I have said this before and I will say it again: while all the scariest horror movie villains may be face of their respective franchises, the true heroes of these chilling classics are (for the most part) the women who fight back. Of course, in addition to Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode or the countless roles of Barbara Crampton, many of the greatest and most important horror movie Scream Queens are really the ones behind the camera.
In a world in which the term “horror auteur” is more often associated with men like John Carpenter or the late Wes Craven, women are the unsung heroes of the genre - helming some of the best horror movies, especially in more recent years, yet still rarely receiving the credit they deserve. Well, in an effort to hopefully change that, we present our picks for some of the greatest horror movies from female directors, starting with one of the slasher genre’s biggest surprises.
The Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Holden Jones)
Based on the title alone, this thriller about a group of high school girls stalked by a power-drill wielding, escaped maniac from producer Roger Corman sounds like just another trashy B-movie, which is how most audiences took it in 1982. Luckily, The Slumber Party Massacre is lauded today as one of the greatest ‘80s slasher movies for director and uncredited co-writer Amy Holden Jones’ commentary on female representation in the horror genre at the time.
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
A more recent and, arguably, far more terrifying example of nuanced commentary in the horror genre is Australian writer and director Jennifer Kent’s feature-length debut - itself an adaptation of her 2005 short film Monster. While the ominous and possessive titular villain of 2014’s The Babadook has since become a queer icon after Netflix mistakenly placed it under the LGBT category, the twisted storybook character brought to life actually represents the inner turmoil of widowed, single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her growing resentment toward her own young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), in this bleak, relentlessly unnerving masterpiece.
Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama)
Another horror flick with nuanced commentary that totally went over the heads of most critics and audiences, Jennifer’s Body - one of the best Megan Fox movies that most assumed to be some plain, old, blood-soaked sex fantasy in 2009. In reality, director Karyn Kusama and Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody intended this campy cult classic, about a meek high school student (Amanda Seyfried) who discovers that a satanic ritual turned her popular best friend (Fox) into a man-eating succubus, to be a poignant analysis of teen sexualization and demonizing social politics in high school.
The Invitation (Karyn Kusama)
Another entry on our list from director Karyn Kusama that is arguably better than Jennifer’s Body, but inarguably more disturbing and earnest, is The Invitation, in which a man (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) attend a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new boyfriend (Michiel Huisman). As uncomfortable as that already sounds, things only get worse and more captivatingly puzzling as our protagonist’s haunting suspicions of the gathering’s true purpose grow deeper in this masterpiece of slow-burn horror from 2015.
XX (Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, & Karyn Kusama)
Karyn Kusama also wrote and directed a segment, called "Her Only Living Son," in this horror anthology movie from 2017. In fact, all four of the chilling stories featured in XX are helmed by women - including Jovanka Vucokovic ("The Box"), Roxanne Benjamin ("Don't Fall"), and Annie Clark, otherwise known as indie rocker St. Vincent, making her directorial debut with the segment, "The Birthday Cake."
Saint Maud (Rose Glass)
A more recent, example of slow-burn horror at its bleakest and most thought-provoking is this story about a Welsh former nurse and devout Catholic (Morfydd Clark) who believes that God has chosen her to rescue a terminally ill dancer (Jennifer Ehle) from damnation. However, writer and director Rose Glass brilliantly toys with your expectations of whether or not our titular hero is truly the saint she strives to be until the startling final moment of the A24-produced Saint Maud - one of 2021’s best horror films if you ask me.
Candyman (Nia DaCosta)
Another one of 2021’s best horror movies, while not quite as nuanced as some of our earlier entries, is still a profound example of the powerful social commentary that horror is capable of - much like the 1992 Clive Barker adaptation of the same name that proceeds it. Furthermore, the entrancing visual style of director Nia DaCosta - who co-wrote this “requel” about a Chicago-based artist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) obsessed with the titular urban legend known as Candyman with producer Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfield - has me excited to see what she brings to The Marvels.
Fresh (Mimi Cave)
Speaking of Marvel movies, you will never look at Winter Soldier actor Sebastian Stan the same way after you see what he cooks up in Fresh - a Hulu exclusive thriller released in 2022 that I am not at liberty to reveal much more about. The real star here, however, is Daisy Edgar-Jones as Noa, through which we experience writer Lauryn Kahn’s brilliantly relatable deconstruction of modern dating that first-time director Mimi Cave makes into a dazzling, intense, and even surprisingly tasteful visual feast once it curdles into a story of nightmarish proportions.
Raw (Julia Ducournau)
If you enjoyed Fresh, but was hoping for something a little less reserved in its graphic nature, I think you might be able to find what you are looking for in Raw, starring Garance Marillier as a veterinary student whose strictly vegetarian diet is challenged when she begins to develop a strange, new appetite. Making her theatrical debut with the 2016 French-language film, Julia Ducournau proved herself as a master of the surreal, which she would double down on with her even weirder sci-fi follow-up Titane in 2021.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
Another great horror flick coming from a first-time filmmaker is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which follows the blossoming relationship between an emotionally troubled young man (Arash Marandi) and a mysterious woman (Sheila Vand) hiding an unusual and deadly secret in a small, Iranian town. Shot in black and white, writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature-length debut from 2014 is unlike any vampire movie you have ever seen for its very distinct and amusing contrast between its quiet tone and grounded story elements with startling instances of classic horror elements.
Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow)
If you enjoyed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night but was hoping for something a bit bloodier and more action-packed, I think you might be able to find what you are looking for in 1987’s Near Dark, which also follows a troubled man from a small town (Adrian Pasdar) who crosses paths with a beautiful bloodsucker (Jenny Wright). Also starring Bill Paxton and B-movie (and horror movie) icon Lance Henriksen, this wild, punk rock vampire tale is what put Kathryn Bigelow on the map years before she became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker.
Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert)
Following a career mostly in directing music videos, in 1989, Mary Lambert took a crack at helming this horror movie about a father (Dale Midkiff) seduced by the death-defying power of a nearby Native American burial ground, which resulted in one of fans’ most favorite Stephen King adaptations. While Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmeyer would come out with their own intriguing interpretation of this story, many prefer Lambert’s original Pet Sematary (also starring former The Munsters actor Fred Gwynne), partially for its campier appeal.
The Fear Street Trilogy (Leigh Janiak)
There is plenty of camp amid the earnest drama and devilish gore gone amok in director Leigh Janiak’s trilogy of Netflix originals that span different time periods and styles of classic horror filmmaking, but all of which are equally entertaining. In fact, I consider the Fear Street movies - a three part supernatural slasher saga loosely inspired by Goosebumps author R.L. Stine’s young adult series - to be some of the streaming platform’s finest exclusive horror titles so far.
It may be surprising for some horror fans to learn just how many classic favorites and recent hidden gems that they love are helmed by women, but in retrospect, it really should not a come as much of a surprise at all. With how many of its strongest entries focusing heavily on female characters (whether it is from the perspective of a heroic Scream Queen or that of a female horror villain), women have a special - if not, potentially, better - understanding of the genre than even some of the greatest male horror filmmakers ever. While 13 was certainly an appropriate number of films to include on this list, we look forward to seeing the number of titles grow in the years to come.
Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.
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