocent boy that chased a kite onto that road, because he came back wrong. He came back hungry for blood. Pet Sematary is a relatable achievement that plays on the fear of death and shows how the sorrow that comes with losing a loved one can radically alter a person’s morals, making the viewer ask themselves, if they had an option to bring back someone they lost, would they?


KISS OF THE DAMNED
In a present day love story between a female vampire, Djuna, and her human-recently-turned-eternal-boyfriend Paolo, director Xan Cassavetes, daughter of John Cassavetes, styles her first big foray into feature length horror with the confidence of a veteran with a specific vision. Her old-world presentation of nosferatus isn’t just prevalent in her romantic imagery, but also in her harking back to the insatiable lust that often accompanies the thirst for blood. An aspect of vampirism all too easily forgotten by the sexually-repressive, teen-driven undead craze of more conservative films like Twilight, Kiss of the Damned is a welcome retort in that it is a horror film made for adults. Refreshingly, this unapologetic depiction of creatures of the night revels in the baser human instincts that boil to the surface when the senses are exemplified in the mythological life after death.


THE COUNTESS
Known to many as “The Blood Countess” or “Countess Dracula”, Elizabeth Bathory is often painted pure evil; a ruthless tyrant and a bloodthirsty vampire. Based on the true story of the notorious Hungarian serial killer herself, who allegedly would bathe in the blood of virgins to remain youthful, The Countess is perhaps one of the most historically accurate depictions of the late ruler, while also managing to be one of the most sympathetic. Rumors abound when it comes to Bathory’s legacy, but this film focuses more on what led to her murders, rather than showing every single person she supposedly killed. In a world where peasants are treated as street trash, and men are only considered important when they end lives on the battlefield, Bathory was destined from the start to be of a cruller nature than most people living today. In fact, as this film shows, it wasn’t truly the murders that the men from opposing kingdoms cared about, it was only when they realized they could accuse her of witchcraft and steal her estate and her mighty army that they put her on trial for her crimes. Julie Delpy wrote, directed, and starred in this respectful approach to a fascinating story about a woman driven mad by love, vanity, and the curse of being born in an age when women were treated as property.


AMERICAN MARY
She went to med school to become a surgeon, but after her recent run-in with a bunch of lowlifes, Mary has decided to put her honed skills to other uses, and enters into the underground world body mortification. It may seem odd at first, but as Mary learns, this taboo ritual of bodily piercings and rearranging of body parts’ according to one’s pleasure is, when viewed objectively, no different than the ancient custom of a woman painting her face to be accepted in society. Twin filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska dive headfirst into this dark world, and paint a relatable picture for those who feel curious about the world of body alternations but are too timid to explore it for themselves.


HONEYMOON
Leigh Janiak’s directorial debut effectively draws on the fear of never really knowing who you’re married to, and the basis of an entire relationship radically changing once a couple takes their vows. Blissful newlyweds Bea and Paul are given such utter realism by the chemistry shared by actors Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway that when supernatural happenings start to go down, the strange occurrences are that much easier to accept, allowing the viewer to focus on the horrifying aspect of losing someone you love. By putting the strained relationship before the horror, this film is elevated to a level where the independent infrastructure is nearly invisible.


HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP
Slimy seamen that emerge bloated with water from the ocean’s depths are made all the more real by special effects guru Rob Bottin in this dark, sleazy slasher flick. Depraved, cruel, and grotesque, this Roger Corman production is like the offspring of Jaws, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Swamp Thing. Despite trouble behind the scenes between director Barbara Peters and B-movie wiz Corman, Peeters pulls off a memorable entry in the creature feature universe; one that doesn’t show mercy when dealing with the violence, or the victims that the wrath is bestowed upon.


IN THEIR SLEEP
This twisted little French thriller that mostly takes place in one evening is a merciless, gripping, stylistic master class in tension. The film uses the power of an unreliable narrator to create dramatic irony, and show what can happen when a person requires a sense of closure to move past a traumatic event. Graced by a woman’s touch, this dark tale plays on maternal instincts, and punishes the tendency to nurture, to heal, and to protect that comes so naturally to Sarah, the leading lady who recently lost a child. In her attempt to shield Arthur from harm, a boy she met while driving home one evening, Sarah exposes her vulnerability to a complete stranger, a decision that comes back to haunt her in a harsh and ferocious present day world, where giving people the benefit of the doubt more often leads to manipulation rather than gratitude.


SOULMATE
In this intimate depiction of a woman whose lost everything, Anna Walton stars as Audrey, the woman whose failed suicide attempt has led her to the outskirts of the country, where she begins the healing process in her rented out cabin. As the days ramble on, Audrey beings to experience sings of paranormal activity, leading her to bravely call out the ghost that occasionally makes himself known before disappearing into the fog. Director Axelle Carolyn has crafted a personal, moving, emotionally satisfying tale about letting go of one’s ghost, and taking pride in where you find your strength, even if it comes from the dead.


THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS
This mesmerizing love letter to Italian giallo films of the 1970s is a beautiful, fantastical journey of self-exploration disguised as a murder mystery. When Dan’s wife goes missing, he begins a search through the corridors of his otherworldly apartment building to find her, and as he enters and exits each individual’s complex, he stumbles into portals leading to other realms. Every door he encounters leads him one step closer to the truth, while at the same time, further distracting him from his mission through temptation and sexual torment. The kaleidoscope of images in this film are perfectly arranged and then rearranged; altered in circular motions to help add to the yonic imagery that exists throughout the film. From reels of film, to close ups of eyes, to round glasses, to holes in the walls, to patterns on the windows, the circular motif is very present in this aesthetically incendiary piece. There is some very romantic symbolism here, giving this bold look into the world of BDSM a very feminine perspective.


THE BABADOOK
A victim of circumstance, single mother Amelia lost her husband in a tragic car accident while she was on her way to the hospital to give birth to their son Samuel. Since then, Amelia has been unable to cope, and, deeply resenting her son, has provided little to no nurture to her boy, resulting in his odd behavior and random outbursts. Together, they drearily drag their feet through life, each secretly calling out for love, but both too tainted to ask for it. Suddenly, one day, the pair finds a book called “Mister Babadook” in their home. After reading the book out loud once, Amelia realizes this piece of literature is not suitable for her young son (or anyone), so she tries to get rid of it, but it keeps reappearing, pages taped back together, on her doorstep. Before long, the creature himself leaps from the pages, as Mr. Babadook begins creeping through Amelia’s home, sharply knocking on her walls and terrorizing her with wicked thoughts as he slowly possesses her over time. In one of the most terrifying and spellbinding accounts of melancholy told onscreen, writer/director Jennifer Kent displays an invigorating idea that grief can manifest as a monster that devours children whole, if the mother isn’t watchful of the hate-filled demon she’s becoming.


NEAR DARK
Before she became the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director, Kathryn Bigelow filmed Near Dark, a delightfully '90s, dystopian, southern gothic portrayal of the world, now infested with vampires. When Caleb Colton, a common, good-hearted young sparks a connection with Mae, the vampire girl, he finds himself the newest member of the family of a dangerous clan of bloodsuckers who demand that he kills humans, like them, in order to live forever. Caleb finds that despite his love for Mae, he’s not ready to let go of his humanity just yet. This sexy, scary look at a world where one has to sacrifice their morality in order to gain immortality shows that tampering with death’s plans always leads down a dark path, and in the attempt to postpone the inevitable decay, the soul withers away, while the body lives on.


RAVENOUS
In one of the few illustrations of wendigos on film, this flesh-eating tale of ancient folklore and imperialistic expansion provides some interesting subtext on mens’ innate desire to conquer. As the primal fury of the war breaks down and rebuilds men into conflict-driven animals, spilt blood becomes a common and necessary side effect of control. Typically, cannibalism in movies is used as nothing more than a scare tactic, but in Antonia Bird’s telling of two men in a showdown for power, the subjects let the evil within them consume them completely, and then turn on each other, literally devouring one another, as a final act of dominance and submission.


A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
A caped crusader patrolling the streets of Bad City under the cover of darkness, she floats aimlessly through the shadows with an ear to the ground, listening, waiting, for any sign of struggle that might require her aid. A terror to unfaithful and abusive men, and a frightening savior to women, the girl implements her own idea of justice in this run down town, filling the role of a dark avenger as she punishes whomever she deems worthy of the torment. She is detached, without emotion, a soldier tainted by battle and left cold and hollow. That is, until she meets Arash. A young, hardworking man trying to provide for his junkie father, Arash, too, feels dead inside until he runs into the girl. She seems somewhat damaged, but Arash figures everyone has their issues, and leaves it at that. Little does he know, accepting her as she is will mean including the fact that she drinks blood to stay alive. Ana Lily Amirpour draws outside the lines with this genre mashing vampire western romance noir horror story, which on top of everything else, manages to even conjure up a few laughs. It’s hard to believe that this is Amirpour’s first film, but it will be thrilling to watch her career from here on out.


AMERICAN PSYCHO
Often a startling revelation for people who weren’t aware that this movie was directed by a woman, Mary Harron’s impressive adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel is gory, sexually explicit, and poignant in its social commentary about materialism in the 1980s. When brand name clothing, automatic entry into five star restaurants, and business cards determine the importance of a person’s existence, and fitting in is the highest priority, Patrick Bateman kidnaps and kills with ease, as he floats freely by, unnoticed in a sea of wealthy sociopaths just as crazy as he. The idea of consumption eventually consuming the owners of the objects is still relatable to this day, thanks to Harron’s true understanding and honest portrayal of Bateman, and his deadly, yet dorky inner thoughts.


HONORABLE MENTIONS:
My Sucky Teen Romance
Chained
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare
Dead Hooker in a Trunk
Silent House (remake)
Carrie (remake)
Among Friends


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