15 female-directed genre movies you should watch

Contributed by
Mar 1, 2017

Genre isn't just for men, both in front of and behind the camera. Just as the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres have given us iconic characters like Ripley, Leia and Sarah Connor, so too have women made substantial contributions as directors over the years.

This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of genre movies directed by women. It's missing some big titles, like Deep Impact (Mimi Leder) and Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke), as well as a slew of smaller releases like Honeymoon (Leigh Janiak), American Mary (the Soska Sisters), Advantageous (Jennifer Phang), The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska), horror anthology XX and many more. I also kept it to one film per director, for the directors who like to dip into genre waters repeatedly.

That said, if you're looking for female-directed genre films to gobble up, these 15 films will give you a good place to start.

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Tank Girl (1995), dir. Rachel Talalay

Rachel Talalay's dystopian action-comedy Tank Girl, based on the comic book series by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, flopped at the box office upon its release in 1995 only to enjoy cult status in the subsequent years. Both of those things make complete sense: the film's bizarre, ragged, punkish aesthetic was just as likely to alienate mainstream filmgoers in the '90s as it was to later earn the undying affection of weirdos the world over. Hell, there's a Busby Berkeley-style musical number halfway through. Several key sequences are told through comic book montage montage, because — per Hewlett — the filmmakers "forgot to film about ten major scenes, so we had to animate them." The eponymous Tank Girl (Lori Petty) ends the movie in a relationship with a human-kangaroo mutant hybrid. Sophisticated this ain't. But the film has an infectious energy, thanks in large part to Petty's turn as the queen bee of post-apocalyptic punk. Incidentally, the villain of this Australia-set piece is despotic businessman Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell), who controls the world's water supply. Tank Girl never got a sequel, but if it did, I like to think Imperator Furiosa would have shown up.

Post-Tank Girl, Rachel Talalay went on to establish a prolific TV career, having directed episodes of Doctor Who, Ally McBeal, The Flash, Supergirl and Sherlock, among others.

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Jupiter Ascending (2015), dirs. Lana and Lilly Wachowski

The Wachowskis are the best-known female genre directors, having gifted the world with the enormously influential and successful The Matrix (shame they never made any sequels, though.) Their genre output also includes Netflix's Sense8, Speed Racer and (with Tom Tykwer) Cloud Atlas, an adaptation of David Mitchell's cerebral sci-fi tome spread across six interconnected stories. But nothing — in the Wachowskis' filmography or anywhere else — is quite like Jupiter Ascending, which resembles nothing so much as a Saturday morning cartoon. It is deeply stupid, deeply enthralling, and both. Your mileage may vary.

The plot involves … hell, the plot doesn't matter. It's nonsensical, and it's nowhere close to being the draw here. Channing Tatum plays a space werewolf who zooms around on levitating rollerblades. (Mila Kunis, upon finding out the guy she's attracted to is a genetically spliced man/wolf hybrid: "I love dogs.") The somehow not Oscar-winning script features the line "Bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty." Sean Bean is here, and he doesn't die. And then there's whatever Eddie Redmayne is doing.

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Jennifer's Body (2009), dir. Karyn Kusama

Director Karyn Kusama had her big breakout with the indie hit Girlfight (2000), a sports drama starring Michelle Rodriguez as an aspiring boxer. After that, she went genre, directing Aeon Flux and The Invitation, a low-key horror thriller about a dinner party done wrong. In between, there's Jennifer's Body, a supernatural dark comedy about a high school wallflower (Amanda Seyfried) whose best friend (Megan Fox) is possessed by a succubus. Like Tank Girl, Jennifer's Body didn't do all that well upon its initial theatrical release. Also like Tank Girl, Jennifer's Body garnered a sizable cult following after hitting home video, when people caught up with it and realized, "Hey wait, this is actually pretty subversive and feminist. I thought it would be dumb just because Megan Fox is in it. Shame on me." No surprise, given it was written by Juno's Diablo Cody.

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Punisher: War Zone (2008), dir. Lexi Alexander

Opinions vary widely as to the quality of Lexi Alexander's Punisher: War Zone — it's either brain-meltingly dumb or a masterpiece of comic book camp, depending on who you talk to — but I'd be remiss not to include in this list the onlytheatrically-released superhero movie directed by a woman to date. (Some direct-to-video animated superhero capers are female-directed, among them Lauren Montgomery’s Wonder Woman, Batman: Year One and Justice League: Doom.) Before Jon Bernthal suited up as the Punisher in Netflix's Marvel offerings, Frank Castle was Ray Stevenson, playing a former Marine driven by the death of his wife and child to cut a bloody swathe through New York City’s criminal population. (Marvel-ous Stevenson went on to play Volstagg in the Thormovies.) If nothing else, Punisher: War Zone is notable for the scene where the Punisher literally punches a hole through a man’s head (skip to :35).

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Near Dark (1987), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Before she was directing Oscar-friendly fare like The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow was cutting her teeth on, let's say, less serious subjects. Point Break, anyone? But Bigelow always injects a level of gravitas into her films, no matter how ridiculous their subject matter. She is not one to wink at the audience. That's why Point Break works: it's a dumb action movie about an FBI agent tracking down a gang of surfing bank robbers, for Chrissakes, but Bigelow treats the burgeoning love (really, though. Love.) between Bodhi and Johnny Utah with the utmost sincerity. Johnny shoots his gun in the air and goes "Ahhhh!," you guys. His love is real.

Bigelow brings the same dignity to Near Dark, her second feature. The concept, like Point Break's, is bonkers: Adrian Pasdar plays Caleb, an Oklahoma cowpoke who's bitten by a vampire (Jenny Wright) and must prove himself worthy of joining her traveling hillbilly vampire clan. There are few joys in life more pure, more complete, than Bill Paxton chomping on scenery as a vampire redneck who nearly decapitates a man using the spurs on his cowboy boots.

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Frozen (2013), dir. Jennifer Lee (with Chris Buck)

I simultaneously have to congratulate Jennifer Lee for co-directing the megahit Frozen — the highest-grossing female-directed film ever — and condemn her for her role in bringing about "Let It Go," which three years down the line still gets stuck in my head with alarming regularity. It's a great song, but geez. Earworm of the highest order.

Lee, who also wrote Frozen's script, mixed up the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale on which it's based, turning the Snow Queen from a villain to more of an antihero and adding a much-appreciated, highly resonant message about the importance of sisterhood. Also: Kristoff asks Anna before kissing her! Yay for teaching kids about the importance of consent, even in small ways.

Lee returns to her screenwriting roots with Disney's upcoming A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Ava DuVernay. (Before Frozen, Lee co-wrote Disney's Wreck-It Ralph.) So far, the only other film Lee has going as a director is (with Chris Buck) the inevitable Frozen sequel, which is slowly inching its way towards theaters. A release date is still TBD.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), dir. Ana Lily Amirpour

Iranian noir vampire Western.

Ahem.

I said Iranian noir vampire Western.

Ana Lily Amirpour introduced herself as a fresh new voice in the world of filmmaking with her debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It is, to paraphrase the venerable and esteemed Zaphod Beeblebrox, a movie so hip it has difficulty seeing over its pelvis. But in a good way, not in a pretentious insufferable way. Sheila Vand stars as the unnamed vampire who's traded in her cape for a chador (a type of covering worn by Muslim women) and stalks the midnight streets of dilapidated Bad City looking for ne'er-do-wells to feed off of. Practically nonverbal, she doesn't appear to have any real connections … until she meets the sweet, curly-haired Arash, decked out in sunglasses, dark jeans, and a plan white T-shirt like a modern-day James Dean. Shot in sumptuous black and white and focusing more on mood than gore or cheap thrills, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is miles away from your more traditional vampire flicks — and that originality makes it all the better.

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The Babadook (2014), dir. Jennifer Kent

Look, there's a reason that every vaguely artistic-leaning horror movie to have come out in the last two years gets compared to Jennifer Kent's The Babadook. "It looks good — might this be the next Babadook?" "It's OK, but it's no Babadook." I don't know how much weight my opinion holds as far as scares are concerned, because (full disclosure) I am kind of a wimp, but The Babadook is scary. Kent crafts a story that relies on steadily increasing dread as opposed to the ever-present (and overused) jump scare. Dread certainly comes naturally from the film's claustrophobic atmosphere. Even when the movie starts, single mother Amelia (Essie Davis — Game of Thrones fans may know her as doppelganger Cersei during Season 6) is already fraying at the edges. Still grieving from the death of her husband years prior, Amelia also bears the responsibility of raising young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is … well, let's just say high strung. He's building up an arsenal to combat the monster he thinks is living in their house, for one thing. Amelia doesn't believe in the monster, of course, until … well, fill in the rest.

In many ways, The Babadook is a horror movie about motherhood — about how psychologically draining it can be (Kent researched PTSD and post-natal psychosis when writing the script), and how difficult, and about the uncomfortable-to-admit truth that there are times when mothers just plain don't like their kids. Strip all that away, and you still have one terrifying horror movie. (Oh, and a movie that inspired the best Halloween tweet of all time.)

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Goodnight Mommy (2015), dir. Veronika Franz (with Severin Fiala)

More creepy children! It's a two-for-one deal this time: twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz star in Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz's Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy. This movie has: Scary twins. Bugs. Body horror. A mother who's … possibly been replaced by some sort of demon? No spoilers. But I will say watch the trailer and tread cautiously, because this movie — about brothers in an isolated country home trying to figure out if their recently-returned-from-plastic-surgery mother is reallytheir mom — is effed up, especially during the last third or so. Be brave. And wear your brown pants.

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American Psycho (2000), dir. Mary Harron

There's a reason, 17 years after its release, that American Psycho is considered one of the best horror films of the century so far. As a satire of '80s consumer culture and aggressive masculinity (an interesting reading of the film is that yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman is a repressed homosexual), American Psycho — directed by Mary Harron and adapted from Bret Easton Ellis' novel by Harron and openly gay screenwriter Guinevere Turner — is gory and suspenseful, but it's also funny, surreal, off-beat and razor-sharp.A lot of movies have tried to follow in American Psycho's footsteps, but none of them have quite succeeded. Oh, and it also features Jared Leto's best film performance.

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The Love Witch (2016), dir. Anna Biller

Writer/director Anna Biller's 2016 horror comedy The Love Witch is a pitch-perfect homage to campy '60s thrillers. Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the 'love witch' of the title, who uses magic to make men fall in love with her. Her ideas of gender relations are, er, less than progressive: She thinks it's the role of women to love men, care for them and provide them with whatever it is they desire, sexually and otherwise. (Call it the misogynist underbelly of the 'free love' revolution: the warlock who leads Elaine's coven, a man who surrounds himself with scantily-clad women and preaches the importance of seduction, is a particularly sleazy character, though the long-haired 'cool guy' professor who sleeps with his students — yeah, you know the type — isn't exactly a keeper, either.) But wouldn't you know it … spell after spell, Elaine just can't seem to find a man worthy of all the love she's willing to provide. Cue witchcraft, murder, and some truly epic hair and wardrobe decisions.

Aside from being gorgeous to look at, The Love Witch is a crackingly fun feminist satire. And it's just plain funny; a scene where Elaine and the man she genuinely falls in love with, square-jawed detective Griff (oh, of course he's named "Griff"), stumble into a witch's coven doing a Renaissance reenactment had me in stitches.

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Turbo Kid (2015), dir. Anouk Whissell (with Yoann-Karl Whissell and François Simard)

And speaking of homages, there's François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell's 2015 festival fave Turbo Kid, a loving tribute to '80s fantasy actioners. There's a post-apocalyptic setting, a scrappy hero in the making, a badass cowboy sidekick with a robot arm, gallons upon gallons of fake blood — hell, there's even uber-'80s villain Michael Ironside as a bloodthirsty dictator. Kooky and fun but without lacking in heart, Turbo Kid is a worthy watch for anyone left enraptured by Kung Fury. (Which, admittedly, doesn't really have the 'heart' angle, but I still shed a tear whenever Hackerman shows up.)

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Ravenous (1999), dir. Antonia Bird

Witches? How unoriginal. Vampires? Yawn. Zombies? So two years ago. Shuffle up that supernatural Pokedex and offer me up a wendigo movie, please.

The sweet, sweet wendigo is a figure from Algonquian folklore who, in many tellings, used to be a normal, everyday human … until that normal, everyday human ate human flesh. Add insatiable cravings and a few more generous dollops of cannibalism, and bam: wendigo!

The works of Stephen King aside, probably the most famous cinematic depiction of the wendigo belongs to the late Antonia Bird's 1999 cult classic Ravenous, a horror Western set during the mid-19th century. Despite its relatively small cast, Ravenous features a solid handful of actors you probably know and like, at least a little. Guy Peace plays John Boyd, a disgraced Captain sent to a remote military base in the Sierra Nevadas. Among his new comrades are commanding officer Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), a sweet and devout if slightly dippy private (Jeremy Davies), a stoner cook (David Arquette) and a supersoldier G.I. Joe-type (Captain America's Neal McDonough). No sooner does Boyd meet his new batch of misfit housemates than their normally boring life is disrupted by the arrival of Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a distraught traveler who weaves a tale of cannibalism-laced woe and a damsel in distress.

If you've seen any five consecutive minutes of Once Upon a Time, you'll know Carlyle is a damn good scenery chewer, and the material does him justice here. Ravenous is gory and at times just plain gross, but it also has a zany, almost pulpy energy (apologies for using the word 'pulpy' in the context of a cannibalism movie) that makes it really enjoyable all the same. Just keep away from any tomato-based dishes while you're watching.

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Dark Touch (2013), dir. Marina de Van

As you might have gathered so far by the films I've mentioned in this piece, female directors have made some top-notch contributions to the horror genre, from The Babadook to American Psycho and all the way back to Ida Lupino's taut noir thriller The Hitch-Hiker, released in 1953. Add to this list Marina de Van's Dark Touch, an Irish thriller about a girl, Niamh (Missy Keating), who's the only survivor of a mysterious supernatural massacre that killed the rest of her family. But that's only the start of it: When kindly neighbors take the traumatized Niamh in is when things start getting really weird. The horror genre has no shortage of creepy kids or paranormal entities upending the lives of well-meaning suburbanites; what sets Dark Touch apart is the way it serves as an allegory for the abuse of children and how entire communities are complicit in turning a blind eye to it.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui

Before there was Sarah Michelle Gellar, there was Kristy Swanson as Buffy: cheerleader, slayer of vampires and all-around quip-master. Joss Whedon wrote the 1992 movie on which his famous TV show would later be based, but it was Fran Rubel Kuzui (later credited as an executive producer on Buffy's TV incarnation and its spin-off Ange) in the director's chair. For Buffy fans who've never seen it, or those who have dim memories of it from childhood (me, until recently), it's more than worth a watch. There are some changes to the vampire mythology, here: Fledgling vamp Benny (David Arquette) can fly right out the gate, and I'm pretty sure Buffy-the-show never revisited the concept that proximity to vampires gives the Buffster cramps. But the wit is still here — "All I want to do is graduate from high school, go to Europe, marry Christian Slater, and die" is the most famous line, but I'm rather partial to Paul Reubens' "Kill him. A lot."

Also present is the feminist bent that would gain the later Buffy so many devoted followers. A favorite bit: Scruffy love interest Pike (Luke Perry at his hottest -- sorry, 90210.) tells Buffy that "You're not like the other girls." Her response, after a pause: "Yes, I am." Being strong, being brave, standing up for people: Those aren't traits only one woman in a generation has. The point of Buffy is that she is normal, or the best of what normal can be. The exchange echoes a speech that would come 11 years later, in series finale "Chosen": "From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer … will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up. Will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?"