Film & Television

Scream Queens: Horror Movies Led by Women

There’s a convention in many horror films known as “Final Girl.” The phrase refers to the last woman alive when the movie comes to an end. Think Amy Irving’s Sue Snell in Carrie, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien. Or, perhaps most famous of all, Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in the entire Halloween franchise.

But, a phenomenon that gets less attention is that of “Lead Girl.” Interestingly, women have been creating scary movies, writing and/or directing as well as starring in them, for the past 120 years. Whether they were pioneering the horror genre, launching a career, or reinvigorating the slasher as art form, women have left their mark. (And left many of us terrified in the process.)

Here are thirteen titles to explore, just in time for Halloween.


Faust et Méphistophélès directed by Alice Guy (1903)

Calling French filmmaker Guy-Blaché an innovator is an understatement. She directed the movie industry’s first narrative film, established what grew to be the largest studio of its time, hired the first all-Black cast, and pioneered on-screen naturalism. This retelling of the classic German legend compresses the original 25,000-line verse into just two minutes, complete with pyrotechnics and stop-motion magic. (YouTube)

The Hitch-Hiker directed by Ida Lupino (1953)

Actress-turned-director Lupino tells the story of two fishing buddies who suddenly realize that the stranded driver they’ve picked up is a psychopath, the infamous “Hitch-hike Slayer,” fleeing the authorities. Their passenger has already murdered two others and sadistically taunts them with death threats as they head to Santa Rosalita, Mexico. The Hitch-Hiker was promoted as the “first American film noir directed by a woman.” (Amazon Prime, Tubi TV)

The Mafu Cage directed by Karen Arthur (1978)

This psychological thriller was originally produced as a television drama. It stars Lee Grant and Carol King as sisters Ellen and Cissy, living in a creepy house with their dead father’s orangutan. When the ape dies and Ellen gets a boyfriend, jealous Cissy goes on a deadly rampage. Just a few years later, Arthur won an Emmy for directing an episode of Cagney & Lacey. (DVD available for purchase at Amazon)

Near Dark directed by Kathryn Bigelow (1987)

Twenty years before she became the first female director to win an Oscar, Bigelow directed this vampire saga set in the deep South. The son of a farmer, bitten by an alluring young stranger, must learn to kill if he wants to be accepted by the rest of her “family” of undead bloodsuckers. Released the same year as the more popular (and sophisticated) The Lost Boys, it’s interesting to see how a world-class director cut her teeth. (Pun intended.) (MovieSphere)

Pet Sematary directed by Mary Lambert (1989)

Master of horror Stephen King once said that the only thing he ever wrote that scared him was Pet Sematary. In her feature film debut, Lambert, who’s had a prolific career in music videos and documentaries, starts off slow and gradually increases the suspense. The Creed family learns the hard way that you can’t cheat death — and you should stay out of pet cemeteries and ancient burial grounds. (AMC+ or available to rent on Amazon)

Boxing Helena directed by Jennifer Lynch (1993)

If you remember the controversy surrounding this seemingly misogynist film when it was released 30 years ago, you may be surprised to learn it was directed by a woman. Lynch, who was only 25 at the time wrote and directed this psychosexual drama and called it “a crazy fairy tale.” The plot revolves around an obsessed surgeon (Julian Sands) and the woman (Sherilynn Fenn) he mutilates and keeps in a box. (DVD available for purchase on Amazon)

Office Killer directed by Cindy Sherman (1997)

This oddball dark comedy proves something many of us discovered during the pandemic. Working from home can be murder. In this case, literally. Better known for her photographic self-portraits, Sherman tells the story of a meek and mild-mannered office worker who finally cracks — and racks up an impressive body count of former coworkers. Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald, and Jeanne Tripplehorn star. (Available to rent on Amazon)

American Psycho directed by Mary Harron (2000)

Gordon Gekko famously said, “Greed is good.” Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), another iconic, self-satisfied, 1980s investment banker is just as greedy, but also happens to be a serial killer. Harron, praised for her earlier film I Shot Andy Warhol, directed Bale, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, and Willem Dafoe in this disturbing adaptation of the Brett Easton Ellis novel, filled with violence, sex, and violent sex. (HBO Max)

XX directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic (2006)

This anthology comprises four horror shorts, all directed by women. In “Don’t Fall,” friends on a camping trip accidentally awaken an evil spirit. In “The Birthday Party,” a dead parent attends a child’s birthday party in a panda costume. In “Her Only Living Son,” Cora’s difficult offspring grows claws and begins to resemble his satanic dad. And, in “The Box,” a family slowly starves to death after opening a mysterious red package. (Available to rent on Amazon)

The Countess directed by Julie Delpy (2009)

Prefaced with the chilling words “Based on a true story,” French writer, actor, and director Delpy’s period drama focuses on Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth Báthory. Having fallen in love with a younger man, she is distraught to find herself aging. Then, she discovers that bathing in the blood of virgins will preserve her beauty. Academy Award-winner William Hurt and Spanish actor Daniel Brühl star alongside Delpy. (AMC+ and available to rent on Amazon)

The Babadook directed by Jennifer Kent (2014)

A grim rebuttal to any mother who has ever assured a child that there were no monsters under the bed, Kent’s stylish film expands upon a short she directed a decade earlier. Widow Amelia and her young son Sam are threatened by the tall top-hatted monster from a picture book — until they finally come to terrible terms with the fact that you have to learn to live with your demons. The Babadook grossed $10 million against a $2 million budget. (AMC+ and available to rent on Amazon)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night directed by Ana Lily Amirpour (2014)

Frankly, I find the title of this Persian-language horror film frightening enough, but Amirpour’s feature debut focuses on an Iranian ghost town being hunted by a vampire. The director, who also wrote the screenplay, describes it as “the first Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.” Praised for its moody styling and feminist themes, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night earned a 96% “Certified Fresh” rating on critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. (Tubi TV)

Raw directed by Julia Ducournau (2016)

Last, but not least, the French and Belgian Raw follows the journey of a young veterinary student who transforms from lifelong vegetarian to flesh-craving carnivore. Soon, her new appetite leads her to disturbing cannibalistic sexual encounters. Ducournau, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, has won multiple international awards, and claims she “was shocked” to learn that some Toronto Film Festival audience members had fainted. (Netflix)

Happy  Horror-ween.

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  • Elizabeth Turner October 25, 2022 at 2:31 pm

    You missed the two greats: Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane