Horror Movie Themes: Women Directors And Monster Women

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Women who direct horror movies are few and far between. They are simply not telling stories in significant numbers in the genre for critics to say there’s an overwhelming theme being tackled, but there are enough of them that a pattern is beginning to emerge.

 

Ostensibly, the stories women tell cover the same subjects as male directors,  but there are sometimes subtle differences, and most of that has to do with women’s perspective on the same topics. There is plenty of vengeance, serial killers, and  ultra violence, but where movies with male directors often focus on the spectacle of violence  against women, without questioning it, female directors often make women the total focus of the plot, as both victims and perpetrators. There are also  fewer otherworldly monsters in female directed movies. Often, in such films, the monsters are very  human, and sometimes those monsters are, in fact, the women.

There are exceptionally few horror movies directed by women of color, and the bare handful of movies that were, like Beloved, fall into the category of personal hauntings, that tackle issues that resonate with other women of color. The majority of women horror filmmakers, are White women, and they tend to focus on issues that are of importance to them, and one starts to notice a pattern in the themes of the movies they make.

If White men work out their personal anxieties through the types of horror they create, then so do White women. It is not that women of color cannot relate to these themes, it’s just that for them, such themes may not be a priority, and tend to carry less resonance for them.

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In movies like Carrie by Kimberly Pierce, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, by Ana Lily Amirpour,  and Jennifer’s Body by Karyn Kusama, the theme is not just the Monstrous Feminine, but femaleness itself as monster. There is no coding of femininity as  horrific in these movies. It is a  woman who is a horrible monster, who feeds on men, or  destroys the human body, with a thought, and she is like this, because she is female, as that is an integral part of the horror in the film.

Carrie and Jennifer’s Body  also tackle issues that are of specific relevance to women, like puberty, menstruation,  friendship, and sexual trauma. In female directed films, there is less emphasis on the disruption and restoration of order, or the status quo. Often, their films don’t actually have any resolution, or the emphasis is on the disruption, and restoration, of relationships, or cathartic punishments, instead.

Themes about monstrosity, in such movies, often revolve around body horror, and consumption, as dieting, and the non/consumption of food, and women’s relationships to food, make up the bulk of the personal anxieties in the privileged classes of women who sometimes make these films. In Julia Decournau’s Raw (2016),  a vegetarian girl develops a craving for meat after she undergoes a hazing ritual involving the eating of raw animals. In the 1999 Ravenous,  by the late Antonia Bird, Guy Pierce develops a taste for raw meat after he is nearly killed during the Mexican – American War, and in Jennifer’s Body, a young woman has to save her high school friend, after she realizes her friend has become a flesh eating demon. (There is a lot to unpack, in the movie Jennifer’s Body, which we will discuss later.) Many middle-class, White, Western women have a love/hate , and a fear/disgust, relationship with food, dieting, and  consumption, and we see that play out in these films, as eating, (usually blood and meat), becomes the primary focus of the horror.

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Female directed movies often tend to be more intimate, focusing on the horror of relationships, or the topic of motherhood. What mothers are willing to do for, or sometimes to, their families is the subject of the 2014 movie, The Babadook, where a mother fears she may kill her son, when she is haunted,  and then possessed, after reading about the titular character.

In the anthology XX, many of the stories revolve around the horrific circumstances that can occur when a mother loves her family. Motherhood, already a source of real world anxiety, is a frequent topic in films made by women. In The Box, the themes are also loss, helplessness, and non/consumption, as a woman loses her entire family, when they starve themselves, after her son views the contents of a mysterious box. It is a secret that kills them, and which they refuse to share with her, so that when they are gone, she spends the rest of her life riding the subway, hoping to encounter the man with the box again. The story, Her only Living Son, directly tackles sacrificial motherhood, as a woman sacrifices her life to save her son from his Satanic destiny.

Sex is a huge component of female directed horror movies, but unlike films directed by men, that mostly just feature the spectacle of  women having sex,  or being raped, the focus from women directors is on the danger, and vulnerability of intimacy, and often based on a young woman’s fear of sexual activity, and fear of the loss of innocence, that may be the result. In the film, A Girl Walks Home Alone, a nameless female, Iraqi  vampire hunts men. This movie is groundbreaking, not just because of its setting, and plot, but character. The sexual forwardness of Iraqi women isn’t often featured in film, let alone as a night-stalking blood drinker. The director, Amirpour, is not White, but the themes of consumption, and blood as a euphemism for sex, still find a way into the story.

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Blood plays a huge part in a lot of the stories told by women, from Carrie, to Raw, to Jennifer’s Body, with the theme being  linked to  femininity, fertility, and/or sex. The movie, Carrie, begins and ends with blood. Based on the novel by Stephen King, it chronicles a young woman’s perilous navigation through high school. At the beginning of the story, the onset of her menses signals her introduction to adulthood, and heightens her telekinetic abilities. The story ends with the killing of her entire graduating class, after a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped over her during the school prom, an act which was informed by the opening events of the story, when she has her first period in front of her bullying classmates.

Blood and flesh are especially popular topics of these films, in that many of them contain cannibalism and/or vampirism. In the movie Raw, relationships, and adulthood rites take center stage, as a young woman, who has a contentious relationship with her sister, gets turned into a cannibal after an initial hazing at her sister’s college, that turns out to be an initiation, not just into a sorority, but also adulthood. In Blood and Donuts (1995), a vampire who has just awakened from a long sleep, is introduced to the modern world, via the night shift worker at a local bakery. Over the course of the evening, the young lady figures out who and what he is, and the two of them engage in a push and pull attraction, as he decides whether or not he should prey on her.

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In the 1987 movie, Near dark, a young man is inducted into a nightmare lifestyle, where he has to kill to live, when he meets a pretty blonde girl, at a bar one night. Vampires, since they, like blood, are often a euphemism for sex and adulthood, are the focus of women’s stories, such as Fran Rubel Kazui’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Buffy went on to answer deeper questions about girlhood and monsters, in the TV series, which lasted from 1997 to 2003. In fact, these themes are so prevalent, that they often seem to be having a dialogue with each other, or with movies of the same genre, made by men.

There is a lot of narrative overlap, for example, between Near Dark, Ravenous, and the movie, Afflicted, which cover not just the same themes, but sometimes the same talking points, of the male protagonist’s empathy making them unfit to live the kind of lifestyle that requires killing others. There is also a great deal of narrative overlap in the movies Carrie, Raw, and Ginger Snaps, more films in which menstruation, and flesh eating, are the signals that a young woman has reached full adulthood.

Now let’s talk about Jennifer’s Body.

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Jennifer’s body is a great encapsulation of some of the themes and topics that women address through horror. The themes of friendship, female ally-ship and support, revenge, sexuality,  and patriarchy are part of this narrative.

Jennifer’s Body was released in 2009, written by Diablo Cody, and directed by Karen Kusama. Jennifer Check, as played by Megan Fox, is the high school hot girl. She is the sassy, beautiful, popular, cheerleader, that all the  high school boys lust after. Amanda Seyfried plays Amanda “Needy” Lesnicki,  her quiet, bookish,  best friend, since elementary school. Jennifer gets possessed by a demon, after she is sacrificed to Satan by a local rock band, in exchange for fame.

Already there are themes of the sexuality of women being exploited for male gain. The band, called Low Shoulder, thinks she is a virgin, and their sacrifice was successful, but since she was not actually a virgin, she became possessed instead. After she has killed two young men, Amanda figures out that she is a succubus that is impervious to harm after feeding on her victims. Jennifer attacks Amanda’s boyfriend, who then attacks and eventually kills her. However, bitten by Jennifer, Amanda has now developed some of the Demon Jennifer’s abilities. At the end of the movie, she hunts down  the band Low Shoulder, and kills them.

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Throughout the movie, we are  privy to some of the more interesting conversations that women have when men are not present, and this is something that will only happen in a movie that is written and controlled by women. Not only will there often be more than one woman in a movie, but their relationships and conversations often have more depth. The film is informed by two women in front of the camera as well as the two women behind it. It is the relationship between Amanda and Jennifer that is integral to the plot of the film. If we don’t buy their friendship, we cannot become emotionally invested in their plight, most especially in Amanda’s dilemma at having to kill her best friend.

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/08/206237/jennifers-body-review-defense-female-revenge-movie

Amanda isn’t just killing Jennifer to save the lives of the young men she might feed on, but to save Jennifer. too. I talked in an earlier post about how Horror is basically the disruption of the status quo by the unknown, often the paranormal, and yes, Jennifer as a demon is a disruption of the status quo,  but the status quo, does not necessarily mean “good”. The status quo is Jennifer’s humanity being disregarded  by  men who were willing to  sacrifice her life for their own gain. That Jennifer, and then Amanda, become demons is a necessary disruption, especially as part of the revenge narratives that are also prominent in women’s horror. Not only are revenge narratives common for women directors, they are often very cathartic for the creators and audiences.

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https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/03/carrie-stephen-king-brian-de-palma-horror-films-feminism

Kimberly Pierce’s Carrie, from 2011, is another movie that appears to be having a dialogue with Jennifer’s Body, as it covers many of the same themes, of women’s relationships, both supportive and toxic, and the revenge narrative. Although the story was originally written by Stephen King, and the original movie was directed Brian De Palma, I talked at length about how the mood and emphasis of the film is changed, as Pierce  focuses more on the women’s tangled relationships with each other, rather than on spectacle.

So for female horror directors, there seems to be less emphasis on spectacle (although that’s definitively present becasue these are horror movies), and more focus on symbolism, and the relationships between the characters. For me, this supports my supposition that the type of moves that get made are a reflection of the types of people who make them. If this is true of the Japanese, or British, then its equally true for the White men who run Hollywood, and are the primary creators in the horror genre. So, yes, I think that the types of films being made by White women (as these directors are primarily White) are a reflection of the things that are important to them.

There have not been enough Black and Asian-American filmmakers, in the horror genre, for certain patterns to emerge, but I’m going to give it a try in a follow-up post.

Halloween Horrors Directed By Women

XX (2017) Anthology

I recently watched this anthology of horror shorts, directed by women, on Netflix and found it very effective. Not particularly frightening, but moving nonetheless. I not only enjoyed the stories themselves, but there were some interstitial moments between the episodes that I found pretty creepy, and which also tell a kind of story. Of the four stories, three of them deal with the idea of motherhood as a harrowing and anxious experience.

One of the middle stories, and the most frightening, is The Box,  about a woman whose family slowly starves themselves to death after the son peeks into the box of a stranger on a bus ride. I think I read this as a short story somewhere because it felt familiar. Its a very effective and emotional scare, as the mother is helpless to save her family, who are determined to destroy themselves. One of the other stories chronicles the adventures of a mother whose husband dies in a giant panda suit just before his daughter’s birthday party called, appropriately enough, The Birthday Party. It’s the funniest of the stories, but I was exasperated by it because it didn’t fit the gray mood of the rest of the anthology.

Dont’ Fall is the most straightforward horror story with no message to it. A group of people go camping and run afoul of an ancient cannibalistic evil. Her Only Living Son is a favorite of mine. Its like a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, if she had run away from  all the people trying to manipulate her, and tried to  raise her son not to be the AntiChrist. It’s interesting that the two most effective stories are about mothers trying to save their children from the aftermath of bad choices.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was a little dubious about watching it, at first. Women directors in the Horror genre are very rare, but this turned out to be pretty good. The types of stories  were  female-centric in a way that men’s stories just aren’t, and that was refreshing.

This movie is available on Netflix.

Ravenous (1999) Antonia Bird

I reviewed this movie some time back, and advised people to listen to the DVD commentary, because it’s very informative. I’ve since learned that Antonia Bird died from cancer in 2013. Her films include a few others I’ve watched: Priest, Safe, and Mad Love.

https://tvgeekingout.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/geeking-out-about-ravenous-1999/

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) Ana Lily Amirpour

This is a nice little nugget of a film available on Netflix, which I have not finished watching yet, because I was interrupted. (I was about thirty minutes away from the end, which is probably when all the best stuff happens.) This is a remarkable story about an unnamed and  beautiful Iranian vampire, who spends her nights trying to resist her hunger, in the presence of an innocent young man named Arash. The movie isn’t frightening, so much as it is melancholy, although The Woman, as I call her, does manage to cause plenty of death.

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Jennifer’s Body (2009) Karyn Kusama

Despite people hating this movie, I actually enjoyed it , and thought it was pretty funny. This was my first introduction to Megan Fox ,and based on her performance here, I wish her career had continued. I wasn’t sure what to expect actually. I think I expected the director (who, at the time,  I did not know was a woman) to simply use the plot as an excuse to have Megan Fox be naked and/or sexy. I thought the trailer a little misleading. But the movie turned out to be a lot deeper, as it was about the friendship between these two very different characters, and how people change and grow apart as they get older. The movie was also written by a woman, Diablo Cody, which explains some of its humor.

Anita, played by Amanda Seyfried is friends with a bitchy cheerleader named Jennifer. Now I should have paid closer attention because I was unclear if Jennifer had been turned into a vampire, or if Jennifer actually died and was replaced by some creature. At any rate, its up to Anita to try to stop her, because, obviously, Jennifer is evil. It was hard not to like Jennifer though, because she’s actually funny, and some of the best dialogue in the movie is between her and Anita during their knockdown fight at the end.

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Raw (2016) Julia Decournau

I have yet to watch this film, but I really  liked the trailer, and so its on my Halloween list. It heavily reminds me of a cross between the movies  Thelma and Jennifer’s Body.

Its interesting to me that so many horror films directed by women seem to involve the concept of eating and the  forbidden and blood.   The anthology XX had an episode about people denying food, A Girl Walks Home Alone is about a vampire, and this one is about a young vegetarian developing a taste for raw meat after a horrible campus initiation. Ravenous and Jennifer’s Body are about cannibalism. At some point someone is going to have to analyse why that is.

Pet Semetary (1989) Mary Lambert

This is the one movie on this list I’m not a big fan of, but a heckuva lot of people really really love it, so I’m recommending it for viewing. I thought the movie was kind of ridiculous, and some of the acting was simply terrible. On the other hand, Fred Gwynne, who played Herman Munster on the sitcom, was great, and I liked Denise Crosby, who was really likable here. I was creeped out by the family cat, but I  laughed at part of the ending, when this tiny munchkin went on a murder spree. I don’t hate this movie ,but I don’t have happy thoughts about it either, although I did enjoy the Stephen King book it was based on.

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Near Dark (1987) Kathryn Bigelow

I gave a review of this movie earlier in my blogging career. This was directed by the great Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her movie The  Hurt Locker, and gave us such great characters as the Aliens version of Ellen Ripley, and the Terminator 2 version of Sarah Connor.

https://tvgeekingout.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/near-dark-1987/

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Carrie (2013) Kimberly Peirce

I did a review of this one where I compared Kimberly’s version to the one directed by DePalma, charting the difference between when a man makes a female- centered film vs. when a woman does it. Basically, there seems lot more meaningful interaction between the women in a female directed movie. At some point I’m going to revise this review to add some new thoughts.

https://tvgeekingout.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/carrie-vs-carrie/

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Honorable Mentions (Not Directed By Women)

These five movies were not directed by women, but the women characters are not just in the center of the plot, they are the plot. Any one of these movies would be great for a female themed marathon on Halloween night, along with longstanding favorites, like Alien, and Halloween.

Ginger Snaps (2000)

This is one of my favorite werewolf movies, right up there with the newer movie, Wer. Here, two teen Goth sisters, Bridgette, and Ginger, the local high school weirdos of a small suburban town,  discover that Ginger has developed lycanthropy, after being bitten by a wild animal, while on their way to play a prank on another girl. There is a parallel here between the disease and sexual maturity, as Ginger has just had her first period, which is why the animal attacked her. Ginger Snaps considerably deepened the discourse around the subject of feminine transformation, rage, and sisterly love,  and upped the werewolf game.

Thelma

This is a repost of a mini-review I did  in May of this year.

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I’d been looking forward to seeing this for some time, and it did not disappoint. Now, when I first heard the description of it, I had not yet seen the trailer, and I was expecting something like Carrie, but quieter. Then I saw the trailer, and found that it’s something wholly different from Carrie. This movie isn’t about vengeance, it’s about desire, and what happens to a person when that desire is repressed.

For one thing, this is a much quieter, and more subtle movie than Carrie. It’s so low-key, that the supernatural aspects of the story kind of sneak up on you. They sneak up on you because they’re  loosely covered by several other issues that you will find compelling enough to be distracting.

The film is based in Norway, and the lead character, Thelma, starts to experience epileptic seizures, except it’s not seizures. Her doctor says they are psychosomatic, and stem from emotional suppression. At the same time, she meets a young woman who comes to her rescue, after she has a seizure in the college’s public reading room, while that room’s giant picture window is battered by a flock of birds. Every time she resists her feelings for Anja, or tries to suppress her powers, she has a seizure.

Thelma and the young woman, Anja, start to get closer, but Thelma comes from a quietly strict Christian background, and she becomes very conflicted about her relationship with Anja, which starts to take a romantic turn. It turns out that Thelma isn’t necessarily conflicted because of the Christianity, but because she has the power to make things happen to people, when she strongly wants it. The Christian beliefs her parents espouse are what was used to keep her powers in check.

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When Thelma was a child, she became jealous of her baby brother, and wished him away several times. The last time she does it is emotionally devastating to her mother and father, but this isn’t something you find out until the middle of the film, and only in flashbacks, and explains why her parents treat her in the quietly aloof manner that they do.

As Thelma becomes overwhelmed about her relationship with Anja, (she keeps having sexual nightmares involving snakes, and dreams about drowning, which is classic symbolism of someone being overwhelmed by a subject), she wishes Anja away too, and it’s a testament to the low-key horror of the movie, that even at the end, you’re not entirely certain that what is happening is real. Did she bring Anja back? Is Anja even real? And then there’s the further question, brought up by her father, about whether or not Anja truly loves Thelma, or did she make Anja love her because she wants her to love her.

It’s not a straight horror movie, with jump scares, and frightening moments. The most frightening moment in the movie is when Anja disappears, and Thelma kills her father. But mostly it’s those nagging questions,that stay with you, as you start to realize Thelma is far more dangerous than you may at first have believed. Her mother and father were in a car accident a few years before she went to college, and though it’s not explicitly stated, you wonder if it was Thelma who caused it.

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After Anja disappears, Thelma leaves college to go back home, where her family welcomes her, but her father decides that she can’t leave. She takes control of her abilities, takes a horrific revenge on her father, and walks out of the house. She goes back to school, where she is greeted by a newly returned Anja, who passionately kisses her.  Her mother is disabled, and uses a wheelchair after the accident, but by the end of the film, Thelma has given her the ability to walk again.

Like several other movies I’ve seen in the past few years (It Follows, Annihilation, A Quiet Place), the horror comes not so much from what happens in the movie, but from its mood. The wintry landscape of Norway, and the remote location of Thelma’s home, is very effective. On the other hand, I can’t say that the movie was enjoyable, either. It’s too haunting for that, and I am still disturbed by the questions that arose, and the answers I came up with.

For those of you on the LGBTQ spectrum this movie is safe enough to watch There is a brief moment when you think there’s a Kill Your Gays Trope, but by the end of the movie, that has passed. Its a movie about overcoming repression, and acceptance of the self.

Thelma is available on Hulu.

It Follows

I’ve done two reviews for this movie. One is an examination of the meaning of the monster, and the other focusing on the female -centric symbolism embedded in the film.

https://wordpress.com/posts/my/tvgeekingout.wordpress.com?s=it+follows

https://tvgeekingout.wordpress.com/2017/04/19/it-follows-2014-more-thought

Added Bonus:

28 BLACK WOMEN HORROR FILMMAKERS:

http://www.graveyardshiftsisters.com/2018/02/28-black-women-horror-filmmakers-meosha.html