Horror films have a reputation for having ingenious in-depth explorations of gender roles. The female monster has, in particular, long been a popular horror trope. With the idea of the monstrous woman comes the fear and abjectivity of the womb, which, if you think about it, is a pretty scary place – dark, damp, and who knows what could be lurking up there?
Yet, for all their awesome female antagonists, horror films also pay particular attention to their female protagonist, also known as The Last Girl. This is usually the last character to die, or sometimes the only character to survive, because filmmakers know that an attractive woman will hold the viewer’s attention until the last moment.
When these two tropes combine in a movie that features a female as both antagonist and protagonist, there commences onscreen an epic battle of feminine wiles that I find more fascinating than any other combination. I have compiled a brief list of my top three horror films that I feel satisfy this requirement.
Sigourney Weaver carries this 1986 classic on her capable shoulders as the eponymous Ellen Ripley, an officer on a futuristic commercial spaceship that finds itself with an unwanted guest onboard. If you’ve seen the original, Alien, you know that the alien itself starts out as a cute, harmless worm creature that lurks parasitically in its host’s body until it bursts out in a shower of blood and pain, much like human childbirth. However, unlike mere mortals, it, or rather, she grows into a beast of fantastic proportions and proceeds to terrorize the passengers, who fight her for all they’re worth. In this sequel, which is just as good if not even better, Ripley must make her way to the colony and fight the Mother Alien, whose femininity is clear through her protection of her eggs and her determination to kidnap a young girl as one of her own offspring.
The most interesting part about Aliens is that the alien creatures reproduce via facehuggers, which are crablike organisms that attach themselves to the faces of incubational hosts and plant their seed inside the host’s body, resulting in what I can only assume is a terrible case of indigestion. This scenario has been likened to rape by many a film expert, except that, unlike your typical horror film where the female body is imposed upon by an external, menacing force, the victims of the facehuggers in the Alien franchise are usually male. To viewers, this reversal of classic horror roles is what makes the aliens so terrifying.
I am, of course, referring to the 1976 Brian De Palma masterpiece and not the lukewarm 2013 remake. (Though I will freely admit that I went to see the latter in the theatre, and I don’t lie awake nights regretting it.)
Carrie, in Stephen King’s original novel, is an outcast seventeen-year-old girl who is painfully identifiable to any seventeen-year-old girl who has ever felt self-conscious, which is everyone ever. Only unlike your average seventeen-year-old girl, Carrie happens to be telekinetic. Overweight, bespectacled, and virginal, Carrie is plagued as much by her shyness as she is by her Christian fundamentalist mother, who controls her every move. Carrie becomes the subject of ridicule when her classmates find out that she has never heard of menstruation. When they decide to play a cruel trick on her at the school dance, she wreaks a terrible and immediate revenge that basically burns an entire town to the ground.
The aspect of King’s novel that gripped me the most was the magnitude of Carrie’s power. You get the sense that if she wanted to, Carrie could make the world spin the other way, could cause black holes to appear in distant galaxies, could rend the space-time continuum in half. She is an unstoppable force confronted by a few weak obstacles, who get vaporized in her path. The film does well with the difficult task of making that power radiate through the screen until it becomes an almost tangible presence. Also, Carrie serves, in a way, as both hero and monster, and my feelings for her are always a mix of respect, terror and fondness.
I hesitate to call this a horror film, as it is often billed as a children’s movie. It is beautifully rendered in stop-motion animation, featuring child characters who are both cute and colorful. However, call this a children’s film all you want – I had nightmares for a week.
Coraline is a little girl who finds a secret passageway in the wall of her bedroom in her new house. Crawling through it, she comes out into an alternate reality where her boring next-door neighbors are hilariously fun, her strict parents worship her like a princess, and the neighborhood stray cat can suddenly talk. Sure, they have creepy black buttons for eyes, but who cares? Coraline wants to stay in her new world forever – until she finds out that it comes with a terrible price.
Coraline is a plucky and adorable heroine, and her courage is evenly matched by the monstrosity that is The Other Mother. There is an uncanny quality about Coraline’s secret world. Things are just as they should be – only not quite. It has the quality of a very realistic dream where things suddenly go horribly wrong. I highly recommend it if you ever want to spend a night repeatedly dreaming that you look into a mirror and see buttons where your eyes should be.