Actress Cassandra Peterson as Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark.
For too long now we have watched women scream desperately and run hopelessly in horror films, but as female horror filmmakers increasingly emerge from behind the camera as writers, directors and producers, ‘final girls’ or ‘bloody babes’ are finally cheating their ever-predictable deaths with, astonishingly, no boobs in sight.
US actress Cassandra Peterson, better known for her iconic 1980s' gothic vixen alter-ego Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark, believes that ‘all kids who have bad dreams grow up to be horror fans’ but that, in some ways, horror flicks have always been male domain. ‘Whether it is a spooky dark maze, a spooky ride or going to a scary movie, horror is really all about the girl getting scared and jumping into the guy’s arms. That is the whole point of horror right there, it is for guys to pick up girls,’ she says.
As a child, Peterson collected miniature models of Frankenstein and Dracula instead of Barbie dolls and still recalls falling in love with horror films - while still on second grade.
After watching Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill, she quickly became obsessed with the works of Roger Corman and celebrated Brit studio Hammer Films. When she wasn’t playing dress ups with Mummy outfits at the costume shop owned by her mother and auntie, she would likely be found in front of the telly watching The Addams Family or The Twilight Zone.
‘It was really odd. I would have been gothic, except they hadn’t invented it yet,’ says Peterson, who is now 61 and still profiting strongly with her deliciously vamp character for many a Halloween.
Peterson first created Elvira’s sexy look for a horror host gig at a local US TV station.
She thought her character’s provocative outfit might have been too hot for television and was surprised when networks executives asked her to make the split on her leg a little higher. Before she knew it, Elvira became a national sensation and soon enough was also starring her very own films.
‘I have many times been called a feminist because even though I am wearing that outfit, I still stand up for myself, I don’t take any crap from guys, I do things on my own and I don’t wait for some man to come rescue me in my films. I think that most of my fans definitely see me as a strong female symbol,’ she says.
‘I’m really happy about that, in fact, that is the part of being Elvira that makes me the happiest.’
Like Peterson, many women, contrary to popular belief, are drawn to horror. Adelaide writer-director Ursula Dabrowsky, who is currently working on a trilogy of demon films, is one of them. ‘I do have a flip side, a very intense, morbid dark side and the things that I want to say, that I want to communicate to an audience and connect with them work best in the horror genre,’ she says.
For Heidi Lee Douglas, national director of Dark Lake Productions, a Sydney-based production house and director of an upcoming horror film set in 18th century Tasmania amongst convict women titled Little Lamb, the representation of women in cinema has always been fundamentally inadequate.
‘If you use the Bechdel Test to analyse the representation of women in cinema it becomes obvious very quickly. The Bechdel test suggests looking for three things in a film. One is that there are two female characters with names, the second that they talk to each other, and the third that they talk about something other than a man.
Once you put this analysis to the test it is scary how many films do not pass,’ she points out.
‘As I have been wrapping up the edit on Little Lamb, misogyny has become a mainstream issue again since Julia Gillard’s dynamite speech on the subject. It is a relief to me that we are talking about these subjects openly as a society… Women making horror films about strong female characters is a way we can challenge these problems in a way that both genders can enjoy because horror films can be sexy, playful, entertaining and profound,’ says Douglas.
For Hobart-based filmmaker Briony Kidd, the reason why misogyny can so often be found in her genre of choice might have to do with all the exploitation filmmaking that still permeates horror. ‘That influence has really infected the genre to some extent, more than it has other genres but I think that it’s just part of filmmaking in general as a commerce. I don’t think the genre itself is inherently more sexist,’ she says.
Inspired by Los Angeles' Viscera Film Festival, one of the many film festivals focusing on horror films made by women currently popping up around the globe, Kidd alongside Tasmanian filmmaker Rebecca Thomson founded Australia’s first gender-genre film festival, Stranger with My Face Horror Film Festival (SWMF) in Tasmania.
The event is officially recognised as part of Women In Horror Recognition Month (WiHM), a global initiative started in 2010 in the US by Hannah Neurotica, founder of zine Ax Wound: Gender and the Horror Genre to ensure underrepresented female genre artists have better opportunities, exposure, and access to professional development through a range of activities, film screenings and online support.
‘We are creating our own opportunities and opportunities for other people whose work we really admire. They might not be getting the exposure that they deserve, so we’ve just found the festival incredibly helpful in terms of our own work as filmmakers as well as because it just gives you that extra enthusiasm and the feeling that there is an audience out there that wants what we are making, so it’s been fantastic,’ says Kidd.
Heidi Douglas’ Little Lamb will premiere at next year’s SWMF after winning a script challenge competition at the festival this year. ‘The horror I have seen created by women is about owning the dark rather than fearing it, and my film certainly fits into this,’ says Douglas.
‘During the film production process I ensured we had a work environment that was kid and mum friendly – I myself have a toddler so for me this was key. We held meetings in playgrounds and we offered job sharing for crew roles for mums who didn’t want to be apart from their children for five very long days.
By accident we ended up with a mostly female crew – which is pretty unheard of. And the men who we worked with were all great. But it took a lot of work to create a crew with this supportive dynamic. There are a lot of big male egos in the film industry, and the hours are very demanding, which can make it a difficult workplace that discourages female participation once you have children,’ says Douglas.
Melbourne-based filmmaker Isabel Peppard, who has just screened her latest short stop-animation Butterflies at Sitges Fantastic Film Festival in Spain, one of the largest genre film festivals in the world, agrees there is a strong camaraderie amongst female horror directors who are bound by their shared experiences and adversities.
‘I feel excited to be making dark films at a time when so many strong female voices are starting to be heard. In the Hollywood studio system still only 5 percent of directors are women but I think in the digital age when filmmaking is a lot more financially accessible and therefore democratic, it is easier for new independent filmmakers to be noticed, men or women.
This means even if studio executives don’t see female directors as bankable, we can still get out there and make our own opportunities,’ says Peppard.
‘If there were more perspectives in horror, more women would buy those films. If they could see their own perspectives reflected back at them, they would be more entertained and the films would be better. It’s very much a commercial advantage because there is a whole untapped audience because if you make something that they really want then they are going to buy it,’ says Kidd.
‘The horror genre is always in need of a good injection of originality.
But in the end, the ultimate challenge for me as a horror filmmaker is to consistently produce critically and commercially successful horror films, regardless of my gender. That’s my goal. It has always been my goal,’ says Dabrowsky.
Taking notice of the current new garde of horror female filmmakers, Neil Foley, director of the inaugural Monster Fest, which opens in Melbourne this Halloween has programmed ‘Night of the Women’ on November 7.
The event will unite several local filmmakers with Canadian twin writer-directors of the hour, the Soska Sisters, Cassandra Peterson, in her first visit to Australia in 13 years, as well as Laurene Landon, better known as Hundra, who has just enjoyed an acclaimed season at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles with her celebrated feminist Conan-like character.
‘This new current wave of horror female filmmakers are making very strong and very signature kind of pieces and they’re absolutely auteurs in every sense of the word. There’s been a great response to that and there is a trend at the moment of women being attracted to the horror genre. I think Australia and places like Canada are really leading the garde and flying the flag for women in horror. It is quite special,’ says Foley.
Monster Fest runs from October 31 - November 9.
Stranger with My Face Horror Film Festival runs in February and March 2013. Program highlights will be announced soon.