Beyond Clarice: Underrated Horror Heroines

by Sarah Marshall

I love October because, for thirty-one days, I am allowed to watch all the horror movies I want without anyone thinking I’m deranged. (I also like cider.) Granted, I pretty much watch all the horror movies I want during the rest of the calendar year, but it’s a little harder to start a conversation with a colleague by saying, “What did you do this weekend? I had a little Carpenter marathon and watched The Fog and The Thing. Yeah, alone, in my own room. You know the part in The Thing where the thing takes over the huskies, and that huge weird mouth thing bursts out of one of them? Did you know that was made out of dog tongues, and the crew called it the ‘flesh flower’? Isn’t that cool? So… how was that Bon Iver concert, anyway?”

Sometimes it’s a little difficult to be a young, relatively good-smelling female grad student with the same taste in movies as a fourteen-year-old boy who likes to kill small animals. Various relatives and acquaintances have suggested as much to me on various occasions. But, at the end of the day, little makes me happier than a good old-fashioned gorefest, with the exception of a strong, smart, resourceful female heroine making her way into one. Negative stereotypes to the contrary, horror might just be richer than any other genre in female characters who know how to handle their shit, and though The Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling and Alien’s Ellen Ripley are iconic examples, the story doesn’t end there. Some of the women on this list save the day, and some are just delightfully mouthy, but all of them are stronger and much more real — not to mention more fun to watch — than most female characters cranked out of Hollywood, regardless of the genre they appear in. And, like all lists, it’s by no means comprehensive — so, horror fans unite! Tell us who you love best, and why we should love her, too.

1. Candyman — Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen)

Let’s start off with someone not too far from the Clarice mold. Just in its own right, Candyman is, I think, one of the most underrated horror movies of the nineties. It’s also one of the few horror movies I know of that explicitly (and intelligently) tackles racial themes, and contains some of the most beautiful cinematography and arresting images you’ll ever see in a movie, horror or no. (It also has a brilliant and ominous score by Philip Glass.)

The plot is simple: graduate student Helen Lyle is researching a thesis on urban legends, and ventures into Cabrini-Green (a real, and notoriously dangerous, Chicago housing project) to conduct interviews on the “Candyman” the residents live in fear of. Helen also hears the story of Candyman from one of her colleagues at the university: Candyman, the son of a wealthy freed slave, was hired by a wealthy white man to paint a portrait of his daughter. The two fell in love, and when the girl’s father learned of the affair he paid a group of thugs to saw off Candyman’s hand and replace it with a meathook, then smeared honey over his body and had him stung to death by bees.

The story goes that if you look in the mirror and say his name five times, Candyman will appear behind you and murder you with his hook — so, naturally, Helen gives it a try. Candyman doesn’t kill her, but makes it look as if Helen herself is responsible for a string of brutal slayings, all the while telling her to “come with me, and be immortal.” The movie is a fascinating deconstruction of the standard gothic plot — an intelligent young woman, a tortured antihero, and a sadistic love story for the ages — and Helen refuses to be transformed into a gothic heroine, instead fighting back with fierce intelligence, determination, and strength. By the end, she has all the power she needs, albeit not a tenure-track position.

2.-4. A Nightmare on Elm Street,Parts 1, 3, 4, and 5 — Nancy Thompson, Kristen Parker, and Alice Johnson (Heather Langenkamp, Patricia Arquette/Tuesday Knight, Lisa Wilcox)

Is it possible to be a horror fan of any stripe and not have a certain fondness for the Nightmare on Elm Street series? For one thing, it’s the only long-running horror series that stays relatively strong past the second installment. Part one centers on Nancy Thompson, a strong-willed Nancy Kerrigan lookalike who sets out to learn why her friends are being killed in their dreams, and learns that her and her friends’ parents once teamed up to kill an unconvicted child murderer named Fred Krueger. (In the original script he was a child molester, and this aspect of his crimes was brought back — maybe a bit too aggressively — in the recent remake.) Part two departs from the final girl template, focusing on Jesse, the boy who moves into Nancy’s old house, and is perhaps the most homoerotic horror movie ever made (but don’t take my word for it).

Though an inadvertently thoughtful meditation on the horrors of a closeted adolescence, part two left something to be desired, but this was remedied in part three, which featured original final girl Nancy five years after the first movie, now researching the science of dreams and trying to save the last of the Elm Street kids, among them Kristen Parker. Kristen becomes the star of the fourth movie, having developed, with Nancy, a way of controlling her dreams and dominating all adversaries who appear within them, and passes this knowledge onto Alice Johnson, who becomes the star of the fifth movie.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is nothing if not corny, with byzantine death sequences (a weightlifter turned into a bug! A guy eaten by his own motorcycle!) and a villain who seems to have a dayjob as a Catskills comedian. But it’s also explicitly about female empowerment, as its final girls learn not just how to control their dreams but to control their lives as well, and overcome such obstacles as alcoholic parents, insecurity, and being ignored by those in power. It also establishes what can only be described as a final girl matriarchy, with myths, rituals, and a strong bond of friendship uniting its heroines.

Part six breaks from its predecessors and stars Shon Greenblatt, of Newsies kind-of fame (remember the Delancey bruddahs?), focusing its storytelling efforts on surreal celebrity cameos, video game plugs, and a nonsensical 3-D sequence. But five movies into a series without even a whisper of 3-D seems, at this point, almost like a marvel of restraint.

5. Dressed to Kill — Liz Blake (Nancy Allen)

Behind every great B-movie director stands a beautiful woman who knows how to make corny lines sound believable and ridiculous plot points seem like intelligent decisions, and behind Brian De Palma stands Nancy Allen, who played Chris Hargensen in Carrie, Sally in Blow Out, and Liz Blake, high class prostitute slash amateur stock trader and art collector slash occasional sleuth, in Dressed to Kill.

Calling De Palma a B-movie director doesn’t quite seem fair, since he enjoyed a great deal of mainstream success during the ’70s and ’80s, but his plots tended toward the cliché and the Hitchcock ripoff (sorry, “homage”), his default camera setting was misty slow-mo, and his female characters were either blonde and spunky or brunette and horribly murdered. In Body Double, De Palma’s riff on Psycho, Nancy Allen was the spunky blonde, teaming up with a nerdy teenager to track down his mother’s murderer. The plot is ludicrous, and includes a transsexual killer who’s handled about as accurately and thoughtfully as the Hollywood standard in 1980 dictated, which means not at all. But Nancy Allen somehow sells it, and you buy not only that she would evade the killer while running around with no bra on but that she would get asked out by a Tom Waits lookalike while doing it. While the police — led by Dennis Franz, another De Palma standby — leave her out as bait, Liz is tough, resourceful, and quick on her feet, even in misty slow-mo.

6.-7. Black Christmas — Jess and Barb (Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder)

Black Christmas is one of the great proto-slashers, coming equipped with countless touches that would someday become hallmarks of the genre: the killer’s-eye-view camera, complete with breathe-o-vision; the faceless, inscrutable killer; the group of happy, wholesome young people who can’t imagine harm befalling them; and, of course, the final girl. The really wonderful thing about Black Christmas, however — which was, amazingly enough, directed by Bob Black, who would go on to make A Christmas Story — is the fact that it pioneers the genre rather than following its template, and is, as a result, completely terrifying. It’s the kind of movie that, as a horror fan, you save for special occasions, because you know that if you watch it too many times you’ll wear out its ability to scare you, and when that happens it’s like looking across the table at someone you were once deeply in love with and realizing that all you can think about anymore is the disgusting noise they make when they eat cereal.

Black Christmas as also set apart, though, by its female characters, who are written not just as nameless bimbos but as individual characters, the kind you might meet in college and become friends with — which of course makes the movie all the scarier. For my money, its best characters are Jess, played by a post-Romeo and Juliet Olivia Hussey, and Barb, played by a pre-Superman Margot Kidder. Barb is a hoarse, ballsy, hard-drinking New Yorker, who takes obscene phone calls in stride and calls her own mother a “gold-plated whore.” Jess, while slightly less fun to watch, is thoughtful, intelligent, practical, and spends most of the movie not running from a masked killer but deciding whether or not to get an abortion, in a subplot that feels both believable and respectful of women’s issues in general. That it made its way into any movie in 1974 is amazing enough — that it made its way into a cheaply made horror movie is incredible. Or maybe just solid proof that horror never quite gets enough credit.

8. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre — Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns)

As with Black Christmas, you can forget about the remake, and focus on the gritty, terrifying, and amazingly well-written original, which was filmed on such a miniscule budget that the actor who played Leatherface wasn’t allowed to wash his costume for fear that the dye would bleed out, and so wore the same shirt through four weeks of Texas heat. Marilyn Burns, who played Sally Hardesty, the movie’s final girl, didn’t fare much better. Despite many viewers remembering it being as gory as its title would suggest, the film only included about two ounces of fake blood in an attempt to secure a PG rating (PG-13 wouldn’t be invented until 1984), and most of it ended up on Burns, whose costume dried to a solid mass during the final days of shooting. She also suffered numerous cuts while running through trees and brushes in the film’s most famous scene, and let the actors cut her finger to produce real blood when a special effects tube malfunctioned during the finale.

Maybe it’s because the shoot itself was so arduous — with days on end where the temperature didn’t dip below a hundred, and shoots in rooms filled with rotting meat and real skeletons — but Marilyn Burns’ performance in Chainsaw is one of the most real — and terrifying — you’ll ever find in a horror movie. Like Black Christmas, I only watch it every so often, for fear that its effects will weaken, although I’ve been watching this one for longer: I rented it for the first time when I was fourteen and babysitting my friend’s twin brothers, who were nine at the time. I never got to babysit them again.

As Sally, Marilyn Burns isn’t just a great final girl in terms of speed, bravery, and intelligence, but in terms of how much you feel what she’s going through: her panic, her fear, and her experience of being made to feel more like an animal about to be slaughtered than a human being about to be killed. When she escapes, you feel that she has won back not just her life but her right to exist as a human being, and you feel every ounce of her hysterical joy — and all two ounces of the blood caked on her costume.

9.-10. Halloween — Annie Brackett and Lynda van der Klok (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles)

When people talk about John Carpenter’s Halloween, Laurie Strode (played by original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis) tends to get all the love. But Halloween wouldn’t be half the movie it is without the foul-tempered Annie and the wonderfully dippy Lynda, played by B-movie maven PJ Soles. (Carpenter wrote the part specifically for her, based on how much he loved the way she said the word “totally.” It shows.) Annie and Lynda, who both fall prey to Michael Myers before his epic showdown with Laurie, are generally credited with helping to establish a hallmark of the slasher genre: stay virginal, and you might just stay alive. Lynda gets killed right after sex, and Annie is on her way to a booty call when Michael catches up with her. And though it’s hard to argue that Laurie is as sexually experienced as either of her friends — she giggles and blushes at even the thought of a boy — it also doesn’t seem entirely fair to chalk up her survival to virginity alone. Laurie spends the entire movie aware of someone following her and watching her, and of a general ominous presence in the town, and you could say that Lynda and Annie get killed not because they’re having sex but because they’re enjoying their lives unencumbered by feelings of dread. In other words, they behave a lot like most of us would in the same situation: happily making popcorn and doing their nails while the killer closes in. Laurie may be the one we want to see ourselves as, but I have a feeling that I’m much more likely to spend the last seconds of my life asking my killer for a beer.

11. Friday the 13th, Part 2 — Ginny Field (Amy Steel)

The Friday the 13th series is consistently written off as the most processed and lethargic — not to mention unstoppable — entry in the slasher genre, and, in general, this is a pretty fair assessment. We don’t quite appreciate F13 enough for just how energetically bad it can be, but then again, some people don’t appreciate energetic badness as the most important aspect of a movie-watching experience. The second installment came along just as the film’s creators realized they had a huge hit on their hands, but before they cottoned to the idea that it was a cash cow that could perhaps be made to regenerate an infinite number of times, and as such they played it pretty straight this time around. See part three for unnecessary 3-D and an alarmingly catchy disco theme, part four for the revelation that Crystal Lake is apparently about the size of Lake Superior and Crispin Glover being a sex machine, part five for horribly caricatured black characters and a goth girl doing the robot, part six for some half-assed stabs at humor and a cameo by the dearly departed Ron Palillo, part seven for Jason going up against a low-rent Carrie White, part eight for Jason promising to take on New York but spending eighty percent of the movie on a cruise ship due to budget constraints, part nine for an epic showdown in a diner, and part ten for… well, we’ll get to that later.

The point is, part two was filmed when Jason had yet to become a pop culture cliché — in fact, this was the first movie in which he actually appeared. He hasn’t yet found his iconic hockey mask (that happens in the next installment), so he’s clad in a utilitarian coveralls-and-burlap-sack-over-the-head combo, which, in my opinion, he never should have upgraded. He’s also pitted against his smartest adversary (low-rent Carrie notwithstanding): Ginny Field, a child-psychology major who all but guarantees that she’ll be the first to die, at least by the dictates of the slasher. She’s sexually aggressive, confident, sexy, and completely in charge of her relationship: in other words, one dead cookie. Instead, she survives to the end, gaining insight into Jason’s psyche through stories of the previous batch of slayings and convincing him that she’s his long-lost mother. She’s not telekinetic, and she can’t do the robot, but she matches her wits against Jason’s brawn and comes out on top, and sets a standard for final girls that goes unmatched for the rest of the series.

12.-13. Sleeepaway Camp — Meg and Judy (Katherine Kamhi and Karen Fields)

Meg and Judy are the girls you do not want to bunk with, but love to watch. Judy is the foul-mouthed JAP with about forty pounds of hair who looks like she’s perpetually considering sinking her French tips into your face; Meg is the counselor who openly hates kids, and is convinced everyone is going to spell her name wrong. (“My name is Meg. M-E-G.” Because… there are so many ways to misspell it? For example: Megg, Megghhh, and Megatron.) Sleepaway Camp is mostly remembered now for its finale, which should rightly go down in history as the best worst best worst best twist ending in the history of movies. But if you happen to tune in for the first ninety minutes, you can’t help enjoying the bitchy antics of Camp Arawak’s answer to the Heathers. (To get a taste of Sleepaway Camp’s other moments of genius, check out Stacie Ponder’s entry on it and the now sadly defunct Final Girl, which introduced me to many of the movies on the list, and whom I have to thank for countless sleepless nights.)

14. April Fool’s Day — Muffy/Buffy (Deborah Foreman)

April Fool’s Day was released in 1986, just as the slasher was starting to eat itself, and in the midst of the fairly lethargic entries to the genre that came out that year, (Friday the 13th was by then on its sixth installment), April was so smart, meta, and generally un-cliched, that no one really knew what to make of it. At its center is Deborah Foreman, of Valley Girl fame, playing Muffy St. John, a young heiress who invites her preppy friends to a weekend celebration at her secluded mansion. As the plot swings into action, we begin to get a sense of the characters not just as teenagers waiting to be axed, but as complex individuals, possessing thoughts, quirks, desires, humor, and — overwhelmingly — anxiety about their lack of direction in life, and how little their privilege has prepared them for careers in the real world. April Fool’s Day not only deconstructs the genre but provides a response to these fears, with Muffy manipulating not just her friends but the genre itself.

15.-16. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II — Vicki Carpenter/Mary Lou Maroney (Wendy Lyon and Lisa Schrage)

If you’ve ever wanted to watch a cross between A Nightmare on Elm Street and Degrassi, then Hello Mary Lou is the movie for you. A sequel to the fairly lethargic Prom Night (which starred a disco dancing Jamie Lee Curtis), Hello Mary Lou is the second installment in a four-part series of movies whose only connection to each other is the catchphrase “It’s not who you go with, it’s who takes you home” (and, uh, being about prom). Where Prom Night is a straight slasher, Hello Mary Lou is about 1957 prom queen Mary Lou Maroney, who died just as she was being crowned when a smoke bomb dropped on her by her jealous boyfriend ignited her (very flammable) dress. Thirty years later, good girl Vicki Carpenter goes looking for a prom dress in the school drama department’s costume collection, and picks out Mary Lou’s dress, which turns out to be haunted. (Yes, the one that burned. Don’t overthink it.) Pretty soon Mary Lou possesses Vicki, driving her to murder the boys who slut shamed her thirty years ago, and have a little fun with her newfound body. Mary Lou may be a homicidal maniac, but she also knows how to have a good time. Throw in some thick Canadian accents (“she looks like she’s in a faw-shun coma!”) and the obligatory Michael Ironside, and you have the best Ontarian prom-themed horror movie of 1987.

17. Return of the Killer Tomatoes! — Tara Boumdeay (Karen Mistal)

Return of the Killer Tomatoes!, a sequel to 1978’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. In a world where tomatoes are outlawed — and pizzas are topped with peanut butter, coconut, and chocolate chips — a mad scientist finds a method for turning tomatoes into people, and creates the beautiful Tara Boumdeay to serve as his sex slave and lab assistant. Instead, she escapes into the arms of a nerdy pizzeria employee, and bunks with him and his roommate, a very young George Clooney, ultimately helping to end world prejudice against tomatoes and tomato people. Karen Mistal, who hasn’t been in much else since, sells her role as a toast-obsessed centerfold look-alike, and the movie is a clever and underrated play on genre and subtle takedown of the movie industry. Of course, the young George Clooney part doesn’t really hurt, either.

18. Jason X — Kay-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder)

Yes, yes, I know. Jason X is awful. You don’t even have to see it to know it’s awful — it’s the tenth Friday the 13th movie, it’s set IN SPACE, and it sat on the shelf for two years before it was finally released, so you do the math — and if you’ve seen it, you know that it’s a lackluster blend of lethargic direction, lazy screenwriting, pointless characters, and occasional moments of alleged humor. Even an inexplicable Cronenberg cameo can’t save this puppy.

But — and there is a but — there is a bright spot, and that’s Kay-Em 14, the lady robot who saves all the ungrateful humans (or at least a couple of them). As Kay-Em, Lisa Ryder is not just the most Canadian member of a deliciously hosery cast, but the actor who commits most fully to the movie’s premise, rather than looking perpetually tired and embarrassed. She also might just represent both the zenith and the low point of late nineties Buffy-style feminism, which taught girls around the world that they could kick ass and have perfect nails. In general, we should have slightly higher standards than this for our horror movie heroines. In Jason X on the other hand, I’ll thank God for every quick-witted female robot I can find.

19.-24. The Descent — Sarah, Juno, Beth, Rebecca, Sam, and Holly

Also known as “OH MY GOD, THE DESCENT.” You’ll notice that we’re now at the end of this list and have seen exactly two movies made after the eighties, and though this is partly my own personal bias (I love the seventies and eighties so much that I may be the only person in America who actually drinks TaB), I do think the ratio of good to terrible horror movies was a lot higher back then. Maybe it’s because people hadn’t had time to overthink the final girl, or because you couldn’t do as much on a shoestring budget and had to consider just how many heads you really needed to explode, or because there wasn’t yet a sense that everything had already been done before. I also think that at least 40% of it had to do with the fact that Rob Zombie hadn’t started making movies yet, because Rob Zombie can somehow retroactively ruin movies by remaking them (see Halloween). If any of you want to get me a special Halloween gift, please get Rob Zombie to stop making movies somehow. As a people, we really don’t need two more hours of actors screaming and wearing overalls made out of their own skin.

But that’s neither here nor there, because out of the 2000’s came Neil Marshall’s (sadly not related to me) The Descent, a movie about six badass women venturing into an uncharted cave system and encountering someone — or something — that exists within its depths, and doesn’t welcome intruders from above. The Descent is so refreshing not because it features strong, smart, nuanced female characters, but because those are pretty much the only characters it has. And like Black Christmas, it also effectively covers complex emotional territory — in this case, the fact that the protagonist, Sarah, recently suffered the loss of her husband and young daughter — in a way that adds to the plot as a whole.

Director Marshall pays homage to numerous horror classic, including Carrie, Deliverance, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while still maintaining a unique sensibility. It also more closely resembles a horror movie of the ’60s or ’70s in its pacing alone, which allows the tension to build, and build, and build… and then emerge. Watch it with the lights off, and with someone beside you on the couch.

25. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane — Rinn (Jodie Foster)

Did you really think I could make it through this whole list without mentioning Jodie Foster at least once? Even though Clarice is off-limits, most of the characters she plays — from the ’70s through today — are just as strong, independent, and smart. As Rinn, foster plays a 13 year old girl who lives alone and will resort to extreme measures to keep her autonomy and solitude, and her resolve is tested when Martin Sheen gets wind of her secret, and decides to press her into service as his personal concubine. Though it was marketed as a horror movie, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is really more a psychological drama than anything else, so this entry might be a bit of a cheat — but then again, would this list really be complete without Jodie? Horror or not, The Little Girl is one of the most underrated movies of the ’70s, and contains one of the best young, female heroines of all time. It provides not just 90 or so minutes of thrills, but a much longer-lasting meditation on independence. It may not go well with popcorn, but it’s perfect for a dark October night.

Sarah Marshall is currently at work on a critical study of I Spit on Your Grave. She will be spending Halloween with ladies number 9 and 10, and possibly 19–24.