Horror: A Woman’s Game (Part 1)
This is something that I’ve been rolling around in my mind for a while now, and I’ve held off on it until Halloween to tie into the spirit of the season. Now I’m not here to discuss gender political in the cinematic climate but occasionally the claims that films, and in particular horror films, are sexist do make you think. And yes horror films do have an overabundance of female nudity for no other reason than titillation but if you look – and not even look that hard – you can see that horror film do actually present women with some of the best and most iconic characters that help define the genre into what it is today and what it will be in the future.
Obviously I could go right back to the 50s or even the 30s where the likes of Fay Wray were among the earliest of what would later be known as The Scream Queen, but I’ll start in the 1970s when horror entered it’s golden age and brought with it a slew of female centric performances. An obvious first choice would be Halloween, John Carpenter’s intense classic that brought Jamie Lee Curtis to the forefront as Laurie Strode, the babysitter who found herself fighting against evil incarnate in the form of Michael Myers. By today’s standards Laurie might be a little lacking but she’s a very real character, her normal manner and utter terror mirrored the audiences and as a result she became the archetype for horror’s favourite trope, The Final Girl. The fact that Final Girl has become such a staple of the horror genre should be enough to show the genre is much more female friendly, it’s very rare to have a Final Boy, usually it’s the lone female that faces off against the villain and comes out on top. This was also the case with Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the same decade which took its final girl, Sally, to places very few horror film, even by today’s standards have the guts to take their lead survivor and ended with her pretty much losing her mind.
The 70s also brought with it several now classic adaptations of horror novels. One of the most popular being Stephen King’s Carrie, the film allowed for a study of peer pressure and puberty in the guise of a psychological massacre, it’s a film that still has a relevant message today about how vulnerable and confused and scared teen girls can get when their bodies change and suddenly everyone is making fun of them for something they can’t control. Similarly the other big adaptation of the decade also dealt with a body going through changes but on a vastly different scale. The Exorcist is one of the most important films in horror because it’s the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture as well as gathering three acting nominations including Best Actress for Ellen Burstyn and Best Supporting Actress for Linda Blair, even now getting an acting nod for a horror film is a rare occurrence so for this film to have its two female leads both get the nomination is something to be admired. Despite the priests taking the majority of the film it’s Reagan that you remember the most, becoming a the most vital part of the whole film and even at a young age Linda Blair does an incredibly brave job with the mature subject matter. While not as gender specific as Carrie or even Laurie, Reagan is still a strong female presence in the film and it makes the corruption of her soul all the more intense and hard to sit through because she is a little girl and has saying and doing all these horrible things.
One of the most important female horror leads of the 70s who would grow into one of the most important female leads of all time in the 80s sequel is Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. It’s widely known that Ripley was originally written as a man in the original 1979 Alien but Weaver slips into the role naturally, showing that great character writing isn’t set for being entirely masculine or entirely feminine, Ripley was just a well-written character that happened to be played by a woman and ended up as one of the best parts of the film. Ripley’s popularity only grew once the sequel Aliens came out in 1986, now with Ripley official a woman her character was able to grow into a new direction, that being a survivor lost and traumatised following her last encounter and having lost 57 years of her life as a result of being frozen in space. While in essence Ripley is still a well-written character regardless of her gender, in this film (or at least the Director’s Cut) we see Ripley’s reaction to her daughter having grown up and died while she was missing which factors into Ripley’s relationship with Newt and the surrogate mother/daughter relationship they have. It’s a very human but also very female addition to Ripley’s character and helps her feel more like a real person, for her efforts in creating this iconic addition to the horror genre and cinematic landscape, Weaver got a Best Actress nomination, still at a time when such things weren’t exactly commonplace.
Primarily the 80s was the decade of the slasher and the rise of the slasher final girls, chief of which is Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare On Elm Street. While Freddy gets all the attention for his one-liners and knife-gloves it’s Nancy that stands out as one of the all-time best final girls. She’s not the sweet and nice chaste character you’d think, she’s actually quite mean at some points but she’s dealing with a guy that forces you to stay awake, her mental state isn’t the best and only gets worse as the film goes on. Heather went on to play the character twice more and cemented her place in horror history.
Freddy’s counterpart Jason never got a Nancy but he had a couple that tried, Ginny from Part 2 had the biggest impact, being one of the most memorable and likeable heroines to fight against Jason as well as one of the smartest for using Jason’s love of his mother to her advantage. Another was Tina from Part 7, essentially another version of Carrie, Tina’s psychic powers manifested themselves as strange and confusing elements of her own mind that she couldn’t control, a puberty metaphor for sure but I doubt F13 is that clever. There were others but Ginny and Tina stand out for their uniqueness, be it a rare spark of intelligence or physic abilities.
One of the most underrated horror films of the 80s is Clive Baker’s Hellraiser which features two great female characters. The first is Kirsty Cotton, the final girl of the film who gets involved purely because she doesn’t trust her step-mother and once things get out of hand and the cenobites threaten to tear her soul apart, Kirsty just shouts and swears and fights them all the way to save herself. The other one is Kirsty’s step-mother Julie who once had an affair with her husband’s now dead brother Frank, Julie is a very different kind of character, her affair with Frank is clearly very psychologically abusive but for one reason or another Julie is so obsessed with this violent and dangerous man that even after death she’s devoted to him. You don’t see that type of character in horror films, hell any kind of film really, but it’s a very interesting character dynamic that more people need to take advantage of.
Another very underrated 80s horror that features an incredibly brave performance from its lead actress was The Entity. The film tackles the psychological trauma and possible mental issues that plague it’s lead Carla after she is sexually assaulted by an invisible assailant. Rather than just saying who or what this thing is, the film instead delves into Carla’s history and how her depraved and sexual past might be the cause of this whole thing, the film itself is great for how it works Carla’s back-story into the main plot of the film but it’s Hershey’s very brave and very intense performance as Carla that must be mentioned here, she goes all out for this character, flaws and all she is displayed to us and we’re asked to make our judgement on her, it’s a rare case where the intimacy of the film matches the intimacy of the character, very few films allow that kind of in-your-face character building and even fewer with the guts to do it in this fashion but it works to help you understand who Carla is.
One of the biggest changes in the 80s that built into the 90s and the decades to follow was the idea of women being the villains, not a wholly original concept but it was brought to the forefront in Stephen King’s Misery in which Kathy Bate’s powerhouse performance as Annie Wilkes brought what I believe is the first Oscar win for an actress in a horror movie. And rightly so, Annie is an ageless character type, the celebrity obsessed stalker, the fact that she’s a female who’s kidnapped the male character of Paul Sheldon allows her to play the ‘Helpful nurse’ card a little longer whereas the roles were reversed the feelings would immediately turn to sex as the reasoning behind everything. Bates delivers a high-strung, bi-polar, emotionally disturbed performance and one that has and absolutely should go down in horror history.
When the 90s came around a lot of audiences had grown quite savvy of the horror genre leading to filmmakers to mix things up a little. This change in audience mindsets manifested itself as Sydney Prescott from Scream, the whole Scream cast is based off people who have watched too many horror films but Sydney is worth note because she’s just an ordinary person that’s in an extraordinary situation, she harks back to the Laurie Strode days of an ordinary person forced into a hellish time of her life. It’s just in this case that person is someone who grew up watching the Freddy and Jason movies.
While its standing as a horror film is debateable, Silence Of The Lambs brought us an incredible female performance from Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling resulting in the second and only other horror Oscar win. Clarice isn’t tough, at least not in the physical sense, she’s a small woman surrounded by large men who constantly underestimate her abilities as an FBI agent. Starling has a lot of baggage in her past, she’s ashamed of her West Virginia heritage, she’s traumatised from her childhood surrounding her father’s death and the death of the lambs on her cousin’s farm. Starling’s desire to reinvent herself and prove her worth as an FBI agent feels so genuine, if Starling was a male it would still be a great character trait but because she’s a woman she has to fight all the harder to prove her worth, she is easily one of the all time great female characters and a brilliant leading lady of horror.
Part 2 covering the 2000s and 2010s will be up sometime next week.
Credit to Jamie for the banner image