Woman filmmakers are more common than you may think, but frustratingly few of them get the recognition they deserve. This imbalance is all too clear in horror, which has given us some of the most memorable and capable heroines in all of film, but for every Laurie Strode and Ellen Ripley that gets canonized by fans, how many women are behind the cameras that film them?
In order to bring more attention to women working in the genre, the Women in Horror Month initiative was born in 2009. This inclusive, intersectional, and international movement is more than just a showcase: yes, festivals and screenings get eyes on woman-directed work, but meet-ups, panel discussions, promotional publications, and more allow supporters the world over to bond and connect over the cause. Their site can be found here, their Twitter feed is here, and their Tumblr is here.
In order to celebrate Women in Horror Month, I’ve drafted a categorized list of horror films directed (and often written) by women that deserve your attention. These 28 films – one for each day in February – have been sorted into four categories: those with black magic, vampire and monster movies, psychological thrillers, and then good old fashioned slasher flicks. Whether you’re a video store veteran, someone new to the horror genre, or just someone interested in supporting films by women, let this list merely hint at how frightening the feminine can be.
Content Warning: I haven’t seen all the films I’m about to recommend (compiling this watchlist was for my own sake, too!), so while I’ll provide all the CWs I can, I can’t guarantee that they’re thorough. I’ve done as much research as I can to make sensitive readers feel safe while checking out new movies, but I doubt that I could catch every potential trigger just by trawling reviews. As usual, violence, death, and sex are considered implicit on this site, but those with nervous dispositions are warned to watch at their own risk. Please comment or contact me if you have any suggestions!
1. Pet Sematary (1989) dir. Mary Lambert.
Written: Stephen King.
Starring: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, and Denise Crosby.
CWs: Animal death, suicide, ableism.
Film adaptations of Stephen King’s books range from excellent to awful, but 1989’s Pet Sematary is one of his most iconic cinematic translations – maybe because he provided the screenplay himself. Mary Lambert directs this tale of desperation, grief, and a supernatural cemetery where “dead is better.” Lambert also helmed the 1992 sequel Pet Sematary 2, but to much less acclaim.
2. Mirror Mirror (1990) dir. Marina Sargenti
Written: Annette Cascone and Gina Cascone.
Starring: Rainbow Harvest, Karen Black, and Kristin Dattilo.
Megan Gordon (played by an actual real human being named Rainbow Harvest) is an average, ordinary goth girl that nobody understands. Fortunately, a haunted mirror in her new house understands her quite well, and it’s letting her take supernatural revenge on her tormentors. Sound like a fun time? Then Mirror Mirror (and its three sequels) may be for you!
3. Eve’s Bayou (1997) dir. Kasi Lemmons.
Written: Kasi Lemmons.
Starring: Jurnee Smollett, Meagan Good, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, and Samuel L. Jackson.
CWs: Incest, CSA.
Eve’s Bayou is the story of Eve (Jurnee Smollett), whose gift of “second sight” both aids and complicates her search for the truth in the wake of witnessing her father’s (Samuel L. Jackson) infidelity. This film, which takes place in a 1962 creole community in Louisiana, was a critical darling in 1997 and Kasi Lemmons’ directorial debut. She wrote the script as well, and its supernatural elements like clairvoyance and witchcraft turn an interesting story into a captivating one. Eve’s Bayou is highly recommended.
4. Jennifer’s Body (2009) dir. Karyn Kusama.
Written: Diablo Cody.
Starring: Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried.
CWs: Ableism, R slurs, cannibalism, emetophobia.
To say that Jennifer’s Body is polarizing in feminist circles is putting it mildly. The story centers on the high schooler Needy (Amanda Seyfried), whose best friend Jennifer (Megan Fox) gets turned into a bloodthirsty succubus by a haywire ritual. Some critics have expressed disappointment at its (literal) demonization of female sexuality and gnarled ideas about lesbianism, but others have called it a successful flip-of-the-script vis-à-vis traditional genre dynamics. Your mileage will certainly vary.
5. Carrie (2013) dir. Kimberly Peirce.
Written: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lawrence D. Cohen.
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, and Judy Greer.
CWs: Bullying, abuse.
Most film fans are more familiar with Brian de Palma’s 1973 take, but this remake from 2013 is not to be discounted. An update of the Stephen King’s story for a modern age, Chloë Grace Moretz (Carrie) and Julianne Moore (her mother) carry this film on their shoulders with fierce, stirring performances. Perhaps unfairly criticized in the height of remake-o-rama, Kimberly Pierce’s Carrie is very much worth a fresh look.
Various Fanged Fiends
6. The Velvet Vampire (1971) dir. Stephanie Rothman.
Written: Stephanie Rothman, Maurice Jules, and Charles S. Swartz.
Starring: Celeste Yarnall, Michael Blodgett, and Sherry Miles.
CWs: Abuse, rape, prolonged nudity.
The Velvet Vampire, like all good movies about vampires, is abundantly and flagrantly queer. In it, a vampiric seductress (Celeste Yarnall) weasels her way between the married couple Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan (Sherry Miles) after inviting them to her lonely desert estate. Our three stars spend a considerable amount of time nude, and the vampire Diane LeFanu ought to be an icon: what other vampire listens to the blues and kills rapists? [Streamable on Shudder]
7. Humanoids From the Deep (1980) dir. Barbara Peeters.
Written: William Martin.
Starring: Doug McClure, Ann Turkel, and Vic Morrow.
CWs: Animal death, rape.
Humanoids From the Deep is an extremely low-budget, Roger Corman-produced monster movie with six feet of ambition in two feet of ability. The monsters are long-armed, piranha-jawed fishmen and its (NSFW!) trailer promises “a battle for the survival of the fittest, where man is the endangered species and woman, the ultimate prize.” So, as is implied, be warned that the titular humanoids are out to (forcibly) mate with womanly prey.
8. The Being (1983) dir. Jackie Kong.
Written: Jackie Kong.
Starring: Martin Landau, José Ferrer, and Dorothy Malone.
Jackie Kong is a name that deserves to be much better known. She’s the featured image at the top of this article, and her schlocky cannibal slasher Blood Diner is one of the best. Here, though, we’re talking about The Being. In it, a heartland town in Idaho gets terrorized by a nuclear mutant – but won’t someone please think of the potato harvest!? Kong’s monster flick can be called “cheap,” “rushed,” “abysmally shot and edited,” “dark and muddy,” and “unpleasant,” but criticisms like those are a badge of honor in circles like ours. It’s a cheesy 80s monster movie! Besides, those snobby critics wouldn’t know “fun” if it burst out of an irradiated aquifer and attacked them. Bonus: it has Marin Landau in it! Academy Award winning actor Martin Landau! [Watch free on Youtube]
9. Near Dark (1987) dir. Kathryn Bigelow.
Written: Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red.
Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, and Bill Paxton.
Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 Academy Award for The Hurt Locker definitely makes her the most mainstream and recognizable name on this list, but before she was earning an Oscar, she was directing western road movies about vampires. It was only Bigelow’s second feature film as a director, but her raw talent and style is apparent even so early in her career. It’s so fortunate that such skill went to work on such a fun movie: featuring an awesome line-up of character actors, a novel take on the vampire mythos, and a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, even with Bigelow’s aptitude notwithstanding, Near Dark is one of the straight-up coolest films on this list.
10. Blood and Donuts (1995) dir. Holly Dale.
Written: Andrew Rai Berzins.
Starring: Gordon Currie, Justin Louis, Helene Clarkson, and Fiona Reid.
In this Canadian horror-comedy, a shy and benevolent vampire (Gordon Currie) wakes up after twenty-five years of sleep and readjusts to modern life by getting a cheap apartment near an all-night donut shop. He befriends a cab driver (Justin Louis) and falls for a waitress (Helene Clarkson), but as he becomes more involved in their personal lives, they’re drawn into his problems as well – like how his former lover from 1969 never stopped searching for him. My favorite vampire trope is when the undying blood-sucker doesn’t age with their loved ones, and I also love donuts, so I don’t know about you but it seems like this film was made for me.
11. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) dir. Ana Lily Amirpour.
Written: Ana Lily Amirpour.
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, and Marshall Manesh.
CWs: Drugs, abuse.
This Iranian vampire western was a smash hit when it first came out, and if you haven’t seen it already, now’s your chance. Centering on the seedy underbelly of the ghost town “Bad City,” A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a haunting, lonely journey of a very dangerous young woman. Its black-and-white aesthetic only adds to the moodiness, making it a stylish and suspenseful must-see. [Streamable on Netflix]
12. The Hitchhiker (1953) dir. Ida Lupino.
Written: Collier Young and Ida Lupino.
Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and William Talman.
The Hitchhiker is a terrifyingly taught thriller from Ida Lupino and the oldest film to be found on this list. In it, two friends (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on a fishing trip good-naturedly pick up a hitchhiker (William Talman) who turns out to be an escaped convict. No sooner have they brought him aboard is he barking orders and waving his gun, and the friends must think of a way to escape before they “outlive their usefulness.” It’s like a noir film in the desert, which seems paradoxical but it’s actually incredible. See it to believe it, but also see it because it’s great. [Watch free on Youtube]
13. Amer (2009) dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani.
Written: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani.
Starring: Cassandra Forêt, Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud, and Marie Bos.
CWs: Epilepsy, overstimulation.
A psychological giallo in three parts, Amer is the stunningly stylish full-length debut of the Belgian-French directing team of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. The two, who are married, have made a gorgeously visceral film that blends eroticism, paranoia, violence, and oddball arthouse editing. Amer is about the sexual development of Ana, who is played at different stages in her life by three actresses. Her oppression and awakening is a tough watch due to Cattet and Forzani’s, uh, intense filmmaking style, but it’s a jaw-dropping aesthetic experience all throughout.
14. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013) dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani.
Written: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani.
Starring: Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedena, and Joe Koener.
CWs: Epilepsy, overstimulation.
If you saw Amer and thought “that was cool, but what if it was just even more like that” then buckle up buddy, because Cattet and Forzani’s follow-up pulls no punches. Like a kaleidoscope of sex, mystery, and murder that’s been thrown in a tumble dryer, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is a film that will either make you feel captivated or like you’re being held hostage: either way, you will be stupefied. It’s an explosive and almost incomprehensible film and a gauntlet for all the senses, so I highly recommend watching its trailer to see if you can take its tone. If you can, then this film may be highly rewarding.
15. Goodnight Mommy (2014) dir. Veronika Franz and
Written: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala.
Starring: Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, and Lukas Schwarz.
CWs: Abuse, surgery.
Goodnight Mommy is another European thriller from another directing duo. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala tell the story of two twins (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) whose mother (Susanne Wuest) begins to act very strangely after receiving plastic surgery. Her face is wrapped entirely in bandages, with only her eyes and lips visible. As her behavior worsens and becomes outright monstrous, the two boys most find out what has truly happened to their mother.
16. The Babadook (2014) dir. Jennifer Kent
Written: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, and Hayley McElhinney.
If you haven’t seen The Babadook yet, you need to see it ASAP. A sensational sleeper hit from 2014, The Babadook’s eponymous spook is arguably the most iconic monster of the decade, and a strong contender for the scariest. The horror is all due to writer/director Jennifer Kent’s masterful pacing: the suspense of The Babadook will wring you out for all you’ve got, and it’ll be before you even see the thing. Furthermore, it’s a deeply riveting story of grief, trauma, motherhood, mental illness, addiction, and so much more, and this was Jennifer Kent’s feature-length debut! She’s has kept mum about future projects, but the success of The Babadook has fans on the edge of their seat for a follow-up. [Streamable on Netflix]
17. Honeymoon (2014) dir. Leigh Janiak.
Written: Leigh Janiak and Phil Graziadei
Starring: Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway, Ben Huber, and Hanna Brown.
CWs: Sex (lots of it), prolonged nudity, abuse, rape, body horror.
Honeymoon is a harrowing and deeply unnerving film. Newlyweds Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) decide to have their honeymoon in an old cabin in the Canadian countryside, but it’s disrupted by extremely bizarre events. One night, after disappearing from the cabin, Bea is found naked and disoriented in the middle of the woods, with no memory of how she got there, why she’s there, or what happened before she was found. A slow burn that plays on fears of identity and life after marriage, this gripping thriller was the feature-length directorial debut of its co-writer Leigh Janiak.
18. The Midnight Swim (2014) dir. Sarah Adina Smith.
Written: Sarah Adina Smith.
Starring: Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, and Aleksa Palladino.
CWs: Animal death.
A woman disappears one night after diving in Spirit Lake. When her three daughters come back home to handle her affairs, a strange mystery begins to unravel, and one of the daughters – an amateur documentarian – captures it all on her camera. Midnight Swim is a found footage film, but it feels much more subtle and full of slight not-quite-rightness than most other ones I’ve seen. It’s an engrossing, enigmatic drama about how we cope with loss, and also, there’s a really weird lake. [Streamable on Netflix]
19. The Invitation (2015) dir. Karyn Kusama.
Written: Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay.
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman and Emayatzy Corinealdi.
CWs: Animal death.
A tense and gripping thrill-ride about a darkly mysterious dinner party, The Invitation is a stunner that shocks, surprises, and scares. There’s nothing supernatural at play, just creeping suspicions and dubious intentions. The less I say, the better – just watch it. [Streamable on Netflix]
Blood, Guts, and Body Counts
20. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) dir. Amy Holden Jones.
Written: Rita Mae Brown and Amy Holden Jones.
Starring: Michelle Michaels, Robin Stille, Debra Deliso, and Michael Villella.
When the slasher film exploded in popularity in the early 80s, the market was flooded with a wave of imitators imitating other imitators imitating whatever lucky ones floated to the top. The only thing that really distinguished one film from another was the setting and whatever gimmicky weapon-of-choice was wielded by the killer. Then in 1982, The Slumber Party Massacre came along as the first explicitly feminist take on what was quickly becoming a genre accused of rampant misogyny. The story supposedly goes that author and feminist activist Rita Mae Brown wrote the script as a parody, but was played straight in production at the behest of its producers. Nevertheless, Amy Holden Jones’ direction keeps things scathingly satirical and over-the-top. It’s the story of a sleepover that gets attacked by an escaped convict carrying a power drill that’s as lethal as it is symbolically phallic. Very highly recommended.
21. Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) dir. Deborah Brock.
Written: Deborah Brock.
Starring: Crystal Bernard, Kimberly McArthur, Atanas Illitch.
The driller killer returns! A survivor of the original (Crystal Bernard) goes to a condo with some friends for a weekend of music and makin’ love. However, she’s plagued by nightmares where her sister begs her to stay chaste. These nightmares produce some kind of metaphysical murderer that targets the teenagers, and the weekend becomes a weird, rock ‘n’ roll fight for survival. The killer’s weapon of choice is an electric guitar with a drill on its head, and if that alone doesn’t sell you on this flick, I don’t know what else will.
22. Slumber Party Massacre III (1990) dir. Sally Mattison.
Written: Catherine Cryan.
Starring: Keely Christian, Brittain Frye, Brandi Burkett, and David Greenlee.
CWs: Homophobia, CSA, rape.
This is the final film in the woman-made Slumber Party Massacre trilogy, and it’s rife with overblown Valley Girl lingo and sunny beach vibes. That’s right, it’s the 90s! The drilling and killing continues, and there’s a surplus of low-budget cheese, but unfortunately, this film is the least innovative and the most problematic of the three. Its attitudes towards homosexuality are less-than-comforting and it lacks the deconstructionist airs of its predecessors. It’s disappointingly unambitious, but it would be remiss of me to not include the full trilogy on this list, so strong-willed fans of campy slashers might still be intrigued.
23. A Night to Dismember (1983) dir. Doris Wishman.
Written: Judith J. Kushner
Starring: Samantha Fox.
A Night to Dismember was directed by Doris Wishman when she was 71 years old, and it’s worth sharing that she reportedly once said, “After I die, I will be making movies in hell!” and I think that’s just incredible. The whole reason Wishman got into filmmaking in the first place was because in 1957, a New York Appeals court ruled that films containing nudity were legal to exhibit in the state. She started making sexsploitation and other nudie films immediately after the ruling at age 45 and gradually became the most active woman filmmaker (not just in the underground, but period) during the 60s and 70s – so remember, it’s never too late to follow your dreams! When Halloween came out in 1979, Wishman was inspired once again, this time to cash in on the slasher craze. The result is A Night to Dismember, which depicts a particularly gory night in a sleepy Midwest town as recounted by a police detective’s voiceover, but “depict” is a strong word. A Night to Dismember was plagued by a nightmarish production – wherein one disgruntled employee just destroyed half the footage partway through – and the result is a slipshod train wreck. It looks like a slasher movie that someone broke into a thousand pieces and tried to put back together with scotch tape, but that’s the reason why it and Wishman are so well-loved.
24. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) dir. Rachel Talalay.
Written: Michael de Luca.
Starring: Robert Englund, Lisa Zane, Shon Greenblatt, and Lezlie Deane.
CWs: Abuse, rape, CSA, incest, self-harm.
Rachel Talalay had a razor-clawed hand in every single one of the original Nightmare on Elm Street movies*, but it wasn’t until its sixth and final installment – Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare – that she finally got to sit in the director’s chair. After the disappointing fourth and fifth films sentenced the franchise to death, Talalay’s conclusion is a silly but satisfying entry with some of the most creative “nightmares” of all. There’s also a ton of oddball cameos, like Rosanne Barr, Alice Cooper, and even Johnny “Blood-Geyser Bed” Depp. If you love A Nightmare on Elm Street but haven’t seen or heard of the sequels, Freddy’s Dead comes recommended. It’s also nice for a woman to have had a leading position in such a high-profile franchise, if even it was just to see it out – but Talalay lays Freddy to rest with a bang. (*I count 1-6 as the “originals,” and New Nightmare and Freddy vs Jason exist in limbo between Freddy’s Dead and the 2010 remake)
25. Organ (1996) dir. Kei Fujiwara.
Written: Kei Fujiwara.
Starring: Kei Fujiwara and Kimihiko Hasegawa.
CW: Surgical horror (vivisection!), body horror, an absolutely incredible amount of gore.
Even in a world where Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992 a.k.a. Dead Alive), Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), and David Cronenberg’s entire filmography exist, Kei Fujiwara’s Organ may be the most disgusting film ever made. Not content to just maim and mutilate, Kei Fujiwara’s unflinching eye films the bursting of boils, the slicing of cysts, and various sores galore. Set against a surgical black market in Japan’s seedy underbelly, Organ is an double-barreled blast to the senses, but it’s also a masterpiece of body horror, but also, clearly not for everyone. Your ability to tolerate this film will depend on your ability to tolerate “ooze” in all of its abject forms.
26. Office Killer (1997) dir. Cindy Sherman.
Written: Cindy Sherman, Elise MacArthur, and Tom Kalin.
Starring: Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald, and Jeanne Tripplehorn.
CWs: Homophobia, incest, CSA.
A splendid throwback to late 90s technophobia and corporate paranoia, Office Killer is about a copywriter (Carol Kane) whose job is converted into an at-home position when her office downsizes. Suddenly very lonely and stuck full-time with her overbearing mother, it’s after accidentally killing one of her co-workers that she realizes murder is a very cathartic way to cope. Playing against the type she famously played in When a Stranger Calls (1972), the killer Carol Kane carries the film on her mousy shoulders and stands out like a light amidst the deliberately drab settings. Office Killer was the first film of co-writer/director Cindy Sherman, who is more widely known in art circles for her portrait photography.
27. American Psycho (2000) dir. Mary Harron.
Written: Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Harron, and Guinevere Turner.
Starring: Christian Bale, Reese Witherspoon, Chloë Sevigny, Justin Theroux, and Josh Lucas.
CWs: Ableism, cannibalism, sexism, racism, homophobia, animal death.
Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel has been a polarizing picture since its premiere. Depicting the heartless hedonism of yuppies through the story of blasé killer Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), its exuberant gore and excessive machismo is like a sick caricature of moneyed masculinity. Gratuitous and overabundant, Harron’s cup runneth over with a bitter flavor of cynicism that certain viewers may not be able to stomach. However, it’s considered one of the best horror films of the new millennium, and highly recommended for its sharp direction and strong performances (and did you know there’s a sequel starring Mila Kunis?).
28. XX (2017) dir. Roxanne Benjamin, Sofia Carrillo,
Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, and Jovanka Vuckovic.
Written: Roxanne Benjamin, Jack Ketchum, Jovanka Vuckovic.
XX is the much-anticipated woman-led anthology film slated for wide release on this coming February 17. Boasting an impressive list of experienced and eclectic directors (yes, that St. Vincent), it has already built a reputation for itself in the festival circuit and is poised to kick down the doors of the general public with its frightening feminine fury. If you really want to support women in horror who are working in the genre today, here’s your chance.
See you in theaters!