A lot of people find it hard to see how a person can be both a feminist and a horror fan, pointing to the countless nudity and violence against women that exists in horror. For me, violence against women is a fact of the world we live in, women are more likely to be victims of violence than men and to expect horror to shy away from that fact and show a different truth seems unfair and naïve.
Unbalanced female nudity is something that unfortunately plagues all film genres; it is certainly not unique to the horror genre. What is unique is the high number of films featuring women in leading roles, women being heroes, women being resourceful and fighting and surviving. Women defeating a seemingly unbeatable foe and doing it using their owns wiles and ingenuity.
Here’s to celebrating women in horror!
10. Ginger Snaps (2000)
Coming of age is hard and fraught with a whole slew of adolescent angsty issues that make all those raging hormones go into hyperdrive and cause even the smallest moment of humiliation or self-doubt become an all consuming tragedy. This is the macrocosm that is high school and here, with two goth sisters struggling to embrace their outcast status, it is even harder when one of them is bitten by a werewolf and begins to transform into something much scarier than an adult.
The analogies are pretty thick here – puberty changes you into a hairy aggressive beast just like the werewolf, she is bitten and begins transforming on the day she starts her period which happens to be on a full moon. This is a rite-of-passage film told from a female perspective which is something not seen as frequently, it also explores the relationship between sisters and having to make decisions and choices as a woman rather than a girl.
Modest, interesting and fresh.
9. Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Those slasher movies of the '80s were full of buxom beauties lining up to be slain, usually after succumbing to sex (as we all know that’s the root of all evil!) Slumber Party Massacre, despite its lurid title made up for some of this by creating a world where the young ladies have to work together with their combined ingenuity leading to the eventual, inevitable, killing of the killer.
Interesting that the murderer uses a very phallic drill to kill his victims, interesting that the girls discuss sport and friendship and school, not just boys as most films believe is the sole pre-occupation of women. The nudity is to be taken as satire, the film a comment on the ‘male gaze’ of Hollywood. However you choose to interpret this film it is a neat little slasher written and directed by women.
8. Teeth (2007)
Vagina Dentata is not a real medical condition; best get that out of the way first. So far there have been no diagnosed, confirmed cases of teeth in the vagina, yet. Teeth is the story of Dawn, a small town teen with a ‘virgin pledge’. While out swimming in a secluded cave with her boyfriend, he attempts to rape her not knowing of Dawn’s medical problem - her vagina has teeth. In a well deserved act of savagery, her vagina bites off his penis and thus we are thrown into quite an odd little film about Dawn’s gradual acceptance, love and power over her own body.
The problem with this film is that there is only one sympathetic male character, the rest are using her, molesting her or objectifying her. This is a skewed view of the world and one I don’t subscribe to. However, the idea of a biting vagina was just too good to not have on this list
7. Carrie (1976)
Another film that equates puberty and menstruation with female empowerment, Carrie starts right off the bat with THAT shower scene and never lets up with the torment and bullying of Carrie White, whose only crime it appears is having an evangelistic fanatical mother and those strange telekinetic powers that awaken with her first period. It's not all about uterus’s and cycles in the female world but let's face it, they take up a lot of our time and their concern is a part of our lives for up to 50 years so they have a role in feminist horror.
What’s great here is not just the gradual taking back of her own identity but also the courage to stand up to her terrifying mother and actually allow someone (Tommy) into her circle that up until now has only been a hiding place for one, the quiet stretch in Sissy Spacek’s performance is quite remarkable. It’s also notable that Tommy is allowed to be a more of a human character than expected – he doesn’t want to take her out but he is a decent man and wants to help right a wrong, in the end his kindness wins through and he connects with her in a lovely way.
The final reel and its many heart-wrenching and violent scenes are all the more powerful for having hoped so much for Carrie. Stephen King says this story is ultimately telling what men fear about women’s sexuality, but in the film the men are mostly impotent and it’s a few of her fellow women who want to destroy her.
6. The Descent (2005)
There are two different versions of this film – the original U.K. version and the slicker Hollywood version – please watch the U.K. version, the ending changes the whole movie in a way that gives the film much more value and context then assumed. This is the story of a group of long term female friends who go away for a cave jumping bonding weekend and discover that all is not safe once you get beneath the surface, in more ways than one.
The women here are able to interact with dialogue that feels real and intimate, they have an ease that tells of their many years of friendship, and you believe their connections from the get go. This is a story told from a female perspective and the quality of their support of each other through trauma, how they each deal with what happens without resorting to excessive stereotyping is commendable.
The horror is also exceptional – visceral and nasty and with an air of ‘no one is immune to this possible fate’ which is an uncommon thing in horror.
That ending though…
5. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Rosemary (played by Mia Farrow) and her husband move into a New York apartment with a very dark history, and it seems the devil has her earmarked for a very special task. Made in the '60s, this was very much a product of its time, the look, the acting, and the dialogue reeking of traditional gender roles; and on the surface a meek housewife seems an odd choice for a feminist horror but in her struggle for autonomy over her own body and destiny we see the bigger picture of how women have struggled for the same things universally.
To see the awakening of confidence and surety in her is one of many pleasures to be gained from this masterpiece of cinema. Its also one of the best films to represent how friends rally when one of their own is unwell or in danger – the party scene displaying how rosemary does not exist in a vacuum but has those who care about her outside the small cast of principles, something many horrors neglect to show. Rosemary is feminine, questioning, tenacious and ultimately, brave. She will do what she has to do to help her child, and motherhood with its many strengths is not something usually explored within horror – Rosemary’s Baby is one of a kind.
4. Spring (2014)
This is a film that’s hard to explain. In the explaining it sounds ridiculous and a very different film then the one we are eventually gifted. This looks like one of those ‘arty’ atmospheric horrors except its not, not really – it is beautiful to observe but at its heart it's about a blue collar guy who travels abroad and falls for a girl who may actually be an ancient beast that requires the devouring humans to survive.
Just your average rom-com with a horror twist!
This is a woman who is not looking to ‘settle down’, is comfortable with how she lives and doesn’t need a man to ‘fix’ or ‘rescue’ her. When she finds herself falling for him she questions whether this is something she actually wants, whether this person is worth giving up the life she has enjoyed thus far. To see a female character treated in this way is a breath of fresh air; the equality making this film, and their romance, all the better for it. The horror is just an added bonus. Wonderful!
3. The Lords of Salem (2013)
Rob Zombie’s ode to witches is the tale of a female radio DJ who is slowly possessed after listening to a rock album mysteriously delivered to her in the mail. She chooses to play it over the airways and sets in motion the rise of the devil in Salem and re-awakens an ancient coven of witches. What sounds ridiculous is in actuality effective and creepy, the supernatural woven into the reality in such a way that finds the audience accepting more. This film is almost completely shot from the perspective of the main character (Heidi, played by Sheri Moon Zombie) which allows the audience to fully accept the possession storyline.
The feminism comes from seeing a film completely from a female perspective and not needing to validate or undermine her experiences by diluting them with a male viewpoint, interesting and cool. The witches are not silly, over the top creations but seemingly realistic portrayals of those women demonized by the historic Salem Witch Trails. To even touch on how women were pilloried and burned at the stake etc in those times holds great responsibility for the film-maker and Rob Zombie does a very respectable job here. Please also note the huge amount of threatening phallic symbolism – I do not believe in feminism as a dividing force amongst the genders but a unifying one, however the amount of ‘penis’ on display is interesting.
2. Black Christmas (1974)
Arguably the first slasher film, this Canadian classic about a group of sorority girls tormented by a killer in their attic is a brilliant horror film and one of my favorites, it is inventive, funny and creepy as hell.
It is also strongly feminist.
The main characters are obviously all female, what’s intriguing, especially for a slasher, is that all the characters are clearly delineated, nuanced and complex. These are real women with people who care for them, with lives that stretch before the film began; they are the closest to real people I’ve seen in a slasher horror, particularly as women are often reduced to eye candy in these types of films while the male characters are allowed to be ‘courageous’ or ‘smart’.
The 'final girl' trope was not as relevant here as it has been in other horrors, because all the women get to be as well rounded as only she usually is.
No-one here is all bad or all good, just very, very human.
It was also supremely brave of the film-makers to give the main protagonist an abortion storyline for which she is not vilified, particularly in light of abortion having only been legal for one year when this film came out.
1. You’re Next (2013)
A horror comedy about home invasion that features a powerhouse performance by Sharni Vinson takes my number one spot by a whisker. The family that are victims of said invasion are dysfunctional and vaguely unpleasant, the deaths savage and wince-inducing; and though I had some reservations about the tone of this film, I had no such issues with this character. She is a splendid creation and elevates the entire movie to the next level.
Sharni Vinsom (Home and Away) plays Erin, the tag along girl friend of one of the family members, her quiet beginnings belying her ultimate survival skills.
She is always believable, she is always cool, and she gets to keep her Australian accent.
There are a lot of things I enjoy about horrors – the roller coaster ride, the reflection of current fears and events, the good vs. evil basis of them all, but my favorite thing is the way a strong female protagonist (or two) has become the norm. Sure there are usually a bevy of barely dressed nymphomaniacs as well, but they are nearly always matched by an equally morally-bankrupt male counterpart (unlike a lot of other genres) and they usually both meet the same fate.
Horrors allow women to be strong, fully realised characters who do not exist purely to fawn over the male lead or move the plot along, these characters have lives that extend beyond the film and horror does not demand that they lose their feminism in order to be a tough kick ass character.
You’re Next reminded me of this unique quality in horror and for that I am grateful.
What do you think?
I'm sure I have forgotten more than I listed here, or maybe you feel I have included one that I shouldn't have. Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!