It’s no surprise that fans of genre film have sought out resources to aid in their quarantine viewing at home. Australian film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has delivered a fresh topic to fill that need with her expansive book from 2020, 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media). Quite appropriately, she finds a tone in her writing between the scholarly and popular. Having taught university film studies, she has been prominent as a commentator at screenings and for video releases. Heller-Nicholas is also a former editor for the journal Senses of Cinema and has written several passionate yet informed monographs and longer studies in horror, gender, and exploitation cinema. She’s an example for other commentators on film to follow.
Heller-Nicholas’s experience makes her well-suited for the topic of 1000 Women, which was a welcomed surprise. This 600-page encyclopedia features women in the genre throughout its history, along with compelling interviews with figures where appropriate and possible. The book could have easily focused on just contemporary horror, which is a standout in the text. But the author covers the full history of women in horror to show their prominence, including figures from famous terrors, like Psycho and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but also less-discussed films, like The Golem and Repulsion. Even fans well-versed in the genre will find Heller-Nicholas’ entries welcoming.
In late 2020, the author offered her comments and insights about her book.
I know you have spoken about women in early horror as being an inspiration — did they launch the idea for you? Or were there others later in history that inspired you to undertake the project?
This is a fascinating question, because it gestures towards the mechanics that lie at the heart of what inspired the book, which were questions about invisibility. In many ways it makes sense that early cinema might be the first area we think of in this sense simply because so many of these films have been lost. But from a broader historiographical perspective for me it was also as much about re-aligning or repositioning better known films and/or filmmakers more concretely in the context of horror history: for example, while Lois Weber’s 1913 film Suspense is often discussed in terms of its technical accomplishments (particularly her early use of split screen techniques – one of the earliest filmmakers to do so), for myself I have always seen in that particular movie the groundwork of what we now today call the home invasion horror film. So it is not just a question of visibility, but also a kind of conceptual realignment in terms of how we think of genre history itself.
To be honest, I don’t think there was one or even a group of specific women that sparked the project; rather, it was a case of wanting to fill in what lay in the blank spaces both in a historical sense, but also a geographical one. The most interesting women in the book to me, now that it is done and dusted, are those I’d never heard about before I began the project. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) women including Eloyce Gist who was a Black woman from Texas who made films with her evangelist husband in the 1930s; British filmmaker, dancer and actor Wendy Toye who directed the segment “The Painting” in the 1955 anthology Three Cases of Murder; or director Svetlana Baskova from Russia, whose 1999 film, The Green Elephant, remains one of the most challenging and vicious horror films I’ve ever seen.
It’s great to see a number of interviews appear as entries. I see that you began them a few years ago, and that film historian Lee Gambin has been essential in helping you — how important were interviews in shaping the project? (Also, are they original?)
Lee was very much the person who made this book happen, 100%. He is an just a firebrand and, of course, enormously prolific in terms of his own work, both as a programmer at the Melbourne film collective, Cinemaniacs, and as an author in his own right – he’s written books on eco-horror, The Howling, Carrie, Cujo and musicals of the 1970s, and has just edited a monster-sized book on the history of television ‘very special episodes’. But Lee is just as passionate about propelling other people’s projects; he really goes to quite extraordinary lengths to champion the work of those of us who have been blessed enough to have him in our orbit. So many of the women in the book I interviewed I was introduced to by Lee, and it was almost supernatural – just by virtue of his name, I was gifted instant credibility, it seems!
The interviews felt very important to the book in that the bulk of the entries were really quite typical encyclopedia-style biographical summaries with a filmography component; the interviews really were where I wanted to amplify that content and sort of say ‘all of these women have stories’. Giving my interview subjects space to speak in their own words was very important to me, as was having a diverse range of subjects – I didn’t want to have just actors and directors, and I also wanted to be quite diverse in terms of where people were making films and when they were making them. I also very much liked the idea of using interviews to shine a spotlight on lesser-known women in horror as much as bigger cult figures, too – this really reflects a core goal with the book of democratizing the idea of women’s labor, that just because you may not have heard of someone doesn’t mean that they haven’t contributed to the genre. Most of the interviews were conducted specifically for the book; some people I’d already been in contact with such as Izzy Lee, BJ Colangelo, Lao filmmaker Mattie Do, and Australian filmmakers like Donna McRae, Mia’Kate Russell and Isabel Peppard. Some women I met through Lee Gambin, and others I simply cold called, such as Debbie Rochon and Catherine Hardwicke. Most of the interviews were conducted specifically for the book, but a few – Cassandra ‘Elvira’ Peterson, Aislinn Clarke, Anna Biller and Barbara Magnolfi – were archival interviews I was granted permission to reprint.
With horror, there are issues of subgenres to consider – how much of gothic should be included versus slasher, hybrid horror, etc. I see you have addressed this in your introduction (focusing on effect versus categorization). How did the issue shape your entries?
Something Australian festival director and filmmaker Briony Kidd said to me that I quoted in the introduction really stayed with me after I’d finished the book. I’m paraphrasing here, but she noted that when men experiment with genre codes and conventions they are considered ground breakers, but when women do it there’s an implication that they are somehow getting genre ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ at horror. There’s so much here to unpack and I think it’s an extraordinarily important point, and I think in retrospect Briony’s point really articulates why I had such an elastic approach to ‘horror’ in the book – I really wanted to include films that were obviously easily identifiable as horror, sure, but at the same time I wanted to be a little playful with these ideas: for example, Cybil Richards’ softcore sex comedy The Exotic House of Wax is in there, as is Pearl Chang’s Taiwanese wuxia film Wolf Devil Woman. They might not be The Exorcist or Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but they certainly are feature films that I myself see experimenting in really fun ways with supernatural and horror themes and iconography.
I love how you incorporate women known mainly for other genres, like Pam Grier. Can you discuss how you decided which in this category would make the cut? Also, some need longer analysis as figures of horror, like Catherine Deneuve and Amy Heckerling. Can you comment on how you’d like your collection to help thus?
There’s a lot of women who fall into this category in the book, and I find the responses from people regarding their inclusion tend to reflect the kind of horror films they are familiar with. Some people, for example, are floored that Joan Collins is in there, while for others it would have been criminal for her not to be included. Catherine Deneuve is an interesting one; my feeling is that with her (and this goes perhaps for quite a number of other women in the book), she absolutely had to be included for The Hunger and Repulsion alone, even though she has worked far from exclusively in horror. And women like Amy Heckerling for me were really fun to include; Vamps might not be as well-known as Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Clueless, but I do think Vamps is a really key movie in her filmography and an interesting one for how it reteams her with Clueless’s Alicia Silverstone.
Did you find other film encyclopedias influential? I know one of your former professors, Geoff Mayer, has written impressive ones.
Not directly, but at the same time I was so hugely influenced by Geoff when I was studying and teaching with him at La Trobe University here in Australia – especially when he was working on his Encyclopedia of Film Noir with Brian McDonnell, which is also brilliant. I’ve not thought about it directly, but Geoff’s imprint on my work is as much to do with his joy and passion for film as much as imparting practical research skills. So Geoff’s legacy on my work – on all of my books, on my public speaking, on everything I do professionally – is present in a very fundamental level, because it is largely through him that I learned that it was possible to be an academic genuinely excited about film: objective and critical wasn’t automatically synonymous with detached and aloof, which sadly is what I had largely been exposed to otherwise, bar a few other significant mentors.
One of the things that really drew me to a project of this shape was how it democratized women’s labor in horror: that no one woman was necessarily elated as being ‘greater’ or ‘better’ wasn’t something I was interested in doing, even in the interviews. Rather, I wanted these 1000 entries to all collectively build a picture, almost a cartography of women’s work in this particular genre. And on a really fundamental level, I love the joy of discovery that this format offers; that you might pick it up looking to see if someone you know is in there, and almost by accident – by sheer proximity – find yourself reading about women you have never even heard of.
I can see this kind of project as one you could work on while doing other books — or did you complete this in more of a solid block of time?
For any rational person, absolutely that would have been the way to do it! But it seems that when I go in, I go all in, so all of my books are born in a kind of research bubble that is quite consuming. I came back to this one a lot though after the first draft was done, a lot of names added and removed (many numerous times, if I recall correctly!). I am sure that there is a healthier way to work, but for myself at least, the obsessive drive to focus on a single project seems just to be a part of my writing practice.
I know you are involved in teaching/speaking on film, along with audio commentaries. How did these endeavors inspire the project, and how will it inspire future work in these areas?
I find that for myself at least, my research interests do tend to blur quite significantly into one and other; before I began this book I’d been working for some time on a project focused on Australian women’s filmmaking of the 1980s and 1990s that culminated in a Australian Research Institute Research Fellowship, which in turn lead me to creating the online database Generation Starstruck which – again – lead me to co-curating the Pioneering Women stream at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival with Michelle Carey. I’d been an editor with Michelle at Senses of Cinema and this was a passion we both shared (amongst many others), so it’s always felt quite organic how things have just sort of flowed into each other. The women in horror project always felt it sat quite naturally between my broader work on women’s filmmaking and my primary field of focus on cult, horror, and exploitation films. I’d also co-edited books on Elaine May, and Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s collaborations, so in many senses it felt that all roads were leading to the women in horror book.
In what ways do you find commentaries to be rewarding? Do you prefer them to writing in any ways, or vice versa?
Working on home entertainment releases is a real gift; whether its liner notes, commentaries, writing and narrating video essays… it’s just an absolute joy, because you are in many ways preaching to the converted. You know people are on board with the film just by virtue of them buying it, which gives enormous critical freedom to really dig much more deeply than you can in other critical environments. It’s often also very collaborative; commentaries especially I love doing with my esteemed peers, I did a film criticism radio show here in Melbourne for many years on radio station RRR and commentaries in many ways bring back a lot of that buzz.
And since you are involved in weekly reviewing, how did this inspire the project?
I am really in full flight when writing books – long-form projects are where I think I flourish the most and where I certainly get the most satisfaction. But I have to say short-form criticism for new releases is a really vital part of my practice; it might not be the most electrifying metaphor, but to me it’s the critical equivalent of going to the gym. It keeps the muscles flexed and toned, and always working, working, working. I tend to focus primarily (although not solely) on women’s filmmaking, too, so it’s a great way to keep tabs on what is coming out – there’s been quite a few women-directed horror films that haven’t had massive budgets this year that I’ve reviewed, and I suspect if they didn’t come to me as a critic they may have fallen off my radar. So it’s not the kind of writing I find the most satisfying, but I think it’s really essential in terms of the bigger picture for a number of reasons.
You’ve written shorter, single-film monographs and longer studies for publishers, like McFarland. Aside from the timeframe, how was this project to your taste?
Single-film focused monographs are just a joy: we use the word ‘deep dive’ a lot when we talk about books like this, but from a writing and research perspective I absolutely delight in the immersive experience of it, the demand to focus on one text with great precision that becomes almost obsessive (Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look at Psycho is still one of my favourite film books, and I think I learned a love of these kinds of books from him).
But I’ve also written four survey books now; Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (which was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award), and my just released book, The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema. I wrote Rape-Revenge Films and Found Footage Horror Films almost back to back and I think by default to me these kinds of projects are the most intuitive for me at this point. Except for the rape-revenge film book which was expanded from my Masters thesis (Geoff Mayer was my supervisor, in fact!), all the others had been long-term obsessions, real bees-in-my-bonnet so it was always just a matter of time before I sat down and got them out of my system.
1000 Women in Horror was a very different kind of project yet again, but I guess it still had a kind of immersive quality to it in terms of the actual experience of writing it. The only books I’d flagged as being almost the opposite to this are the edited collections I’ve worked on; I’ve always co-edited these and find the collaborative process really rewarding when it’s all working at its best. I’ve edited two books with John Edmond (Cattet and Forzani and the forthcoming Strickland), ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May with Dean Brandum for Edinburgh University Press, Wonderland with Emma McRae for Thames&Hudson which accompanied the Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and was one of seven editors involved in the mammoth Routledge Handbook of Interdisciplinary Research Methods in 2016. Interestingly, this kind of work comes from a very different part of my brain – more to do with my work at Senses of Cinema and as an editor elsewhere in my career than as a writer per se. I love editing – I often joke that it feels like being a midwife for ideas – but again, like short-form film criticism, it feels like it’s an important muscle to flex in order to keep fit on a more holistic level as a writer.
That’s a fascinating point about editing! I know what you mean, as an editor and film writer myself. You’ve noted that the book could have been much longer, with all the women deserving attention. My apologies if this is premature — might there be a ‘sequel’ in the works?
I am already joking about this! On one hand, there’s women from film history who already I recognise as being criminally neglected in this book: Jim Junot recently brought Mary Fuller, who starred in the 1910 Edison Company version of Frankenstein, to my attention, and it’s just an abomination that I did not include her in the book (for those who have not heard of her, I strongly urge you to read her Wikipedia page – it’s a heck of a journey!). But in all sincerity, one of the most rewarding parts of this book has been seeing women in horror themselves respond to it. So many of the women I interviewed including Debbie Rochon, Izzy Lee, BJ Colangelo, Mattie Do, Katherine Kean, Barbie Wilde, Gigi Saul Guerrero – and that’s just a handful, so many other wonderful women – have been hugely supportive of the book, and there’s many women I was lucky enough to interview for the introduction; Ashlee Blackwell, who co-wrote Horror Noire and founded the essential website Graveyard Shift Sisters, writer and filmmaker L.C. Cruell, critics like Emma Westwood and Amanda Reyes, and the team at the Final Girls Film Festival in Berlin, amongst others. And then there’s those I touched base with to get photos and just confirm biographical details that have just been so supportive and generous and excited by the project as well: seeing their responses to having their place in horror solidified in black and white, there’s something about this that feels really magical.
But what I didn’t expect and what has largely taken me by surprise is the women who are emerging in the field who I also see supporting the book and getting excited about it, seeing themselves in a version of this book somewhere in the future. Whether I write it or someone else does almost feels beside the point in relation to the fact that in some way, there’s been a real need to formalize in this kind of way what has for far too long been a largely ignored labor demographic in horror. This feels like it really matters not just retrospectively, but it speaks to these ambitious, talented younger women now entering the field and says: your work is visible. We see you. Your work has value. I don’t wish to sound arrogant here; I absolutely see the book as a point on a continuum, this is work that was being done by really important people long before me, and will keep being done in the future. But if this book is even a small point on that continuum that makes women feel that they are coming to a genre where they have a verifiable history, well, it’s wholly been worth it.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ most recent book is The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021).
Matthew Sorrento teaches film and media studies at Rutgers-Camden. He is Co-editor of Film International and Editor-in-chief of Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. He has forthcoming books on David Fincher’s Zodiac and film noir and the Hollywood blacklist.
For more information on the Rutgers-Camden minor in film studies, please visit https://film.camden.rutgers.edu/.