How diversity is (slowly) saving the horror genre
Women, to a degree, starred in horror films from the very beginning. Whether we’re talking about “Dracula,” “Psycho” or “Halloween,” a woman got a starring role to some extent. These roles aren't perfect; in many cases they're fatally flawed because the women are pawns. The common denominator is a story crafted by a man and a fundamental misunderstanding of the goodness of humanity.
Let’s focus on the 1980s, an era of horror I have a soft spot for despite its objective terribleness. It starts with John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” a film that more or less gets it right. Some spoilers ahead, I guess. I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a movie this old, but your mileage may vary.
Jamie Lee Curtis isn’t the original Survivor Girl because “Halloween” didn’t really invent anything: it just made everything you know about the slasher film popular. Just go with me for a second. It’s a good reference point because most people have seen it. She’s stalked and terrorized by her brother, Michael Myers, a malevolent, soulless killing machine. Curtis is a good girl. She doesn’t drink, party or fuck. That is extremely important.
It may not seem important at first, but as her friends are brutally murdered while perpetrating immoral behavior it becomes clear why Curtis survives. Sin and you die is the message of “Halloween,” as Carpenter tells it. It’s important to note this isn’t a lifestyle he’s endorsing, far from it. He’s tapping into the fear of an era where Baby Boomers have grown up and taught their children nothing is more horrifying than immorality, and he sees the irony in it.
There’s a danger in this, though, and Carpenter doesn’t seem to get it.
Making the virgin a hero catalyzes culture instead of subverting it. That isn’t necessarily wrong, of course, because horror should tap into our greatest fears and anxieties. That’s kind of the point. I also don’t think the director anticipated the impact his film would have on the genre moving forward; for years the Survivor Girl became the staple of slashers.
From "Friday the 13th" to "A Nightmare On Elm Street", we saw horny teenagers murdered on screen with much less nuance. We stopped rooting for Curtis. Instead we began to root for Michael and Jason and Freddy and Leatherface. These films stopped scaring us in the theaters and, looking at them from a distance, they scare me as someone who sees audiences gleefully root for psychopaths murdering teenagers who just want to fuck in a cabin in the rain. Who doesn’t want to fuck at summer camp? Isn’t that kind of the point of going in the first place? Bueller? Bueller?
Thankfully the genre has, mostly, turned a corner. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of shit churned out in the name of horror every year, but it’s easier than ever to find gems if you know where to look. That, unsurprisingly, is thanks to greater diversity in the genre than ever before. That’s a low bar to clear, of course, but women, and people of color in general have helped save the genre from itself.
Three recent films directed by women stand out to me.
“Goodnight Mommy,” directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala was released in Austria in 2014 and centers on two young boys who believe the woman claiming to be their mother isn’t who she says she is.
It’s a dynamic unlike anything I’ve seen in a horror film before or since. So many horror films follow a similar pattern: run, chase, kill. “Goodnight Mommy” isn’t like that. It sucks you into the paranoia of the characters right up until the conclusion of the film and the unique perspective of the directors (being a foreign film helps, I’m sure) plays a huge role in that. Highly recommend.
“The Babadook,” directed by Jennifer Kent, is an Australian horror film you’re probably already familiar with. It takes a much different angle to the mother-son horror genre (which certainly exists — hi “Psycho”!) than what you’re accustomed to. This is one of my favorite horror films of all time and it owes almost entirely to Kent’s unique directorial eye, and worldview.
Lastly “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” another 2014 release, centers on an Iranian skateboarding vampire who preys upon men who disrespect women. If that doesn’t make you want to pick up a copy, I can’t fucking help you. One of the best films ever made, and my favorite vampire of all time, the aesthetic alone makes this a must watch.
Additionally, this is a rare example of an American woman getting a shot to direct a horror film. While it feels more films are being made about women in horror with better roles (“The Monster” and “House of the Devil” being films I love) they’re still directed by men.
An honorable mention, “Under the Shadow” (which I reviewed here), is directed by man, but a person of color. I’ll take my diversity in horror, a traditionally lily white genre, where I can get it. Beyond this diversity making the movies better (which is nice) it’s frankly necessary. Do the right thing, man. For too long horror has been a genre controlled by white men with their fetishes. Things are better now, but there’s still so much room for growth.
“Get Out” is a recent example of the world’s hunger for a film that eschews those trappings. Directed by Jordan Peele, a guy who couldn’t be further away from the genre, the spectacular film is on its way to being a box office smash. Take the hint, everyone. No one is saying there’s not room for dudes with machetes and hockey masks, but there’s also room for diversity — a lot of it, too.