Women are sinking their teeth ever deeper into horror. We chart their rise and talk to directors Ana Lily Amirpour, Julia Ducournau and Karyn Kusama

Theres a moment in French film-maker Julia Ducournaus prize-winning feature debut Raw in which a young vegetarian (ethereally played by Garance Marillier) finds herself unexpectedly ravenous at the sight of a severed finger. Its a deliciously horrifying vignette, squirm-inducingly squishy, yet somehow bizarrely sensual. Like Claire Deniss controversial 2001 shocker Trouble Every Day, Raw takes an intimate approach to the taboo subject of cannibalism, sinking its teeth into the sins of the flesh. As all great horror films should, it touches a nerve simultaneously repelling and seducing its audience, sucking us in and spitting us out.

For horror fans, Raw is the latest in an encouraging wave of genre-bending movies which have twisted familiar tropes to new and unsettling ends. At the end of 2015, my yearly Observer list of the 10 best films released in UK cinemas featured both Carol Morleys eerie The Falling and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, an electrifying Iranian-American vampire western which writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour described as being the love-child of Sergio Leone and David Lynch, with Nosferatu as a babysitter. In 2014, Jennifer Kents The Babadook had been my pick of the year a spine-chilling fantasia which drew on folk tales and silent film techniques as it subtly unpicked the grief and paranoia of a single mother, habitually projecting her fears onto her lonely child.

Grief and transformation are also at the heart of Prevenge, a homicidal antidote to What To Expect When Youre Expecting, written and directed by leading lady Alice Lowe while herself heavily pregnant. Drawing on sources ranging from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthurs 1934 oddity Crime Without Passion to Jonathan Glazers uncategorisable Birth, Prevenge managed to be maniacal and melancholy, creepy and funny often simultaneously.

That such genre-refreshing films were directed by women has not gone unnoticed. Last October, an article in Rolling Stone magazine hailed the rise of the modern female horror film-maker, charting a course from The Babadook to Raw via Karyn Kusamas 2015 chiller The Invitation, and arguing that a new wave of horror films helmed by women have helped elevate the genre by opening it up to stories that unsettle audiences in new and different ways. Similarly, at the Sundance film festival in January, whoops and cheers greeted the premiere of XX, a female-helmed horror anthology described by one of its makers, Jovanka Vuckovic, as a historic moment created in direct response to the lack of opportunities for women in film, particularly in the horror genre, which, she argues, was badly in need of new perspectives.

Back in 2007, a Guardian article by Emine Saner entitled Everything but the ghoul argued that there just arent enough female directors in any genre, but especially in horror. In the decade since that article was published, weve seen such female-helmed horror hybrids as Kusamas satirical high-school nightmare Jennifers Body (2009) written by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody; Leigh Janiaks marital-meltdown weirdie Honeymoon (2014), a cross between Andrzej Zulawskis Possession and The Evil Dead; and even Anna Billers Douglas Sirk/Jess Franco mash-up The Love Witch. In 2012, the deliciously twisted American Mary by sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska raised the roof at FrightFest, the UKs world-renowned horror showcase which has also premiered films ranging from Kerry Anne Mullaneys The Dead Outside (2008) to Axelle Carolyns Soulmate (2013), Ruth Platts The Lesson (2015), and Kate Shentons Egomaniac (2016).

Explicitly challenges stereotypes: Ana Lily Amirpours Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Photograph: Spectrev/Rex/Shutterstock

So is the gender landscape of horror changing? Anyone with a sense of history knows that from Mary Shelleys Frankenstein to Shirley Jacksons The Haunting of Hill House and Anne Rices Interview With the Vampire, the gothic romance has always depended on women writers and readers. In cinema, the genre has also provided a perennial springboard for rising stars, both behind and in front of the camera. Amy Joness The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and Mary Lamberts Pet Sematary (1989) both helped put their directors on the map in the competitive 1980s. (Horror expert Kim Newman points out that Slumber Party Massacre II and III were also written and directed by women, making the series unique among ordinary franchise horror films). Rachel Talalay earned her first director credit on Freddys Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). Japanese director Shimako Sat got her break writing and directing the acclaimed UK horror Tale of a Vampire in 1992. Meanwhile, the remarkable Emily Hagins made her first horror film Pathogen (2006) at the age of 12, and went on to write and direct the chiller The Retelling (2009) and the vampire comedy My Sucky Teen Romance (2011) while still in high school.

From Stephanie Rothman (Blood Bath, 1966; The Velvet Vampire, 1971) to Katt Shea (Dance of the Damned, 1989, The Rage: Carrie 2, 1999), determined film-makers have long seen low-budget horror and exploitation as a financially viable doorway into a male-dominated industry. Moreover, the malleability of horror has made it the genre of choice for visionary film-makers eager to stretch their wings. Kathryn Bigelow, who broke the Oscars glass ceiling when she won best director for The Hurt Locker in 2010, scored her first major commercial success with the blood-sucking thriller Near Dark (1987). With its stylish violence and feral love story, Near Dark became the most influential vampire movie of the decade (you can feel its influence 20 years later, in Catherine Hardwickes adaptation of Stephenie Meyers Twilight). Meanwhile, The Babadook has become a touchstone text of 21st century horror, described by The Exorcists director William Friedkin as a film that will scare the hell out of you, as it did me.

Horror reflects society, Professor Barbara Creed, author of The Monstrous-Feminine, told The Guardian back in 2007. What we probably need are more thoughtful horror films that speak directly to female experiences.

Perhaps thats what were now getting. Rolling Stone hailed Raw as turning a cannibal coming-of-age story into a shocking, clever feminist parable. Meanwhile Prevenge and The Babadook flip ideas of motherhood on their head, while A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night explicitly challenges stereotypes about how women should behave. I think horror is a very safe place to examine issues that are out of your control, Canadian director Jen Soska told New York magazine last year for a piece headlined Five Female Directors on Why They Love Horror Movies. At a time when the world seems particularly out of control, its little wonder that the genre should be expanding and diversifying leading the way in an industry ready for change.

Julia Ducournau

The French directors debut film, Raw, won a critics prize at Cannes and gets a UK cinema release on 7 April.

When your parents are doctors, youve got a different take on the human body and mortality: Julia Ducournau, with Garance Marillier, star of Raw. Photograph: Aurelie Lamachere/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

When Julia Ducournau was six years old she accidentally watched her first horror movie. Channel-hopping while her parents were entertaining guests, she switched on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the 1974 cannibal film said to be as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises by critic Roger Ebert. I wasnt scared, she says, I didnt cry I think my imagination was discovering a new level of reality.

Its an anecdote shes clearly enjoying sharing, now that her own cannibal film, Raw, is amassing almost as many reports of audience members fainting as awards and rave reviews. An astonishing debut, bold and provocative, it centres on Justine (Garance Marillier), a socially awkward vegetarian student who, after being forced to eat raw rabbit kidney during a series of harsh hazing initiations at veterinary school, develops an insatiable hunger for flesh and a savage sexual appetite.

A fan of films exploring the humanity in monsters such as The Elephant Man, Freaks and The Fly, Ducournau was inspired to write Raw when she realised that cannibal movies are always written in the third person treating the cannibal like an alien. She resolved to have audiences empathise with her monster. Raw premiered at Cannes last year where it won an international critics prize and propelled her to the top of many rising star lists, before scooping the London film festivals Sutherland award for most original first feature last October.

Now 33, Ducournau was raised in Paris and, after a childhood spent obsessively writing, enrolled at the renowned French film school La Fmis to study screenwriting. She never intended to be a director, but while directing one of her shorts in the first year she was thunderstruck by a realisation: If I had to give away any of my future scripts I would somehow abort my mission.

Her parents are big movie buffs. For them it was as important for us to watch the movies of important directors, she says, as to read the novels of Balzac or Zola. She recalls watching Psycho with them aged eight, really with the feeling that I was watching a masterpiece, and credits them with instilling in her the grammar of film, the tools that I could use.

Watch the trailer for Raw.

But it was their careers as doctors which inspired her works recurrent theme of body transformation (including a short called Junior about the reptilian mutation of a teenage tomboy into a young woman which also starred Marillier). Up next is a project about a female serial killer. When your parents are doctors, she says, youre brought up with a different take on the human body and mortality. Like almost everyone else Im afraid of death, but my parents are not. That made me fascinated by the power of the body and its beauty, how it can become autonomous. At the same time my fear made me fantasise about how painful these bodily transformations can be. She says her parents are basically consultants on all of her films. But dont tell them: Theyre going to want to get paid! she laughs.

Many critics have read Raw as a feminist horror movie and while Ducournau feels that anyone can relate to Justines struggle to control her bodys urges, she says she did deliberately play with traditional images of womanhood and femininity. We witness Justines sister Alexia teaching her to pee standing up, and giving her a botched bikini wax. In another highly charged scene Justine is overcome with lust as she watches her room-mate playing football. The portrayal of sexuality when it comes to young girls on our screens, she says, is often all about whats in their heads, like, Is he the right guy? Is he gonna call me? Am I a slut? But sexuality is a matter of the body I wanted to portray womens sexuality as self-consumed, with one aim: to orgasm.

Happily, Ducournau has so far not encountered any of the career-inhibiting sexism reported by many women in film. This is partly, she thinks, because of the work family shes surrounded herself with. She does however think the industry needs to change. She told Empire magazine that, As long as the director ratio isnt 50/50, there will never be enough female horror directors.. And that women have been brainwashed to like love stories and pink. I really do think its time we recognised women feel violence and anger too, she said. When we speak, shes been promoting Raw for almost a year and you can tell shes found the level of focus on her sex tiring. Ive never before been asked so much about my gender. At some points its almost like people are asking you why youre a woman. She laughs: And of course my answer is, I was just born like that! Imogen Carter

Karyn Kusama

Karyn Kusama on the set of Girlfight: What might the world look like if we took some chances? Photograph: James Bridges/Screen Gems/NYT

After her lauded debut Girlfight failed to pay dividends, the American directors return to the limelight with Jennifers Body and The Invitation has been slow but steady. Gender bias, she says, is often unconscious but its still there.

Karyn Kusama came out proverbially swinging in 2000 with her debut film Girlfight. A hard, visceral, stripped-raw portrait of a Latina boxer from the tough end of Brooklyn, it won top honours at Sundance and made a star of Michelle Rodriguez but for the Japanese-American writer-director, such glowing early success didnt smooth the path ahead.

Thirty-two at the time of Girlfights release, Kusama was no overnight upstart. The daughter of two child psychiatrists small wonder she repeatedly brings up the psychology of her own films she was raised in St Louis, Missouri. After studying film-making at NYU, she cut her teeth on documentaries and music videos while supplementing her income with a side job as a nanny.

Ironically, it was through the latter line of work that she met John Sayles, the indie-film doyen who would become her mentor: for several years, she worked as his assistant while scraping together financing for Girlfight. When the money fell through at the last minute, it was Sayles who stepped up to fund the entire production; throughout her career, Kusama admits, she has been dependent on an enormous amount of unusual support.

A festival hit but a commercial underperformer, Girlfight opened fewer doors than expected for Kusama. Though she eventually landed a big-budget Paramount production, the Charlize Theron sci-fi vehicle Aeon Flux, studio intervention left the finished film far from Kusamas vision; and it, too, disappointed at the box office. I would love to take another stab at really smart, speculative sci-fi my first was a bit of a stumble, she says with an audible, good-humoured shrug down the line from New York. I look forward to getting another chance.

Watch the trailer for XX.

Following that high-profile setback, it was in the horror genre that Kusama eventually found traction. In 2009, she had a happier experience directing Megan Fox in the knowingly schlocky, Diablo Cody-written horror comedyJennifers Body. Critics were lukewarm, but Kusama won them back in 2015 with her next, more psychological horror outing, The Invitation a shivery, slow-burning tension exercise written by Phil Hay, Kusamas husband of 10 years. It was funded by Gamechanger Films, an organisation dedicated exclusively to financing female-directed projects.

Most recently, Kusama directed a short for XX, a portmanteau of horror films made only by women: a venture that she proudly says proves the multiplicity of voices among female directors. Her contribution, titled Her Only Living Son, is an eerie, speculative response to Rosemarys Baby which she describes as one of the most important films to me personally, a titanic achievement. Rosemarys Baby is far more than a horror film to her: key moments in it crystallise the larger idea of male privilege.

Now based in Los Angeles with Hay and their young son, Kusama finds herself busier than ever: in addition to a larger, Fox-backed horror project and a couple of really messed-up coming-of-age stories, shes aiming to rejoin the team behind The Invitation this autumn to shoot crime thriller Destroyer. Though she describes the project as living in the genre space again, she adds that its also something of a personal epic a beautiful character study of an incredible female that we havent seen in this genre before.

By keeping her head down and bringing female-focused projects to the screen, Kusama hopes to be part of a larger movement addressing what she deems an unconscious gender bias in the industry. But shes quick to add that the responsibility doesnt rest with her. The people in the decision-making positions need to be thinking differently about who to hire, and looking more unsparingly at their choices, she says. Why give this person a break over that person? Why give this person a second chance over that person? I do think thats where gender comes into play. What might the world look like if we took some chances on the film-makers we might be afraid of? Guy Lodge

Ana Lily Amirpour

I like to keep moving and keep charging forward: Ana Lily Amirpour. Photograph: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

The British-born American director uses horror tropes for twisted gems such as the worlds first Iranian vampire western.

Ana Lily Amirpour was 12 years old when she directed her first film, a seven-minute slumber-party slasher. Four friends spent the night at her home and one girl played the killer, systematically going through the house killing the other girls while wearing a white nightgown.

Amirpours film-making has become rather more sophisticated since then. Three years ago, her debut feature-length, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, announced her as a major new talent: a stylised, black-and-white film in Farsi billed as the first Iranian vampire western, it followed the story of an avenging vampire anti-heroine played by Sheila Vand. In a five-star review, Observer film critic Mark Kermode called it a deliriously disorienting experience that can be read as either political parable or pulpy potboiler preferably both.

When I speak to Amirpour on the phone she describes its follow-up, The Bad Batch, which premiered at Venice last year, as a psychedelic cannibal western a big weird twisted fairy tale, like an inbred Alice in Wonderland. In the film shot in 28 days with a stellar cast of Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey and lead Suki Waterhouse (a wild mustang) undesirable members of society have been banished from the US and sent to live beyond a wall in Texas, in a Mad Max-style desert enclave where they struggle to survive.

She wrote the script years ago, much earlier than Donald Trumps proposed wall between the US and Mexico. Its so fucking weird, it gives me goosebumps in a really bad way, she says. Because of the way things are going now, it suddenly feels like not that much of a reach. She got the idea from the regeneration of downtown LA, wondering what would happen to people in the homeless community of Skid Row. Despite everything, the film is intended as a love letter to the US, although, she adds, that doesnt mean America is a perfect thing to love its an extremely broken and flawed thing.

Born in Margate and brought up in Florida and California by Iranian parents, Amirpour was encouraged to become a doctor (instead she went to art school, then film school). Her father was a surgeon, which helped fuel a very intense phase between the ages of nine and 14 where she watched only horror films. I was really into whats inside the body. I started going into the operating room with him when I was 12 and watching surgeries, which thrilled and frightened me.

Now, however, she has no interest in horror films I dont watch them, I dont like them but incorporates elements of the genre into idiosyncratic, nuanced features where horror tropes coexist with the influence of westerns, graphic novels and expressionism. She raves about Andrzej Zulawski, Darren Aronofsky and zombie thriller Train to Busan (and also, as an enthusiastic first-time Oscar voter, the transcendental, euphoric Moonlight).

Watch the trailer for The Bad Batch.

In both her films, the fantastical aspects often act as symbols for something else: Bad Batch is as much about cannibalism as Girl Walks Home was about vampirism, you know? For the latter, she wanted to talk about loneliness and emotional numbness, and that unexplainable, magical thing where you suddenly feel connected, and how great that is, but also how ephemeral.

For the former, she started with the image of a girl missing an arm and a leg and bleeding in a desert, which encapsulated how she was feeling emotionally at the time: When you break up with someone or change the way you live or someone dies, these things can be so extreme that you feel youve lost a part of yourself. But youre not done, and now you have to reset.

Her next movie is at script stage, but is being kept under wraps: Its at that stage where its like, you have a crush on someone and you kind of want to play it cool, cos you dont want to scare them away. Whatever it ends up being, its likely to be surprising. I like to keep moving and keep charging forward and go into the places that frighten me. I dont like habituation I like earthquakes. Kathryn Bromwich


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