In celebration of Women in Horror Recognition Month
(and the fact that I am a HUGE list-maker if you haven‘t figured that out already), I thought there was no better time to highlight some of my favorite female performances in horror.
However, I have already done a month-long feature
a few Februaries ago during Women in Horror month, so I hated to just rehash that all over again. But considering those were all villains that I featured, there are still some women yet to spotlight. Of course I loved Angela Bettis in May
, as well as Kathy Bates in Misery,
as well as many others. But I wanted to pick some I haven’t already waxed poetic about.
Please remember this is by NO MEANS suggesting that these are “best-ever” roles or anything like that. It is a run-down of my own personal favorites, so keep that in mind before you go all up in airs.
So here goes:
1) Daria Nicolodi
in Mario Bava’s Shock
When a woman moves back into a house once abandoned after her first husband’s suicide, strange happenings catapult her into the arms of madness.
With her peculiar looking son (okay, that kid was downright weird) seemingly possessed by her dead husband and driving her to the brink of no return, she has no choice but to surrender to the house’s secrets, allowing them to destroy her one nightmare-filled episode at a time. Nicolodi is so famous for all her Argento roles, and while more than satisfactory in those, she truly shines (in all her madness) in this one. If anyone does screaming better than her, they better let me know, cause in this one – she could run rings around Jamie Lee Curtis any day.
Best Moment: The realization in the basement.
2) Sigourney Weaver
in the Alien
I’m not sure there’s a better kick-ass heroine of any horror/sci-fi series, and most others would be inclined to agree. Back in 1979 when Alien
came out, there weren’t a whole lot of films that had women as determined and full of genuine chutzpah as Ellen Ripley was. And with an Oscar nomination for Aliens, it just proved her worth in a field that is never dominated in any shape or form by a science fiction role. It’s true I may be in the minority when I say I prefer Alien
to the sequel(s), but I do give props to Weaver’s staying power and fans’ extreme devotion for her character.
While I’d be tempted to say her best moment was the “Get way from her, you bitch!” line, I’ve reconsidered and have decided on the moment in the first film where she and Jones settle back into their sleep pods, a few seconds of quiet reflection and anticipation of what’s to come.
3) Barbara Steele
in Black Sunday
Steele has so many roles I admire and love that it is hard to pick just one. You can read about my love of her in the film Nightmare Castle here
, and I love her in Piranha
(1977) and even the re-imagining of the Dark Shadows
series in 1991.…but Black Sunday
is probably her most adored role. As Asa the dark, sexy witch who is put to death yet later returns with a vengeance to settle the score, Steele is pure magnetism – you simply cannot take your eyes off the screen when she is on it. I’d have to say this film was probably thought to be fairly controversial in its day, with all the macabre overtones and themes, but it is a true delight for horror fans, and if you haven’t seen it, you are truly missing out on one of the great horror performances.
Witchcraft, rising from the dead, evil incantations, crypts, murder, immortality, and even some good old-fashioned eye gouging is included for your viewing pleasure.
Best moment: I’m partial to the moment when the steel mask is removed from Asa’s face and her face seems as youthful and untouched as the day it was hammered on….well, except for the nail marks that is.
4) Naomi Watts
in The Ring
Also the best part of this movie’s sequel, Watts lent seasoned star power and credibility to a role that could have been cast with one of those random younger actresses that grace the television on the CW. I’ve heard both good and bad reviews of this film, but I stand by my opinion that it is a decent remake with a very worthy lead actress.
Watts’ starving reporter has an edge to it that adds so much to this movie. We know she wants to solve the mystery – at first it’s just to rectify what has happened to her niece, but when it becomes a woman trying to keep her son alive, it morphs into a whole other entity. She becomes desperate, and it shows.
Best moment: Down in the well with Samara. It’s a moment that seems like it’s just around the corner from scaring the shit out of you, but it’s really just a minute or two of quiet closure, supposedly ending the story on a satisfied note. But then…
5) Candace Hilligoss
in Carnival of Souls
From the moment she drags herself out of the river after a car accident to the time we finally come to the realization of what is truly going on, Hilligoss makes sure we are paralyzed by her haunting presence and just about as confused as she is. Her genuine fear when she is unable to hear those around her, her confusion as she is continually drawn to the abandoned amusement park, and her terror as she deals with the mysterious and frightening ghoul gives the role a sense of plausibility it may not have otherwise. And come on, those frightened eyes of hers are part of what makes this film so startling and overwhelmingly eerie.
Best moment: Mary’s insanely wild organ playing that becomes a little too – shall we say frisky? – for the church scene?
6) Maria Bello
in The Dark
One woman’s quest to find her apparently drowned daughter turns into a bizarre mystery, combining Welsh legend and her mind’s own tricks to make for a puzzling yet entirely unique type of horror film. The spectacular scenery and the acting chops of her co-star Sean Bean certainly don’t hurt this story any, but in the end, this film belongs to Bello, with her sexy voice and alluring beauty. Oh, and the woman can act, as well.
Her heartwrenching misery when her daughter supposedly goes off a slippery rock and into the ocean is credible and straightforward – and the scenes in the abattoir (which is creepy enough on its own) are just downright disturbing.
Best moment: At the end, when she finally makes it back home from the ‘afterlife’…and isn’t greeted quite in the way she’d hoped.
7) Sarah Polley
in Dawn of the Dead
The first ten minutes of this film were enough to let me know I was not only going to like it, but I was going to root for Polley’s character Ana to come out on top throughout the zombie infestation she is dealing with. She starts out rather meek, obviously frightened by what’s going on, but soon gets a serious don’t-fuck-with-me attitude happening and takes no bullshit. And she falls a little bit in love, just for good measure, which is never a bad thing. Additionally, she’s a nurse, and quickly begins delegating jobs and taking care of the wounded.
Polley, in my opinion, is a great actress (and director/screenwriter) – and those beginning moments where she is fighting for her life shows that if you’re a good talent, you can pull anything off – even scrambling to outrun the undead and making plans to be one of the lucky survivors.
Best moment: Shooting Steve, just like she promised she would.
8) Shauna MacDonald
in The Descent
Tortured by the gruesome death of her husband and daughter, she agrees to go caving with a group of close friends in the mountains of West Virginia. Though at first she is apprehensive and skittish, even unsure of her sanity when she starts seeing things deep in the cave, Sarah becomes a force to be reckoned with when battling not only the creepy humanoid so-called “crawlers” in the cave, but someone she thought was a friend.
The entire bad-ass female cast is a welcome addition to the ranks of women in horror, and MacDonald is the cream of the crop.
Best moment: The look on Sarah’s face when she lands the pick-ax into her friend’s leg.
9) Jodie Foster
in The Silence of the Lambs
This one is an absolute no-brainer, and she has the Oscar to prove it. I couldn’t possibly omit it. There are so many adjectives that could describe Foster’s fabulous multi-layered performance. It’s so hard to imagine anyone else in the role, and to me that is indicative of a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic role.
I love it when Clarice finally discovers Buffalo Bill’s true identity, follows him down into the basement, discovers Catherine Martin in the pit and yells to her “FBI, you’re safe!” (Um, not so much.) But her faux confidence was a delight, particularly after Catherine’s response.
Best moment: When Clarice hears Buffalo Bill’s gun cock, and she quickly turns in response and shoots him multiple times, ending his life with a couple of gurgling gasps as that butterfly wind sock goes round and round…
10) Amy Steel
in Friday the 13th Part 2
Naturally one’s mind does not automatically run to the Friday
series to mesh out good acting, but I have to make mention of one of my favorite final girls, Ginny. While I’m certain she very well may be the only final girl with that particular name, Steel makes an impression as someone who isn’t there just to lay down and take a knife through the chest. Overly curious and equally determined to find out the truth about Camp Crystal Lake’s secrets, she tries to piece together the answers, all the while trying not to get herself killed.
Best moment: When she dons the infamous blue sweater and attempts to trick old potato sack Jason into letting her machete him.
11) Dee Wallace-Stone
A woman with no goal in life except to save the life of her son. Always a powerful motivator, and Wallace-Stone has the added job of basically carrying this entire film on her shoulders. Sure, little Danny Pintauro gave it his best, but a bunch of crying and screaming just really isn’t that hard to pull off, I don’t care how old you are. But sweating profusely while racked with fear as you try such a simple task as closing a car door before a giant beast of a rabid dog can get there first – now that’s asking a bit more. While I liked her performance loads in The Howling
, in particular her stellar wolf transformation, I still feel her shining moment came two years later in this little thriller.
Best moment: The baseball bat….nasty.
12) Nicole Kidman
in The Others
As the over-protective and frantically strict mother of two children with a disease that forbids them to be in the light, Kidman is as scary as the creepy old estate she inhabits and the ghosts that share the space with her. She’s the picture of English well-to-do, and while waiting for her husband to return from a war which has recently ended, she conducts business as usual. Teaching her children proper grammar (a lost art these days!), manners, and school-work seems to be her only purpose in life, until strange things start to occur ‘round the house. It is only fair to say Kidman was perfect in this role, and though at first you actually find yourself disliking her, as the film progresses you see the tables turn and eventually you end up rooting for the prim and proper mother whose only goal is to protect her children from the strange goings-on.
And let’s face it, Kidman is an Oscar winner, and it shows.
Best moment: The look of sheer terror on her face when she finds the photographs taken after death of some people she realizes she already knows. Still.
13) Meg Tilly
in Psycho II
While certainly not someone people would automatically think of, I always like to throw a few surprises in a list like this.
Tilly had the difficult task of bringing a new character to an old story and merging the two into what passes as quite a good sequel if I’m being honest. Charged by her mother (the sister of the Marion Crane character) to trick Norman into thinking he was losing his mind (again), she does the unthinkable. She begins to feel bad for the helpless mama’s boy. I may be jaded by my love of this particular film (and Bates in general), but I still find her portrayal honest and completely believable.
Best moment: On Mary’s first night in the famous house on the hill, we see her in Norman’s old bedroom, sitting up nervously in bed staring at the door – which she has blocked shut with a chair.
14) Virginia Madsen
As Helen, a woman two steps away from completing a Masters thesis and hoping to get published, Madsen portrays a woman desperate to get the facts straight and flush out the urban legend that is Candyman. Combined with the horrific Cabrini-Green setting, a cheating husband, typical gang violence, and a menacing killer with a hook for a hand, Candyman sets the stage for a seemingly clichéd trip down urban legend lane. But Madsen brings an authenticity to the film by her fierce determination to unravel the recent murder spree in the urban wasteland in which the fictional (?) killer supposedly resides.
Best moment: The last scene, it’s a killer.
15) Michelle Pfieffer
in What Lies Beneath
While already lucky in the fact that her character Claire is married to a brilliant scientist (played by Harrison Ford, natch!), she lives in an idyllic house by a lake and gets to wander around alone all the time because hubby works extraordinarily long hours and daughter is off at college. All is fine until memories start to return about a fateful night in the past, the neighbor seems like the new John Wayne Gacy, and Claire starts to see apparitions in mirrors and the likes. Pfieffer brings a sense of realism to the role of Claire, and isn’t better than when she has a friend over for a late-night séance…in the bathroom.
Best moment: When she attempts to seduce her clueless hubby…as his collegiate girlfriend.