As 2020 comes to a close, it’s time to reflect on the movies we got to see (and the ones we didn’t) this year. While we sadly watched many awesome horror movies get their releases pushed into the void, it left space for smaller, independent films to get the attention they wouldn’t have otherwise. Included in that are a lot of horror films directed by women this year, many of them first time directors.
Unfortunately, we were robbed of seeing both Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta, and A24’s Saint Maud, directed by Rose Glass as COVID-19 made theatrical releases almost nonexistent, but luckily women were behind many other horror flicks this year. As we push for greater equality when it comes to who makes the movies we watch, there were many female-directed horror movies in 2020 that deserve to be highlighted.
Best Horror Films Directed by Women in 2020
9. Sea Fever
This movie is everything I wanted Underwater to be. Irish director Neasa Hardiman has crafted an unexpectedly great sea horror film with a equally convincing dreary atmosphere.
A scientist (Hermione Corfield) joins the crew of a fishing boat on a trip where a mysterious parasite attaches itself to the boat and starts infecting the crew. Set entirely on the ship, this film is filled with tension and slimy gross effects.
Where to Watch: Hulu
I did not think I was going to like a psychological horror film about a rivalry between two sisters inside a prestigious music school as much as I did. This movie isn’t perfect, and it seems imitative of Whiplash (2014) and Raw (2017), but it was still engaging to see this story unfold in the directorial debut of Zu Quirke.
An ambitious girl (Sydney Sweeney) fights to become the best player at her prestigious music college where her sister (Madison Iseman) is excelling. She does everything she can to sabotage those around her just to get a chance at getting noticed by orchestra scouts. Along the way, she uncovers supernatural details about a student’s suicide at the academy.
This film gives an extremely harsh look at the competitive nature of modern day college students and the problems people face entering the job market, especially in an art field. The piano scenes are also incredibly tense and sound great for those classically inclined.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
I’m always a sucker for the elderly in horror films. Natalie Erika James’ first film gives a horrifyingly honest portrayal of watching your relatives slowly dying before you.
This slowburn follows a daughter and grand-daughter who return to their elderly mother’s house after she goes missing. When she comes back, she seems to be possessed by a sinister force.
This movie has a lot of similarities to The Taking of Deborah Logan in obvious ways, and also Hereditary, so if that’s your jam, this probably will work for you.
Where to Watch: VOD
6. 12 Hour Shift
This was one of the most entertaining while also stressful movies I saw this year. Directed by Brea Grant (actress in A Ghost Story (2017) and Halloween II (2009)), this over the top heist comedy takes place inside a hospital over one 12 hour shift.
A positively sleep-deprived and cranky Angela Bettis [May (2002]) dominates this film as a drug-stealing nurse at a busy hospital who, along with another coworker, sells organs on the side. David Arquette (Scream (1996)) also makes an appearance as a convict coincidentally staying at this hospital on the same night when an organ sale is botched, causing our main character to scurry around all night trying to fix the problem as smoothly as possible (it’s anything but).
This hilarious movie is over the top, bloody and says a lot about the lives of nurses.
Where to Watch: VOD
5. The Other Lamb
Ah yes, another cult movie that explores a religion of women who are manipulated by a charismatic man… delicious. Director Małgorzata Szumowska’s cult story is an uneasy slowburn that may have you questioning how people interpret and use religion.
It follows a girl (Raffey Cassidy) on the cusp of womanhood who is part of a Christian cult that lives in a forest cut off from society, revolving around a man they call Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) who delivers sermons to his “flock.” But, why is the flock only female? Well, the congregation is made up of only his wives, who are decked in red, and his daughters, dressed in blue. The sermons and rituals of this cult also seem to focus on “pleasuring” the Shepherd.
If you’re looking for a scare, this probably won’t be for you. But, if you’re looking for a twisted cult story with depth, this may interest you.
Where to Watch: Hulu
I don’t frequently watch Indian horror films but I’m sure glad I saw the directorial debut of Anvita Dutt. This film is incredibly gothic, and those who are a fan of Dracula will see many similar themes and aesthetics, including a dilapidated castle set in the 19th century in India.
A child bride develops a connection with her similarly-aged step-brother, but when he is sent away for most of her formative years she has to find her own strength. When he returns as a young adult he finds that the town has been plagued by a supernatural presence that has been attacking men.
This movie is beyond beautiful, with incredibly extravagant costuming, production design and lighting. It is an epic tale over the course of a lifetime lovingly crafted by the director (from a dream she had) and should be checked out by all.
Where to Watch: Netflix
3. M.O.M: Mother of Monsters
I went into this film fully expecting it to be bad, but Tucia Lyman’s debut film is far from it. I’m a huge fan of the found footage genre, but just when I thought that well was dry, this movie spun a new disturbing tale that was wholly unexpected.
A mother (Melinda Page Hamilton) starts recording her son (Bailey Edwards) secretly because she fears that he is actually a psychopath that will shoot up his school, while at the same time not being honest about her own past.
This indie gem smartly dissects the subjectivity of documentary filmmaking while tying in real cultural anxieties of this generation. Touching on themes of generational clashes, our surveillance culture, and untold fears of parents against their children. This is a twisty thriller that shouldn’t be missed.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime, Tubi
2. Blow the Man Down
This directorial debut from directors Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole has a little bit of everything: mystery, murder, comedy, and sea shanties. Taking place in a small fishing village off the coast of Maine, two sisters (Morgan Saylor and Sophie Lowe) grieving the loss of their mother find themselves having to cover up a crime that reveals secrets about their town, in a story that can only be described as “Fargo-like.”
This film has great style despite its small budget and the entire world of this salty village feels fully realized and fantastically seedy. It’s peak coastal village film noir. This is not like a traditional horror film with scares and ghosts, but if you’re looking for a good murder cover-up conspiracy this will not disappoint.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
1. She Dies Tomorrow
Director Amy Seimetz is not new to horror: she acted in Pet Sematary (2019) and You’re Next (2011), and has one other surreal film under her belt. She Dies Tomorrow is sure to divide many, but I view it as an original, experimental dark comedy masterpiece.
Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) suddenly becomes convinced by a mysterious force that she will die tomorrow. While planning her life around accepting that fact, she spreads this paranoia onto anyone she comes into contact with, leading to various responses to their impending demise.
Seimetz has previously stated that the film is meant to resemble what it feels like to have a panic attack, and it’s hard not to see similarities between this movie and the very real life we all live post-COVID, where fear spreads faster than a virus (some have even called this 2020: the movie).
This film feels like a dream, or maybe an absurdist nightmare. As one of the most unique movies to come out this year, it tops this list and I can’t wait to see more of Seimetz’ work in the future.
Where to Watch: Hulu
There were several other female-directed movies worthy of mention that came out this year. Amulet, directed by Romola Gurai is an uncomfortable, gothic dream with inventive and crazy surreal elements worked in. Audrey Cumming’s She Never Died is an entertaining and violent action flick where a woman incapable of dying works as an assassin. Floria Sigismondi’s The Turn of the Screw adaptation The Turning features hypnotic cinematography with an intriguing but muddled story. The Craft: Legacy, directed by Zoe Lister-Jones also came out this year, with a different take on the classic 1990s film.
It’s been a pretty dark year, and for the most part that’s been reflected in our films. With that said, it is nice to see so many women involved in horror films this year with hopefully the trend continuing with more female-directed horror stories in the future.