A Salute to Director Rachel Talalay, a True Genre Pioneer

A Salute to Director Rachel Talalay, a True Genre Pioneer
Peggy Drood (Indya Moore) and Grand Guignol (Tom Felton) plot against children in A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting. (Photo: Justina Mintz/Netflix)

Rachel Talalay is, to date, the only woman to direct a film in any of the major slasher franchises. She also made a bona fide 1990s cult classic, and has helmed episodes of several TV shows we love (including Doctor Who). Talalay’s latest feature, A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, hit Netflix last month and inspired us to take a look at her prolific career so far.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting (2020)

Based on Joe Ballarini’s book series, this Netflix Halloween release skews more overtly family-friendly than much of what Talalay has done in the past, but there are some familiar motifs, including a boogeyman who deals in the currency of nightmares. Babysitter’s Guide is about a geeky teen who gets a gentle but much-needed shove toward discovering her inner badass, alongside CG-enhanced monster mayhem, high-school social drama, and an endearing message that prioritises brainpower and loyalty among friends above all else. (And if you watch very carefully during the scene where the heroine’s parents phone her from a Halloween party, you’ll spot a reveler dressed as Freddy Krueger lurking in the background!)

Tank Girl (1995)

This is probably the movie most people associate with Talalay first and foremost, with good reason: it’s a fun-as-hell comic book adaptation beloved for its feminist themes and has long since made up for its tepid box-office take by becoming a cult sensation. It’s set in the post-apocalyptic year of 2033, when the world has used up nearly all its water (thanks to a comet strike, not climate change somehow), with a sinister corporation run by Malcolm McDowell aiming to stomp out any rebels capable of threatening their aquatic monopoly. Tank Girl (a memorably energetic Lori Petty) is, of course, the greatest rebel in the Australian outback, and won’t back down, especially once she starts building a misfit resistance.

A then-unknown Naomi Watts co-stars; you’ll also see a then-unknown Catherine Hardwicke in the credits as production designer (on a movie where that element definitely stands out) — but there are also some big names. Stan Winston’s team handled the special effects make-up for the movie’s mutant contingent, and Courtney Love, then at the height of Live Through This-era Hole fame, assembled Tank Girl’s raucous alt-rock soundtrack.

Ghost in the Machine (1993)

Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) stars in this horror tale that takes the basic plot of Wes Craven’s Shocker and gives it a cyber-themed update which now, of course, looks hilariously dated. A computer whiz/serial murderer known as the “Address Book Killer” — because he literally selects his victims from stolen address books — dies after a car accident, but he’s zapped with lightning during lifesaving efforts. He’s then reborn inside “the network,” which isn’t quite the internet since he’s able to travel into anything that plugs into a socket.

Even if you leave that dicey plotting out of it, Ghost in the Machine is not a great movie — it mixes made-for-TV energy with startling violence, and some curiously written teenage characters. But to Talalay’s credit, there are some genuine nail-biting moments. The disembodied maniac’s creative way of weaponising electronics is impressive, and a proto-Final Destination suspense wells up anytime the characters come within range of a microwave, an arcade game, a car phone, a public-bathroom hand dryer…you get the idea.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

Talalay’s directorial debut was this sixth film in the blockbuster Nightmare on Elm Street franchise — but she’d actually worked on every Nightmare film up to that point, starting with an assistant production manager credit on the 1984 Wes Craven original. Though every Nightmare film dips into the surreal, Freddy’s Dead might be the most exaggerated example, seen even in “awake” scenes when the characters travel to a Twilight Zone version of Springwood. Also notable: the film’s use of 3D during a last-act sequence exploring the corners of Freddy’s demented brain, in which we get to see Robert Englund out of his signature make-up for a change.

Talalay has a story credit alongside Michael De Luca’s script, so she undoubtedly had some input in making Freddy’s Dead an origin story for the gloved maniac. It’s unclear if she had a hand in sequences like “Freddy transforms into a murderous video game boss” or the stunt casting of original Nightmare star Johnny Depp, as well as Roseanne, Tom Arnold, and Alice Cooper, but those are just the kinds of weird touches that elevate this off-kilter entry in a series that had begun to feel creatively depleted long before 1991 rolled around.

Doctor Who

Talalay’s feature-film resumé isn’t too extensive, but she’s racked up a ton of TV credits. In recent years, she’s directed episodes of superhero shows like The Flash, Doom Patrol, and Legends of Tomorrow, as well as Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Of greatest note to Gizmodo readers, however, is probably the fact that she directed seven Doctor Who episodes, all from the Twelfth Doctor era, starting with the two-part season finale for the eighth series, “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven.” She’d return for the two-part season finale for the ninth series, “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent,” and again for the tenth, “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls.” Then, she oversaw the end of the Peter Capaldi era in the 2017 Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time,” which featured the historic debut of Jodie Whittaker in its final moments.

For more on Talalay — including how her very first movie gig led to her lasting friendship with John Waters (he was the officiant at her wedding!) — check out this short profile that Netflix put together ahead of Babysitter’s Guide. She also gets into her long history with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, explains what (and sometimes who) motivates her as a director, and gives some insight into her creative process.