XX and the rise of female horror filmmakers

As XX, a wry horror anthology from four women directors, comes to DVD, we look at the pleasing trend of female filmmakers putting their stamp on the horror genre

Feature by Thomas Hughes | 12 May 2017

Can a film genre belong to a single gender? It’s clearly a bizarre notion, but one that must seem real for those sectors of the movie industry still producing films with only a female audience in mind – and of course those 'chick flicks' sit alongside equally numerous male-centric films on the DVD shelves of boring hetero couples the world over.

This gender binary seems particularly prevalent in horror, which in the past has more often than not been wrong-headedly construed as a genre for 'dudes'. Female filmmakers’ contributions to the horror canon have been monumental, but only a tiny proportion have come from behind the camera, which might explain why representations of women in horror films have traditionally tended toward the two-dimensional. Yes, certain male directors have been able to create brilliant, cliché-free female characters, but for every Under the Shadow or Under the Skin, there are a hundred horror films in which women stay under the radar.

There have been superficial improvements over the years. At one time female characters were simply cast as either the helpless victims or the malevolent seductresses, but post-Alien it became de rigueur for scary movies to feature ass-kicking, blood-drenched badass heroines. But in and of itself this mode of representation is no longer all that progressive: if someone needs reminding that women are as strong as men in 2017, they’re beyond hope.

What’s really needed, what cinema audiences (over half of which are comprised of women) are really calling out for, is a greater number of authentic female characters told from authentic female perspectives. What directors could possibly provide that? Hmmm… The major studios are at a loss; if you know the answer, please call them immediately.

It’s not just horror that has a woman problem. While around half of all film school graduates each year are female, only 7% of the top-grossing 250 films of 2016 were directed by women. Such is the scale of the imbalance that in the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is currently pursuing a case against major Hollywood studios for systematically discriminating against female directors. Frustratingly, President Trump has just reshuffled the EEOC, appointing the most conservative board of commissioners he could get away with, which may hamstring proceedings.

The new wave of female horror filmmakers

Recently, however, the story in horror hasn’t been all doom and gloom. One way to beat institutional sexism is to eschew sexist institutions, and over the past few years the industry has seen a groundswell of female directors (almost all first-timers) doing just that, working on independent productions to craft powerful horror and horror-hybrid films.

Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, Phoebe Reilly noted the trend, comparing stylish Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Lily Amirpour, from 2014, to another directorial debut from the same year, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which besides its many awards won the admiration of The Exorcist’s director William Friedkin.

This past 12 months has seen another wave of sharp horror films from female filmmakers reach our screens. From the US, the mercurial Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) was rightly lauded for sophisticated slow-burner The Invitation, about a couple who invite their estranged friends to a lavish dinner party, their open-hearted hospitality perhaps hiding a very sinister intention. There was also the ferocious yet tender French-Belgian coming-of-age horror Raw, from Julia Ducournau, which hit UK cinemas last month and served up a distinctly continental cut of libidinous carnality.

Here in the UK, Alice Lowe recently bore her first as director with delightfully nasty comedy-horror Prevenge. It's about Ruth, who hears the whispering voice of her unborn foetus from within her womb, guiding her to conduct a killing spree. Lowe, whose writing credits include the brilliant Sightseers, scripted the film and even played the starring role while eight months into her own very real pregnancy.

Female-led horror anthology XX

And this week saw the DVD release of XX, an all-female-directed horror anthology. Kusama returns to helm the best of the four shorts, Her Only Living Son. This fraught and surrealistic psychological horror, about an anxious single mother and her peculiar adolescent son, feels like it has the potential to be developed into a feature. Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box also amuses as a dark Twilight Zone homage in which a little boy sees something inside a box carried by a stranger on a train, and after getting an eyeful he refuses to eat.

Less successful is Don’t Fall, a stock wilderness-monster spiel. It has some cool prosthetic effects, but they can’t save the short from its appetite for corny jump scares or its general lack of originality. The Birthday Party, meanwhile, manages to feel totally incongruous by way of not being a horror at all, but a kind of black comic farce. It’s directed by hugely acclaimed musician Annie Clark – aka St. Vincent – and stars the brilliant Melanie Lynskey, but somehow manages not to be funny or interesting despite its implausibility.

The quartet of shorts are tied together by Sofìa Carrillo’s gorgeously creepy stop-motion animated intertitles, in which frilly children’s toys come to life and 'do some gothic shit'. Two successes out of four ain’t bad in the world of horror anthologies, which are often just a way for directors who would rather be doing bigger projects to get their work seen, so despite XX’s flaws we hope to see another instalment; the format has the DNA for greatness.

Apart from their gender, one quality that unites all these directors is the sophistication of their treatment of theme. There’s a strong trend here away from shock value and towards horror that penetrates deep into real-world anxieties, rooting out the abject in usually-comfortable topics like parenting and food. And if horror is about catharsis of anxieties that can’t be voiced elsewhere, presumably the gender best suited to making horror is the one who hasn’t been given as much of a chance to speak and vent until now. Perhaps if a genre could belong to one gender, horror would be female.

XX is out now on DVD
Prevenge is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 5 Jun
Raw is released on DVD and Blu-ray 14 Aug
The Invitation and The Babadook are currently streaming on Netflix