By Leslie Combemale, Cinema Siren
Halloween is the best excuse in the world to watch something terrifying yet life-affirming, and certainly we can all use some distraction right about now...
My friend, horror aficionado and extremely talented fellow critic, Dustin Putman, has just released a great book of old and new reviews of movies guaranteed to make you jump out of your own skin.
I asked him to offer up a special Top 10 list. In the interest of making it something that would excite me, Cinema Siren, I made it the Top 10 horror heroines. These are all from reviews in his new book, “The Fright File: 150 Films to See Before Halloween," which you can find on Amazon and Amazon Kindle here.
This list is followed by a Q&A with Cinema Siren and David Putman.
Top 10 Horror Heroines
10.) Suzy (Suziey Block) in Entrance – Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath’s unforgettably chilling 2012 suspenser is anchored by Suziey Block’s fearless, empathetic performance as Suzy, a Los Angeles barista whose move to the City of Angels has been met with one injustice and disappointment after the next. Her job is going nowhere. She doesn’t have the money to pay for her broken-down car, her travels on foot leaving her increasingly vulnerable. The third act of Entrance, which will not dare be given away here, is as unnerving and sobering as any genre work in years. Suzy’s path in a town of palm trees and sunshine is threateningly closing in on her, and not easily forgotten.
9.) Stretch (Caroline Williams) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 – Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) might have proven her worth as one of the most ear-shattering screamers in horror film history in the harrowing 1974 original, but it is feisty, jean shorts-wearing deejay Stretch in Tobe Hooper’s satirical 1986 sequel who impresses as much more than just a damsel in distress. The Texas-born Caroline Williams is unbelievably cool as Stretch, who gets mixed up with Leatherface and his cannibalistic family after she plays a recording on her radio show of what she believes is the sound of two guys being murdered. For every step of her freakish journey into sheer horror, Stretch is endlessly watchable and sympathetic. She commands the screen, and, in the home stretch, knows a thing or two about waving around a buzzing chainsaw.
8.) Erin (Sharni Vinson) in You're Next– Adam Wingard’s rule-breaking, cleverly composed 2013 home-invasion indie gem transcends to a new level through its fierce protagonist, Erin. Sharni Vinson’s breakthrough turn requires emotional vulnerability as well as physical and intellectual aptness. Not one to slink back in fear when three masked men attack at a family’s anniversary get-together, Erin takes charge of the situation and gives the murderous bad guys a deliciously formidable opponent.
7.) Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street – Wes Craven’s phantasmagoric 1984 tale of deadly dreams and children forced to pay for their parents’ sins is seriously frightful and certainly imaginative. It also has a terrific heroine, the teenaged Nancy Thompson, who isn’t about to idly stand by when her friends start getting killed in their sleep by a menacing supernatural stalker named Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). No doubt acting as inspiration for the character of Erin in “You’re Next,” Nancy cunningly devises a plan to pull Freddy out of her nightmares as a means of defeating him, and she’ll go to any lengths possible to avenge her ill-fated pals. Heather Langenkamp is perfectly cast as Nancy, a fallible, down-to-earth girl next door who also happens to be strong and inspiring.
6.) Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) in The Shining – When people think of Stanley Kubrick’s rapturous 1980 Stephen King adaptation about a family under siege in Colorado’s haunted Overlook Hotel, Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance inevitably rises to the forefront of one’s mind. It is Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance, however, who gets things done. Wendy is instantly relatable precisely because she is so ill-equipped to handle a husband who has lost his mind and is chasing her with an ax. Even as she is horrified out of her mind, her motherly instincts take over. She might cry and whimper every step of the way, but that doesn’t stop her from doing whatever it takes to protect her son.
5.) Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) in The Exorcist – William Friedkin’s infamous 1973 tale of demonic possession, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, has horrified audiences for 40 years, and much of that power has come from the unimaginable sight of an innocent 12-year-old girl being taken over by evil otherworldly entities. Where one’s personal interest lies, though, is with anguished divorced mother Chris McNeil, an actress staying in Georgetown while she shoots a film who must reassess her non-religious beliefs after a malevolent unknown force possesses her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Ellen Burstyn received a deserved Oscar nomination for her riveting, poignant, multilayered performance as a woman willing to go to any length necessary to save her imperiled child.
4.) Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) in Drag Me to Hell – Sam Raimi returned to the genre that gave him his career with this deliciously freaky, wickedly tongue-in-cheek 2009 fable of young bank loan officer Christine Brown, stricken with a gypsy curse when she denies an elderly customer’s (Lorna Raver) pleas for a third extension on her mortgage payments. Alison Lohman is instantly identifiable as Christine, a three-dimensional heroine whose insecurities—her Southern-accented roots; her overweight childhood; her professional aspirations—help to make her all the more sympathetic even before she faces the threat of being dragged to hell. Lohman’s reading of this character is so specific, and so appealing, that there isn’t a second of screen time when the viewer isn’t actively on her side.
3.) Heather Donahue (Heather Donahue) in The Blair Witch Project – Not all film heroines have to be lovable, and Heather Donahue cemented this with her emotionally shattering turn as a prickly, overly self-assured student filmmaker in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifying 1999 found-footage landmark. Trekking into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, to shoot a documentary about a witchy local legend, Heather and her two cohorts become trapped in a living nightmare, accosted by unseen forces. Staring in the face of her own mortality, Donahue’s egotistic confidence gradually collapses, leading to a devastatingly intimate scene where she delivers her own last rites to the very video camera she once assumed would bless her with a future. It’s a brilliant performance, and a remarkable character.
2.) Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream – Wes Craven’s 1996 part-funny, part-intense, part-spooky ode to horror movies plowed knowledegably through conventions while also, in many ways, slyly adhering to them. As the bucolic town of Woodsboro is terrorized by a mystery slasher in a black-robed ghost-face costume, virginal 17-year-old Sidney Prescott is positioned as a well-rounded, fully developed protagonist who may have still been grieving the year-ago murder of her mother, but refused to ever play the victim. Neve Campbell injected a staggering number of indelible shades to her complicated role, thereby ensuring Sidney’s instant placement into the pantheon of all-time great horror heroines.
1.) Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween – John Carpenter’s 1978 magnum opus—an early precursor to the early-‘80s slasher explosion that relied on suspense, atmosphere and technical mastery over violence and bloodshed—is a seminal holiday classic, and its central character, the thoughtful, innocent Laurie Strode, is perhaps the most memorable of all heroines in the horror genre. Laurie’s everybody quality as a normal teenage girl, responsible but imperfect, intelligent but also insecure, is the ideal entry point for an adolescent girl who gradually comes into her own as her evening of babysitting turns into a fight for survival against “purely evil” boogeyman Michael Myers. Jamie Lee Curtis is much more than just the preeminent scream queen of her generation and beyond, imbuing Laurie with a vivacity, a tenderness, a life that eclipses all expectations for a female lead in a scary movie about teenagers in peril. There is a reason Curtis went on to a successful A-list acting career, and too many reasons to count why “Halloween” has endured so vividly in the thirty-five years since its release.
Honorable mentions: Alice (Adrienne King) in Friday the 13th, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) in Suspiria, Ángela (Manuela Velasco) in [REC], and, although this film is not featured in “The Fright File,” it would be a crime not to mention Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien.
Cinema Siren: This is your list, and it is well considered and well explained, however, let me throw a few things your way. I will go on record to say I am neither a fan of The Blair Witch Project, even knowing the actress did a fine job and that it shifted the paradigm for a certain style and approach to indie filmmaking, nor Drag Me to Hell, even though it stars an actress I have respected as long as she's been in the public eye.
Dustin Putman: The Blair Witch Project divided audiences when it was released in 1999, and continues to do so 14 years later. However, like you mention, it certainly broke a new kind of ground in indie moviemaking and was one of the first films of its kind to create audience buzz through Web-based promotion. For me, I have loved this film since the first time I saw it, on a rough VHS screener prior to the hype machine and its theatrical release, and it terrified me. As for Drag Me to Hell, I find it immensely fun, but also surprisingly emotional through Alison Lohman's wonderfully nuanced performance.
Cinema Siren: I certainly wholeheartedly agree with a fair number of your choices. I love Erin in You're Next, a movie a lot of people will find excitement in enjoying for the first time this holiday. Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) and Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) represent great "protective mother bears," and are strong, powerful women. Both actresses escape the horror genre trap with their stellar performances.
Dustin Putman: I have heard a lot of people criticize the character of Wendy Torrance in The Shining as a kind of helpless, simpering, passive female, and I disagree. She isn't some sort of superhero or even as strong as Erin in You're Next, but there is something very powerful in the way she nonetheless pulls herself together enough to protect herself and her son. Most people, if faced with her situation, would probably be a lot like her. It's realistic that she's so scared. She may feel helpless, but she proves to be anything but.
Cinema Siren: I would say no one can dispute Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween, two iconic horror heroines. Given the same situations, we should all be so lucky and resourceful!
Dustin Putman: Exactly. Audiences fell in love with these two characters because (1) they are relatable, (2) reminiscent of people we both, and probably all of us, know, and (3) face extreme adversity in a believable, stirring and ultimately uplifting manner.
Cinema Siren: From the reviews in The Fright File, there are a few characters I would have had on the list you didn't include. I'd have placed Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) from 1960's Psycho at the top, if not one of the top three, heroines. Not only did the movie break all sorts of rules, the character showed a great arc over a very short period of time. I would have also included Ana (Sarah Polley) from Zach Man of Steel Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. I would have placed Dana (Kristen Connolly) from The Cabin in the Woods on the list somewhere. She is so much more than she seems, and her character proved to be something new and interesting to the horror genre.
Dustin Putman: I adore Janet Leigh in Psycho, and am in total agreement about Marion's personal arc. She is desperate and unhappy, makes a terrible mistake, and hopes to turn things around and right her wrongs, so to speak. This makes her decision to take a shower all the more tragic. In compiling my list of top heroines, I chose to not include her to focus on survivor-type protagonists. If I were to extend that bucket, then totally, Marion Crane would be one of the top ones. I loved Dana in The Cabin in the Woods, too, but it didn't quite make my top 10. There are a lot of wonderful heroines in horror to choose from!
Cinema Siren: There is a movie you haven't reviewed yet. Hopefully in your next book you'll talk about Trilogy of Terror, a TV-movie from which I'd give an honorable mention to Amelia (the never-better Karen Black, whom I call the female Bruce Dern of the '70s) from the third story. Now THAT'S a character arc. She may start out meek and uncomfortable standing her ground, but she certainly ends the story with some newfound strength! Thoughts, Dustin
Dustin Putman: In the next two years or so, I am hoping to write a second volume and include another 100 or 150 films that have touched and inspired me. There are a surprising number of movies I couldn't fit, and Trilogy of Terror will likely be in that. Karen Black is incredible in that film — she plays a different role in all three of the shorts — and the third one, about the Zuni Fetish Doll from Hell, is as creepy-good as can be.
For more information on Dustin Putman’s new book, “The Fright File: 150 Films to See Before Halloween,” please visit http://www.thefrightfile.com, and to read more of his reviews, which may or may not agree with Cinema Siren, but are always insightful and well written, visit www.dustinputman.com.
About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado who aspires to get more people back into the beautiful alternate worlds offered in the dark at movie houses across the world. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInisights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston, Virginia. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. See more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.