For a long time, horror was an exclusionary genre, both in terms of gender and race. Women have been mercilessly stalked, tortured, and maimed for the viewer’s pleasure, with films gratuitously screening disturbing acts of violence against women, portaying them as mindless victims with zero agency nor characterisation – other than their fuckability.
But scary films have also been a powerful tool to mirror the real horrors of society and boldly critique the status quo, as well as offering marginalised groups a safe place from which to process trauma. Beyond the blood and guts and damsels in distress, films with women at the helm have bothered to flesh out their female characters and take horror back from the male gaze.
A new series from MUBI, The New Coven: A Female Horror Renaissance, celebrates the wave of scary cinema directed by women, with Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor premiering on Halloween. Read on below for a selection of the best films charting the refreshing take on horror from a feminist and woman-centric perspective. Expect terrifying takedowns of gender roles, grisly scenes of motherhood, and plenty of screams!
A retro pastiche of 60s horror in full, glossy technicolour, The Love Witch is a portrayal of female sexual empowerment – at odds with the regressive politics of the era it spoofs. From her gothic Victorian apartment, Elaine, a beautiful young witch, is determined to find a man to love her via a string of spells and potions. Director, costume & set designer, and composer Anna Biller told Dazed that she was inspired by “charm and glamour” when making the film, and that “I take an almost obsessive amount of care in every detail, something that in the early 60s would have seemed normal”.
“In culture, we’re told pregnancy is this lovely, gentle thing that’s all pastel colours and softness. Actually, the reality is dirty. When you’re giving birth, it’s pure horror,” director, writer, and star Alice Lowe told Dazed. A UK comedy slasher film channeling the violence of pregnancy, Prevenge is a commentary on motherhood as well as all the patronising and lecturing that comes with it. In a meta twist, Lowe (of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace fame) was in her third trimester while making it, exploring a presumably very real prepartum paranoia via the big screen.
THE BABADOOK (2014)
Mining the topic of grief as well as motherhood, Australian psychological horror The Babadook evokes real, existential dread. Directed by Jennifer Kent, the arthouse film centres around a single mother plagued by the violent death of her husband, before a top hat-sporting ghoul (and now gay icon) arises from a bedtime pop-up book and lurks around the house – a truly chilling thought for any child.
Set in mid-80s Britain, Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor centres around Enid, whose day job involves meticulously cutting and classifying scenes of violence from B-movies from a dingy Soho basement. Through the medium of illegal videotapes and pre-internet media panics, the film explores the era of ‘video nasty’ and how the genre was used as a scapegoat for the nation’s many ills. Deep down, the film is about power of horror to confront our deepest fears, and the blurring of fiction and reality. “Enid thinks that deep down she’s a bad person,” Bailey-Bond told Dazed in an interview about the film. “She thinks, inside, that she’s rotten. I wanted to explore that relationship that evolves with her on the screen, based on what she thinks of herself.”