Ida Lupino, a classic film-era ingenue, directed one of my favorite tense thriller films, “The Hitch-hiker” in 1953. Though it wasn’t her directorial debut, her work in the genre resonates into contemporary horror film-making. While some of the most exciting horror projects directed by women have utilizied issues of femininity and feeling powerless and oppressed as fearful elements, Lupino’s “The Hitch-hiker” is a crime thriller orbiting around the decisions and interactions of men. Richard Koszarski wrote in Oxford University Press, “[Lupino’s] films [as a director] display the obsessions and consistencies of a true auteur. What is most interesting about her films are not her stories of unwed motherhood or the tribulation of career women, but the way in which she uses male actors: particularly in “The Bigamist” and “The Hitchhiker”, Lupino was able to reduce the male to the same sort of dangerous, irrational force that women represented in most male-directed examples of Hollywood film noir.”
If Lupino’s depiction of the male characters in her films allowed her to use them as irrational archetypes, full of fear and rage, surely films like The Hitchhiker paved the way for projects like American Psycho.
One wonders how Mary Harron grappled with the sexual rage in Bret Anthony Ellis’ novel. Her protagonist in Patrick Bateman is a violent, animal threat to everyone, but his relationship with women is interlaced with a special sort of hatred, which makes the film all the more exciting when we accept it as visual storytelling from a woman’s point of view. Specifically, Bateman’s fluctuating interest in his assistant, played by Chloe Sevigny, is a disturbing look at the infancy of any romantic relationship with a stranger. Sevigny’s naive character is unaware that Bateman is keeping a human head in his sleek refrigerator, and although she eventually becomes aware of his vibe, she is initially attracted to his power, influence, and apparent disregard for her. We are sitting with Sevigny in Bateman’s living room as he begins to mentally unravel, and the effect is startling. She is more fleshed out and deserving of Bateman, obviously, but only because Harron creates a perfect monster in Bateman.
Although confusing the viewer and a film’s auteur is not a road I wish to go down, asking ourselves what makes a film scary to women yields a couple revelations. There are many ways to stomach the threesome scene in American Psycho, for instance, but any woman watching such sexual violence is keenly aware of this set-up’s basis in reality. Bateman is worse than a cruel womanizer; he feels nothing toward humanity as a whole, but he feels rage toward women, specifically.
The Soska sisters, a pair Canadian horror directors, make terrifying films which are more specifically geared toward a female audience (or at least an audience able to empathize with feminine horror…which is, sadly, mostly women anyway). Their most recent project, American Mary, follows a female surgeon who begins taking clients from the extreme body-modification community to make some extra money. We’re treated to the mutilated faces of women who have adopted new names and identities. Are they empowered by altering their appearances? It’s certainly a more satisfying film to watch a woman take a knife to another woman (with great care). One might argue that the horror in American Mary is its depiction of the last frontier of contemporary beauty standards and the pressure to be “sexy,” but I think there’s more interesting work going on. Mary Mason wears the same black gloves as torture maiden Asami in Audition, but she’s not really out for pain (unless her victim is male).
But what about horrific female stories which don’t involve the violent threads (or revenge-fueled victimization) of men? Some female horror auteurs have begun to explore a space that is both terrifying and purely feminine, and this is the most exciting realm of all.
Indie film critics went ballistic when Yovanka Vuckovic premiered her Guillermo-Del-Toro-produced horror short The Captured Bird in 2012. First of all, the film is available for streaming here. Second, it has all the magical realism elements of Del Toro films, except the stereotypical young girl protagonist is being controlled and manipulated by the creative eye of a fellow woman. The unnamed young girl in the film is a creator as Vuckovic is her creator, and they both explore the dark stretches of their imaginations as their projects threaten to take over. The film is full of beautiful, tense images of the young girl alone in an environment of her own creation, and it begs the question, “what is a young girl capable of?” Is she in danger, or did she create the danger? Does she enjoy watching these nightmare visions, somewhere deep down where she’s not supposed to?
Soulmate, a film written and directed by Axelle Carolyn, pays obvious homage to Turn of the Screw, a horror novella deeply rooted in concepts of mental illness as they relate to being a woman. Audrey, the widowed protagonist, moves into a haunted house following her failed suicide attempt, and she begins a relationship with a ghost whose intentions are unclear. The film plays out like a dastardly, alternate-universe Under the Tuscan Sun, and it’s surprisingly just as effective in its cheesy terror as Tuscan Sun is successful in its cheesy, uplifting romp. Yes, Audrey has been torn asunder by the loss of her male lover, but she is alone on screen, and thus is an independent player in her own story.
Are horror films directed by women more “legit” if their stories concentrate on what’s terrifying about being a woman? Not necessarily, although it’s certainly an interesting realm that needs more and more exploration and experimentation. Films like Canada’s Wakening, which screens at Sundance this year, depict a woman protagonist attempting to reason with and manipulate a genderless monster (in this case, a witigo or wendigo).
Wakening earns infinite bonus points for not sexualizing its lead (as per the Lara Croft or Resident Evil series), and female director Danis Goulet is already receiving critical buzz (before many of us have even seen the short!)
What I’d personally like to see in the future are woman-directed films which depict larger, more universally-reaching themes, like Snowpiercer or The Descent. While the quiet, tense lives of female protagonists are certainly thematically interesting when viewed through a horror-film’s lens, we can only gain traction in contemporary film by encouraging women to tell stories which are horrifying to a larger audience. It’s a two way street: while Turn of the Screw is certainly effective horror fiction based on the experience of a woman, it’s still a) written by a man and b) not as universally terrifying as Frankenstein, which was of course, written by Mary Shelley.
Sometimes the argument is as simple as: find more female protagonists in horror (and I don’t mean running, screaming, sexy victims, although they can be any of those things and still be complex and interesting), more female directors in horror (making films about whatever they want), and you’ll end up attracting more engaged, critical female fans of horror films. God knows I need some friends.