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Women in horror

Scream queens: The feminist stars of Berlin’s horror renaissance

Last year’s Titane put the spotlight on women in horror. We meet the stars of the genre’s feminist renaissance.


Arguably one of the biggest festival moment in recent memory was when Titane, Julie Ducournau’s mind-bending body-horror thriller-drama, walked away with the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. Certainly, festival audiences are some of the most discerning movie-goers around, but Titane – with its broken, bloody noses, motor oil-leaking breasts and horrifically disfiguring pregnancies – feels like an evolutionary leap in what type of film can legitimately be rewarded with the type of prestige usually reserved for naturalistic dramas.

Not that Titane isn’t intensely compelling – it’s impossible to look away, even when you really, really want to. But genre films, and specifically horror movies, have long been either marketed as bombastic multiplex epics or niche arthouse fare, relegated to midnight showings or lower-tier streaming platforms. The fact that a film as gut-wrenching as Titane copped the most sought-after award in independent cinema represents a real shift in what can be considered prestige. In an industry where, for better or for worse, these things truly matter, it could very well translate into a more diverse, inclusive and boundary-pushing industry in general.

In fact, if you look at the last five or so years, horror has been gaining recognition as an art form in the eyes of the industry elite, both on the festival circuit as well as in Hollywood. Jordan Peele winning Best Original Screenplay for Get Out at the 2017 Oscars was a milestone, and tried-and-true indie darlings like Gaspar Noé and Fatih Akin garnered critical acclaim with Climax and The Golden Glove respectively, although their films are more flirtations with horror than outright bloodbaths.

But if you were to discern one aspect of Titane that sets it apart from a lot of recent horror films, and what might make it so prescient, it could be the fact that at its core, it is a feminist tale – but not in a way that’s obvious, and not in a way that is easily marketable to mainstream audiences. Titane’s protagonist, the sociopathic and violent Alexia, indulges compulsively in every taboo she encounters, transgressing situations that, even in the fantastical realm of horror, are almost always the domain of men. Its feminism is totally subversive, and one of the reasons Titane feels so fresh.

F for Freaks

While feminist horror isn’t exactly new, it is becoming more prevalent. The closest examples from the past may have been something like 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave, a cult-classic revenge story that has been equally praised for its depictions of female strength and vilified for its ultra-graphic rape scenes (and probably deserves both). Directed by a man, Israeli-born American Meir Zarchi, the film’s intentions are be somewhat questionable: to what level are images of extreme violence against women, coupled with the sexualization of the male gaze, acceptable when it comes to horror? Is this an inevitability of the genre, or something requiring critical examination?

Starting from the horror exploitation boom of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that gave us innumerable classics from the likes of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George A. Romero et al., women directors have been unfortunately few and far between. There are some undeniable masterpieces like Amy Holden Jones’ The Slumber Party Massacre, Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary, Mary Harron’s American Psycho and Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, but only recently has there been a real explosion of talented women filmmakers finally getting their time in the spotlight. Ana Lily Amirpour, Jennifer Kent, Anna Biller, the Soska Sisters and Prano Bailey-Bond, just to name a few – their films have set new standards for the types of stories that can be told through horror. Does this mean horror is becoming more feminist? Or has it always been, in a way, about women and their stories? At the end of the day, does the gender of a filmmaker or their protagonists even matter in 2022?

Personally, I’d rather watch a woman get flattened by a truck in a horror film than see a woman stand placidly by her man

In Berlin, there are no two people more apt for answering these questions than Eli Lewy and Sara Neidorf, the co-directors of Final Girls, a horror film festival for female and non-binary filmmakers. Throughout the years, they have shown everything from micro-budget shorts from first-time directors to blockbusters like Saint Maud and The Babadook. Now in its seventh edition, Final Girls has rallied a community of Berlin horror fans around its excellently curated selection, with Eli and Sara in charge of basically everything, from programming to PR.

“Horror has always been very important to me,” Eli explains, who say she was nine when she first watched Candyman. “I wasn’t able to sleep alone for three months. Instead of putting me off horror forever, I became fascinated by a genre that could impact me in this way.” As for Sara, her love of horror aged 12, when her mother showed her Rosemary’s Baby. “Later that year came The Shining, Hellraiser, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, and a VHS bootleg of Freaks, which was still largely banned at the time,” she says. “I feel I really came into my own thanks to horror, and it also remained one of the strongest bonds I shared with my mother.”

One of the most inventive shorts recently screened at Final Girls is German filmmaker Sabine Ehrl’s F For Freaks, a dystopian, Lynchian, skin-crawling fever dream that serves as a commentary on class, human exploitation, environmental vandalism and a whole host of other social ills. Saying too much about the plot would give away some of the film’s genius – suffice to say that it concerns a sick, middle-aged woman fighting for her life in a semi-deserted Bavarian town and the disturbing choices she needs to make in order to survive. “Before F For Freaks, I never thought about genre films in general,” Sabine says about how she came to the unsettling subject matter of her directorial debut. “Also at film school, horror is sort of seen as ‘lower class’, as opposed to high-brow, or arthouse – which I think is changing a lot at the moment.”

German filmmaker Sabine Ehrl. Photo: Stephie Braun

Eli agrees that the tides are indeed changing for horror films on a macro level, but perhaps not for the niche audiences who have loved them all along. “Truthfully, in my experience, horror fans aren’t so concerned with respectability and acceptance in that sense,” she says. “Many film buffs have loved and understood horror for decades and don’t view it as a cheap and brainless genre, but rather as one filled with creative possibilities and as a perfect vehicle for embodying existential fears.”

For Sabine, the boundaries between prestige and horror are also not quite as stark. “I think I am kind of drawn to directors who work in both fields,” she says. “I think Gaspar Noé or Lars von Trier also do genre films, it’s not like they’re doing pure naturalism. But what brought me to genre cinema is that I really like to use the medium for what it is meant for. You can play with it a lot, you can do so much more experimenting.”

As far as a feminist wave is concerned, again, the subject is complicated. We’re at an interesting historical cross section when it comes to discussing diversity in film in general, across all identities: yes, there’s still much work to be done, but at the same time, it feels somewhat backwards to reduce an artist to just one facet of their work. “If complexity and social commentary are embedded in the writing, then it’s very possible for a film to contain violence toward women and still leave the viewer with an unsavoury taste that problematises these phenomena,” Sara says. “What’s more important is how these women are written in the larger film. A lot of female directors are depicting brutality in more subtle, insidious forms which can highlight a different kind of lived horror.”