A History of Female Horror Directors

So, it’s time for a topical piece on the site so with it being Women in Horror Month, it’s time to celebrate the history of female horror directors in the genre. This won’t be a whole, complete run-down of every female director or a complete run-through of their individual works, but we’ll hit enough to make the honor worthwhile for their contributions.

Now, although the genre dates back to the turn of the 1900’s, it took a while before there were any to step behind the camera. It took all the way into the mid-60’s for the first one to come to pass in Stephanie Rothman, a pioneer in the evolution of horror and exploitation in the 60’s who was known for making strong female-centered characters in an age where most were required to scream or strip nude. She offered only a few efforts during that time which could be considered true horror efforts, but they include both Bloodbath and The Velvet Vampire, both drive-in staples during this era.

Unfortunately, while it takes a while for Stephanie’s impact to be felt, it strikes with a massive impact when it takes until the 1980’s before another female would tackle horror films. Starting with Doris Wishman and her early slasher effort A Night to Dismember, we find other woman following in Stephanie’s footsteps with a career that starts in sexploitation and skin-flicks that turned into full-on horror films later on, a feat realized with the title Each Time I Kill that was completed after her death but certainly in her own idiosyncratic style. Still, her influence carried on with a crop of films and filmmakers taking influence from these initial starting grounds, going from Roberta Findlay who directed numerous exploitation and sex films with her husband before his death and who turned to making straight horror films like Prime Evil and Lurkers, did as well as Barbara Peters with the seminal creature feature Humanoids from the Deep as all of these women followed the same pathway much like Stephanie and Doris.

Shortly after A Night to Dismember’s release, several more women immediately broke into the genre. The first was Amy Holden Jones, who later became well-known for her comedies and chick flicks but whose debut full-length was The Slumber Party Massacre. This series is renown for including female-minded directors as each sequel was helmed by a woman as Deborah Brock and Sally Mathison respectfully tackled a follow-up. While all three contributed just one entry each, it still laid the table for others to follow suit such as Jackie Kong and Kathryn Bigelow each bringing some enjoyable elements to the table.

However, the woman who made the biggest impact in the 80’s is Mary Lambert, who started off with the Stephen King adaptation Pet Semetery and it’s sequel in the early 90’s. Coming off the film’s massive success and impact, she became quite a renown name in the genre with a slew of film and TV credits to her name that makes her quite an underrated genre director. Her work paved the way for the first wave of female directors to pop up in the late 80’s, from the aforementioned Brock and Mathison to others like Holly DaleKatt SheaRachel Talalay and Hope Parello who all contributed efforts to the genre for a rather spectacular scene at that time.

However, the mid-90’s really swallowed that movement up as the dearth of horror films, in general, meant that only a few films total were made. Many of these women instead brought themselves into the TV realm as they provided one of the few outlets possible at that time. One of the only efforts to come out in that time was Office Killer by Cindy Sherman, although the effort Ravenous was helmed by Antonia Bird who wasn’t the original director attached to that one. Still, it’s obvious the decade was pretty lean for the genre and it shows.

However, one of the brightest spots to emerge from that time and one of the more underrated figures in the genre in Stephanie Beaton, who not only was a prolific filmmaker during her brief career but was also multifaceted, working on writing, producing, directing, make-up and special effects work among other hats in the field. Though it remains pretty obvious that few will have seen her work as there’s a decidedly overt turn for the underground that’s apparent in her titles from Tales from the Grave 1 and 2Evil in the Bayou and Bloody Bender’s Return, her influence and impact is felt in many who have followed her footsteps in the genre.

Among the first to follow her footsteps was Amy Lynn Best who came out with a few relevant titles in the field before moving into other fields in the industry much like Stephanie accomplished. Now primarily an actress and producer, her start came at the beginning of a wave of female filmmakers who take the spirit of their fore-mothers to greater heights, from the work of Angela BettisChristine Parker and Lizzie Borden who have all managed to bring out a few entries in the underground horror community, clearing the way for another mainstream rebirth later on with the works of Katja von GarnierJennifer Lynch and Karyn Kusama who have brought some solid and respectable entries.

Running concurrently with the underground movement is a solid working of foreign directors who quickly became known in the genre. Starting with Kei Fujiwara in Japan who branched away from acting to direct the surreal film Organ in 2006, there’s not a whole lot of female director until we come to France in the early part of the decade. The work of Hélène Cattet along with her partner Bruno Forzani comes off with a rather intriguing mixture of stylish homages to the Italian horror films of the 70’s with the rampant extremism common in French cinema during that period. Together, their work launches a minor renaissance with directors Marina de VanCaroline du Potet and even actress Julie Delpy going behind the camera to direct genre efforts. More recently, Julia Ducournau established herself with a vengeance as her debut effort Raw was one of the genre’s most revered and praised efforts in the genre.

Elsewhere, Iranian Ana Lily Amirpour has become an emerging force with several stellar efforts and the Australian Jennifer Kent brought some solid work on her part with her controversial-if-engaging The Babadook. More recently, the Laotian-based Mattie Do has put the country on the genre map by producing the first two efforts in their history which is a feat made all the more impressive knowing that Laos has only made around a dozen total films regardless of genre! This proves the genre’s lasting power and impact by

So, in the end, where does that leave us in regards to women in the genre? With a slew of women still toiling in the underground making shorts or low-budget features including Emily HaginsKaren LamTara-Nicole Azarian and Jovanka Vukovic, the slowly emerging work of Leigh JaniakAnna Biller and Roxanne Benjamin all alongside the single biggest force in the genre with the Soska sisters Jen and Sylvia as well as the well-received experiment of the all-female directed anthology XX and enormous amounts of praise heaped upon the mainstream work of Patty Jenkins, it’s obvious the future looks bright for female horror directors.

In short, thank you ladies for your contributions!