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Horror sequels and the female director

Contributed by
Jul 27, 2018

Women have always had a place in horror, with Mary Shelley arguably creating the genre a few centuries back with Frankenstein. Many horror classics have been directed by women, from Ida Lupino's The Hitchhiker, to Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, all the way up to Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. There is much in the way of influential women in horror, and the trend only grows over time.

There are many horror films that weren't critical or financial powerhouses but hold a very distinct place in women's film history. When women directors were still a rarity, there was an apprehension towards financially backing any project from a female director. Due to the low expectations for both horror sequels and female directors of the '80s and '90s, many got their start working in horror sequels, and some unfortunately struggled to find work when such films failed to return the expected box office. The successes were often ignored, while the failures were touted as reasons to refuse work to women behind the camera.

In the case of Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, Rachel Talalay was finally given the job of director after working on most of the previous five Nightmare on Elm Street films, besides getting her start by working with the infamous John Waters. She was anything but a rookie when Freddy's Dead went into production, but even so dealt with a great deal of interference from the studio throughout production. Notes urging her to make this visceral send-up of '90s culture and horror “less girly” were common. Talalay went on to direct many cult classics of genre, including Tank Girl and episodes of Doctor Who, and, although Freddy's Dead was panned by critics, it did turn a profit, and was, as such, a success in the financially turbulent world of the horror sequel.

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Director Roger Corman has produced dozens of films since the '50s up to this year's Death Race: Beyond Anarchy. Known for making movies fast and with budgets low enough that they couldn't help but turn a profit even if mostly unsuccessful, Corman was one of the directors that originally tapped into the '50s teen market, selling cheap, low-quality films about monsters, cowboys, and whatever else would sell. Another thing for which he became known was starting the careers of many a now-famous director, including Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Although Corman himself could in no way be considered a feminist, his production style allowed for giving several directors that would have struggled to find a place in Hollywood their chance to shining, including Katt Shea.

Shea began her career as an actor, but when she met her soon-to-be husband Andy Ruben they struck up a collaborative relationship and wrote many scripts together. One of them was called The Patriot, which was produced by Corman in the mid-'80s. After the film turned a profit, he agreed to produce another Shea-Ruben collaboration, which took form in the 1987 sexploitation film Stripped to Kill, which was, in turn, successful enough to warrant a sequel. Despite the obviously exploitative nature of the films, Shea did make a point that she respected the dancers as artists, and that, while she had once thought sex work to be bad for women, she changed her viewpoint after visiting clubs. However, on the sequel, Shea took her name off the film when she felt that Corman's editing interference changed the direction and the purpose behind the movie. For his part, Corman has had positive things to say about Shea, and insisted, “Katt's work is distinctive for its style, rhythm, and the progression of its narrative. Her movies touch something deep in the psyche.”

The Rage: Carrie 2 was not Katt Shea's creative baby. In fact, she had inherited the project from director Robert Mandel, who quit over creative differences, and was given an incredibly short time period to prepare for shooting. As with many of these films, there's very little known about the creative process behind the film, and how much creative control was given. In the end, The Rage: Carrie 2 was a box office disappointment, and the production lost a few million dollars for its studio. While there are definitely valid criticisms for the film —very few CGI effects from 1999 hold up well today — I was a teen girl and a horror fan in 1999, so I was the exact demographic for the film, and it definitely struck a chord with me. The film deals with heavy themes like suicide, rape, mental health, and classism, and while it does earn its moniker of “Emo Carrie,” it's also one of the few films of that or any other era that actually addressed those things. Due to the financial and critical failure of the film, Katt Shea, like many of the other directors spoken of here, was mostly regulated to made-for-TV films afterward. At one point, there was rumor of a horror anthology series with Mary Lambert that tragically never saw the light of day. Shea went on to be an acting teacher, although was recently announced as the director for Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, her first effort as a director in 17 years.

Then there are some horror films in which the entire chain was directed by women. For instance, Mary Lambert saw success and recognition with her surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Stephen King novel Pet Sematary. Originally intending to be a painter, Lambert became a director of many several music videos by Chris Isaak, Whitney Houston, Annie Lennox, and the Go-Go's, and, perhaps most famously, a series of videos for Madonna, including "Borderline" and ending with “Like A Prayer,” a video that is still considered controversial by some audiences and which garnered a great deal of airtime on MTV in the early '90s. She was granted her role as director of Pet Sematary due to establishing a good creative rapport with Stephen King. After the success of the film, still considered a horror classic, she was offered the opportunity to direct a sequel.

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In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, when asked if the success of the film opened more doors for her as a director, she replied, “I think that men and women are treated very differently in the film industry. If a man — say Ridley Scott or Jonathan Demme, two filmmakers I’m not comparing myself to but whom I have huge esteem for — has success with a horror film like that, it’s assumed that if they can do a horror film then they can do something else. For women, it’s 'oh, she can just do [more] horror films.'” She goes on to say that many people of the time considered it a complete fluke that Pet Sematary was as successful as it had been. On reflection, she expressed a regret that she hadn't dug in her heels and fully embraced the horror genre. After Pet Sematary 2 drew a disappointing box office, Lambert continued to work as a director, but generally stuck with made-for-TV movies and independent documentaries afterward.

I'm one of the few people that actually prefers Pet Sematary 2 to the original. While there is something to be said for the atmosphere and the editing, the first film is overall a bit tedious. Meanwhile, Pet Sematary 2 is just off-the-wall bonkers. The villain is an evil cop who then becomes an evil zombie cop, and the main character is a teen boy who can't get over his mother's death, to whom the world seems needlessly cruel and complacent. While it comes across dated, and relies on its imagery more than its story, it's still a pretty solid horror film, and doesn't deserve quite the level of negative feedback it received. Most of the disappointment seems to come from people who were genuinely expecting an atmospheric duplicate of the original film, although it is to Lambert's credit as a storyteller that she avoided such a move.

With the Mirror Mirror franchise (the horror film, not the movie starring Julia Roberts — that's a different article), the first entry was not only directed by a woman, but it was also written by several women. While the sequels are less well-regarded than the original, as is typical in the horror genre, it is still important to identify this film series as a horror franchise strongly rooted in the imaginations of its female creators. Similarly, Slumber Party Massacre and its two sequels were all directed by women. The first was directed by Amy Holden Jones, who went on to have a very successful career as a director, and is considered a subversive, even somewhat feminist horror classic. The follow-ups might have lacked the cleverness of the original, but they do deliver on the promise of a slumber party massacre just the same.

Often dismissed as being low-budget, trashy camp at best, these films hold their own in the long and storied tradition of the horror sequel, and occasionally even surpass the originals. While there is hope that female directors will have more lucrative and creatively fulfilling properties offered to them going forward, they still had a hand in shaping one of the most bizarre subgenres in cinematic history.

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