Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture
My fondest moments as a girl were when my mother would braid my hair while we watched horror films and TV shows on her small TV screen. Tales from the Crypt, Hellraiser, and particularly gruesome episodes of The X-Files (“Home”) are singed into my childhood memory, the early days of what would turn into a lifelong obsession.
Much has been written about the genre in recent years, particularly about how it is a powerful avenue for young actresses to cut their teeth and for filmmakers to delve into stories that center on women’s psyches. But that’s always been true. Horror is an especially good genre for exploring the dark recesses and contradictions of the many different experiences of womanhood. With Mother!, director Darren Aronofsky returns to horror, this time placing Jennifer Lawrence at the center of a story that revolves around a creepy house, some uninvited guests, and the chaos that follows. The film has been at the center of heated discussions since its September 15 opening. In honor of its release, here’s a list of 30 of the best horror films with female leads, in chronological order. These films were chosen because they pushed the genre in bold new directions, are artistically profound, and have layered arguments about womanhood. They’re bold, complex, and most importantly, terrifying.
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
An early entry in Universal’s canon of horror films, The Cat and the Canary is a spritely, engaging silent horror flick that has defined much of the genre since: blending expressionism with light humor, a darkened mansion where horror exists around every corner, and a woman who survives it all. The film centers around the death of Cyrus West, who decides that his will should be read 20 years after his demise. Twenty years later, his living descendants (a couple of nieces and nephews) come to the reading of his will, and it’s his niece Annabelle (a great Laura La Plante) who inherits the fortune. But it comes with a price. To gain these riches, she must be deemed sane by a doctor, and of course things go awry. Don’t let the fact that this is a silent film scare you away. Director Paul Leni and his collaborators create a film that’s sparkling with artistry and a pleasure to watch.
Cat People (1942)
Horror is at its best when speaking to the culture from which it’s born. Bubbling beneath the surface of this noir-inflected horror film, directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, is a treatise on the fear and allure of unbridled female sexuality. Simone Simon stars as Irena, a Serbian-born designer afraid of the curse that snakes its way through her family line, in which any sexual contact will turn her into a bloodthirsty jaguar. Her fiancé, Oliver (Kent Smith), finds this ridiculous, but whether he believes her or not, it’s obvious Irena is captive to her fear. Cat People is a slick, eerie film that prioritizes the audience’s imagination over any displays of violence — film history is all the better for its daring, psychologically layered nature.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
How far would you go to atone for the sin of ruining the life of someone you love? For Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), murder and intrigue are worth the risk to help his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), whose face has been badly scarred in a car accident he caused. There is poeticism to be found in the crisp black-and-white images of the film — Christiane’s too-perfect mask that hides the deformities underneath, the sterile surgery room, the fearful visages of young women Doctor Génessier kidnaps and kills. It’s this poeticism and the touching yearning of Christiane that gives the film its power.
The Innocents (1961)
Deborah Kerr plays a fiercely dedicated governess, Miss Giddens, who comes to believe that the house of the two children she cares for is haunted. As unsettling moments play out, we’re left to wonder about the veracity of these incidents. Is the home truly haunted? Are these children really becoming possessed? Or is Miss Giddens unraveling? The Innocents — based on the novella, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James — is a gorgeously constructed tale that is one of the most entrancing gothic horror films ever created, thanks to director Jack Clayton and the rich psychological underpinnings of the screenplay, written by William Archibald and Truman Capote, with additional help from John Mortimer.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Carnival of Souls is a simple story about Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), the sole survivor of a drag race gone awry. She stumbles onto a muddy embankment after the car crash. She’s drawn to a strange pavilion and haunted by a ghoulish figure only referred to as The Man. The simplicity of Carnival of Souls, which has gained a cult following in the decades since it was released, is partially what makes it so effective. There’s no cutting-edge visual effects or outlandishly deformed monsters, but the film enthralls all the same. It weaves its spell thanks to the commanding central performance, fatalistic mood, assured tone, and crisp visuals.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? reinvigorated the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford by placing them in this horror film about how the decay of youth leads to madness and a fraught sibling rivalry. Crawford plays Blanche, a wheelchair-bound former classic Hollywood idol who is emotionally and physically tortured by her sister, Jane (Davis), who has become increasingly resentful since she never found success in the wake of her vaudeville career. It isn’t just madness and family secrets they’re grappling with, but the shadow of their former success, which takes on a meta quality considering the film’s stars, Davis and Crawford, are two of the most important actresses in Hollywood history. Davis’s performance as Baby Jane Hudson is a towering monument to the actress’s ability to evoke fear and sympathy in equal measure.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a lurid, melancholic film that is as much a bitter valentine to the way madness breeds among women as it is to classic Hollywood and the former glory of its stars. It also led to the hagsploitation genre, which saw many classic Hollywood dames becoming fixtures in arch horror/exploitation films like my personal favorites: Dead Ringer, Night Watch, and Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte.
Roman Polanski’s later work, Rosemary’s Baby, is arguably his more iconic entry into horror. But I find Repulsion more effective and powerful in how it uses the genre to explore the mental turmoil of a young woman named Carol (played superbly with wide-eyed terror by Catherine Deneuve). As Carole unravels while she’s alone in her vacationing sister’s apartment, the film descends into a hellish landscape in which the terror of her mind affects the very architecture of the world she inhabits.
Bloody as hell, unrelenting, and spellbinding, the Italian giallo horror film Suspiria is a lush feast for the senses. It centers on a curious American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who arrives in Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy. Suzy soon realizes the academy is a front for something far more sinister when colleagues go missing and the walls start closing in on her. Sometimes you just want a film to envelope you completely, which is what Suspiria does thanks to the strength of its aesthetics. It is an experience that delights and overwhelms the senses, blending garish color, a score by the Italian band Goblin, and the arc of a winsome lead you can’t help but want to see survive.
“The final girl” has become one of the definitive and most-admired archetypes in horror — those innocent, headstrong young women are hard not to root for. But while there have been countless women to take on such a role, there’s really only one Laurie Strode, brought to life with touching innocence by Jamie Lee Curtis. Halloween is a landmark film that pushed the slasher subgenre in new directions, creating a host of stylizations that have become clichés elsewhere. But few of the films it influenced live up to the strange power that comes from watching Laurie try to survive the demented Michael Myers.
What can I say about Alien that hasn’t already been said? It’s a master class in every way, demonstrating how powerful horror can be emotionally, aesthetically, and philosophically. It’s also a testament to the power of collaboration. H.R. Giger’s design work on the titular monster is slippery and unnerving. David O’Bannon’s script (which has significant rewrites by David Giler and Walter Hill) quickly establishes a distinctive cast of characters who, despite their intelligence, fall prey to forces greater than themselves. Director Ridley Scott is at his best here. Perhaps the film’s greatest legacy beyond its lived-in production design is that of its lone survivor, Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, played with steely determination by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley was notably not written as a woman, but in casting Weaver, the role takes on new dimensions. She’s gone on to inspire generations of tough, driven female characters in science fiction and beyond for good reason. Alien effectively operates as a meditation on the fragility of humanity, blistering body horror, and one of the most astounding visual works ever filmed. But it’s Ripley’s dynamic characterization that makes it legendary. (Aliens could also fit this list but since it is more action-forward, I opted for its predecessor.)
Claustrophobic, unrelenting, and downright demented, Possession is one of the most trenchant examinations of an unraveling marriage I’ve ever witnessed. It’s also grotesque in ways that are difficult to forget. Certain images from the film are burned into my mind. The film centers on Mark (Sam Neill), who comes home from one of his many spy trips to find out that his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), wants a divorce. Mark forgives Anna for her transgressions, which include an affair, disregarding their young son, and getting involved with what can only be described as a tentacled, slimy monster she’s willing to kill for. Possession is a hothouse of a film that captivates so thoroughly thanks to Adjani’s performances (she plays two different characters in the film). She’s deranged, unhinged, hysterical, and brazen, committing herself so thoroughly to the character’s undoing, it’s difficult to watch. Possession may not have reached the unquestionable heights of cultural importance as other beloved horror films like Psycho, but it does have loyal fans — just watch Massive Attacks’ video for their great song “Voodoo in the Blood,” featuring Rosamund Pike going full-blown madwoman in a subway as a homage to Adjani’s work in the film.
The Entity (1982)
The Entity does what all great horror must: It gets under your skin, grabs hold of your heart, and never lets go. It’s one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever watched because of how expertly it filters the experiences of domestic abuse and sexual assault through the guise of a haunting. The haunted woman in question is Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey), a single mother trying to make a decent life for her children, who starts to come undone thanks to an invisible presence that brutalizes her and puts her life at grave risk. The Entity is not a film I’m quick to revisit because of this brutality. It offers no empowering ending, instead showcasing how the nightmares of abuse are often unending for some women. But Hershey’s performance is stunning.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street has one of the most enviable premises in horror: a monster who invades your dreams, turning the space you should feel safest into a hellscape. I recently watched the 1984 Wes Craven–directed slasher film for the first time in years, and it was amazing that even after seeing the film several times, its darkly humorous, arch brand of horror still thrilled me. Freddy Krueger is less the sickly trickster he became in later entries and more a grotesque abomination who delights in killing off teenagers in increasingly inventive ways, as an act of vengeance against the parents who set him aflame. But the film wouldn’t work without its final girl, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who you can’t help but root for as her friends are picked off — she remains steadfast and intelligent in her quest to survive.
Hellraiser has been a favorite of mine since childhood. I saw it far too young, but can you blame me? The 1987 film, written and directed by Clive Barker, is based on his novella The Hellbound Heart. Perhaps the film’s greatest legacy are the S&M-tinged demons, the Cenobites. They’re immediately eye-catching and gruesome. But my love for the film is rooted in its female characters — the tenacious Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) and arguably one of the wickedest stepmothers ever put on film, Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins). Kirsty and Julia represent two sides of the most popular images of women in horror — saint and sinner, survivor and villain, pure and profane. The way they wrestle for control over their lives is what makes Hellraiser one of the most perverse and terrifying horror films ever made.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs is a film that has been dear to me since childhood. It’s a bracing, intelligent, and often empathic horror film. Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter loquaciously and brutally sliced his way into pop-culture glory for good reason. But Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is the heart and true protagonist of the film. Her characterization, and Foster’s moving performance, shirks the intrinsically damaged female detective archetype for something more complex, as she sets off to solve a series of brutal murders, caring for the victims in ways her male colleagues do not.
What is it that I love most about the 1996 Wes Craven–directed, Kevin Williamson–penned flick? How it deconstructs and heightens the slasher genre? Is it the unconventional opening that offs megastar Drew Barrymore? The expert blend of humor and horror? Or the central performance by Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, the “final girl” who breaks the rules of that archetype? All of the above. Scream is slick, propulsive, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a classic that reinvented the limits of the slasher genre and gave film one of its most admirable final girls.
The Craft (1996)
I can already hear the snickers for putting this on the list, but hear me out. The 1996 film follows a group of teenage girls in a Los Angeles Catholic school who are able to complete their coven when natural witch Sarah (Robin Tunney) moves to town with her father. For a certain generation, The Craft isn’t just a fun-to-watch, overwrought cult classic, but a mirror reflecting the intimate issues that come with girlhood — toxic friendships, racist peers, emotionally manipulative teenage boys, the allure of power when you feel utterly powerless. The Craft may treat Sarah as the ultimate hero, but it’s rightly beloved thanks to Fairuza Balk’s dynamite, crazed performance as Nancy Downs, the member of the coven who gladly takes a walk on the dark side to alleviate the issues in her life.
Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997)
In recent decades, there has been a deluge of darker fairy-tale retellings meant to place these stories within the context of work by The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, rather than the more recognizable, cotton-candy-sweet kids’ stories by Disney. No cinematic fairy-tale revisionism truly lives up to its literary counterparts quite like the 1997 film Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Equal parts lush and grotesque, the film also gives us one of Sigourney Weaver’s best performances as Claudia Hoffman, the would-be Evil Queen.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
Horror directors have always taken a particular interest in exploring young women’s adolescence — including iconic films like Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie, which isn’t on this list since I don’t believe it grapples with the theme of female adolescence with enough honesty or emotional resonance. Ginger Snaps continues horror’s tradition of interrogating this thematic territory by bringing the transition from girlhood to womanhood into the realm of pure body horror. The film centers on teenage sisters Bridgette (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), whose strong bond fractures as the latter gets bitten by a creature they learn is a werewolf. Ginger Snaps isn’t subtle about equating the transformation into womanhood with that of a werewolf, given Ginger gets her first period at the very beginning of the film, but that’s part of its charm. Ginger becomes emboldened by her new power but also reckless, creating a twisted tale of prickly sisterhood and power under the guise of a bloody werewolf film.
The Others (2001)
My favorite horror tends to be works that are what one of my friends refers to as reality two steps to the left. Things look almost how’d you expect. But the space between normalcy and the fantastical is where the best fears live. Written, directed, and scored by Alejandro Amenábar, The Others turns its cutting gaze upon Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman), a mother and devout Catholic in the wake of World War II, besieged by unsettling occurrences in her remote country side home. The Others is immensely frightening thanks to Amenábar’s supreme handling of mood. He creates a slow, spellbinding pace to let the horrors twist further and further until you realize you’re gasping for air too late. But what makes it cut so close to the bone, and remain rewatchable even after you’ve seen its third-act twist, is that this ghost story doubles as a poignant excavation on the nature of loss and moving on.
Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
Writer-director Takashi Shimizu weaves a story that grants its characters no happy endings or long-term respite, but that’s what gives it lasting power. Social worker Rika (Megumi Okina) is sent to care for an ailing older woman, Sachie (Chikako Isomura). When she steps into the home, it’s clear something is amiss. It’s a disgusting mess, and Sachie seems lost in her own mind. It soon becomes clear that a curse has coiled its way around the people that have lived in the house, which leads Rika to face a variety of horrors she is ill-equipped to deal with. Shimizu also directed the American remake a few years after the original, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, that is worth a watch as well.
Loneliness may be one of the most universal human experiences, but how each of us experiences it definitely isn’t. For some, loneliness is the defining tenor of their life, warping what joy can be found and even driving one to madness. That’s definitely true for the titular character of May, played by Angela Bettis. A lifetime of loneliness and a rough childhood has pushed May over the edge. Her efforts to find companionship falter thanks to her eternal habit of doing too much and scaring people away. So when she can’t find the kind of friend she desires, she decides to make one — killing the people around her and using their various body parts to do so. Bettis’s performance is an odd yet beguiling blend of awkward, funny, and heart-wrenching. Despite the horror May commits, it’s hard not to feel for her thanks to Bettis’s work.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
After being released from a mental hospital into her father’s care, the young Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) struggles to adjust to life and only finds solace with her younger sister, Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young). Tension leads to hostility when the young sisters interact with their stepmother (Yum Jung-ah). A Tale of Two Sisters’ strength lies in how deftly it constructs the emotional reality of each woman to heighten the suspense that follows.
The Descent (2005)
The best way to describe writer-director Neil Marshall’s second film, The Descent, is unrelentingly bleak. Led by an all-female cast, The Descent is a tale about a group of friends who decide to go spelunking but end up getting far more than they bargained for. What elevates The Descent from being merely a horrific exploration of gruesome death is how Sarah’s (Shauna MacDonald) grief and her weathered friendship with Juno (Natalie Mendoza) thread through the film.
Black Swan (2010)
While the “final girls” left standing may represent the most beloved archetype within horror, I often find myself most drawn to the women who barely survive, or don’t at all. These messy madwomen hold the most fascinating commentary about womanhood. Black Swan is a lurid, exuberant, and bold film that centers on such a woman: Nina Sayers (a transcendent Natalie Portman), a ballerina who gets the chance she’s been yearning for that pushes her body and mind to its breaking point as she contends with doppelgängers, strange visions, a blood-curdling transformation, and a rival (Mila Kunis). Black Swan melds behind-the-scenes drama, a delayed coming-of-age tale, and commentary on how the pursuit of perfection can warp our lives.
South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut has nearly everything I love in one film. Stoker melds southern gothic ethos, a tense exploration of a young woman’s burgeoning desires, and a haunting score by Clint Mansell. Stoker ramps up a young woman’s maturation (Mia Wasikowska as the cool-eyed, even unreadable, India Stoker) until it reaches the tenor of horror as she navigates her desires, the unexpected presence of her mysterious, charismatic uncle (Matthew Goode, in a career-best performance), and the whims of her unstable mother (an excellent Nicole Kidman) in the wake of her father’s death. The lush cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung, direction by Park, and mannered production design by Thérèse DePrez create an unreal yet seductive world. I am especially fond of Wentworth Miller’s script, which is indebted to several inspirations, like Shadow of a Doubt, but feels like its own beast thanks to its dark humor and keen understanding of the tension that bubbles up between mothers and their only daughters.
Under the Skin (2013)
An alien masquerading as a beautiful woman navigates Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands, looking for prey. In the process, she ends up facing penetrating questions about her own identity and selfhood. Under the Skin is a film that refuses easy categorization. Its visuals — seduced men floating in an inky abyss, a baby wailing alone on a pebbled beach — stick in your mind long after the film ends. Coupled with a score by Mica Levi and Jonathan Glazer’s direction, the story reaches untold heights. But what makes this more than an admirable experiment in art-house horror is Scarlett Johansson’s mesmerizing performance at the center of the film.
The Babadook (2014)
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook crafts a harrowing, uneasy story about the way grief can warp into madness. It centers on Amelia Vanek (a transformative Essie Davis), a widow raising what might just be the most infuriating child in all of horror (Noah Wiseman). Amelia is still reeling from the death of her husband, who died in a car accident when he was driving her to the hospital while she was in labor. Exhaustion underscores Amelia’s every move. As her son becomes obsessed with a figure from a mysterious pop-up book, Mister Babadook, things go haywire. Its titular creature is one of the most aesthetically strong monsters in horror from the past decade. The camera loops and encircles Amelia, heightening the claustrophobia. I’m not fully into the way the film handles Amelia’s madness, particularly when it comes to the ending, but it’s hard to resist the way this film crafts its visual and emotional landscape.
Under the Shadow (2016)
Amid revolutionary upheaval in 1980s Tehran, Shideh (a moving Narges Rashidi) struggles with her inability to resume her medical studies due to her political affiliation, her husband’s absence, and parenting her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). If Under the Shadow kept its gaze on the domestic sorrows and the anxieties of its lead, it would still be an impactful film. But things go haywire for Shideh when it becomes clear that a presence is haunting both her and her daughter. The film uses the mythology of the djinni, and several unsettling scenes as Shideh calls her own sanity into question, to explore the nature of family and loneliness.
A Dark Song (2016)
There are several recent horror films that have moved me deeply for how they’ve handled their female leads, including the recent Raw. But when I look at the horror films released in recent years that impact me most, there is a recurring trend of mothers protecting their young children from unspeakable horror. The Irish film A Dark Song takes the anxieties of motherhood a step further, creating a claustrophobic and eerie tale of a young mother who goes to extreme lengths to communicate with her dead son once more. First-time writer-director Liam Gavin strips the story down to its bare essentials — a grand home, an ornate ritual, minimal locations — which makes the dread nearly unbearable. For the most part, there are only two characters: Sophia (Catherine Walker), who grieves her murdered son and has hired the scuzzy, deeply suspicious Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to conduct an elaborate, months-long occult ritual to make her feverish wish possible. As the weeks turn into months, with Sophia and Joseph never leaving the home, disturbing occurrences begin to hint at how dark the magic is they’re using. A Dark Song is more than a harrowing and disturbing horror film with a clever handle on the occult — it is one of the most moving films on grief and faith I’ve seen in a long time.