Cinematic horror for most its history has been a story almost exclusively told by men. After minuscule progress from 1980 to 2010, the door has opened and a stream of great women directors has been arriving on the horror scene. Partly due to social change, partly due to networking and contacts, but this movement is mostly due to pure talent and merit. These ladies are very good at what they do. And with each success story, another door opens. Here are terrific 30 distaff directors you should know about.
We at the Scariest Things have been wanting to do some director profiles on the air. We would feature a chronology of the director’s greatest films, and rank them. When trying to find a woman horror director, it became frighteningly difficult to find one who had done more than three genre features. There is a wave coming of very talented female directors who have released a horror feature in recent years and after this past season of streaming horror film festivals it became clear that there is a movement brewing, with a number of women coming up the ranks in the independent horror circuit.
And really, it’s about time.
I just finished listening to Mallory O’Meara’s wonderful biography of Milicent Patrick, The Lady from the Black Lagoon, that chronicled the pioneering efforts of Patrick, the creature design for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was an enlightening read, and O’Meara lamented the lack of women in prominent roles behind the camera in movies. Milicent was a high-level influencer of the silver age of movies but never got the proper credit, due to the jealousy of her boss, BudWestmore. Who knows what Hollywould be like if women like her had been given their proper due. Alas, in the 65 years since Creature the progress for women behind the scenes has been very… very… slow.
I decided to follow up O’Meara’s lead and look at how the data is trending.
The good news? The percentages are steadily improving.
The bad news? The raw data still shows a huge gender gap.
The encouraging news? Independent film and film festivals are making a pretty big dent in the gender gap. And, since this is where a lot of great horror movies live, the genre can help lead the way.
According to Women in Hollywood Statistics the % of female directors in the top 250 Grossing films by year:
- 2015: 5%
- 2016: 7%
- 2017: 8%
- 2018: 8% (Used the same data as 2017)
- 2019: 13% (Improvement! But that ratio is still lousy.)
For Independent Film Festivals in 2020: 38%
I think this proves that Hollywood kinda sucks.
But, back to the good part of this analysis. The Independent film festival is an engine that has been supporting the creation of female directing stars. The Scariest Things has been going back through our Podcast history and are converting a number of our episodes into Dead Lists, and I realize that we had done Podcast Episode 88 back in February, and some of this may ring familiar, but I felt that this was an important list to get out, and to make it an expanded list to 30, because I believe it is the responsibility of sites like ours to remind readers of what the coming trends are.
Why is horror helping lead the charge? At first glance, it would seem an odd genre to carry a feminist torch, given all the victimization and misogyny in the history of the type. But, remember that horror has always rewarded risk-takers. It’s a low entry cost with potentially big payoffs, where you can experiment with your style and voice, and since you can do it inexpensively and still get recognized through the festival circuit, it can become hugely rewarding. And, to cite Mallory O’Meara, horror is important for women, because horror is inflicted upon women, and it is from this perspective that the depths of scary can be plumbed.
So, enough musings… on with the list!
First, let’s take a look at the exceptional directors who had to swim against the tidal wave current of Hollywood’s old boys club. The women who had the burden of carrying the torch before Hollywood even pretended to care about this. These women helmed some of the most important films in the genre, and movies you are almost certainly familiar with. As a timestamp, I’m considering all directors who began their careers prior to 2000 as pioneers, which is rather sad if you stop and think about it. Notable is that even these groundbreaking women have struggled to maintain a foothold in feature film directing. Of these directors, probably only Bigelow and Denis can call their own shots. What many of them do have is extensive work in television, which now becomes very interesting as premium TV programming for shows on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, and AMC are becoming huge genre drivers, particularly given our stay-at-home COVID realities. Certainly, in 2020, it is excellent job security to be a TV director!
Here they are, alphabetically:
Even though this list is alphabetical, it just so happens we start with the best and most accomplished director in the whole list. Bigelow, if you were not aware is the ONLY woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. Her debut feature, Near Dark, is a Western vampire film with many fan favorite actors from Aliens: Bill Paxton, Jeanette Goldstein, and Lance Henriksen, and the result was a bloody and compelling vampire take in a period when vampire flicks were few and far between. Her take on the vampire film was to go gritty and trashy, with the family of vampires on the move in a mobile home, preying on human snacks along Route 66. Bigelow’s skill at action sequences and tension building is in full evidence here. Bigelow, for the most part, has developed a reputation as a go-to Hollywood director for intense action-dramas including Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit, and her Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker.
Antonia’s horror genre achievement is singular, but it’s a doozie! Ravenous is a riveting and unique Donner Party like tale of cannibalism, betrayal, and redemption with a stellar cast. Her background is in dramas and police procedurals, but when the first director Milcho Manchevski was fired from the job, Robert Carlyle, one of the stars of the films reached out to Bird to take the job, and it was magical. The film is an underseen gem, with a terrific cast, sweeping landscapes (as any good Western should have), some wry humor, and glorious gory cannibal bits. Bird only directed four feature films, and Ravenous would be her last. She returned to her comfort zone of romantic comedies and cop procedural dramas, but she proved her horror chops with Ravenous.
In Claire Denis, we have a hugely accomplished director, and she just so happens to have made a couple of genre pictures. And this makes her rather unique amongst this group. This French visionary Her impressive resume starts with the Palme d’Or nominated Chocolat (1988), and continues on with Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, White Material, Let the Sunshine In, winning 10 International directing awards among her 35 credits.
One of them happens to be Trouble Every Day, a tale of a married American man who travels to Paris to see a woman whom he has been obsessing over for many years. It just so happens that this woman has a penchant for seducing men and then killing and eating them. You know, normal stuff. The movie hits hard, and its red flags have red flags. Denis recently directed her first English film, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliet Binoche, High Life, in which a group of prisoners are sent to run some experiments near a black hole. Murder, rape, suicide, mad science experiments, and miscarriages ensue. Rough stuff, but Denis pull it off as most all of her films have a Metacritic score of 70 or better.
Mary Harron started out as a punk rock journalist in the ’70s and parlayed that experience into making her first feature film I Shot Andy Warhol. That success led to getting directorial opportunities on hard-hitting crime dramas like OZ, and Homicide: Life on the Street, and that in turn led to her career highlight and biggest box office success with the Christian Bale starring American Psycho. The film was not without controversy, however, as protests about the violence in the film buzzed about during its release. Her use of the victim’s first-person perspective was a signature Harron move that heightened the tension and the thrill. Harron’s still has a thriving directing career, inter-mixing feature films with her steady flow of TV opportunities. She returned to horror, having helmed several of the Mick Garris produced horror TV show Fear Itself.
Many people would be surprised that the apparently misogynistic film Slumber Party Massacre was directed by a woman. One of the major tropes of horror films, and slasher films in general, is the victimization of women by tool-wielding maniacs. The whole premise of the final girl is built upon this framework.
Jones had been working as a Hollywood editor and turned down the chance to edit E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) in order to direct a feature film with a curiously feminist take on the slasher film. As a result, a cult classic was born, but you wouldn’t know it from the VHS box cover. Come for the boobs, stay for the female empowerment! For those interested in this saga, check out Willow Catelyn Maclay’s article “Lined Lips and Spiked Bats: Amy Holden Jones and the Women of The Slumber Party Massacre.” Eventually, Jones only directed four films, but found great success as a writer in Hollywood, with credits including Beethoven, Mystic Pizza, Indecent Proposal, and for horror fans… The Relic (Love it!)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Kuzui’s career has mostly been involved as a producer and distributor of films rather than behind the camera lens. But, she did stumble across a screenplay from Joss Whedon, and the rest is pop culture history. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a minor success, but the flagship series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar is a genre icon television show. Kuzui is given credit for the show, but it is largely for her role in producing and directing the movie.
Mary Lambert was a hugely successful director of music videos in the 1980s, and for those of us who grew up in the ’80s, that meant you were a visionary messenger with a huge audience. She did videos for Madonna, The Go Go’s, Sheila E, Eurythmics, Janet Jackson, and Sting. You might say she knew her way with success. When she was given her first feature film, she got one of Stephen King’s most beloved books, Pet Semetary, and she did the book proud. It is one of Mike Campbell’s top 5 horror films of all time, and how can you argue with a Scariest Things endorsement like that? Surprisingly, given the success with Pet Semetary, she never got to do a feature film again of that magnitude, which speaks more to the patriarchy of Hollywood, than the skill of the director. Lambert did get a number of straight to video low budget horror films and continued with her music videos.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
As noted, women directors are something of a rare breed. Black women directors is an even smaller pool. And when it comes to women directors who do horror, and you have a very narrow pool of candidates, but with Kasi Lemmons, you get a great one, regardless of race or gender. Eve’s Bayou, one of Liz’s favorite films, is saturated in Louisana swampy mystery and ushered in the arrival of a very young Jurnee Smollett, who has gone on to be a featured player in Lovecraft Country and Birds of Prey, among other major studio projects. Yes, this is a thriller/drama that will straddle the horror or not line, but when murder and magic collide, we’ll embrace this as a genre piece. Lemmons recently directed the Oscar-nominated biopic, Harriet. We would love to see her come back to the shadowy side of the cinema.
She’s the O.G. of women genre directors. True, to call her a horror director might be a stretch, but an argument could be made for her horror adjacent thriller-noir pictures of the 1950s. And, you have to start somewhere, and Lupino is the strongest and probably only candidate available. Lupino was a Warner Brothers Studio actress in the 1930s and 40s, but when she hit the curse of the middle-age actress (in her… GASP… 30’s!) she switched gears to writing and directing inexpensive crime noir films. Foreshadowing what many of the women directors that would follow her, she had a long and productive career in Television directing shows like Bewitched, The Fugitive, The Untouchables, and Thriller.
Sometimes it pays off to be a production assistant on a horror franchise. Rachel Talalay was a production manager on A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (1985). She got producer credit for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988). It finally was her turn when it came to Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, where she got to write and direct this sequel, and who would know the blocks on Elm Street as well as her? While it wasn’t anything great, it did launch her career that has been prolific to this day, with numerous TV directing credits including stints on Ally McBeal, Doctor Who, Sherlock, The Flash, and Supergirl among her many credits.
OK! Here is where it gets interesting. Most of these women are young, under 40. Many of them have great film mentors backing them up. And most of them only have a couple of movies under their belts. So beware the dreaded sophomore jinx! However, each of them shows real skill directing, and are positioning themselves ready to become significant players in the next decade. You may notice that these directors hail from a wide range of backgrounds and countries. It’s not just an American thing.
At least six films by these women would make my best of the decade list, and probably three would make my top 25 horror movies of all time (Stay tuned, we’ll be revisiting the Top 100 list next year). I think my biggest question is how many of them will stay within the genre, like Cronenberg, Craven, or Hooper? I can pretty much guarantee that the Soska Sisters will be!
Amirpour’s landmark film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night managed to turn the self proclaimed “First Iranian Vampire Western” into a cult hit, full of visual black-and-white splendor and featuring a sympathetic young vampire in a hijab. No easy feat, that. That film rates an astounding 81 on Metacritic. She has managed to infuse her Persian background with her San Joaquin Valley upbringing to create works that are wholly unique. Her modern noir style is striking, and you feel like you could take a still picture from any moment of her films and frame them. Amirpour has managed to spin that success into a big budget remake of the Stallone film Cliffhanger, which is currently in pre-production.
Blood Runs Down [Short] (2018)
This is a personal pick and will be a stranger to most horror fans. Zandashé Brown has yet to make a feature film, but her short film Blood Runs Down was my favorite short film at the 2018 Overlook festival. She tapped into the essence of Bayou mysticism. It is wrapped in the fear New Orleans natives have for hurricanes and a black magic curse that gets passed down from mother to daughter. Her film is saturated in poetry and atmosphere. A spooky and melancholy debut, she deserves a shot at a feature film.
Her mermaid tale Blue My Mind is a seminal coming of age tale, and spins the tale of transmogrification of an Austrian teenager into a mermaid as a painful puberty passage metaphor. The film feels entirely personal, and leading young lady, Luna Wedler (Mia), delivers to us a complex and difficult protagonist, keeping the film from taking the easy way out. It is coldly brilliant, and would make a terrific triple feature with Raw and Jumbo, which will appear later in this list. Brühlmann has been recognized as a director of considerable talent, having gotten the chance to direct for Killing Eve, Castle Rock, and Servant on Television.
Head Count (2018)
Callahan has a bit of Hitchcock in her arsenal. She wrote and directed her debut film Head Count, which featured a clever and complex puzzle plot, which is just a step ahead of the audience. When the reveals arrive, you feel like you are still participating in the mystery, but you just can’t quite anticipate what is coming next, which is exactly how it should be. When you do catch up with the plot, it is highly satisfying. It should come as little surprise that she is able to execute a film like this, having experience in multiple roles, as an editorial assistant (For Wonder Woman and Krampus), as a visual effects production assistant (Ant-Man, Avengers Ultron), and as a sound editor for a number of TV shows. She’s so young, and yet has a fabulous wealth of industry training. Stay tuned for her next film Witch Hunt which is currently in post-production.
Axelle Carolyn has taken an unusual route to the director’s chair. She started as a print journalist, who through her connections (and striking beauty) got her into some horror films as an actress. But there is no doubt as to her claim as a horror expert as her seminal written work is It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millennium, making her both a chronicler and a participant in this New Golden Age of Horror. She is a regular on panels and documentaries that need a horror historian who has seen the genre from multiple viewpoints.
Hand picked by producer and man-of-the-moment Jordan Peele to take on one of the iconic monsters of Hollywood after only one film under her belt, DaCosta has some big expectations going forward. The trailer for Candyman looks like a worthy reboot, and could well improve upon the original, as this time it comes from a black viewpoint. Apparently the studios believe in that film, as she has been given the reins of the Marvel franchise Captain Marvel 2. DaCosta is on a rare trajectory and if it reaches its expected conclusion, she could be one for the ages.
Longtime listeners to our podcast will know the affinity I have for Raw. I consider it to be one of the master works of the past decade. The brazen coming of age film by way of cannibalism is one of the most compelling and revolting films at the same time and in equal measure. Ducournau infused the characters with so much soul and nuance, that it enhanced rather than was overcome by the grotesqueness of the proceedings. Still, like many of these rising stars, we will see if she can duplicate her success. Julia’s next film, Titane, is still in pre-production.
At first glance, Revenge looks to be a pure exploitation film. But in the hands of Coralie Fargeat, who also wrote this film, and featuring a brave performance by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz (Jen), this rape revenge film is charged with empowerment. With better performances, and a tighter script, this film puts works like I Spit on Your Grave to shame. It has maintained a stunning 81 Metascore, which is unheard of for a film of this type. That’s not to say the rape and attempted murder are not bone chillingly awful to watch (they are), but the grit and confidence of Jen, bolstered by an equally assured direction and stunning cinematography, this film elevates the final girl to something quite triumphant. And Revenge never quite felt so good. Currently nothing is shown to be in the works for Fargeat, but we at the Scariest Things can’t wait to see what’s next.
In one of the more unique directing duos in filmmaking, the Austrian pairing of Veronika Franz and her nephew Severin Fiala have teamed to make some of the most thrilling and intelligent horror films of the last decade. They have an innate sense of how the trust within families operate, and how to tear at those fibers of that trust to make for gripping and brutal psychological stories. They have also mastered the art of secrecy in their movies, allowing the dread to build, and allowing your mind to try and piece together the mysteries without ever losing the audience.
Brea Grant has become something of a Renaissance woman of horror. She has done a little bit of everything there is to do in film. She arrived in Hollywood an in-demand starlet on the hit TV show Heroes, and parlayed that work into recurring roles for Friday Night Lights, Dexter, and other TV programs. At the same time, she picked up some key roles in low-budget horror, notably the Rob Zombie reboot of Halloween II, Trance, and Detour. Grant has moved from in front of the lens, to behind it, and she just released her directorial feature 12 Hour Shift starring Angela Bettis (May) about an overzealous organ harvesting nurse. Ewww! This comes hot off the heels of another project, as she both wrote and starred in the recently released semi-autobiographical stalker-slasher thriller Lucky, which has performed well on the festival circuit and was directed by another emerging female director, Natasha Kermani. And, if that weren’t enough, she’s written a graphic novel for kids, about Mary Shelly, titled Mary. I suspect her new career turn may end up more impactful than her first act.
In 2015 a subtle piece of nightmare fuel with the innocuous title Honeymoon was released. This movie flipped the script from the usual “I think my husband is a monster” to the distaff side. Fans of Game Of Thrones actress Rose Leslie will want to see her morph from a loving fiancee to something rather ominous, but she takes her time, and you wonder if this is something psychological or completely… alien. Janiak, like many of her female peers has made her mark since in television, taking her horror directing chops to Outcast and Scream: The TV Series. But her biggest break to date is the treatment of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street, which will debut in 2021 as part of a 3 part film heading to Netflix.
Arguably the greatest horror film to be directed by a woman is Australian Jennifer Kent‘s The Babadook, which will certainly stand as one of the high-water horror marks of the decade. This movie is emblematic of the success of the independent horror film, as it paved the way for hard, intense, psychological supernatural films like Hereditary and The Lodge to get made. Kent had apprenticed under notorious art-house shock director Lars Von Trier, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that her debut film was such a powerful piece. Her follow-up period drama/adventure film The Nightengale, while not being a horror film, affirmed her skills and proved that The Babadook wasn’t a fluke.
Karyn Kusama is not really one of the up-and comers on this list, as she already has cemented a reputation with a string of impressive titles, many of which are favorites amongst the Scariest Things team. She’s made it. She has gotten the opportunity to work with A-list stars like Nicole Kidman (Destroyer) and to direct for some of the premium shows on genre TV (Halt and Catch Fire, The Man in the High Castle). Her work with Jennifer’s Body turned what could have been cheesy exploitation and turned it into a film that even the late, great Roger Ebert raved about.
Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
Issa López knows how to spin magic. Tigers are Not Afraid is an absolute sensation, and it turned a gritty Dickensian dystopian slum in Mexico City into a fantasy playground. Not to be underestimated is that she got absolutely stunning acting performances from an almost entirely child cast, and boy did they deliver. Orphans who run afoul of a deadly drug cartel, and the ghost of the ghetto, plus… a tiger… all meld together into what might the best Mexican genre film since Chronos. Guillermo Del Toro is quite a fan of López, as you might imagine. Lopez is helping Guillermo and Alejandro González Iñárritu in establishing Mexican Cinema as the hottest thing going right now.
And here are your bad girls of horror cinema! Rebellious and audacious, the Soska Sisters Jen and Sylvia bring a vibrant bit of anarchy to their films. These young women are not afraid to make you squirm, and they load up their films with gore, brutal violence, and bizarre sexual fetishes. Their sophomore effort, American Mary took the horror festival circuit by storm, with the bloody surgery-alteration-revenge plot starring fan-favorite Katherine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) as dominatrix/chop shop doc. And, if you ever wanted to see some freaky and disturbing LIVE hentai action, check out their ABC’s of Death segment T is for Torture Porn. The Soska Sisters live in the same genre space as Eli Roth, and you can expect their films to be similarly controversial and irresistable.
Stardust was a longtime assistant to Jason Blum, and was able to build upon her experience with him, and utilized all her industry connections to put together one of the great festival hits of 2019, Satanic Panic. The confident direction brought out great performances from both her veteran acting stars and the younger starlets that got their big breaks in the film. Being that this is a FANGORIA production, Stardust proved she learned a thing or two about practical gore effects, and importantly HOW to use these moments. It helped that she had the clever Grady Hendrix as her scribe, and she utilized the darkly comic script and coaxed some truly funny moments out of it. Expect to see Chelsea around for many years, as she has managed to thread the needle of fun and frightening perfectly.
In one of the more unusual backgrounds on this list, Emma Tammi started out as a documentary producer and director, with Fair Chase (2014) and Election Day: Lens Across America (2017) standing out as her directorial efforts. She learned under directors Robert Altman and Mel Brooks (a more divergent pair of directors is hard to imagine!). None of that suggested that Tammi would be a horror auteur, but she hit the nail on the head with her feature debut The Wind. Tammi took full advantage of the lonesome landscape of the rural west. presenting the loneliness and the isolation of the wind-swept life in the 19th Century prairie. It’s a bleak and somber psychological horror period piece, and her style is reminiscent of Robert Egger’s naturalistic and austerely beautiful dramas. For a movie with so little dialogue (the protagonist was alone for a good portion of the movie), Tammi was able to unfold the narrative with a strong visual flair in lieu of almost any exposition. Given her broad background, it will be interesting to see what she does next.
Canadian Jovanka Vuckovic was the influential editor-in-chief at Rue Morgue Magazine for six and a half years and had been twice-named one of the most influential women in horror, alongside Kathryn Bigelow, producer Debra Hill, and Mary Shelley. Turning to filmmaking, she was the executive producer for the anthology X-X, featuring an all-female director slate. Karyn Kusama (Her Only Living Son), rock star Annie Clark of St. Vincent (The Birthday Cake), and Roxanne Benjamin (Don’t Fall) were also featured. The whole anthology was solid, but it was Vuckovic’s supremely unnerving tale of motherly worry in The Box that won me over the most. In a tightly scripted 20 minutes or so, she managed to convey the utter helplessness of what would happen if everyone around you had a secret that was causing them to wither away and die. We just did Podcast Episode 112: Edible Horror, and this very well could have been on my list. She directed her first feature film in 2019, a biker chick post-apocalyptic tale Riot Girls, which toured the genre circuit last year. She also has written Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead. (Intro by George Romero!)
The Ranger (2018)
Jenn Wexler was trained in the collaborative process that is the Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix “school” of cinema production, where she was the producer for films like Beneath (2015), Like Me (2015), Darling (2015), Depraved (2019). In 2018 she was given the chance in the director’s chair with the ’80s vintage punk-rock slasher film The Ranger, putting all her great experience in the genre to bear, winning the “Gamechanger Award” at SXSW. The Ranger has not just a retro-feel with its setting, but it also stylistically harkens back to the fun and gory vibes of the era. That success has led her to a directing gig for the science-fiction show Pandora on the CW. For someone so experienced, she is still quite young, and a bright horror future lies ahead.
Straight up, I loved Jumbo. This Belgian horror-adjacent fantasy was one of the weirdest stories I’ve seen in a long while, without the film seeming ridiculous. A woman falls in love with a mechanical amusement ride, and it oddly reciprocates that love. Wild! As mentioned before with Raw and Blue My Mind, there is something wonderful brewing with female European directors using dark fantasy to discuss the transformation into womanhood. Wittock gave her young actress, Noémie Merlant (Jeanne) a rationale for her mad love, and allows you to both empathize and wince at the bizarreness of the situation. It is a beautiful madness bathed in the loving neon glow of a giant automaton. Pretty good for a first offering! More of this sort of dark fantasy film, please!