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26th March 2022

2021 in Film: A Year of Women in Horror

From the Netflix flagship films to the independent low budget flicks, 2021 has been a big year for female dominated horror movies. Dan Collins looks back at the female stars, auteurs and writers of the last year.
2021 in Film: A Year of Women in Horror
Illustration: Daniel Collins @ The Mancunion

If you want to read about the history of misogyny in horror films, you don’t have to go much further than a quick google search to get copious articles on the topic. Unfortunately, whether it’s due to ignorance or simply the continuation of a problematic film culture, positive stories about the rise of women in horror rarely get the same attention outside of listicles or specialist websites (The Final Girls being just one of many great resources). With all that in mind, despite all the real-life horror that 2021 had to offer, let’s take a look back at the year of women in horror films that undoubtedly put them at its centre – both behind and in front of the camera. 

Franchise Filler

Whether it’s sequels, prequels, reboots or even requels (reboot sequels), horror has it all. Think Millicent Simmonds’ turn as young adult hero Reagan in the surprisingly charming A Quiet Place Part II or Vera Farmiga reprising her role in the latest instalment of The Conjuring Universe. Nevertheless, if sequels weren’t enough the modern day horror genre seems equally interested in the revival of dead franchises such as Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream or even Ghostbusters.

Whilst this is not a new phenomenon, the force by which it is happening is certainly noteworthy. What stands out amongst these reboots is not only the return of the horrific masked killers but also the come back of the infamous ‘final girl’ character. Whether it’s Jamie Lee Curtis and co. fighting off Michael Myers in Halloween Kills or Olwen Fouéré playing sole survivor Sally Hardesty in the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the rules of the franchise revival appear to be 1. Ignore any of the dire sequels to the original 2. Bring back the iconic villain and 3. Have a mix of new cast members alongside the iconic final girl. 

Yet, in and amongst all these films is Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021)the only one willing to subvert many of these rules and the only one directed by a woman. 2021’s Candyman deals with the legacy of its original in particularly fascinating and complex ways. Here, the myth of Candyman – the black slasher villain who originates from Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project and has a hook for a hand – is fading. Instead the tragic plight of the original film’s white protagonist Helen Lyle becomes the focus of folk lore and terror in and around the old estates.

In almost thirty years since the original, the housing project has been gentrified into luxurious flats where our new protagonists reside. The trace of the Candyman and this legacy of racism remains present. However the film flips our conventional relationship with a protagonist by centring on a black artist, Anthony McCoy, whose obsession with the Candyman legend leads to questions about his own artistic ego and moral compass.

Whilst the film may get rather cluttered in its third act, the way it rewrites its own mythology certainly makes it worth a watch. The film making by DaCosta is bold and vibrant, combining interestingly crafted sequences of shadow puppetry with crazed exposition by Colman Domingo alongside a healthy reworking of the ‘villain’ himself, further expanding upon what the original’s commentary on race, art and identity. 

Arthouse Anarchy

It would be remiss to discuss this topic without at least briefly mentioning the many highlights Arthouse offered over the last year. From Prano Bailey-Bond’s blood soaked look at film censorship during the video nasties era of horror in Censor to Ellora Torchia’s fantastic performance as Alma in the beguiling, psychedelic folk horror In The Earth, women were at the forefront of the most exciting independent horror pictures. Nevertheless, the film that stands out amongst the pack is Julia Ducornau’s Titane – a film that truly pushes the boundaries of horror and provides more stomach churning, wide-eyed shock than any film I can recall in recent times. A plot summary cannot do this audio-visual nightmare justice. Just go and see it. 

Streaming Slashers

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times or simply a glimpse into the near future but many of the year’s best horror offerings dropped directly on streaming. In many ways, horror-focused service Shudder was at the forefront of this. In fact, many of Shudder’s originals in the past year not only centre women in their stories but also feature women behind the camera and in the director’s chair. This includes films as varied as Slaxx, The Power, Violation and Lucky.

The latter is a particularly interesting film that playfully takes aim at the self-help book genre while providing an uncompromising look at the way women are constantly being gaslighted not only by their husbands, but by society at large. The plot revolves around a psycho killer who returns every night to kill our protagonist, resulting in a cycle of violence that just keeps on going because neither her husband nor the police will take her or the situation seriously. Brea Grant’s powerhouse central performance brings to mind Elisabeth Moss’ frustrated and vengeful portrayal in the recent reimagining of The Invisible Man.

The two films have further parallels in that they both infuse even the most banal scenes with an unsettlingly eerie atmosphere. Although Lucky does suffer from a lack of budget and some tonal issues in its final act, the fascinating premise from writer and star Brea Grant combined with the stylish execution of director Natasha Kermani make this a worthwhile watch.

Nevertheless it’s not only the more niche streaming services that put women at the centre of its slate. Amazon also gave us El Amarre – the latest from prolific genre filmmaker Tamae Garateguy. And let’s not forget Netflix’s crown jewel achievement that is the Fear Street trilogy of films. Here, Leigh Janiak provide us with not one but three sublime slashers whose ultimate objective is not only to defeat the many killers who all evoke different eras of horror, but also to save and preserve the teen lesbian romance between the films two main characters.

Based on a series of R.L. Stine novels, the series may be corny at times, pandering to its teen audience with some rather on the nose needle drops. Yet, peppered throughout are some wonderfully gory kills and a genuine romance that actually makes you care about these people and their strange conspiracy filled town.

What’s next?

Well, if any of this sounds interesting to you then seek out these films, follow their creators and if you still aren’t satisfied, there are plenty more ways to get involved in the horror community.  From podcasts such as The Evolution of Horror to magazines such as Fangoria to the dreaded ‘FilmTwitter’ discourse, there are always ways to keep your desire for horror itched. 

Moving forward into 2022, let’s try to not only highlight and discuss the best of the best but also the mediocre films and the mixed bags. Every film is worthy of critical appraisal and female-centred horror films shouldn’t only be in the conversation when the next The Babadook or American Psycho comes around. Even more importantly though, if horror isn’t necessarily your thing then that’s fine, seek out the women in your favourite genre and get the conversation going. 

Daniel Collins

Daniel Collins

Head film editor and writer for The Mancunion.

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