2019 Film Essays

Hell Hath No Fury: How Women Dominated Horror in 2018

Women took control of the horror genre in 2018, that much is clear. To be fair, women ruled movies in general last year, but within a genre frequently — and, too often, rightfully — accused of gender bias, it was especially heartening to see ladies front and center in films as varied as Cam, Unsane, Hereditary and Revenge. Hell, a female-directed, female-written and female-led movie (The Ranger) opened Frightfest for the first time ever (the festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary in August).

There’s still a great deal of work to be done, of course, particularly considering that recent research suggests there are actually fewer women getting the opportunity to make their movies than in years past. This is in spite of the strength of the past year’s output from female talent, and the surge of support behind the burgeoning #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Compounding this unfortunate fact are the all-male Best Director nominees for the 2019 Oscars (a disappointing step back from 2018 when Greta Gerwig was up for Lady Bird). It’s also worth noting that Luca Guadagnino’s wretched Suspiria was touted by many as a feminist picture in spite of the fact its protagonist is a man whose screen-time and story arc amounts to significantly more than the ostensible lead, Susie — but don’t worry, he’s played by a woman, so it’s totally fine!

In contrast, the backlash against Ari Aster’s disturbing debut Hereditary, a movie that, in stark contrast to Guadagnino’s, features a flawed and fascinating female character in the leading role, is sadly more evidence that sometimes horror fans still cannot appreciate what’s right in front of us. The idea that some poor critic’s misguided decision to compare Aster’s movie to The Exorcist somehow sullied its impact on hardcore fans is laughable, particularly as those same audiences flocked to worship the vacuous Suspiria. 

There’s a running joke about Toni Collette’s startlingly brilliant performance in Hereditary being annoyingly absent from basically every ballot, and what demons she might invoke to avenge her. The Aussie powerhouse is, quite simply, remarkable in the movie; strong yet vulnerable, desperately sad but clearly wrong in how she treats her grieving son; the uncomfortable but realistic picture of a struggling mother attempting to juggle everything in incredibly harsh circumstances. 

Aster’s debut rightly topped several Best of 2018 lists come year’s end, but it was just one of several horror movies, mainstream and otherwise, to put women at the forefront — not to mention the fact it features an older woman rather than an ingenue, a notable exception to a long established, and highly problematic, boobs ‘n’ blood rule. Likewise, David Gordon Green’s brilliant Halloween reboot put Queen Jamie Lee Curtis in the driving seat once more, catching up with her 40 years after the events of John Carpenter’s classic slasher to find a trauma survivor barely holding it together. 

Like Collette in Hereditary, Curtis is the focus here, the catalyst for the entire narrative. Her Laurie Strode is tough and strong, arming herself to the gills in anticipation of Michael’s return. But, when the villain does finally appear, Laurie falters. That 40-year-old terror is still just as fresh as it was back in 1978. Halloween was credited for being a #MeToo statement, even though it was conceived before the Weinstein scandal even happened. Regardless, the film feels remarkably current and razor-sharp in its depiction of female characters taking charge (three generations of Strode women, natch). 

Sure, Judy Greer doesn’t get enough to do until her BIG moment, but there will never be enough of her in any movie, and that’s just the reality of the situation. 

Also on the mainstream side was the masterful A Quiet Place, the sophomore feature from writer, director and star John Krasinski, who placed his real-life wife Emily Blunt opposite him as co-lead. Much like Collette in Hereditary and Curtis in Halloween, Blunt is a grieving mother tasked with surviving unthinkable horror. Her standout sequence finds Blunt’s tortured Evelyn attempting to give birth silently in the bathtub, while the monsters circle. It’s a terrific showcase for Blunt’s talents as a performer, but also of Krasinski’s faith in his exceptional wife to carry the film’s message about the importance of family. Both she and her deaf on-screen daughter are given the space to grow and fight back, rather than being relegated to whimpering in the background.

Indie horror didn’t disappoint in 2018 either, continuing to showcase some of the most interesting and eclectic voices working in the genre today. Dream team, and real life couple, Colin Minihan and Brittany Allen returned with their best offering yet. The shocking revenge tale What Keeps You Alive is a hugely emotional film brimming with brio and sensitivity. The beautifully shot movie was actually scored by Allen herself, her first time doing so. The prolific actress took one of the leading roles opposite her Jigsaw co-star Hannah Emily Anderson, with both women displaying depth and nuance hitherto untapped. The decision to feature a same-sex couple is admirable, but here it’s not a gimmick or an excuse for titillation. The romance is keenly felt, making the escalating tension palpable, the twists and turns nail-biting. 

Also taking a scenic trip that goes horribly wrong is The Transfiguration’s breakout star Chloe Levine who, along with her dodgy punk friends, ventures out to a cabin in the woods only to learn her past and present can’t quite be reconciled the way she imagined. Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger opened Frightfest 2018 in London. Her ferocious punk rock slasher movie was the ideal kickoff to a winning weekend of blood-soaked madness. More than that, though, Wexler’s film is a proudly female genre exercise. The soundtrack is loaded with bangers, the clothes are drool-worthy and the ending is a gory kick in the teeth. It’s a female slasher that’s still a slasher.

Never one to stay inside the lines, Stephen Soderbergh followed up the hilarious Logan Lucky with Unsane, a truly scary look at a woman in turmoil. The Crown‘s Claire Foy broke out in a big way as Sawyer, an isolated career woman committed to an insane asylum after foolishly confessing to dark thoughts. Once inside, she discovers her stalker (expertly played by The Blair Witch Project‘s Joshua Leonard) is in there too — but, naturally, nobody will believe her. Soderbergh, who shot the movie on iPhones, giving it a jittery, first-person feel, ruthlessly skewers the idea of women being disbelieved by virtually everybody they go to for help — in particular a flashback sequence, which finds Sawyer meeting with a security professional, showcases the struggle to be heard in a world that believes it’s always the victim’s fault.

She may perish within the first act, but the titular character in Panos Cosmatos’s life-changing Mandy is another standout female character who made a major splash last year. As played by the hugely underrated British character actress Andrea Riseborough, Mandy is the epitome of pure, untouchable love. Her death is heartbreaking precisely because her time with the audience is so short, and because its effect on her partner (played by Nicolas Cage in his strongest performance in years) is so plain to see. Riseborough haunts much of the movie like a ghost, her big eyes searching for meaning amidst the madness, and she shines in key moments including when Mandy laughs in the face of a terrifying cult leader for having the gall to think she’d ever give him even a moment of her precious time. 

Over on Netflix, Cam takes a no-nonsense approach to the business of selling sex online via a likeable and sprightly camgirl who wakes up to find her identity and, by extension, her business stolen from under her. Ex-camgirl Isa Mazzei co-wrote the script with longtime friend Daniel Goldhaber and, although he takes sole directing credit, her fingerprints are all over the finished product (which, notably, is presented as equally theirs). Cam has plenty to say about how women’s beauty is commodified online, but it’s never preachy or judgemental. Heroine Lola (bravely portrayed by Madeline Brewer) is a sweet and smart young woman who makes good money doing something she loves. Her punishment is cruel bad luck, random and unexplained, rather than as a result of her chosen career.

If there was one emotion women characterized in 2018, it was undoubtedly anger. Or, more precisely, rage. And no two movies exemplified that feeling better than Revenge and Assassination Nation. The former — a stylish, cool and endlessly inventive twist on the typical rape-revenge film, written and directed by Coralie Fargeat — announced an exciting new voice in genre cinema not with a whisper but with a ferocious, bloodcurdling roar. Lead Matilda Lutz goes from being a Lolita sucking on a lollipop to a shotgun-toting vigilante throughout the film’s 90 minutes of non-stop, bubblegum-bright action and mayhem. 

Crucially, the rape itself isn’t the focal point of the story. Fargeat shoots it from Lutz’s perspective, barely giving the act a minute of screen time. She’s much more interested in her Final Girl’s redemption. The female gaze is strong here, from Lutz’s curve-hugging but functional sporty-bikini-and-bullet-belt ensemble (a Halloween costume in the making) to the gory finale, which sees her chasing a naked, bloody and vulnerable man around the destroyed home in which she used to feel so safe. It’s a brilliant method of turning everything about the blasted rape revenge sub-genre on its head, and Fargeat handles it eloquently and with aplomb. 

Assassination Nation is a messier but by no means less meaningful endeavor. Written and directed by Sam Levinson, it’s a rousing call to arms for women everywhere to fight back against the patriarchy. Featuring a foursome of teenage girls (Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Odessa Young and Abra) who find themselves slut-shamed and blamed by their hometown of Salem (get it?) when everybody’s secrets get leaked on the net, the flick is loaded with pop culture sensibilities and rattles along with the speed of a teenager IMing her friends about the latest drama.

Culminating in one of the most brilliantly blatant middle fingers to so-called MRAs committed to celluloid yet (there will hopefully be many more), Assassination Nation certainly isn’t subtle. But it doesn’t need to be. Levinson’s message is that young women shouldn’t be sitting back and taking it anymore; they should stand up and be counted. One of the movie’s most fascinating and hilarious moments comes via a frank discussion about how men who refuse to perform oral sex on women are psychopaths — a message that is even more noteworthy coming from a male writer. 

Considering women are consistently told to shut up/be polite/calm down, it was heartening to see polemical movies such as Revenge and Assassination Nation be released in 2018, and embraced by horror fans and critics alike. Likewise, the embrace of the progressive Cam and the trippy Mandy, in particular, showcased yet again that there’s a built-in audience for challenging, female-oriented fare. The argument that women don’t watch horror seems more far fetched now than ever before, while the notion that the future of the genre is female is less fantasy than fully-fledged reality. 

Looking forward to 2019, Nicolas Pesce’s stylish giallo-noir Piercing stars a brilliantly unhinged Mia Wasikowska as a sadomasochistic prostitute who turns her attention to sappy wannabe killer Christopher Abbot in a terrific example of a female actress being allowed (for want of a better word) to get dark without the need to redeem or punish her character later. Elsewhere, highly-anticipated slasher sequel Happy Death Day 2U sees spunky heroine Tree (Jessica Rothe) return to battle the terrifying Baby Face Killer once again, primarily by offing herself over and over, and without running around topless or being otherwise objectified in any way. 

Also expected to arrive at some stage this year: Roxanne Benjamin’s (XX) survival thriller Body at Brighton Rock; the Soska Sisters’ hugely-anticipated re-imagining of David Cronenberg’s classic 1977 shocker Rabid; The Turning, from The Runaways director Floria Sigismondi (a modern retelling of The Turn of the Screw with a high-profile cast including Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard); Stacie Masson’s creepy We Have Always Lived in the Castle (featuring Alexandra Daddario, Taissa Farmiga and Crispin Glover); American Psycho director Mary Harron’s take on the Charlie Manson myth, Charlie Says; Aussie writer-director Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, a follow-up to her fan favorite debut The Babadook; haunted house thriller Relic (the feature debut from Natalie Erika James); Austrian directing duo Severin Fiala and Veronkia Franz’s (Goodnight Mommy) snowed-in chamber piece The Lodge; and writer-director Pippa Bianco’s debut Share (an internet horror movie that would make a fine triple bill sandwiched between Cam and Assassination Nation). 

What’s immediately obvious is the amount of variety on show. No longer are female filmmakers relegated to telling so-called “women’s stories.” Now, they have the freedom to remake old classics (on that note, why are two dudes directing the new Pet Sematary movie when a woman made the original adaptation?) as well as delving into haunted houses, ski lodges, historical freaks, the darker side of the internet and everywhere else.

It’s a hugely exciting time to be a female horror fan right now. Finally, the female experience is being represented in our beloved genre the way it always should have been, as wonderfully messy as it actually is. Forget about nun rape, meaningless dance porn or even just plain beating women senseless for two hours and calling it empowering. The future of horror isn’t female, it’s the present. And it’s about bloody time.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.