I have talked about my influences and creative processes whilst writing Tapeworm Slim over the past few weeks so now, as a change but on the same continuum, I am going to countdown the 15 ladies who have just stood out for me over the years.
Lets be clear, this is personal taste and the poll of votes contains a total of ME and ME only! I also want to make it clear I am not talking about how good the film is, I am speaking purely how the character affected me subjectively and why. And finally, let me also be clear, I have omitted Ripley from Alien because I feel that is more Sci-Fi than straight horror so the film does not qualify even though Sigourney Weaver is brilliant.
And finally, I am combining the ACTRESS skill with the CHARACTER she played! So a great character has to be well acted and made believable to qualify in my esteemed list!
So is horror misogynistic? Sometimes. Is it hateful towards women? No. And the reason is because ALL the ladies here are crafted with love, passion and always end up kicking ass and turning the tables. Even if turning the tables meant surprising everyone as being evil, such as number 15! The inspirations may vary, but each one left an indelible mark which helped when making my characters come to life in the pages of my book.
So the criteria for my list is 1.) well acted, 2.) well written character and 3.) must undergo a journey of some kind to leave an iconic/empathic link which lingered in my memory. So then, 15 iconic characters played by 15 superb actresses which proves horror isn’t all about misogyny… Oh, and this isn’t about best looking either (although some of these ladies are very pretty) the list is about emotional AFFECT not just visual EFFECT.
So lets get underway and countdown starting from number 15!
15.) Betsy Palmer – Friday the 13th (1980)
“His name is Jason, and today is his birthday…”
Who can forget the twist at the end of Friday the 13th? Before it became a part 1 to the others, a group of teenagers were hunted down my a middle aged lady in a knitted sweater out of vengeance for her sons accidental death due to the Camp Crystal Lake staff not being attentive. Betsy was adorable, affable and then… On a sixpence… she became psychotic and went full Norman Bates! “Kill them! Kill them mommy!”
Betsy was believable and, for a lady in a homely knitted seventies jumper, menacing and memorable and she is still spoken about even now.
14.) Sarah Polley – Dawn Of The Dead (2004)
Ana is a nurse. She finishes a long shift, goes home and has a meal, has sex and then falls asleep. The next day she fights off a zombie girl in the early hours, goes on the run and is forced to survive a Zombie Apocalypse. More proactive than Gaylen Ross (Francine) in the original she is heart and soul of the story and is both likeable and believable and isn’t objectified or side lined at any point during the film. We see much of the world through her eyes and this makes her our empathic link. For the first ten minutes alone in that film, from her nursing shift to escape from a collapsing neighbourhood of entropy, she establishes hr character and deserves a special mention in my list.
13.) Shawnee Smith – The Blob (1988)
Before she was Amanda in SAW, Shawnee was cheerleader Meg in Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob. Starting off as vacuous and evolving slowly as a giant pink jelly slowly absorbs the town, Meg dodges not only the titular terror itself but also government agencies intent on ensuring the infection is contained. Teaming up with Brian (Kevin Dhillon in a mega mullet) she goes from pom-pom waving bimbo to true action girl as she takes control with Brian and brings down The Blob with a combination of strength, courage and child saving luck! Much as I loved SAW, if I am asked which Shawnee Smith moved me more and influenced my horror love, it has to be her portrayal of Meg in a film which deserves much more credit than it has received.
12.) Clare Higgins – Hellraiser (1987), Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988)
Talk about scarring me for life! Clare Higgins Julia, who lured men back to her house on a promise of sex only to bash their heads in with a hammer and feed them to her skinless lover who was running from the Cenobites, made me VERY wary of women! Having grown up in a single parent household where dates came a went, and then being terrible at dating when I was old enough, I would sometimes wonder what I was walking into whenever I went to a potential girlfriends house. Julia was terrifying! She was a soulless creature so driven by the love for blood caked Frank (Sean Chapman) she had no limits. She was the ice queen who hated her husband, despised her stepdaughter and was prepared to literally kill again and again and again to get what she wanted.
Thanks Julia, you made dating an even more terrible experience for me!!!!!
11.) Jennifer Tilly – Bride Of Chucky (1998), Seed Of Chucky (2004), Curse Of Chucky (2013)
WHOA! WHO IS THAT???!!!! WHERE HAS SHE BEEN ALL MY LIFE??!!!!!!!
In 1998 I watched Bride Of Chucky more out of a chore for a forgettable but likeable series rather than with high hopes of a classic but, within a few minutes, this super boobed blonde appeared and I fell in celluloid love! Tilly was perfect, that squeaky voice mixed with the white trash girl from the trailer park who just wanted her fiancé back from the dead, and she stole the film in both human and doll mode. Bride of Chucky was bold, brave and a black comedy which was hugely enjoyable. Tilly played Tiffany who kills a policeman for her doll, performs a ritual to bring him back and then realises her mistake all too late when she is fried in the bath by the murderous little ginger toy. Its a credit to Tilly that she overshadows a young Katherine Heigl AND does such a good voice over work that she spars beautifully with Brad Douriff who has played Chucky in every film so far.
10.) Monica Keena – Freddy Versus Jason (2003)
I make no apologies for being an Elm Street fanatic. So when Freddy squared up to a certain Mr Vorhees I left Sixth Form College early, headed to the ODEON cinema and watched it on opening day. What a horrible experience it was with gangs of kids ruining the movie by shouting all the way through it. But Ronny Yu, who also directed the above mentioned Bride Of Chucky, made a superbly enjoyable film which perfectly meshed the styles of Elm/Friday and a huge amount of blood and guts! Oh, and there was also Monica Keena who squeaked, squealed and screamed her way from shy and put upon girl to a proper Dame of Freddy who ends up cutting off the dream demons head. Beautiful to look at, she is a perfect mix of the two franchises type of girls. She has the looks of a Friday machete fodder but the strength and sensibleness of an Elm Street final girl.
Monica played Lori Campbell, overshadowing Kelly Rowlands screen debut, and becoming another slasher icon for me immediately.
9.) Marilyn Burns – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Texas Chainsaw (2013)
Sally and her friends take a detour to their old farmhouse and…. Well, the rest is history! Leatherface and his family of cannibals gave the British censors a tough time but they gave poor Sally an even more excruciating ordeal! Bashed with a hammer, tied up, teased, humiliated and chased by a chainsaw wielding sociopath, Burns runs and runs and runs… And runs some more… Until salvation for her and the audience finally comes in the shape of a passing truck.
If you know the story behind Texas Chainsaw, you’ll know they filmed in horrible conditions and the lead actress picked up all kinds of real life cuts and bruises from filming her scenes of torture and repeated escapes from the family home. Marilyn Burns was believable, pitiful and you rooted for her right from the start. She beats the 2003 remake star Jessica Biel purely on visceral performance because the terror in her eyes was real and the exhaustion in her tears was earnest due to the gruelling filming conditions. She sadly passed away not long after appearing in the Alexandra Daddario starring 2013 remake/sequel/3D version.
8.) Maika Monroe – It Follows (2014)
What a marvellous throwback to a golden age of horror It Follows was. What a wonderful timeless age it had. What a great lead Maika became. After her character Jay sleeps with charming but nervous hunk Hugh (Jake Weary) she gets a sexually transmitted disease worse than any chlamydia! Finding herself relentlessly pursued by an unstoppable demon working his way down a line of sexual conquests, Jay undergoes a dramatic transformation from sweetheart of the neighbourhood to terrified runner and finally emotional wreck who will do almost anything to stay alive.
Yet alive she stays as she works with her friends and fights heroically against a mental breakdown, supernatural terror and she earns her stripes on this list. A film of such quality and homage to the era of Elm Street and Halloween is rare and it works because of her understated performance and believable angst.
She doesn’t really beat her demon either and, in movie world somewhere out there, IT is still following silently behind her……….
7.) Eliza Dushku – Wrong Turn (2003)
I’ve always been a huge Buffy fan and an equally huge Dushku fan after watching her turn as Faith in varying appearances from series 3-7. So when Wrong Turn came out I was very keen to see what she would bring to the table in an 18 rated horror.
As Chris (Desmond Harrington) and Dushku’s Jessie become the heart and soul of the film they escape from the three cannibals in differing clichés, prolonged suspense scenes and full on fights. Far from a classic film, Wrong Turn is enjoyable and very entertaining. And, although she needs “the male to save her” cliché, Dushku commands the running time with an understated yet typically brave performance we have come to associate with her. She is an icon in my mind and, although I’m glad she didn’t come back for the lessening sequels, its a shame she didn’t push on from that performance and get more lead roles in the horror genre.
6.) Ashley Laurence – Hellraiser (1987), Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988), Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992)
Ashley gets a high billing on the list because not only did she beat FOUR Cenobites and a giant scorpion hell-slug thing, she also outsmarted Frank and Julia as their net closed around her because she was the only remaining loose end in their sickening scheme. Ashley plays Kirsty Cotton, spunky daughter of the very wet Larry (Andrew Robinson), and she becomes a reluctant but persistent heroine as the jaws of hell close around her. Although she reprised her role in Hellraiser 2 and appeared as a cameo in the vastly inferior threequel Hellraiser 3, its her turn in the first film which lives long in the memory.
From bargaining for her life with Pinhead whilst the chatter Cenobite held her head, to outsmarting deviant Frank and even sending the four demons back to hell, Kirsty is an atypical heroine but one who lives long.
5.) Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween (1978), Halloween 2 (1981) Halloween H20 (1998), Halloween: Resurrection (2002)
WHAT?! SHE ISN’T NUMBER 1????!!!!!!!!!!!
Like I said, its a subjective list and not reliant on the quality of the film. It is down to the actress/character and impact she had.
Anyway, who could omit Laurie Strode who battles Michael Myers again and again and again… And I am not counting the sequels of Halloween 2/H20/Resurrection she sadly appeared in which kept reducing the character each time. In the first film she is the dork. She is the one no one wants to date. She is the babysitter who is great with kids but not adults. She is a fighter who stabs, pokes, stabs again and finally pulls the mask of the man who has been terrorising her. Strong, likeable and iconic she is the original slasher scream queen and should be in ANY list for the impact she made and quality of her performance in one of the most brilliant horror films ever made.
4.) Sissy Spacek – Carrie (1976)
Much as I love Chloe Moretz, she cant hold a candle to the original portrayal of Carrie White by Sissy Spacek. Moretz is a great actress but she was miscast in the remake. She was too pretty, too likeable and didn’t have the same menace once the blood hit her head.
Spacek went fugue. Complete dissociation and entered an alternate personality of rage where she decimated the town on autopilot and with a depersonalisation which unleashed a vengeance on all the others who had bullied her. Its a towering performance and a great character and Spacek was a geeky, oddball and completely believable as the put upon girl who does what every bullied child fantasises about when they are cut off from real life and being picked on for just being different!
For both character and acting ability, Spacek is amazing!
3.) Lisa Wilcox – Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
WHAT?!!! Elm Street 4 & 5 over Halloween??!!!! HUH?!
Like I said, its not the film, its what the actress and character did for me.
By the time of Elm Street 4 & 5 the quality was starting to diminish and Freddy was out of the shadows and now the star. So its a credit to Wilcox, who played Alice Johnson, that her journey from good little virgin girl to widowed mother who shows immense strength in defeating the dream demon TWICE, is so believable. Its also to her credit that she holds up the films and commands attention when Freddy wasn’t on screen. Something the lesser characters of the two films couldn’t do.
An underrated actress, she carries Elm Street 5 through its patchy pacing and throwaway characters and she moves centre stage once her boyfriend Dan (Danny Hassell) meets an incredibly grisly end during the first act. Wilcox is amazing, I’ve seen the two films more times than is healthy and (Englund aside) she is head and shoulders above everyone else. Its just a shame that Alice (and baby Jacob) were ignored for the then final part of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. She will forever remain a loose end in Elm Street filmic canon.
Also, she is the only character to beat Freddy twice and live! Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) died in her second appearance in part 3 and I’m not counting her victory in the meta New Nightmare.
2.) Sarah Butler – I Spit On Your Grave (2010), I Spit On Your Grave 3: Vengeance Is Mine (2015)
Spend time watching the making of and interviews of the movie and listen to the eulogies from her co stars. Read reviews, good or bad, and see the vein that flows though each one is that Butler gives a powerhouse of a performance.
Re-imagined for the SAW generation, Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) heads to a remote retreat to work alone. After dropping her phone down the toilet and meeting four incredibly insidious men, the viewer is forced to watch near 30 minutes of explicit sexual violence. Once she barely survives that, Jennifer hides and then returns to murder her way through her attackers in increasingly convoluted/near impossible/overtly sadistic revenge traps.
She gives a fearsome performance and I mean FEARSOME.
Pick what you like about the film, and I for one enjoyed Jennifer’s revenge far more than the over lengthy and uncomfortable to watch humiliation she is forced to suffer in the first 45 minutes of the run time. In the final act, she emerges as a great actress and revels once the tables are turned and she becomes a feminist Jigsaw killer who castrates, acid baths and anally violates her attackers with a shotgun. She would later reprise her role in I Spit On Your Grave 3: Vengeance is mine, where she was a vigilante against rapists and perverts and, although it was another great turn from a hugely underrated actress, it doesn’t quite match her unbelievable portrayal from good girl/broken human/vengeful monster in the first film.
She deserves more high profile roles.
1.) Heather Langenkamp – Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Only one winner for me and that is Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson who battles Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s amazing slasher film. Nancy is timid, gentle and chaste as the film begins. I mean she even turns down sex with Jonny Depp out of decency to her friend!
Nancy then grows and grows as she is forced to battle he dream demon, her alcoholic mother and her disbelieving and estranged father all whilst staying alive via coffee, relentless fights in her dreams and a booby trap finale where she finally turns the tables and shows lethal ingenuity as well as composure to turn her back on the creature who killed her friends and drain him of his power.
She would return in the well received Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors where Freddy finally rid of her by stabbing her in the stomach but, even then, she held on long enough to overpower her nemesis and save her friend whilst Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) finished the holy water ritual which once again (temporarily) vanquished Freddy at the finale.
Elm Street 1 & 3 were two of the first horror films I saw in the 80’s and she remains someone I am a huge fan of. Her journey, when she returned as the counsellor/Freddy hunter in the 3rd film, was even complete when she tried to make peace with her father. Well written, well acted and game enough to return and play herself in Craven’s meta pre-Scream New Nightmare, long live Nancy Thompson!
So there you have it! Horror isn’t just misogynistic, it casts brilliant female characters who steal the show and can become as iconic as the villain/film title itself. All of the above have bled into my work over the years (published or not) and they are all special for differing reasons.
I even gave my lead female mercenary in Tapeworm Slim the name Elm as a little nod to the film which kick-started such a strong love of horror.
Thanks for reading, more lists and general dissections of horror to come soon, be they relevant to my book or not, so please subscribe if you enjoyed what you have just read. or head over to Amazon and get hold of a copy of my new book! Its horror from a horror loving writer!
TAPEWORM SLIM (2016) is on sale now!