Whether it is Norman Bates’ mother chastising him in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Count Orlock’s interest in Thomas’ wife in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), women in horror movies are objects of desire or hags; wives or wild cats; virgins or women full of vice. When Carol Clover wrote her iconic analysis of gender and sexuality in the horror genre, “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film,” she identified a trend in female fronted horror films that attracted primarily male audience members.
Was the male audience’s attraction to this genre primarily the ability to witness torture and dismemberment, rape and femicide? Clover suggested otherwise, writing that horror films direct our identification to the “final girl,” thus aligning our affinities and sympathies not with the perpetrator, but the woman pursued. In the following list, we identify 12 “feminist” horror films where women are not solely sexualized objects or purely damsels in distress. Although some of these films are still problematic in terms of representation or advancing gender normative behavior, each still bends, twists, or turns the depiction of their female protagonist in an unexpected direction. In the spirit of the band Le Tigre’s second album, “Feminist Sweepstakes,” we think we’ve hit the jackpot for feminist horror film gold.
12. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jodie Foster won her second Academy Award for her role as Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. As a fledgling FBI trainee, Jack Crawford of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit invites her to interview serial killer (and cannibal) Hannibal Lecter. Though initially ruffled by Lecter’s piercing, unblinking gaze and quest for personal details (and the semen thrown in her face by a prisoner as she leaves), Starling becomes a formidable and unrelenting presence against the demands of Lecter’s quid pro quo. She reveals her recurring nightmare (that of lambs screaming from a childhood memory when she temporarily ran away from home) to Lecter, but earns his respect due to her professionalism, politeness, and poise. This is a drama of manners, as much as it is a drama of the murder of young women.
With an entire team searching for the serial killer “Buffalo Bill,” Starling cracks the case and ultimately puts her life in jeopardy as she hunts Buffalo Bill down in his home. It is in his basement that Starling finds the suit made of women’s skin, his latest victim Catherine Martin at the bottom of a well, and his trove of moths.
But Starling is not a victim, nor a lightweight; though a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse ensues, Starling’s attentiveness to detail and precision lead to her victory and her subsequent graduation from the FBI Academy. When Lecter escapes from confinement, he courteously calls Starling to let her know he’s out in the world again and having an old friend, the bellicose buffoon Dr. Chilton who treated Lecter like a lab rat for years, for dinner. Starling’s lambs may still be screaming, but her silence speaks louder than words.
11. Let the Right One In (2008)
Snow falls in the deep of night, but no one is singing “Deck the Halls” at the start of Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Instead, we hear a voice off-screen chide, “squeal like a pig!” A young Scandinavian boy Oskar (played by Kåre Hedebrant) stares out his window as Alfredson cross-cuts to a young girl, Eli (played by Lina Leandersson), watching from her car window. Alfredson links the two children through the editing, even as we have yet to determine their connection or relationship.
Oskar formally meets Eli in a deserted snowy playground. Though the crunch of the snow indicates ice, Eli sports only a shirt and slacks. She stands above Oskar on a table, in a position of authority, strength, and dominance. The conversation does not indicate a budding romance or even a relationship. But Oskar is used to fraught interactions, as he is the victim of much bullying at his school where classmates refer to him as a “piggy.” And Eli is no slouch when it comes to conflict—she is, in fact, a vampire, and most of her exchanges with other people involve the exchange of blood.
Yet, the two are inexplicably drawn to one another. “I don’t need your help,” Eli coolly tells her new friend. Oskar agrees. And as they fiddle with a Rubik’s cube, a connection is forged that cannot be severed. Though Oskar is our protagonist, Eli is his unwavering support system. “Hit back even harder,” Eli instructs Oskar after he’s endured a beating from classmates. She suffers no fools—and neither will he.
When Oskar finally and physically confronts a bully, Eli lightly congratulates him with “well done.” What seems like the start of a romantic evening, however, takes a sinister turn when some accidentally spilled blood causes Eli to desperately lap it up from the floor. Oskar, though not overly excited to discover his love lives off blood, nevertheless understands Eli when she says she kills to survive. Eli’s age endows her with a ruthless pragmatism.
And when bullies attack Oskar at the local bathhouse, this ruthlessness saves Oskar’s life, even if at the expense of several others’.
10. Audition (1999)
“Where are all the good girls?” Aoyama’s friend asks him in Takashi Miike’s 1999 thriller/horror film Audition. Aoyama is planning on remarrying, following the death of his wife several years ago. Aoyama hasn’t met a woman yet, but he wants to hold an audition for his potential bride. Listening to the radio minutes later in his car, a station proclaims, “Tomorrow’s heroine could be you yourself” as Miike cuts to a shot of a small girl listening to (presumably) the same program. Perhaps Aoyama images his future wife as a heroine, as does the young girl whose presence later adopts a much more sinister tone.
Everything is not as it appears to be in this film. When Aoyama inadvertently spills his coffee on Asami’s application, he is immediately intrigued by the ingénue. Her beauty and ballet aspirations lead him to read her application closely and carefully. He’s instantly enamored. A montage of auditions follows with young women being asked if they’ve ever had sex with someone they didn’t like, as if they’ve seen any Tarkovsky films. We breeze past each woman’s reply as rapidly as flipping through a magazine. During their first date, Miike starts the scene with a point of view shot of Aoyama: Asami gazes, rather than purely an object gazed at, inverting gender norms of representation.
But part of Aoyama’s attraction seems to reside in his Asami’s demure demeanor, her delicacy, and her beauty. And as the film starts to spiral towards its dark conclusion, we realize the center cannot hold – fantasy, past, and present collide in dizzying succession. Asami is a victim of child abuse and the way in which she copes with her past trauma is to inflict pain on Aoyama; Stephen LeDrew writes that this torture sequence perhaps “is a representation of Aoyama’s guilt at his mistreatment of women and desire to dominate them… because he harbors sadistic thoughts towards women, he develops the PS-induced fear that the object will retaliate.”
Though no doubt as problematic in its depictions of torture as Hostel II, Miike’s film plays with power dynamics, revenge, femininity, and gender expectations with unbridled carnage.
9. Silent Hill (2006)
Based on a horror video game series, Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill is a film about Rose’s (Radha Mitchell) odyssey to save her daughter Sharon from the ash-ridden Silent Hill where sirens blare periodically and mysterious creatures crawl forth from the shadows.
Sharon often sleepwalks while muttering “Silent Hill,” and Rose has taken Sharon to the town in search of answers and resolution. However, before they arrive, Cybil, a police officer, (played by Laurie Holden, lauded for her role as Andrea in The Walking Dead), becomes suspicious of Rose; a car chase ensues, and Rose crashes her car, knocking herself unconscious. Sharon disappears, and the dark history of Silent Hillis slowly exhumed as Rose ventures deeper and deeper into Silent Hill’s underbelly.
Whereas many horror films often focus on mothers and motherhood (Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, The Ring, Mama, The Exorcist, The Conjuring, etc.), Rose is a formidable presence, undeterred by demons or darkness. Her relentless drive means she and her partner in crime is Cybil, who also awakens bruised and bewildered, will stop at nothing to save Sharon.
Much like The Descent, Silent Hill is a film comprised almost entirely of a female cast. This kind of girl power is still somewhat of an anomaly, especially in the horror genre. Rose isn’t hyper-sexualized or objectified, but an agent of action, ferociously protective of her daughter and willing to go to any lengths to ensure Sharon’s well-being. She is that woman Adrienne Rich writes of in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, one who “evokes a need vaster than any single human being could satisfy, except by loving continuously, unconditionally, from dawn to dark, and often in the middle of the night.” Rose loves Sharon so much that she’ll sneak her daughter out of the house (without the knowledge of her husband) to travel to Silent Hill… but the need to care “continuously” has disastrous consequences, for mother and daughter.
Aesthetically, the sets in Silent Hill are ethereal and ephemeral, shape shifting before our very eyes like tendrils of smoke. The moments of silence and quasi-peacefulness in the town belie a notion of safety that is sharply tested. No one escapes unscathed from this town.
8. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Ana Lily Amirpour’s gorgeously dappled A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, an Iranian vampire film, is a delicious blend of genre and style. Our fanged “girl” (Sheila Vand) dresses in stripped boat shirts (reminiscent of Jean Seberg in Breathless) and dances to pop music in her underground bunker with a “Madonna” poster (it is, in fact, author Margaret Atwood) and a makeshift disco ball. Vand is expressionless, whether she’s lunging for the neck of an unsuspecting drug dealer or piercing her own ears on a date with naïve Arash (Arash Marandi). She’s cool, calm, and collected, and as unfazed by romance as she is by blood. As Sylvia Plath writes in “Lady Lazarus,” “[She] eats men like air.”
The film follows Vand and Marandi, whose twinning paths eventually twine while Marandi is high on X. Intrigued by Vand’s contemplative (and silent) nature, Marandi pursues her. But this courtship is on Vand’s terms. Vand is a vigilante vampire who will kill Marandi’s heroin addicted father after he forces himself on prostitute Atti (played by Mozhan Marnò who ismost well known to American audience’s for her role as reporter Ayla Sayyad in House of Cards).
In his video essay “Editing as Punctuation in Film,” Max Tohline notes that this moment in the trailer to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night fades to black throughout the murder sequence is a means of intensifying the violence, as if the audience “were blinking or shutting their eyes in fear.”
With endless shifts in racking focus to suggest a shift of perspectives (visually foretelling that everything may not be what it seems) and low key-lighting that renders characters’ faces in chiaroscuro, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an elegant feminist re-vamping of the vampire genre—a film to sink our teeth, and eyes, into.
7. Hostel: Part II (2007)
While “torture porn” often backslides into the torture and physical dismemberment of female bodies (à la Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs, Roland Joffé’s 2007 film Captivity, Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 infamous Cannibal Holocaust, etc.), Eli Roth attempts to invert that trope in his film Hostel: Part II. Though Roth’s film is still problematic, exploitative, and explicit, it centers on three female friends traveling through Europe, taking art classes and flirting with the local boy toys. A model for their art class convinces the friends to take a detour to a Slovakian spa. All hell breaks loose, and hell hath no fury like the hostel. This is the Lonely Planet’s worst filmic nightmare.
The friends are stereotypes that we know all too well—the practical, smart, “final girl,” (played by Lauren German), the flirt (played by Bijou Phillips), and the virginal nerd (played by Heather Matarazzo, typecast since her breakout role in Welcome to the Dollhouse). Tragedy and torture befall Lauren’s pals. There’s more blood than there is blue in a Yves Klein painting, and Roth doesn’t shy away from humorless violence (a woman writhing naked in a bathtub while Matarazzo’s blood spills over her is just one of many pornographic and pointless moments).
Maggie Nelson, recent recipient of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Argonauts, wrote about horror films Hostel II and Captivity in her book The Art of Cruelty (2011). There, she acridly examines Captivity producer Courtney Solomon’s defense of the film as one of “’female empowerment.’” As Nelson notes, “This is, I suppose, one version of female empowerment—the kind you might see looking through a pinhole, angled toward hell.” The misguided inclination of these directors to “make sexy that which would have been unthinkable in (publicly acknowledged) American policy not so long ago: namely, torture, especially sexualized torture” is incredibly socially and politically reductive. Nelson’s criticism of this genre is crucial to understanding our fascination with these tortured “airbrushed actresses,” and our ignorance to real life tortures in the cells of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.
Even with these problematic tropes and politics, German still manages to outsmart the Elite Hunting apparatus, shutting down the system, moving from victim to torturer, and buying her way to freedom (and into the elitist, sadistic institution). Though it is ultimately her mother’s coffers that allow German to grasp and wield her insurmountable power, this concluding sequence showcases German as untouchable. She is completely physical and economically autonomous.
Is this a “feminist” film? That label is very much debatable, but our female protagonist by the end of the movie is as cool, levelheaded, and lethal, as any of the men who have tried (and failed) to cross her.
6. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
In Hole’s rough and tumble “Jennifer’s Body,” Courtney Love croons, “And I know it, I can’t feel it / Well, I know it enough to believe it.” Love’s lyrics are a fitting refrain for writer Diablo Cody’s and director Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body film, where we know the women to be tough, not just due to their crass comments, but by their demonic strength as well. Jennifer’s Body stars Megan Fox, who plays the titular character, and Amanda Seyfried as her best friend Anita, nicknamed “Needy;” these two characters seek out rock shows, blow off their small-town Budweiser swilling classmates, and, especially Needy, favor ‘sisters’ over misters. As Needy’s boyfriend Chip aptly notes, “You always do what Jennifer tells you to do.”
We saw similar “alternative” characters in Diablo Cody’s screenplay debut, Juno (2007), an indie film that suggested Juno was more complicated then most teenage girls, not because she was pregnant, but because she knew Patti Smith had put out the record “Horses,” and because Juno talked on a hamburger shaped telephone.
Patti Smith (who Evelyn McDonnell writes,“Sang how a lonely teenage girl felt, wanting to be loved and fucked”), Sonic Youth, and Jr. James & the Late Guitar’swonderful rendition of “I’m Into Something Good” on the B-side CD, all showcase Cody’s music cred. But Jennifer’s Body concentrates less on Jennifer’s alternative (or lack thereof) ethos and more on her insatiable appetite as a high school girl. When Jennifer suddenly transforms into a man-eating demon (due to a virginal sacrifice gone awry), Megan Fox is too busy seducing to ever play her dinner scenes for laughs.
Jennifer talks candidly about her sex life and courageously marches up to city band, Low Shoulder, to introduce herself. Though she initially appears to be a rebel, that façade soon dissolves into an insecure girl who, after a mysterious fire burns down the bar, passively agrees to ride in the band’s van; despite Needy’s pleas, the blackout windows, and the band’s creepy disposition, Jennifer becomes a victim, fitting Camille Paglia’s definition of “pampered, white middle class girls [with] infantile personalities, emotionally and intellectually underdeveloped.” Yet, as Jennifer begins to harness her sexual and gastro appetite, she evolves into a sleek and steely monster who glides naked through a lake after devouring the school’s football captain, perhaps a nod to Jennifer Hill’s repeated swims throughout Meir Zachi’s 1978 I Spit on Your Grave.
Yet, it is Needy who emerges as the real feminine force to be reckoned with, researching Jennifer’s transformation in the dim lit corners of the high school library and then impaling her double-crossing friend with a stake. But in the true spirit of sisterhood, once Jennifer is long dead, and Needy has escaped her confines in an insane asylum, Needy tracks down Low Shoulder and enacts revenge on Jennifer’s behalf.
This may be a film about Jennifer’s body, but Needy’s got all the brains.
5. The Stepford Wives (1975)
Based on the novel by Ira Levin (who also wrote Rosemary’s Baby), The Stepford Wives opens with a series of shots of Joanna (played by the lovely Katharine Ross, who starts in such classics as The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Joanna is isolated in the frame, save for the paisley wallpaper, and her expression is one of melancholia or dejection. Might this be a portrait of “the problem that has no name” of which Betty Friedan speaks?
It’s moving day, and Joanna is traveling with her husband and two children from bustling New York City to Stepford, a tranquil country town. Nursing a drink later that night, Joanna asks her husband, “Why did we move?” She’s slumped on the couch, unimpressed by their neighbor’s casserole or their manicured gardens. She confesses that what she’ll miss most about New York is “noise”—a country girl, this New Yorker ain’t.
The Stepford Wives got a face-lift in Frank Oz’s 2004 remake with Nicole Kidman at the helm as Joanna, a wildly successful TV executive who makes salacious programs where married couples spend a week in remote locations with a house full of prostitutes. The program doesn’t go over well with the husband who is left by his wife for a handful of hustlers, and when he shoots his wife and her four lovers, the network fires Joanna. Enter Stepford.
There are more pastels in this feature than in an Easter egg hunt, and Joanna eschews the anarchic gender roles of her new hometown. Ultimately, Oz’s film is much cheekier, providing a fun-feminist twist to the final sequence from Forbes’ original feature.
However, in the original, Bryan Forbes favors close-ups of Joanna or slow steady zooms, as if we’re visually probing her character, trying to get close to her inner thoughts and preoccupations. Yet, Joanna is no wall-flower and within the first 20 minutes of the film tells her husband that, “You pretend like we decide things together, but we don’t.” It seems as if Joanna’s husband is already attempting to wean her to “swallow an image of passive dependence.”
But Joanna pushes back against the “sexually archaic institutions” and tries to mobilize the women of Stepford to do more than bake cookies or trim roses. She hosts a meeting for the local wives. She takes photographs. She plays tennis. She investigates the deterioration of Stepford’s women’s club. She and friend Bobbie start to suspect something might be in the water of Stepford that turns the women into submissive, passive housewives.
Things get stranger than fiction when Bobbie dons an apron, leaving Joanna as the only woman in Stepford who isn’t interested solely in baking, cleaning, and childcare. Confronting Bobbie on a rainy night, Joanna desperately tries to discern if Bobbie is real or if she has been changed irrevocably. While Joanna’s revelation is predictable, her transformation at the hand’s of Stepford’s patriarchy is utterly chilling.
4. Teeth (2007)
Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth is a campy dark-comedy about chastity queen Dawn (Jess Weixler) who lectures on the importance of staying pure at church youth group meetings, loves her mother, and routinely prays for her wayward, psychopathic step-brother Brad (played by John Hensley, son of Dr. Sean McNamara in the FX series Nip/Tuck).
When Dawn begins to have feelings for one of her classmates, she succumbs to her hormonal desires and meets him at a waterfall where they swim and, eventually, kiss. Flustered and uncomfortable, Dawn tries to escape, but her classmate Tobey rapes her and, in her fear, her vagina bites off his penis. This film, not for the heterosexual male faint of heart, delights in its salacious, if silly, gore. The severed penis is soon claimed by a crab and, later on in the film, a Rottweiler eats another.
But in a culture where sexual assault and rape is epidemic and, as the documentary The Hunting Ground (2015) points out, systematically and institutionally condoned, Dawn’s vaginal powers are a moment of sexual triumph, even as her faith (and virginity) are tested and destroyed. Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay “The Longest War,” “Here in the United States, there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes, and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime.” But in this horror film, when she is violated, Dawn’s body biologically fights back.
Though she is, initially, horrified at what her body is capable of, Dawn comes to embrace her gift. The men who physically assault her pay a painful price. And when she turns to the camera in the film’s final moments, after an older man has started to come onto her, and smiles, we recall the ending of Ai’s poem “Why Can’t I Leave You?” with a macabre twist: “come close between my thighs / and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.”
3. Resident Evil (2002)
What woman doesn’t love Milla Jovovich? Not only does she kick-ass in roles like The Fifth Element (1997), but she also did all her own stunts in Resident Evil, and she even duets with Tool front-man Maynard’s side-band Puscifer on “The Mission (“M” is for Milla Mix)” track.
But in Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2002 film, she’s Alice, fighting against a zombie outbreak alongside Michelle Rodriguez’s Rain. When we’re first introduced to Alice, she’s lying naked in a shower during what seems to be a post-apocalyptic viral outbreak. The shower curtain covering her midsection as delicately as Aphrodite’s hair does in Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” A mysterious gas released into an organization’s headquarters results in Alice’s discombobulated state and amnesia. Donning a red dress and leather boots, she follows a group of armed soldiers through the corporation’s headquarters.
A technical mishap results in the dismembering of most of the crew, and Alice seems more damsel in distress than the one deploying distress. But when zombies first attack, Rain fires the first shot, and throughout the film, we’re privy to Alice’s flashbacks as her memory resurfaces in spurts, thus aligning our affinities and interests with her character. And when she’s finally attacked, Alice knocks a zombie out with her impromptu martial art skills—this woman can fend for herself.
While most of the time she’s dressed like a Calvin Klein model from the 1990s, when she starts wielding an attack to fight off zombies that have morphed into muscly monsters, you’re less impressed by Alice’s gams than you are her brawns and brain. She’s the lone survivor at the end, surrounded by the detritus of the zombies’ attack, and while she looks a little shell shocked, we have no doubt she’s gonna’ hold her own.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1990)
For years, Tom Savini was best known behind the camera as the mastermind behind George A. Romero’s special effects and onscreen as the asinine motorcycle leader in Dawn of the Dead (1978). His Night of the Living Dead remake marked his directorial debut, and it’s a fun-filled splatter fest, much more nuanced in its female depictions (and in color!) than Romero’s 1968 original.
Patricia Tallman revives the role of Barbara. The opening is identical to the original, and the walking dead soon interrupts the graveyard visit with her brother. Just as her ‘60s counterpart crumbled under the trauma, Barbara is also shaken; Ben, whom she meets at a farmhouse, notes that she “can fight when [she] needs to,” and Barbara’s initial timidity soon wanes as her inner tiger waxes. When Barbara sheds her meekness (and dress in favor of a white undershirt), she confronts Ben on a plan to escape, asserting that she’s not panicking.
Soon she’s not just voicing her own opinions, she’s slinging a gun, shooting zombies, and helping to defend her cohort, even when Ben diminishes her anger by saying she’s “losing it.” “Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago,” Barbara retorts—she will not be talked down to, nor put in harms way by the mishaps of others.
By the last 30 minutes of the film, Barbara is completely self-sufficient, both in protecting herself physically from the dangers surrounding her and in navigating the tenuous relationships among the members trapped within the farmhouse. It is not just a change of wardrobe that marks her transgressive transformation—it’s a change of heart, mind, and trigger-happy aim.
1. Aliens (1986)
When Sigourney Weaver makes a surprise cameo at the end of The Cabin in the Woods (2012), it is a serendipitous appearance, returning Weaver to her horror and sci-fi roots that began in films such as Alien (1979) and Ghostbusters (1984), films that audiences have come to revere. But James Cameron’s Aliens, Weaver really flexes her acting chops, biceps, and motherly instincts. She’s an amalgamation of all things delicate and deadly—she comforts a cat or a child as quickly as she blows the Alien queen to bits.
Picking up 57 years from where Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film left off, Aliens chronicles Ripley’s attempts to convince her employers of the horrific fate of her original crew at the hand of the Alien. Brushed off as hysterical and prone to hyperbole, her case is dismissed. Yet, when a family is attacked at Hadley’s Hope, Ripley and a crew descend to investigate their mysterious disappearance. Plagued by nightmares and flashbacks, Ripley initially appears irrevocably damaged. But when she meets orphaned girl Newt (just after learning of her own biological daughter’s death), Ripley regains her strength and savvy. Though aliens abound in the ship, Ripley reconciles her fear in favor of wielding weapons, asserting her authority, and becoming a surrogate mother for young Newt.
When a young Bill Paxton starts emotionally falling apart, Ripley curtly chastises him that “this little girl survived longer than 17 hours with no weapons and no training.” If he wants to survive, Ripley notes he’ll have to “deal with it.” When slinging a gun that looks like it weighs as much as she does, Ripley tells a companion to “show [her] everything…[she] can handle [it].” Gone are the night sweats, the tremors, and the tears. Ripley is cool, calm, collected, and capable of fending for herself.