The rise of the video store was a treasure trove for genre fans, and the nostalgia for VHS horror has spawned everything from documentaries detailing the primarily independent industry that helped line the shop shelves to carefully curated coffee table books of the lurid allure of the box cover art that helped sell films you’d likely never heard of.
Yet for all of the recent retrospectives, homages and rediscoveries of VHS horror, women’s contributions to those aisles remain under discussed. Be it filmmakers taking advantage of demand to seize a shot at the director’s chair that the mainstream denied them, or women who had an established history in the independent film trenches, here’s a five film starter pack of movies directed by women that should’ve graced your pile of picks at the rental counter.
Roberta Findlay is probably best known for her work alongside her husband in 60s sexploitation films. However, Roberta kept writing and directing long after his death in 1977. In addition to her work in exploitation and adult film, the 80s saw Roberta take a late career swerve into VHS horror fare. Lurkers is the most psychologically driven of her horror efforts. Cathie (Christine Moore) is beautiful, a successful musician, and newly engaged. Plagued by nightmares and odd visions since the childhood loss of her parents in a murder/suicide, soon the terrors of her past begin to threaten her present.
The movie is somewhat slow going through the bulk of the runtime, suggesting that perhaps the film’s ambition slightly outstripped its price point. Thankfully, a liberal dash of exploitation style salaciousness and some atmospheric nightmare sequences featuring work by special effects legend Ed French keep help liven up the talkier segments. In the final third, what started out as a relatively simple urban ghost story kicks into a more overtly horrific mode. Mallet wielding killers, kink fueled tableaux, child ghosts with pronounced New York accents, colored gel filters and cults all combine to race to a bizarre finish that will likely please fans of the more bargain bin surrealist side of B cinema.
Mirror Mirror was Marina Sargenti’s first effort as a co-writer/director. In an unfortunately rare circumstance even amongst independent films, women were the majority personnel in both the on screen cast and the below the line crew. While Sargenti didn’t direct further features for the video market, she continued working in television throughout the 90s, most notably on Xena: Warrior Princess.
The basic plot of a bullied teen taking revenge on her tormentors via the supernatural (in this case a demonically possessed mirror) owes more than a little bit of a debt to Carrie, with a dash of the sly dark comedy at the heart of Heathers. However, Mirror Mirror centers female friendship just as much as it does feminine competition in the midst of its teenage terrors, with dialog that rings truer to the actual behavior of high school girls than most horror fare of the era. Winona Ryder lookalike/underutilized 80s ingenue Rainbow Harvest manages to carry both the film and some spectacular Goth fashion as angsty protagonist Megan, supported by solid performances from familiar genre faces (Karen Black, Yvonne De Carlo).
This is the sort of just bloody enough VHS horror made for late night sneaking and sleepovers, and it was popular enough at the time that it spawned a small franchise of three direct to video sequels. Two of those subsequent films were also directed by women, and considering how much horror fans love a franchise, the Mirror Mirror series is somewhat overdue for both a second look and a port to a special features laden Blu Ray box set to replace the 2004 DVD release.
Susan Shadburne had some notable successes as a writer of short films, wh often collaborated with her husband, director and Claymation animator Will Vinton, with two of their projects (Rip Van Winkle and The Great Cognito) receiving Oscar nominations. However, she was unafraid try something new, and took on triple duty (writer/producer/director) on her feature length debut, 1986’s Shadow Play. Like many female directors before and since, she unfortunately never made a second feature, but did continue working, primarily in children’s media and documentary shorts.
Where some of the other films on this list are clearly attempts to cash in on passing resemblance recent hits, Shadow Play owes as much to Old Hollywood fantasy romances like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as it does any of the VHS horror and thrillers of its own era. Morgan Hanna (E.T’s Dee Wallace) is a New York playwright who hasn’t been able to write since the tragic suicide of her fiancee 7 years prior. Accepting an invitation from the mother of her deceased lover, she packs up and moves to a remote island off of the opposite coast. The change of scenery cures her writer’s block, but spectral visions and nightmares point to her newfound inspiration perhaps not being entirely her own.
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Shadow Play is more atmospheric than it is straight up scary, using the isolated seaside setting to build up an unusual mix of ghostly hauntings, thriller style murder mystery procedural and paranormal romance. I pity any rental store employee who had to decide where to categorize this one, and its slow pace and indifference toward neatly fitting into any specific genre is likely why it remains relatively obscure.
While the tortured writer archetype and poetry quoting lost love (shown in sepia toned flashbacks) are borderline camp, there’s some reasonably effective grace notes on the lingering sting of grief. Dee Wallace also seems to be having fun breaking out of her usual typecasting, and the late Cloris Leachman is reliably wonderful as Morgan’s near miss mother in law. For those with a taste for vintage cable style offerings, or the soapier side of the supernatural, this is the melodramatic stuff that made for TV dreams are made of.
Beverly Sebastian the sort of multi-hyphenate that tends to hallmark a long career in the exploitation and low budget trenches, best known work is likely the Claudia Jennings hixploitation vehicle Gator Bait. Her productions were often family affairs, as she regularly worked alongside her husband (and later on, her adult son) over a career that spanned nearly 3 decades of grindhouses, drive ins and direct to video features, before retiring to Florida in 1993.
1984’s Rocktober Blood is a clear cash in appeal to the youth market’s trends, and the mini fad for heavy metal horror that was happening at the time. An ego fueled shock rock front man goes insane, killing some of his bandmates after a late night recording session. Determined to finish the job he started several years before, he starts committing homicide from beyond the grave. This is silly, standard issue slasher material, but the devotion to packing every possible timely fad into a tight 88 minutes makes this far more watchable than it would otherwise be.
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Break dancing monster masked mimes, expository dialog delivered in the midst of an aerobics session and liberal doses of blood and (irrelevant to the plot) nudity keep things moving as fast and loud as the hair metal power pop that fuels the soundtrack. Cheerfully cheap slices of cheese like this are exactly what makes VHS horror such a beloved nostalgia piece in the first place.
Gaylene Preston has been writing, producing and directing both film and television for nearly 4 decades. Her documentary and historical works have been well received on the international festival circuit, and she’s received multiple awards and honors for her contribution to the cinematic industry of her native New Zealand. 1985’s Mr. Wrong (also released under the title The Dark Of Night), was her first turn at directing a (non documentary) feature.
Meg (Heather Bolton) is a shy, awkward small town girl. Making a run for finally having some independence, she moves to a larger city, and buys a beautiful vintage Jaguar. The price seems too good to be true, and soon Meg is plagued by bizarre phenomena, the unwilling owner of a car that has a mind of its own, picking up supernatural hitchhikers along the way.
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The slow burning story is pretty bare bones, combining classic campfire tales with a dash of Stephen King’s Christine. The characters are far more fully fleshed out than that description would suggest, and Mr. Wrong has some appealing dry dark comedy lying under the hood. The film is clearly having fun subverting the typical genre tropes of a lone woman in peril, and subtly commenting on the self interested ways men feel entitled to a woman’s attention even in the most mundane moments of her day to day life.
There’s also some surprisingly stylish atmosphere in Meg’s drives down the dark highways, shadows of the pouring rain flickering across the car interior, lit only by passing headlights. All of the careful character development wraps up in an offbeat conclusion that ties up the main supernatural story and underlines feminist undertones in the film’s central themes. Mr. Wrong is an effective small scale thriller, with a gently cheeky tone that feels like an extended segment of a direct to VHS horror anthology that never was.