What exactly is a feminist-friendly horror film? Well, it is no secret the genre has catered to the male gaze for a very long time, with its penchant for big-breasted women who seemingly have never had “The Talk” (you know the one about walking alone in the dark with keys as a makeshift ‘weapon’) and blithely waltz into peril, defying any logic or self-preservation instincts. Then, there are the characters fitting into the promiscuity-hyper-inflated-for-the-male-gaze trope. In other words, girls don’t have sex in the woods because, well, Jason. It seems that the only strong female characters in horror are victims of particularly grisly violence who seek to wreak their revenge.
This low bar notwithstanding, there are plenty of feminist-friendly horror films that eschew these essentialist portrayals to offer much more nuanced imaginary. What fascinates and what horrifies us is very much a social commentary. Feminist-friendly horror films make us question gender, sexual, religious and political givens. They make us wonder who gets to define what is horrific. From the days of the OG Mary Shelley to the present, there are plenty of horror films that tear apart the veil of normalcy to give us a glimpse of something weirdly intriguing. Sometimes, the film between the comical and the serious, between the imagined and the real, is so flimsy as to be imperceptible — this is what makes a good feminist-friendly horror film. Or if not cerebral good, at least entertainment good, like in the original 1978 John Carpenter-helmed “Halloween,” when Laurie Strode uses such staples of domesticity as a knitting needle and a clothing hanger to whip “The Shape” into shape.
To that end, here’s a rundown of feminist-friendly horror films that break the mold of testostrone-driven fright flicks.
“The Witch” (2015)
The real horrors in this film are settler colonialism and religious zealotry. In “The Witch,” a family settles into the New England wilderness in the 1600s. And by settles, I mean lives in seemingly total isolation (or is it?). What could possibly go wrong? When the baby of the family mysteriously disappears, the parents blame Thomasin, the oldest daughter. Throw a particularly sinister-looking goat named Black Phillip into the mix and wild accusations of witchcraft start flying around (as do the witches themselves in a scene which should be high camp but is actually not) and you get a pretty good sense how easily Salem-like hysteria spread in times when the pursuit of the day was the Kingdom of God, here on earth. High on the eeriness scale, “The Witch” exposes the dark underbelly of Puritan piety.
In “Carrie,” not only is a woman the lead, but the rest of the characters in the film are mostly so as well. Being a teenager is terrifying, but in “Carrie,” it is bloody terrifying. Carrie’s prom, especially, is a howling good time. Emphasis on howling. Carrie is bullied at school and tormented by her ultra-religious mother, but her nascent telekinetic abilities are about to cause quite a stir. Profoundly unsettling, yet a must-see for any horror fan, the original version of “Carrie,” like any good cerebral horror flick, asks the question of who is actually the monster in this.
This might be the most colorful horror movie ever. There’s lots of flowers, sunshine, lovely woods, magic mushrooms, embroidery, delicious Swedish food and daylight. Oh, and people leaping to their deaths in a cult ritual that takes place every 90 years. Sprinkle in a gross distortion of what anthropologists actually do, and a gut-wrenching portrayal of a really bad relationship, along with a healthy dose of utterly unnerving and gory imagery, and you get a sense of the absolutely wild ride that “Midsommar“ is. Like The Three Bears on psilocybin, the story will have you going “What did I just watch?” while the cry-smile of Florence Pugh will haunt you for some time.
Ari Aster’s pre-“Midsommar” film is equally unsettling in its portrayal of grief and the manner it oppresses and suffocates those suffering from it. “Hereditary“ gives new meaning to a difficult mother-daughter relationship. But despite what the trailer suggests, the mother is not the one doing the haunting. You’ll just have to see for yourself.
Like “Carrie,” there is hyper religiosity and telekinesis, but there is also the lab-exploding chemistry between Thelma and Anja. Not just a lesbian movie with superpowers, “Thelma“ is about shape-shifting identities.
An all-female modern dance company that is economically self-sustaining and provides its dancers with a living space: talk about terrifying the patriarchy. The horror. They must be all witches and/or lesbian. Jokes aside, the remake of the rather campy earlier version raises so many questions about authority, about how society doesn’t believe women and labels them crazy and about rebellion. “Suspria“ really makes apparent the connection between social unrest and the definition of what is monstrous and threatening.
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