Imagine a world where all filmmakers had the same backgrounds, outlooks, and experiences—how drab? Inclusion isn’t just about equality; it’s about the preservation and evolution of horror beyond repetitious formulas overdone into oblivion. Women’s History Month gives us a chance to highlight the barriers broken by female directors throughout the genre’s history, no matter how sparse—but that’s the issue. At this risk of sounding cliche, we shouldn’t need one month to single out the importance of allowing women the same opportunities, treatment, and safe spaces men are guaranteed day by day. In any case, let’s glance at a mere handful of female directors throughout horror’s chronology and the contributions that’d be lost if gendered biases continued to dominate Hollywood or independent circles (still mountains to move).
15. Pet Sematary (1989)
In the late 1980s, it was a big deal for a female director to be offered a studio property such as an adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Mary Lambert jumped from music videos to canonizing one of the most easy-to-recognize King adaptations through the art of graveyard reanimation. We all remember when we first saw Gage Creed slit Jud Crandall’s Achilles heel as one of the evilest lil’ toddlers, and that’s a testament to Lambert’s command behind the camera. Initial reviews skew toward negative thanks to critics calling the film “sickening” and “bland,” but horror-specific websites like Bloody Disgusting contest initial feedback with their own 4.5/5 praise. Studios didn’t seem that angry either; Lambert returned for a sequel in 1992.
14. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
It’s true that We Need To Talk About Kevin is often discussed because of Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller’s performances, but what about Lynne Ramsay’s direction? Furthermore, how can Ramsay only notch two directorial credits since 2010 when they’re as prolific as We Need To Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here? The former embraces unthinkable trauma, as a mother must “love her strange child, despite the increasingly dangerous things he says and does as he grows up.” Ramsay’s oversight is fearless and emotional stakes are as grave as events that eat away at your insides due to the foreshadowing, disturbing nature of Kevin’s actions. Chances are you’ve already caught wind of the film’s intentions, but I’ll remain vague. The importance here behind hiring a woman boils down to Swinton’s maternal instincts battling reason and having a director in Ramsay whose perspective can meet Swinton’s every performance question about a role that’s almost impossible to comprehend.
13. The Lure (2015)
There are few feature debuts more explosive and awe-inspired than Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure. This Polish Europop musical about cannibal mermaids who become nightclub superstars is the kind of originality that Hollywood pundits scribble about in their diaries. Soundtrack listings are all certifiable bops, while the narrative is both intoxicating and stylistically folkloric. It’s hard enough working with practical mermaid designs, but to layer lyrical narration atop through synthwave, punk, and dance hits? The Lure sparkles, dazzles, and reels audiences in like wide-eyed guppies unable to break the transfixing chorus of these feast-seeking siren superstars. It’s the only Criterion release I own, worth the price tag and treatment. Those who love both aquatic horror and genre-influenced musicals are in for quite the delight. How have you not taken the plunge by now?
12. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Karyn Kusama is no stranger to the horror genre, between The Invitation and the all-female directed horror anthology XX. Still, I highlight Jennifer’s Body since its release was less than ceremonious. At 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, negative reviews kept general audiences away from Jennifer’s Body, but within the genre, fans—predominantly female—praise its legacy, and especially its point of view. Megan Fox as a man-eater per Diablo Cody’s high-school-hip screenplay that, frankly, wasn’t geared toward the predominantly male and horror-averse critics that overcrowded Rotten Tomatoes back in the 2000s. A horror film about companionship that resonates with its intended audience is now vocally appreciated after so many anniversary reappraisals and online crusades in favor of the misunderstood Jennifer’s Body.
11. Near Dark (1987)
Kathryn Bigelow. Bill Paxton. Midwestern vampires. Near Dark gets to rawhide ramblin’ as vagabond bloodsuckers initiate a new member into their ranks. It’s a sultry, country-fried tale of undead drifters who get their kicks chewing through bar patrons once the sun goes down, and Bigelow sustains an efficiently hazy mood. From Jenny Wright to Lance Henriksen to Paxton, performances are memorable—but Bigelow’s directorial prowess is recognizable since Near Dark has survived the tests of time since its 1987 release. Horror fans are still wondering when Bigelow might bless their genre with another terror tale, and why shouldn’t she, since her first is still a highly regarded chapter in vampiric canon?
10. Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)
In the slasher genre, a trilogy directed by three separate female filmmakers is beyond an anomaly. Slumber Party Massacre II, helmed by Deborah Brock, manifests a young girl’s traumatic repressions as a rock ‘n roll slasher with a drill guitar. The greaser-rockabilly evildoer pierces his way through sleepover victims who advance the Slumber Party franchise’s weaponization of perspective in a time where the gaze was majority male. By handing the Slumber Party series to filmmakers like Brock, these films became a gendered satire of the same subgenre they excel at milking for entertainment value. Slumber Party Massacre II will forever be my favorite of the three, merging zany midnighter thrills with crowd-pleasing tunes.
9. Always Shine (2016)
Before Black Christmas, before Into The Dark’s “New Year, New You,” Sophia Takal burst onto the horror scene with the fame-seeking thriller Always Shine. Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald star as Los Angeles actresses on opposite sides of the success spectrum who vacation as a means of escaping professional toxicity—but only find more confrontation. Takal’s perspective empowers her female characters to chastise not only the gendered biases and mistreatment rampant in Hollywood, but also a cat-and-cat game that pits women against themselves in these manipulative, claws-out scathes. Scenes are defined by the ugliness in performances and shifty, insidious narrative of fake smiles and cruel betrayals. Don’t worry; it gets horrific without outright ghosts. Who needs spectral ghouls when humanity provides us with enough monsters?
8. Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
Issa López’s dark-as-night Mexican underworld fable Tigers Are Not Afraid is such a sensationally rich horror hybrid. Abandoned children face Mexico’s cartel infestation, including human traffickers and narcotics distributors amidst violence that steals mothers, fathers, and siblings. López follows a rag-tag crew much like Peter Pan’s “lost” companions who are trying to control their destiny amidst flames, graffiti that comes to life, and all the other creative flourishes meant as escapes from the nightmare that is reality. I adore that dreadfully moving, exuberantly heartbreaking showstopper, and trust you will as well.
7. Prevenge (2016)
Alice Lowe steps behind the camera for a debut that’s familiar in its slasher architecture but unique in its pregnancy themes. A mother, Ruth (Lowe), enacts a murderous rampage of revenge by killing those she blames for her partner’s death. Ruth’s a grief-stricken widow with a bun in the oven, and it’s that very fetal passenger in her protection that urges Ruth down a blood-soaked path. Kids these days are so demanding, and Lowe finds this intriguingly vicious method of horror storytelling that addresses prenatal paranoia in women, especially the helplessness of solo childbirth. Never at a detriment to brutalized genitals, gratuitous gore, and the kiss of a black widow exploring her trauma with a steel blade. Prevenge is a knockout first feature, horror or otherwise.
6. Culture Shock (2019)
To date, Into The Dark‘s top-of-the-list entry is Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Culture Shock. A Mexican immigrant chases America’s proverbial dream but falls victim to an uncaring nation that preys upon the impoverished, the underprivileged, and the different. Veteran actors like Creed Bratton and Barbara Crampton lead Marisol (Martha Higareda) into an idyllic fantasy of hot dog barbeques, patriotic color pallets, and an unexpected nightmare with a sci-fi abduction bend. Not only does Culture Shock champion a female filmmaker, but it also proves why cultural representation matters on screen as much as female perspectives behind the camera—especially from such a condemnation of bigotry that was released during Trump’s presidency.
5. The Love Witch (2016)
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is technicolor eroticism that mixes toil and trouble with 1970’s Victorian horror of the loosest definition. Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) seduces men with love potions that lead to deadly consequences, which complicates things when she meets the Prince Charming of her dreams. Female fantasies entangle with romantic narcissism that runs a bit long at two cinematic hours, but Biller’s vivid colorization is fashionably enchanting with the most salacious allure. Once again, the importance of female filmmakers telling female-centric stories becomes paramount as cinematic gazes appropriately consume lurid witchcraft with Cupid’s secret ingredients. It feels like an “I Dream Of” riff that’s both a crush-controlling romp and a questioning of “normal” relationship behaviors. In any case, a dashing feature from Biller that plays like an attractive time capsule sealed with a poison kiss.
4. Dearest Sister (2016)
It’s no coincidence that I’m celebrating a fair amount of international horror alongside female directors, since both are woeful minority statistics even in today’s horror genre. I highlight Mattie Do’s Dearest Sister not only because of Do’s representation behind the camera but due to its significance as a Laotian ghost story. As horror formulas recycle beyond recognition, originality will rely more and more on outsiders sharing foreign commonalities with audiences who are new to symbolism, or religious influences, or differing ideologies. Do’s chilling tale of a blind girl who can communicate with the dead calls her homeland’s classism and vast social imbalance into question while still speaking through the universal language of shivers shooting down spines. I don’t know how many times I can stress the importance of inviting all walks to life to horror’s table.
3. Most Beautiful Island (2017)
If I were double-billing Culture Shock with something female-directed and thematically comparable, Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island comes to mind. Asensio writes, directs, and stars as Luciana, an undocumented immigrant surviving in New York City however possible. Through a torturous private event where the rich exploit those with few monetary compensation options, Luciana finds the depravity of man sharpens its fangs to taunt via oppression, mercilessness, and cruelty. Those who are creepy-crawly averse prepare to cringe; independent cinema that’s horrific because of its unshakably plausible scenario.
2. Raw (2016)
Julia Ducournau’s coming-of-age cannibalism film Raw was rumored to have caused bouts of illness as part of Toronto International’s Midnight program in 2016. It has such presence, such attitude, as a veterinarian student played by Garance Marillier reconciles her cravings for human flesh. There’s a lustiness behind cinematography that unites the ecstasy of bodily explorations with internal changes that reflect Marillier’s evolving tastes. It’s all with purpose, tied to hereditary themes and bloody motifs synonymous with female experience, in a film that’s confident beyond its filmmaker’s experience.
1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)
Is it obvious to say Buffy The Vampire Slayer is one of those movies that needed female guidance? No doubt. That doesn’t mean—especially in 1992—Fran Rubel Kuzui had to be hired to oversee Kristy Swanson’s portrayal of the stake-driving cheerleader assassin. Kuzui allows Buffy to exist as a teenage girl battling demons both of high school experiences and bloodsucking varieties, but never through leeriness or pratfalls similar hottie-hero projects fall into when helmed by opposite gender filmmakers. That’s not to say men can’t direct projects about the female experience (Tyler MacIntyre’s Patchwork comes to mind), but more how when men do accept such challenges, there’s usually no question. It’s like David Ayer versus Cathy Yan directing Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. In this case, Kuzui nails the bubblegum-kickass vibe of Buffy The Vampire Slayer as an action-comedy that’s spunky, snappy, and in-tune with its teenage heroine.