The horror film has long been a powerful medium of social commentary and criticism, but it also is burdened by a history of exploiting the female body. It’s refreshing to see films that not only refuse to objectify women for the male gaze, but also feature women as leads who function as characters, not caricatures. Whether they’re the victims or the villains, women’s importance in the canon of horror cinema is undeniable, with most of the genre’s greatest films starring women.
In the interest of exposing lay lovers of cinema to a wider array of these types of films (and not regurgitate the most well known picks), here is a sample of the expansive library of must-watch horror films starring women to see this Halloween season.
“Suspiria” stars Jessica Harper as Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student invited to a prestigious dance academy in Germany to continue her studies. However, between mysterious deaths and disappearances, suspicious footsteps and rumors of witchcraft, things are not all that pleasant at Tanz Dance Academy.
Dario Argento’s 1977 film is one of those classics that modern audiences might write off as cheesy. Yeah it’s cheesy, but it’s got so much heart poured into it that the cheese is just one of the bells and whistles that make it so enjoyable to watch. Few others match how beautifully detailed the ornate textures that decorate the interiors of the film are, with elaborate sets made specifically for almost every unique location. The score, composed by prog rock band Goblin, is an unforgettable sonic assault as elaborate as the film’s sets. “Suspiria” is horror canon that never fails to deliver, owing its legacy to its gnarly kills and wonderful attention to atmosphere.
It’s the ones that take their time that scare us the best. Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is a 2015 horror film distributed by A24, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, the eldest daughter of a Puritan family banished from their colony and left to fend for themselves in the New England wilderness. Oh yeah, and there may or may not be a super creepy witch in the woods terrorizing them.
“The Witch” is easily one of the greatest horror films of the 2000’s. Everything from the costumes, dialogue, sets and details regarding witchcraft are perfect replications of the period in question, lending its immersion to the film’s dedication to authenticity. While it is a slow burn, it is consistently engaging (and terrifying), compounding levels of fear with almost every single scene. The devil is in the details, and “The Witch” masterfully encapsulates some of the most delicate approaches to horror in a long time.
“You see it, you die in seven days.” You’ve seen the remake, but what about the original? “Ringu” is a 1998 Japanese supernatural horror film that the 2004 film “The Ring” is based off of. While the remake is solid by its own merits, its Japanese counterpart has the sheer creepiness that defines horror from this country.
“Ringu” is the story of a television reporter, Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), whose niece’s death sparks her intrigue in an urban legend surrounding a haunted VHS tape that local students rumor to have been the cause of her death. When Reiko somehow manages to get her hands on the mysterious tape, she encounters the vengeful spirit of a girl named Sadako, and enlists the help of her ex-husband to break the curse. While the scares are spaced out to give the investigatory horror some time to develop its plot, they hit with a force that etch their images on the mind. It’s an eerie film highlighted (or blackened) by a moody atmosphere that rarely lets up, creeping on until the very end.
Some films are so ridiculous and unabashedly themselves, so weird and out there that they transcend the epithet of “cheesy,” in spite of how bonkers they are. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 cult horror-comedy film “Hausu” is that type of film.
Like other classic horror films of the past, “Hausu” has heart, lots and lots of heart. It’s a purely psychedelic experience that follows a sweet group of buddy-buddy high school kids (whose names ingeniously add to the wacky experience) that fall into a wormhole of phantasmagorical poltergeists, rendered in the strangest of special effects. In short: Schoolgirls enter a spooooky house and are haunted by the most ‘70s spirit(s) ever. It is genuinely one of the most fun and absurd experiences to be had with a film, oozing an abundance of charm.
“The Descent” not only stars a woman as the lead, but sports an entirely all-female cast — unless, of course, you count the male actors in prosthetics that serve as the antagonists. This 2005 horror gem is a British export that centers around a group of friends who plan a spelunking trip in the Appalachian Mountains one year after Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband and daughter in a car accident. Once descended, their adventure becomes a fight for survival as they discover the cave they entered is host to primeval humanoids on the hunt for intruders.
Visceral and compelling, Neil Marshall’s film accomplished something spectacular on a budget of roughly $6 million. It sports incredibly designed sets that can easily be mistaken for legitimate cave interiors which, paired with the sound design, feed into the film’s claustrophobia. While the film boils down to two important characters worth caring about and the rest serving as monster fodder, the emotions that run through the film are genuine. “The Descent” also holds no bars; broken limbs, gouged eyes, slit throats, all the stuff for gorehounds to love.
Before gaining renown for playing Dr. Alan Grant in “Jurassic Park,” Sam Neill co-starred alongside Isabelle Adjani in Andrzej Zulawki’s 1981 film, “Possession.” It centers on husband and wife Mark (Neill) and Anna (Adjani), who are in the middle of an asymmetrically pursued separation. However, this restrained synopsis doesn’t quite encapsulate how brilliantly mad “Possession” is; Zulawski purportedly pitched his film to producers as “a movie about a woman who fucks an octopus.” And that’s actually not too far from the truth.
“Possession” is a film that leaves no room for middle ground impressions. Initially an emotionally draining portrait of relationship on a downward spiral fueled by deceit and anger, it slowly, then all-at-once, unravels manic displays of conjugal horrors. While less a horror film in the traditional sense and more of an embodiment of postmodernist horror, Adjani’s rabid performance attributes about half of the film’s place in the genre: Battling her husband’s possessiveness, she in turn becomes possessed by the spirit of independence in its most psychosexual and hyper-violent manifestation ever. “Possession’”s horror rites are fulfilled by Carlo Rambaldi’s (the man behind “E.T.”) gruesome special effects and Andrzej Korzynski’s ominous score.
The first time I saw John Carpenter’s 1980 film, “The Fog,” I thought I was watching one of those movies that everyone agreed upon as being a masterwork of filmmaking, but it’s criminally glossed over. I suppose it makes sense that when one makes such phenomenal works as “The Thing” or “Ghosts of Mars,” one of those gems is going to be done dirty.
“The Fog,” Carpenter’s first film following the box office success of “Halloween,” is minimalist horror perfection, a two-fold narrative following two women, radio host Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) and hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (the scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis), attempting to survive from a fog that’s host to vengeful spirits out to kill the residents of Antonio Bay, California. It’s light on plot, operating on a curse to trigger the onset of the horror, but what it lacks on narrative weight it more than makes up for in its atmosphere. As expected from a film deriving its scares from specters trudging through an imperceptible layer of fog, the lighting is pristine. Carpenter’s subtle pulsing electronic score might be his best here, and he directs the 90-minute film with a craftsman’s level of precision.
Another overlooked piece of bizarre horror is Lucky Mckee’s 2002 film, “May,” starring Angela Bettis. Born with a lazy eye, May was singled out and outcasted as a child, her only friend being a doll her mother gave her on one of her birthdays, Suzie. As an adult, she yearns for sociality and is emphatic when her optometrist can adjust her vision with the help of contact lenses. When she develops an obsessive crushes on a local mechanic (Jeremy Sisto), she begins a journey of self-discovery. Sounds cute right? Wrong.
“May” has all the makings of a great cult film yet to this day doesn’t have the audience it deserves. Bettis is exceptional in her role, which can only be described as deeply distressed, a weird performance that anchors the film’s sidewinding plot. What begins as a strangely cute black comedy-romance develops into a character study driven by isolation and murderous self-love. By the end, Mckee frankensteins a twisted and, to quote the late Roger Ebert, “oddly moving” horror film with no comparison group of films as frames as references.
“A Tale of Two Sisters”
“A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”
“Under the Shadow”
“Ganja & Hess”
“Carnival of Souls”