It all started with a question: wouldst thou like to live deliciously? In complete contrast to virtually every female character who came before her, Anya Taylor-Joy’s blood-drenched Thomasin threw off her robe and declared that, actually, yes she wouldst.
The Witch (2015) is remarkable for a number of reasons. But that ending, which sees the previously buttoned-up farm girl floating euphorically into the sky to join her newfound coven (arguably experiencing some kind of sexual pleasure in the process), marks a notable change in the direction of modern, female-led horror movies.
Audiences expect the good girl (usually a Prudish Virgin stereotype) to turn down the Devil at every turn, to save her family, and maybe even sacrifice herself in the process. The Witch turned that idea on its head, ushering in a new era of fierce female protagonists with precisely zero f-cks left to give.
Robert Eggers’ debut, a refreshingly difficult and divisive oddity that left multiplex audiences scratching their heads, never chastises its titular villainess either. Sure, she greases her broom up with the blood of a newborn baby, but she’s a working woman with no time to waste. The Witch was just the beginning. Once those wacky Europeans got involved, the floodgates really opened – whether it was possessed teens or cannibalistic college students. A bit like Eurovision, only less scary.
Paco Plaza’s spooky, Spanish-language teen thriller Verónica (2017) was widely heralded as the scariest Netflix movie ever, whatever that means, upon release. Pitching awkward young Verónica, or Veró to her friends, against a vengeful spirit she incorrectly believes to be her late father, Plaza’s film is equal parts The Craft and The Exorcist. He takes on teen angst, as his heroine struggles to understand her BFF’s newfound interest in boys, and burgeoning maturity, as she fights against her changing body.
The true horror of Verónica has more to do with the teenage experience than any otherworldly entity. Plaza’s tortured heroine is at the mercy of her workaholic mother, too busy to notice that there’s anything wrong, and tasked with constantly looking after her younger siblings. And yet, Plaza has enormous empathy for her. When a doctor questions why the 15-year-old has yet to start her period, the face of the well-cast Sandra Escacena – herself around the same age as the character at the time of filming – just crumples.
Hell, the very first shot of the movie, a clever transition from a screaming mouth to a yawning one, complete with age-appropriate braces, establishes that she’s much too young for any of this. Even if she’s being forced to act like an adult. Of the new-age horror heroines, poor Veró is the only one who doesn’t emerge from her trauma with a newfound sense of independence and strength. Instead, she goes down fighting, resolute in the knowledge that she must protect her family above all else, just as she’s been taught to do.
Euro horror graduated to college with Joachim Trier’s Thelma (2017). A Norwegian spin on Carrie, it connects its protagonist’s loss of control, as the intimacy of her relationship with another woman – the first romantic relationship she’s ever experienced – increases, with an awakening of telekinetic abilities. It’s heavily implied that Thelma’s strict religious beliefs kept her in check all these years, but she’s no fool. Once things start to unravel, she immediately seeks help, much like her contemporaries. Actress Eili Harboe plays her with a quiet, steely determination.
Rather than punish her for straying off the righteous path, suggested in the film’s standout image, when a snake coils around her before entering her mouth, Thelma is rewarded for accepting who she is. She ends up happy, settled, and in no doubt about the power she wields. Crucially, Thelma is never judged by her peers, just as we aren’t expected to judge her either. Trier’s story is no cautionary anti-bullying tale, nor even a typical, capital-L Lesson about acceptance. It’s simply about a young woman learning to love who she is, a coming-of-age tale with a supernatural element.
If Thelma is a cerebral assassination on viewers’ minds, meant to be processed more than just watched, then Raw (2016) is an all-out bloodbath, an embodied attack on the senses that never lets up once it gets going. French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s unmissable debut made a name for itself thanks to (rumored) mass faintings and a particularly nasty bikini waxing scene. Set in an outrageously French, luridly anarchic veterinary college, Raw sees timid freshman Justine (newcomer Garance Marillier) undergoing a transformation following a hazing ritual that forces her to turn her back on her strict vegetarian beliefs.
Much like Thomasin, Veró, and Thelma, Justine starts the film off wide-eyed and innocent. By the end, she’s chowed down on her sister’s finger and practically devoured her roommate during frantic, ravenous sex. Justine’s bloodlust coincides with her sexual awakening, leading her to drool over a guy the same way she does a hamburger. Her transformation leads to some instantly-iconic sequences, like when she seduces herself in the mirror – sound-tracked by some too-cool-for-school French pop music (been there).
Annoyingly, it’s still rare to see a female character getting her hands as dirty as Justine does. Watching her wolf down raw meat or dig her teeth eagerly into a young man’s shoulder is intensely therapeutic. Justine isn’t punished for her behaviour either, particularly when she finds out the truth about her family. Ducournau’s ballsy denouement further establishes Raw as not just another female-fronted horror movie (as if there could ever be enough). There’s a punk rock spirit to her story, along with a proudly feminist slant that marks the movie out as something very special. That and the gore is top notch, in-your-face, vomit-inducingly gross.
Speaking of which, there are few characters willing to get quite as wrecked as Matilda Lutz’s Jen, the Lolita-fantasy-turned-nightmare at the heart of Coralie Fargeat’s stunning debut, Revenge (2017). First introduced wearing cartoonish sunglasses and sucking on a lollipop, Jen is quickly transformed from an object of male lust into a revenge-dispensing machine fuelled by rage. Fargeat’s film is the purest take on rape-revenge arguably ever made. The rape itself happens mostly off-screen, with the focus very deliberately on Jen’s resurrection as she regains control over the body she’s lost and learns to utilise it as a tool of vengeance.
The young woman isn’t punished for her sexuality. She fights most of her very personal battle in a tiny sports bra and boy shorts, but the camera is appreciative rather than exploitative. Her Final Girl ensemble is emblematic of the female gaze present throughout. In keeping with this idea, her ex-partner finds himself fighting her off while naked and vulnerable, a deliberate twist on a long-held trope. Writer-director Fargeat has made it clear she didn’t want to cover her protagonist up, or to shame her for her behaviour. It makes sense that, when Jen comes looking for blood, she’s still the same sexy, confident woman as before. Just muddier and bloodier.
Fargeat even makes a case for rape revenge as an expression of female anger over decades of male suppression, and for fighting back against deafening demands for control over female bodies. In a world of MRAs, incels and misogynists, Revenge could not be timelier.
Daniel Goldhaber’s Netflix shocker Cam (2018), which he co-wrote with former sex worker Isa Mazzei, takes this idea one step further via protagonist Alice, a cam girl who fights quite literally against herself for control of her own image.
Madeline Brewer, similar to Lutz, straddles the line between baby-faced and womanly, which makes her the perfect foil for Goldhaber and Mazzei’s keenly-felt internet horror story.
Tellingly, Alice comes out on top without sacrificing her moneymaker – even if it takes a couple knocks to her pretty face to get the job done. Mazzei’s firsthand experience of Alice’s job situation lends Cam an air of authenticity and empathy rarely afforded to sex workers. Alice’s sexual appetite is her salvation rather than her undoing.
Likewise, in Ari Aster’s devastating Midsommar (2019), Dani’s lack of interest in sex is casually referenced early on but, rather than punishing her, it’s her lustful (and genuinely quite horrible) boyfriend, Christian, who finds himself drugged, sexually assaulted, and murdered in horrifying fashion.
Florence Pugh is dressed in loose clothing and muted colors throughout the movie, Aster deliberately de-sexualising her until the finale, when she emerges triumphant in a flower crown and white gown (toppling the virginal cliche once again). In contrast, much like in Revenge, Jack Reynor’s Christian is the one running around naked and exposed in the end. He’s punished for cheating and giving in to his impure desires, while Dani benefits from putting herself first, just as he’s been doing for their entire relationship.
Each of these films represents a certain aspect of the female experience, usually tied to adolescence and sexual expression. None of these characters, including the actual sex worker, are doomed for having the audacity to take control of their narratives. In keeping with the precedent set by Scream’s redefining of the Final Girl, Sidney Prescott, having sex isn’t considered a death sentence — quite the opposite, in fact.
Although these aren’t uncharted waters, the focus hasn’t been so firmly on the female experience before, and is usually tied to men when it is. Of this new batch of movies, two were directed by women, and two are titled after their female protagonists.
The female-directed additions are edgier when it comes to styling, whether it’s the functional yet sexy underwear-and-bullet-belt combo of Revenge or Raw’s party dress. There’s a sense that male filmmakers are (understandably) concerned with overtly sexualizing their female leads, hence Dani’s baggy leisurewear in Midsommar or Thomasin’s teeny hint of cleavage in The Witch (meant to expose her little brother as a bit of a perv, rather than putting the blame solely at her feet). It’s a notable and very welcome change from the boobs ‘n’ blood era of the eighties that signifies women are truly in control now, even when they’re not behind the camera.
All but one of these films is a debut feature, suggesting these stories couldn’t wait any longer to be told. Horror has long been a safe space for inventive weirdos, who grew up making clay monsters in their basements, to tell stories often without money or studio support. There’s a sense of freedom in not being beholden to the machine.
by Joey Keough
Joey Keogh is a freelance writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Her favourite movies include 10 Things I Hate About You and Scream, but defending Queen of the Damned is fast becoming her vocation. She tweets, mostly about “feminism and hating Ed Sheeran,” according to her little sister, at @JoeyLDG. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
Categories: Anything and Everything