Warped Women: The Emergence of Female Horror Directors in the UK

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Pretty women meet un-pretty fates. It’s a uniting feature of many horror movies. The ice-cool glamour of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane meets an ice-cold end on the bathroom floor. Shelley Duval’s Wendy narrowly escapes from Jack Nicholson’s axe and impending ‘REDRUM’. Marilyn Burns’s Sally finds herself on a never-ending flight from a Texan chainsaw. Acts of evil become heightened by an actress’s beauty; the more sublime their looks, the more sadistic the punishment. Whereas a male protagonist provides a glimmer of hope (he might physically overpower the threat or use his intellect to detect or deter the danger), the woman is often left scrambling: running through corridors; trying to slam shut or rattle open doors. She’s a passive victim caught up in the audience’s voyeuristic fantasies. Or, more immediately, those of her director. Take Hitchcock and his ice-cool blonde.

So, is this clichéd view why so few women direct horror films? It is historically a man’s genre when it comes to filmmakers; a fact that Warp Films recognised when they set up their Darklight initiative back in 2006. The leader of this development programme, Caroline Cooper-Charles, saw how women were being ‘excluded as audience members as well as filmmakers’ and came up with a very specific target for the scheme: to get more women making horror films in the UK. Chatting over the phone, Cooper-Charles recalls how picking female filmmakers proved quite a tricky task. The majority of women sending in submissions had never worked in horror; there was nothing on anyone’s showreel to make her jump. Instead, Cooper-Charles focused on reels with atmospheric, creepy shorts; films that made her ‘squirm or feel uncomfortable’. The chosen directors were then assisted in developing their ideas over a course of 12 months. As Cooper-Charles said, ‘there are so few female filmmakers working in the genre that even if two films came out of the scheme, it would have been quite a massive achievement’.

A couple of years on and there are several films in pre- and post-production: a ‘quite bloody’ exploration of motherhood entitled Little Miss Piggy; an ultra-low-budget teen horror, Freefall; and a project still in early development set in the male-dominated world of banking and business. The latter has strong thriller elements, and another director on the scheme decided to move away from horror altogether to make a thriller. Throughout our conversation, Cooper-Charles often mentions the ‘psychological’ aspect of the women’s work; perhaps an explanation as to why many of the projects boiled over into thriller territory. Even the ‘bloody’ Little Miss Piggy is described as ‘sophisticated with a gore element’. Despite the aims of the initiative, there’s a little reluctance to associate women with out-and-out horror.

The Birds Eye View Festival will be showing a programme of horror shorts directed by women filmmakers on Saturday 12 March at the ICA (London) as part of their ‘Bloody Women’ strand. Three of the filmmakers will be discussing their films with Electric Sheep editor Virginie Sélavy on Resonance FM 104.4 on Tuesday 8 March from 5 to 5:30pm.

After our call, Cooper-Charles writes to tell me that she is producing a film written by Lucy Moore, one of the writers who was part of Darklight, and puts me in touch with the film’s director, China Moo-Young. The following week, Moo-Young and I meet up for a coffee to discuss her film, ‘a monster movie set in Bristol’. When I ask her why she thinks there are so few women working in horror, Moo-Young suggests that it is partly a question of role models – ‘you’ve probably got two examples of women genre directors, Catherine Hardwicke and Kathryn Bigelow… you’ve got your Jane Campions but in terms of genre, they’re your big two’ – and partly a matter of timing. Most filmmakers are making their most important films in their thirties and forties, a time when women may be engaged with childrearing and so unable to undertake the heavy commitments needed to make a feature.

But these two points are asides in a conversation that aims to avoid too much talk of gender, no matter how hard I try to steer the discussion: ‘I kind of think it’s a moot point,’ Moo-Young says, ‘ I’d like to get to a point where it isn’t an issue’. She is not interested in taking part in schemes aimed exclusively at women directors and won’t be bestowed or lumbered with the female filmmaker tag: ‘Kathryn Bigelow’s strength is that you don’t know that she’s a woman… I wouldn’t be doing my job if you could tell which gender directed the film.’

Moo-Young also tells me that psychological horror is her favourite variety of the genre. She likes John Carpenter’s work because it is ‘restrained’; his films ‘use music and mood more than out-and-out violence’. Horror films she admires – The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Jaws – are full of ‘well-drawn characters that don’t fall apart for the sake of the third act’. Ultimately, she loves horror because ‘it taps into human insecurities and fears; it’s about the strange and forbidden side of life’.

Cooper-Charles and Moo-Young are both extremely keen to emphasise the more thoughtful, intelligent aspects of horror; this careful explanation of their interest in the genre can be seen as a reaction against the sexist tendencies of horror and, in particular, slasher films. Although reluctant to talk about herself in terms of gender, Moo-Young concedes: ‘I wouldn’t ever want to generalise about fellow film directors – male or female – in terms of taste, but if a woman is a filmmaker working in horror, she’s probably not going to be making slasher films because she’ll have a female skew on violence towards women.’

This emphasis on psychological horror could also be a defence against genre snobbery; films that follow certain conventions or codes can easily be dismissed as less intelligent than other, less categorisable films. It is refreshing to talk to Moo-Young, not only because she steadfastly refuses to discuss being a woman in a discussion on gender, but also because she is very passionate about the horror genre and genre films in general. ‘I can’t really talk about it,’ she whispers, ‘but there’s a master document called the “brainstorm of kills”, with lots of different ways people could be killed off’. She talks about ‘mapping fear’ and ‘hitting genre beats’ and, in addition to her horror film, she is developing two thrillers and a romantic comedy. She sees horror as providing an opportunity to subvert the normal rules of life. She talks about the closing of Let the Right One In providing a hugely satisfying ending for the audience but also an uneasy one: on the one hand, we want Eli and Oskar to be together; on the other, we anticipate Oskar’s dark future as he takes the place of her previous protector. In horror, often the good have to commit ordinarily immoral acts in order to survive, which disorientates and challenges the audience’s normal moral framework in interesting ways.

The importance of subversion makes the idea of female directors influencing the horror genre both a natural and exciting progression. Women can question the portrayal of female victims on screen and also, viewing the genre from an outside perspective, they can shake up a rule and convention-led art form. Those genre films that work most successfully and stand the test of time are generally those that offer something different from the tried-and-tested formula. It sounds as if Darklight has tried to champion work that fits this description. We’ll look forward to seeing the results.

Eleanor McKeown

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