Pictured above: Director Wendy Toye
All month long TCM has been airing films made by women on Tuesday and Thursday night as part of their groundbreaking Trailblazing Women series hosted by Illeana Douglas. According to Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM, the goal of Trailblazing Women is to “Highlight the impact of female filmmakers throughout history and encourage future female filmmakers.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive and it’s heartening to see TCM’s resources used to educate, inform and inspire viewers.
I’ve been enjoying a lot of the Trailblazing Women programming myself but since we’re in the middle of Schocktober, I thought I’d set aside some time to highlight some of my favorite horror films and thrillers directed by women who have left their macabre mark on a genre that many mistakenly assume is not very female friendly. The truth is that horror cinema is one of the few genres where women filmmakers are making impressive inroads and their groundbreaking work is well worth seeking out this month or any month.
Suspense (dir. Lois Weber; 1913)
Suspense is a tension-filled time capsule about a mother and her newborn child terrorized by a weapon-wielding tramp who breaks into their home when her husband is at work. The woman’s frantic phone calls lead her husband to steal a car in an effort to reach home and save her from a would-be killer. Lois Weber (who also stars in the film) was a prolific and pioneering filmmaker in the silent era but many of her films have been lost. Thankfully, we still have access to Suspense and it’s a great showcase for the director’s skill. The film lives up to its title and relies on innovative filming techniques, including a split screen and high angle shots, to ratchet up the thrills. Horror films such as Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and Richard L. Bare’s Wicked, Wicked (1973) used similar techniques to thrill audiences 60 years later.
Meshes in the Afternoon (dir. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid; 1943)
In a lengthier appreciation of this groundbreaking experimental film that I wrote last year I focused on its horror themes writing, “Meshes in the Afternoon appears to take shape within the troubled mind of its doom-laden female protagonist. It’s propelled by dream logic without any familiar narrative structure but it contains elements and visual metaphors found in countless horror movies beginning with a locked door that leads viewers into a vacant house that seems alive with apparitions. The phone has mysteriously come off the hook and a record plays without assistance. Shadows take on a life of their own while faceless figures wearing dark robes roam the grounds. And throughout the film vacant mirrors as well as very large and unforgiving knives keep appearing at the most inappropriate times until the film ends with a surprisingly gruesome twist. This is the stuff of our shared nightmares and our darkest fantasies, which have been defining horror cinema for decades.” I stand by my assertions that the film has an important place in horror film history. You can find my further thoughts about Deren’s work here.
The Hitch-Hiker (dir. Ida Lupino; 1953)
This shocking thriller deals with the very real crimes of infamous spree killer Billy Cook, a lone hitchhiker who murdered six people and injured three others. Cook was finally brought to justice in Mexico after kidnapping two men by gunpoint and forcing them to take him across the border. The Hitch-Hiker reenacts Cook’s horrible crimes in a terse and terrifying manner with actor William Talman playing the cold, calculating killer. Lupino’s film is often rightly singled out as one of the first film noirs directed and written by a woman as well as one of the best in the genre but it contains plenty of suspense and horror-driven action to keep fright fans on the edge of their seats. It’s also a genre defining piece of work that probably inspired horror favorites such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hitcher (1986), which both include ill-advised ride-sharing decisions. The film was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 1998 due to its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.
Three Cases of Murder (Wendy Toye, David Eady & George More O’Ferrall; 1955)
The first part of this three-part British horror anthology is directed by Wendy Toye, one of Britain’s first female filmmakers. Her segment is titled ‘In the Picture’ and stars Alan Badel as a sinister “wraith-like character named ‘Mr. X’ who lives inside a painting hanging in a museum and lures others to join him there in a strange art-induced purgatory.” I originally reviewed the film for The Movie Morlocks back in 2012 and noted that Toye’s “Off-kilter framing choices and involving perspective shots make ‘In the Picture’ particularly effective and arguably the most compelling addition to the anthology.” Horror fans who appreciate the offbeat nature of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Night Gallery series for television should find Three Cases of Murder well worth their time. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Serling was inspired to create Night Gallery after seeing Toye’s film. And if you enjoy her work in Three Cases of Murder, I highly recommend seeking out her short film The Stranger Left No Card also starring Alan Badel. It lacks the creative camerawork found here but it shares a similar sensibility. For more on the film please see my previous write-up.
The Velvet Vampire (dir. Stephanie Rothman; 1971)
This low-budget horror film was written and directed by Roger Corman alumni, Stephanie Rothman. Rothman was reportedly inspired by European vampire films such as Daughters of Darkness (1971) and The Shiver of the Vampires (1971) to create her own erotic horror tale involving an attractive female vampire who lures an unsuspecting couple to her sun-drenched lair and proceeds to seduce them both. What sets the The Velvet Vampire apart, besides its unusual and picturesque setting in the Mojave Desert, is Rothman’s exceptional photography and scene composition that’s especially notable in dream-like sequences that give the film a heightened sense of unreality. Rothman produced and directed a number of other low-budget movies before retiring that should appeal to horror fans, particularly Queen of Blood (1966) and Blood Bath (1966), but The Velvet Vampire is arguably her most provocative and personal film.
Messiah of Evil (dir. By Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck; 1973)
This visually arresting horror film involves a young woman who visits a small beach side artist colony in search of her father who has mysteriously vanished. She finds more than she bargained for while looking for possible clues about his disappearance hidden in the arcane journals he left behind. Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s uncanny brand of fiction while borrowing elements from various vampire and zombie films, Messiah of Evil rejects conventional storytelling techniques in favor of surrealism creating an unsettling atmosphere of dread and inaudible chaos. Today Gloria Katz, who is married to co-director Willard Huyuck, is often recognized for her screenwriting accomplishments which include American Graffiti (1979) and Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom (1984) but Messiah of Evil displays her distinctive directing talents.
The Mafu Cage (dir. Karen Arthur; 1979)
The Mafu Cage was based on a French play by Éric Westphal but it shares much in common with the Oscar-winning horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The film stars Lee Grant and Carol Kane as two deeply troubled sisters living in a somewhat secluded mansion hidden in the Hollywood hills. Their fictional father was once a great white hunter and anthropologist who built a life for his family in Africa but after he and his wife died, their children were forced to return to the United States. The youngest daughter (Kane) is clearly unhinged and is not adapting to life in America very well and the eldest (Grant) insists on caring for her although the situation is rapidly disintegrating. The film’s uncomfortable portrayal of incest, displays of animal cruelty and its use of African culture to frame a white woman’s decent into madness seem particularly shocking today. But the film is designed to provoke strong reactions and it retains the uncanny ability to creep into your subconscious and settle into the darkest recesses of your imagination. The Mafu Cage impressed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 and was nominated for a Saturn award. Karen Arthur has continued to work in television for many years and directed a number of made-for-TV movies including the controversial Rape of Richard Beck (1985), which was one of the first films that dealt directly with male on male rape.
Near Dark (dir. Kathryn Bigelow; 1987)
Director Kathryn Bigelow is recognized today for her Oscar-winning war drama The Hurt Locker (airing on TCM October 29th) but I think her best film is Near Dark. This modern take on age-old vampire myths features a number of notable action stars from the 1980s (Lance Henricksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein) who are part of an unconventional family of ass-kicking vampires. They bite, chomp, growl, claw and stomp their way through this highly entertaining and relentlessly bloody film that was nominated for a Saturn award and a Silver Raven at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival. Near Dark is a good-looking movie that still feels surprisingly contemporary and has much in common with classic westerns. The explosive action sequences along with the camaraderie shared among vampires and overriding suspense in the face of extreme danger allude to Bigelow’s future fixation on war films.
Pet Sematary (dir. Mary Lambert; 1989)
Film adaptations of Stephen King novels ran rampant in the 1980s and one of the best of the bunch was this sensitive and smart retelling of King’s 1983 shocker Pet Sematary directed by Mary Lambert. Lambert was able to accentuate the human element in King’s gruesome story about a cemetery that enables the dead who are buried there to return to life without sacrificing any of the scares that audiences expected. The movie was a box office hit and earned Lambert numerous award nominations but the theme song, written by the popular punk band The Ramones, almost took home a Razzie for worst original song of the year. Despite this, Pet Sematary developed a strong cult following and Lambert followed it with a sequel in 1992 that was less successful than its predecessor. Since then she has directed a number of horror related TV projects and currently has two films in development that will hopefully see the light of day soon.
Ravenous (dir. Antonia Bird; 1999)
Horror comedies don’t get much darker or more bone chilling than Antonia Bird’s Ravenous. This interesting tale about cannibalism takes place during the Mexican-American war in 1847 and focuses on a group of eccentric soldiers at a remote fort in the Sierra Foothills who are facing a particularly cold winter. Inspired by historic events, including the flesh-eating families that belonged to the infamous Donner Party, Ravenous is one of the few films that approach the subject of cannibalism with a creative vision and thoughtful observation. Bird, much like Sam Raimi, had the rare ability to generate real fear amid blacker-than-black humor. She also managed to create a genuine sense of place and an authentic atmosphere in harsh environmental conditions even though her film was actually shot in Slovakia instead of the Sierras. It’s a shame that the British director only had the opportunity to make one horror film before her death in 2013 after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
I limited my selection to 10 films made between 1913-1999 due to time constraints but in the last 15 years women have continued to direct a small but growing number of horror films and thrillers in and outside of the US.
Some of the best, most creative and thought-provoking horror films directed by women often refuse to adhere to narrow genre restrictions including Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Innocence (2004—My further thoughts about the film are available at Cinebeats), Faye Jackson’s Strigoi (2009—Read my further thoughts about the film here), Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013—Read my further thoughts here) and Jennifer Kent‘s Babadook (2014—Read my further thoughts here).
Other directors may play by somewhat more conventional rules but the results can still be interesting such as Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), Kerry Anne Mullaney’s The Dead Outside (2008), Jen Soska & Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (2012) and Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (2014). I’m especially encouraged by female directors who return to the genre repeatedly to deliver exceptional work.
One female director I’m particularly keen about is the award-winning French filmmaker Marina de Van. Her first film was the unsettling feminist body horror shocker In My Skin (2009), which was followed by a similarly themed thriller Don’t Look Back (2009). Her latest project is Dark Touch (2013), a moody, somber and aggressive horror film about a troubled young girl who manifests deadly telekinetic powers. The story is smartly set in Ireland, a country with a disturbing history of government and church sanctioned child abuse, and implies that similar tortures have impacted the film’s young female protagonist. While the influence of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) is undeniable, Dark Touch manages to breath new life into a similar premise and Marina de Van’s direction gives this film a distinct look and feel. I don’t know what she has planned next but I look forward to seeing her future work.
I also want to single out Jennifer Chambers Lynch who has been making more interesting movies than her highly respected father (David Lynch) in recent years. Following the ill-received Boxing Helena (1998), Lynch directed two powerful thrillers, Surveillance (2008) and Chained (2012), as well as a Hindi monster movie about a snake woman titled Hisss (2010) that I haven’t had a chance to see yet. Besides making movies, Lynch has also directed a number of horror related TV shows including episodes of the hugely popular Walking Dead series. Her latest project is another thriller titled A Fall from Grace, which features her father in a starring role. Lynch both wrote and directed the film and it’s expected to see a release before the year is over.
I hope this will encourage readers to seek out and watch some horror films made by women this month and if you have any other recommendations for female directed horror movies, please feel free to share them in the comments below.