Heroine Junkie: The 10 Best Badass Heroines in Horror


Did you know that they do, in fact, exist?

Well they do! I’m not making this up! Did you also know that they’re over half the population? I know, I know – shocking! Right under our noses, all this time! Did you also, also know that they’re all around us, even now? That you can only see them through the use of specially calibrated sunglasses? You could know a woman and not even know it! Hell, your own mother could be one of them! But who are they really? And what do they want from us? Well don’t panic. It’s okay. I’m here to set the record straight. To let you know that women are nothing to be afraid of, and that they deserve every right and recognition that is afforded you as a freedom-loving patriot! [/Teabagger Mode deactivated]

Whew. That was disorienting. Don’t think I’ll be trying that again any time soon… Anyway! What’s this article all about, you may ask? Women, of course! Specifically, celebrating those Scream Queens of the horror genre that may not get the kudos they deserve when people automatically think of the usual suspects like Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street or Laurie from Halloween, or when people fondly recall the villains of certain franchises (Hellraiser, Candyman, etc.) but neglect to give due deference to the heroic femme fatales who went up against them with ovaries to spare.

So! With SPOILER WARNINGS in full effect as per usual, let us begin a countdown of some of my personal favorite women to have graced the screen and proven their mettle against some of the toughest foes ever assembled for a discerning bloodthirsty audience…

Barbara (Patricia Tallman) – “Night of the Living Dead”

In my opinion, an exponentially improved version of the shrieking zombie magnet that we were introduced to in 1968 by then-actress Judith O’Dea. No offense to O’Dea, but Romero’s original script did absolutely nothing for gender equality in horror movies. But thanks to a heavily rewritten script that brings the story into the modern day (circa 1990, that is) under the gory guidance of makeup maestro Tom Savini as director, Romero the writer rectified this slight and flipped the character completely on its head, to marvelous effect. Eschewing the catatonic, oftentimes boneheaded damsel from the original film, Tallman’s Barbara is part Ripley, part Sarah Connor, and all Woman, baby. The transition from bookish prude to militant zombie slayer may be slightly rushed, seeing that she goes from one extreme to the other in the course of one night, but Tallman’s performance is utterly believable and the arc ends up working beautifully, visually cued by her changing from a flowery skirt to a pair of faded camo pants. By the time the siege in the farmhouse truly sets in and the zombies arrive en masse, you’d be hardpressed to find a more reliable soldier to have at your back than Barb.

Ana (Sarah Polley) – “Dawn of the Dead”

When you think about it, Zack Snyder could’ve cast anyone in the role of Ana. Here’s a nurse who finds herself waking up to a visceral nightmare of anarchy and gut-ripping mayhem, and becomes the everywoman of Middle America who somehow finds the inner strength to survive in this suddenly brutal world. First she narrowly escapes her zombified husband in one of the greatest, most intense opening scenes to a horror movie ever, and then later through intelligence and compassion winds up a natural leader among a small band of survivors trapped in a shopping mall amid the zombie apocalypse. But the fact is, Snyder did cast Polley, an indie darling with dramatic chops to spare, and her proven intuition as a performer gives what is essentially a basic archetype on the page added nuances of intellect, heart and fortitude that only someone of her talent could deliver. The fact that Polley rarely treads in this kind of territory ends up serving the character better, rather than what it may have looked like with any number of B-list actresses.

Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) – “Insidious: Chapter 3”

Originally undercut as an ostensible plot device, doling out exposition on “The Further” as need be in the first and stepping in as a ghostly ally in the second, it was only in the third, thrilling chapter of the franchise that we got to see Elise truly evolve as a character. A prequel set before the events of the first two Chapters with the Lambert family, it chronicles both the nature of Elise’s abilities as a medium-for-hire and her crippling PTSD. Her condition of course having been brought about by being subjected to malevolent entities no living human being was meant to see on a regular, soul-draining basis. As the hapless Brenner family gropes for answers and solutions to demonic meddling, it’s Elise who has to summon up the courage to venture back into the darkness that has promised her only death, in order to banish the evil force that wants to possess Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), body and soul. Lin Shaye is an actress who’s been around for years in a supporting capacity, but here she finally takes that coveted central role in this cult franchise. And as a result of her veteran screen presence, Elise leaves a strong impression in her wake. Will we see her again as the series continues? My non-existent Ouija board says… YES.

Selena (Naomie Harris) – “28 Days Later”

Jim’s (Cillian Murphy) creepy wake-up call to the apocalypse will forever be known as THE iconic imagery for an influential viral thriller that helped galvanize a waning (at the time) zombie subgenre. But when it comes right down to it, and when you look at it objectively, it’s Harris as the hardened, unflinching and adept survivor Selena who takes charge of the situation when the killing starts and needs doing right. Murphy’s evolution from bystander to man of action may have taken the entire movie to come to fruition, but Selena was living the life of a survivalist before we meet her and well after. From being a natural-born bad ass with a machete to her cruel but understandable lack of hesitation when it comes to putting down friends who’ve been infected, Selena gets the job done. Because at the end of the day, in this unforgiving scenario, someone’s gotta do it. And when she tells Jim that she’ll put him down in a heartbeat if need be, he – and us in the audience – immediately knows she ain’t fuckin’ around. Look at that face. You see that face? That's a face that says she has literally no more fucks to give.

Sarah & Juno (Shauna MacDonald & Natalie Mendoza) – “The Descent”

It seemed only right to mention both women in the same space, since both women rise to the occasion during the course of the film, albeit to different ends. A year after Sarah’s husband and daughter die in a sudden tragedy, she, Juno and the rest of her thrill-seeking posse of girlfriends go on one of their annual adventures, this time spelunking in a network of caves deep beneath the Appalachian mountains.  As things spiral quickly out of control with the arrival of the carnivorous Crawlers, Juno takes charge as the de facto alpha female, earning her bona fides as a badass to be reckoned with. Sarah, however, is a more interesting case study of hardy survival instincts, which are less obvious and only unearthed the longer the film wears on and the more members of their group get viciously picked off one by one by one. What makes for a more compelling creature feature here is not only the refreshing cast composed almost entirely of relatable, strong women, but the cliché-free character writing between Sarah and Juno. BFFs at first glance, but deeper secrets lay festering between them, which eventually creates more juicy conflict beyond the obvious fight to stay alive and uneaten by the relentless horde. Multi-tasking is perhaps easier said than done, in this case.

Mia (Jane Levy) – “Evil Dead”

From fragile, possessed victim to avenging, blood-soaked angel, poor put-upon Mia goes through a hell of a wringer in this movie. And yet, like Ash before her, she manages to pull out all the stops to beat back those Deadite bastards and ends up the last person standing. The character is a novel twist on expectations from fans of the original film, who immediately pegged Mia’s brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) as the go-to hero of the piece, thanks to his familiar blue shirt and take-charge attitude that more than once echoes The Guy With The Gun. Also, given the fact that Mia’s role for the first half of the film is of a damaged heroin addict, it was easy for a lot of people to perceive Mia as a prime candidate for the proverbial Rue Morgue. But not only does she overcome her inner demons, she eventually survives a brutal night of savage, otherworldly attacks to lay waste to a whole host of outer demons as well, with nothing but a chainsaw and an abundance of wits. GROOVY.

Meg Penny (Shawnee Smith) – “The Blob”

When a meteorite crash-lands in Arborville, California, a corrosive alien substance from within is loosed upon the unsuspecting town. In short order, it begins consuming anybody and everybody who gets in its way, and in part it’s up to Meg, a seemingly clichéd, happy-go-lucky high school cheerleader, to save the day. But that comes later. Meg only finds herself thrust into the role of proactive hero when some of the usual “leading man” suspects (her jock boyfriend and the town’s sheriff, for example) end up Blobbed in a series of unfortunate events (minus the Lemony Snicket). But far from being left flailing and waiting for Kevin Dillon or his hideous mullet to be her savior, she takes command with a resolute, can-do grit that sees her through any number of harrowing situations, from a tense escape from the Blob in the town’s dingy sewers to an epic confrontation with the beast in the film’s explosive finale. Johnny Drama may have gotten top bill, but it was Shawnee that made the most impact. Look at her! Gotta love that shot...

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) – “Candyman”

Helen Lyle, an intrepid graduate student with a fascination for urban legends, isn’t one to back down to superstition. And so begins her odyssey into the macabre, centered around the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago and the hook-handed phantasm that supposedly stalks it. What makes Helen such an interesting choice is not necessarily her survival skills par for the genre, but her mental endurance when it comes to the psychological toll that Candyman’s horrors take on her. In pursuing the truth behind Candyman as either a real supernatural force or a mythic influence on her own deep-seated, possibly murderous impulses, Helen’s state of mind is gradually called into question, both by us as an audience and the other characters around her. It makes us wonder if we’re in fact watching a victim or a killer, and the level of ambiguity through most of the latter half of the movie lends her an added layer of mystique. The fact she’s portrayed as a fully rounded, flawed human being and not just any prototypical “slasher heroine” certainly helps her stand out from the pack.

Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) – “Hellraiser”

To Hell and back, Kirsty goes toe to toe with Clive Barker's S&M demons from the beyond and, arguably even scarier, a murderous and conniving stepmother (Clare Higgins) with an icier glare than a White Walker. With the worst timing imaginable, Kirsty stumbles onto a sinister plot by the aforementioned stepmother, whose diabolical designs to bring back her dead lover, Kirsty’s uncle Frank (Sean Chapman), puts the innocent girl into the couple’s crosshairs. But not taking this lying down, Kirsty not only figures out what the hell’s going on between Frank and Julia, but actually risks her own soul being ripped apart to cut a deal with the Cenobites, in effect helping Pinhead and company collect on the duplicitous Frank’s immortal debt. I love when reactive characters in horror movies decide that not only will they not accept getting fucked, but they’ll fuck the villains back in ways they can’t even imagine.

Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) – “Black Christmas”

A slasher heroine to be reckoned with before Laurie Strode even thought about babysitting, Jess was also antithetical to what the traditional female protagonist would come to be in the genre. And in a weird, somewhat ironic reversal of roles, she ends up being a stronger, more independent agent of her own fate and identity than those who would follow her later in the ‘80’s slasher boom. Consider the fact that Jess is not only not a virgin, but is pregnant at the onset of the film and actually – GASP! – advocates for an abortion during an argument with her dickhead boyfriend (Keir Dullea). But it’s her brave act near the end of the film in voluntarily seeking out and confronting the deranged killer “Billy” that puts her on this list in particular, a bold but risky move that leads to one of the most iconic and scary shots in cinema history: Billy’s “peekaboo” spying eye. However, I'd be remiss if I didn't throw an honorable mention in here to Margot Kidder, who plays Jess's promiscuous and lovably feisty housemate Barb. Another Barb for the list, how about that, huh?

And there you have it! Just some examples of the great female horror heroines of yesteryear, who all prove that in order to survive and kick ass, you don't need balls; you just need the WILL.
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