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My first ever ‘women in horror’ panel was in 2010 at the Birds Eye View Film Festival. The event was titled ‘Bloody Women’ and it felt fresh, exciting, maybe even a bit progressive.
In the following years, I made a number of genre-adjacent shorts before releasing my debut feature Censor in 2021. During my short-film years I was invited many, many times to speak about the female perspective on the horror genre. And in 2020, as I was about to log on to a Zoom panel on the same subject, my heart suddenly sank at the thought of being asked all those same questions again… What it’s like to be a woman in horror? Why do I think there are so many women making horror today? What unique thing do women bring to the genre? … The questions I had now been asked for a decade. As I waited to be let into the Zoom I told myself this would be the last panel or interview I did on the subject of “women in horror”. Of course, it wasn’t my last…
My journey into genre filmmaking began, in some ways, through an interest in the darker aspects of human nature and the expressive, sometimes surreal possibilities offered by horror. Being female wasn’t something I consciously considered when thinking about the stories I wanted to tell, or the characters and worlds I wanted to explore. But when it has come to talking about the work, it’s a rare occasion when I’m not asked how my gender relates to my genre.
There are, of course, two sides to this; women in film are underrepresented. The Celluloid Ceiling Report of 2021 revealed that of the 250 top-grossing films in Hollywood only 17 per cent had female directors at the helm. The European Audiovisual Observatory’s report showed that between 2016 and 2020, women directed only one in four European films. And the figures get even lower when you look at female representation within roles such as cinematography and composing. Opportunities for women to make films are scarcer than they should be and always have been. So creating conversation around female-driven work is incredibly important. But it’s also important to look at the quality of the platform being provided; the frame within which women filmmakers are invited to speak about their work, and how that leads an audience to it.
The sense of surprise and analysis around women working in horror can at times have the effect of highlighting female genre filmmakers as the ‘other’; an oddity not belonging in this space, a fleeting trend or an anomaly that needs to be explained. And yet women’s interest in horror is not a new thing.
For a start, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818. Alice Guy-Blaché adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ in 1913. Stephanie Rothman was prolific throughout the 1960s and 70s. I sometimes wonder about Mary Harron, Jackie Kong, Kathryn Bigelow, Claire Denis, Karyn Kusama – if they would have found that ‘women in horror’ panel as fresh as I did in 2010? This is why the sketchy recording of women’s history in the genre is so important to address, and why the work of academic film writers such as Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Alison Peirse is so necessary. Women making horror is not an anomaly. We just need equal opportunities to create work, and for women’s contribution to cinema to be acknowledged, recorded and taught.
Lately, I’m being asked about the ‘new wave’ of feminist horror. It’s true that since Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook in 2014 we have been spoilt with more delicious genre films from Julia Ducournau, Issa López, Ana Lily Amirpour, Alice Lowe, Nia DaCosta, Rose Glass, Mattie Do, Anna Biller, Coralie Fargeat, Ruth Paxton, Kate Dolan and many more… surely so many that this ‘new wave’ can be considered part of the ocean now, right?
But then I’m asked about why so many women are working in the genre? What are women creators saying through horror? About the parallels between my work and work by other women storytellers. While I’m very proud to be considered alongside these incredible filmmakers, there’s a danger of melding us all together when we are all individuals, approaching cinema with diverse sensibilities, obsessing over our individual stories, telling them from our individual points of view. I’ve often enjoyed the idea of asking groups of male filmmakers these same questions regarding their work in genre, but for some reason that panel never happens.
I do believe that, behind every panel or article on ‘women in horror’, there is usually the good intention to shine a spotlight on female-driven films. It’s an opportunity for a female creator to talk about and elevate her work. But ultimately the conversation is limiting. For every question a female-identifying filmmaker is asked about how her gender relates to her genre, that’s one less answer where we get to hear about her craft.
I want to hear about how Ducournau approaches action sequences, how Fargeat pre-plans camera movement and edit, how Paxton explores mental health through genre, or how Lowe creates such compelling yet brilliantly twisted characters. Rather than obsessing about gender, let’s obsess about the artistic sensibilities on display. Let’s record and remember women’s contribution to genre cinema so it can inspire the next generation. And let’s allow that generation to be defined by their creativity, not their gender.
In the realm of Censor: Mark Kermode speaks to director Prano Bailey-Bond
Razor-sharp psychological horror Censor is a paean to the blood-spattered delights of the much maligned ‘video nasties’ of the 1980s. We hear from its director about challenging mainstream morality and seeking solace in savagery and slaughter.
By Mark Kermode
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