Girls on Film: 4 female filmmakers who pioneered horror movies
Despite popular misconceptions, women have been on the cutting edge of the genre since its earliest days
If you're looking for a good new horror movie, there are plenty of directors whose works fit the bill. Leigh Janiak kicked things off last month with a limited release of her film Honeymoon. "Twisted Twins" Jen and Sylvia Soska debuted their latest feature, See No Evil 2, on DVD last week. Sundance selection A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — cinema's "first Iranian vampire western," directed by Ana Lily Amirpour — is hitting theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 21. Jennifer Kent's critical smash The Babadook, which won Best Actor, Actress, Screenplay, and Feature at the festival, will hit screens on Nov. 28.
These female-directed films have been framed as work that challenges the "status quo." But it's misguided to frame women's contributions to horror as something unusual. It ignores the fact that most of these women have made horror films before, and that they are just the latest generation working in a genre that has always included influential women.
Indeed, one of cinema's most rampant fallacies is the idea that women and horror don't mix.
Movies like Twilight have led critics to note the power of YA fandom — but not how much it has continued a long tradition of girls' interests in horror. Before Stephenie Meyer, there was L.J. Smith, and before her, Lois Duncan. YA offers bridges to women like Anne Rice, one of the most iconic names in horror lit, and V.C. Andrews, whose Flowers in the Attic was so popular that a ghostwriter was hired to continue her legacy after her death.
Before all of those names comes one of the grandparents of modern horror: Frankenstein's Mary Shelley. Her work has inspired countless horror films, and sparked an industry that would come to include scores of female-directed horror movies, from Amy Holden Jones' The Slumber Party Massacre to Mary Harron's American Psycho. (You can find no less than 50 essential horror films directed by women right here.)
Women have been filming horror movies for as long as movies have existed. While writers like Shelley informed our bedrock notions of horror, female filmmaking pioneers determined how we would film them, helping to create the form and to mentor and influence the "masters" of horror we know and love.
1. Alice Guy Blaché Blaché shot hundreds of films between 1896 and 1920, including several horror movies: an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, The Vampire, and, in 1914, The Monster and the Girl.
Her films used many cutting-edge techniques like double exposure, and though her name was forgotten as the decades wore on, her filmmaking directly influenced Alfred Hitchcock, among others. "I was thrilled by the movies of D.W. Griffith and the early French director Alice Guy," he once told an interviewer. She also mentored a number of filmmakers who would come to make their own horror films, like Louis Feuillade and Lois Weber, one of her actresses during her Gaumont days.
2. Lois Weber Blaché originally hired Lois Weber as an actress in 1908. Soon, Weber became a multi-hyphenate talent, writing, acting, directing, and even developing the negatives she shot. By 1911, she starred in her directorial debut, A Heroine of '76, and a few years later, would be the first American woman to direct a feature-length film (The Merchant of Venice). She controversially offered the first full-frontal female nudity with Hypocrites, and at one time was the highest paid director in Hollywood. It's been said that "no film made before WWI shows a stronger command of film style" than her 1913 thriller Suspense.
Moving Picture World described Weber as "a star maker for years" — a woman known for her ability to nurture talent. In Suspense, which boasts one of the earliest uses of split screens, she also introduced the world to Lon Chaney, who would become one of the most iconic faces of early horror cinema. (His career was also bolstered by early filmmaker Ida May Park, who urged him to explore the macabre.) Chaney's Phantom of the Opera director Rupert Julian kicked off his career with Weber as well, as a prop boy and then actor.
3. Maya Deren As an avant-garde filmmaker, Maya Deren's name isn't part of the mainstream lexicon, but the creatives she influenced are very well-known. Deren's work explored the supernatural and surreal. Her most influential film, Meshes of the Afternoon — made with then-husband Alexander Hammid — has been preserved by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Watching the experimental film, it's easy to see how her chilling imagery inspired others, particularly the film's use of shadows, keys, stairs, and even reflections on a shiny knife.
The film's impact on horror cinema is seen far and wide. Her work has been linked to the likes of Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Lynch. Lynch's unreliable narration in films like Lost Highway, in particular, has been compared to Meshes, while others see the parallels between the film and Hitchcock's classic Notorious. Kenneth Anger, of Lucifer Rising fame, was even mentored by the filmmaker alongside Curtis Harrington.
4. Ida Lupino Almost 20 years after Ida Lupino broke into cinema as an actress, she became a filmmaker and "Queen of the B's," paving the way for female filmmakers in an industry that was already forgetting the form's early female talents. She embraced tough subject matter, stepping into horror with the 1950 film Outrage, and she became the first female noir filmmaker a few years later with The Hitch-Hiker, about an evil ex-con who plots to murder the men who give him a ride. Through the 1970s, her forays into horror would continue on TV with Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone — the only woman to direct an episode.
Her influence in the industry is ongoing. Lupino mentored Sam Peckinpah early in his career, before he'd go on to explore the world of violence in films like Straw Dogs. Martin Scorsese described Outrage as "a subdued behavioral study that captures the banality of evil." Her work has also been compared to Near Dark's Kathryn Bigelow, whose interest in dark, "masculine" themes still spark surprise today — though Lupino explored the same decades ago.