Ladies of the Fright

Jocelin Donahue in "Father's Day"

From Psycho to Scream, strong female characters have long been a staple of the horror genre. And every holiday from Halloween to Valentine’s Day has inspired a scary movie (or three), so it’s probably inevitable that the two collide in Holidays, a hugely entertaining anthology horror film now available on demand through YouTube, iTunes, and other streaming services. (With its eerie “Father’s Day” segment, it’s also perfect viewing for this weekend.) I was able to talk to the women and men of the fright flick at Holidays’ premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April, and they had a lot to say about why women are so essential to horror.

Turns out the movie’s female slant happened pretty much by accident. Producer John Hegeman explains, “We tried to give every director the creative freedom to do whatever they wanted to do, and it’s funny that there are so many strong female characters, so many protagonists. It’s amazing, it’s like every single movie has this really strong female thread going through it. It’s because these filmmakers are so unique and progressive . . . and it just worked out that way.”

Dennis Widmyer, who co-directed the “Valentine’s Day” segment and the brutal Starry Eyes with his creative partner Kevin Kolsch, recalls that “about 8 years ago we started writing female-driven movies. We just found them more interesting, you know? ... A lot of times horror writers write females as sort of vulnerable, and the victim of the slasher chasing them, but we’ve never been interested in writing female characters like that. Our female characters are always very tough, obsessive, and they have their own agency and they’re fucking crazy!”

Madeleine Coghlan in "Valentine's Day"

That’s certainly true of “Valentine’s Day’s” Maxine, a Carrie-esque misfit who gets the upper hand on her tormentor in a bizarre effort to impress her older crush. Maxine’s portrayer, Madeleine Coghlan, enthuses that “the complexities of females can be kind of heightened in the horror genre which is kind of fun to play at. There’s those stereotypes of the crazy ex-girlfriend and we can kind of break them by getting into the more complex feelings and emotions.”

The hugely talented Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil, Insidious: Chapter 2) taps into those emotions in her segment, “Father’s Day,” in which the actress is alone on screen—listening to the audiotaped words of her believed-to-be-dead father. The mysterious recording directs her to a bizarre reunion. “It was a challenge to be only working with myself but it also made it more personal, because I got to use my imagination,” Donahue remembers. The actress has strong opinions about why women are so essential to the genre. “Horror is something that has a lot of high stakes, life or death or violence or danger, it’s always so emotional,” she states. “And what’s cool about the horror genre is that directors have always given those lead roles to women, to final girls. Because women have the vulnerability and they can also have the strength and resourcefulness to get through harrowing situations.”

But while the list of female horror stars is very long, credits for women directing horror films are few and far between—reflecting a comparative lack of female film directors in general. Sarah Medina Smith, the director of the pregnancy themed “Mother’s Day” segment, explains the disparity by answering “’Cause ladies been busy! They’re getting they’re shit together, they’re getting shit done, they’ve been busy, quietly making history without getting credit for a long time.” She also offers insight into the feminist perspective of her short, in which an unnatural pregnancy is forced on a woman, Rosemary’s Baby-style. “[The character has no choice] and that’s sort of why I did it, because I think for so many years women had no choice of when and how they got pregnant,” Medina declares. “For thousands of years of history, sex was rape, or best case scenario you had a loving marriage but you were still just perpetually pregnant....There was so much horror and sadness associated with motherhood. And now that we have accessible and effective contraceptives we’ve sort of lost touch with that part of our history.”

Reflecting on the varied women in Holidays, “New Year’s Eve” director Adam Egypt Mortimer muses that “it’s an interesting time for that, and an interesting time for ‘what do we mean by strong female characters?’ Do we mean that they do high kicks and swing an ax, or like, Ingmar Bergman [type] strong female characters? Films about a more complex idea of what strong means.” With films like Holidays *and next week’s *The Neon Demon, it’s clear that women will continue to be inextricably linked with horror—and that the female characters and artists who create them will evolve in new and surprising ways.

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on June 19, 2016