With New Mutants finally around the corner (we hope), I wanted to take a look back at some of my favorite horror heroines. While last year’s Brightburn may have been the first majorly distributed movie to explore the overlap between superheroes and horror, this still feels like new and exciting territory for a film landscape that can at times feel overrun by pretty formulaic superhero movies.
In honor of New Mutants being a horror movie about young women as well as a superhero movie, I want to celebrate some other fantastic horror movies that focus on young women, many of whom come into new powers that can be frightening to themselves and others (and often, the patriarchal status quo). Yes, there are men in the New Mutants group as well, but the cast is led by Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy, the latter already a horror icon at 24 because of her witchy debut.
10. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc may not be a horror movie by some standards, but watching it is certainly horrifying and dread inducing. The story follows Joan after she has been captured and is on trial for heresy. We see the ecclesiastical court continually attempt to intimidate and trick her into recanting her conviction that she has spoken to God, who gave her a mission to lead France against England.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is the perfect starting point for this list because it connects the audience with Joan through her terrifying experiences being interrogated by the court. Much has been written about Dreyer’s extreme close ups and Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s incredible performance, but they warrant repeating because they do so much to align the viewer with Joan, who the majority of other characters within the film’s narrative would have you believe is evil.
The Passion of Joan of Arc provides a blueprint for building empathy with a female character that the world of the film decries as a villain.
9. Cat People (1942)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Legendary producer Val Lewton’s first film at RKO Pictures in 1942 is also the best of the atmospheric and psychologically rich horror classics he made while at the studio. The film follows Irena, a Serbian immigrant to the US who meets a nice young man and falls in love. But things get interesting when Irena won’t get physical with her new beau because she’s scared of turning into a cat if she gets too physically excited (it’s a movie from the heavily censored 1940s so naturally it’s full of euphemisms). That’s right, she’s afraid of turning into a cat.
The film explores Irena’s fear and desire in tandem with one another, and especially her fear of what that desire may do to her. The film is remarkable not only for having a female protagonist who is struggling with her desire, but also for keeping the audience firmly on the side of a character who may indeed be a monster.
Another first along with Cat People, Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel was the first movie based on King’s work. We might not live in our current world of over fifty Stephen King film adaptations if Carrie was not as great as it is.
Carrie begins with Carrie’s first period, a horrifying experience for a young woman who was never taught about her body by her fanatically religious mother. Along with her first period, Carrie begins to learn that she has telekinetic powers. The story functions as an exploration of Carrie coming into her own as a woman and learning to feel more confident in her body and of the decisions she makes. Carrie may be the first movie that showed that horror and coming-of-age stories are a match made in heaven (or hell, as it may be).
I’ll also never be able to hear the line “Eve was weak” again without thinking of this song.
7. Ginger Snaps (2000)
Director: John Fawcett
In the same way that The Witch made Anya Taylor-Joy a horror icon while still a teen, Ginger Snaps established Katherine Isabelle as one of our great modern horror actors at only 19.
Isabelle stars as Ginger, a high school student on the brink of some serious transformations. Similar to Carrie, the story kicks off with Ginger getting her first period. Instead of bringing her telekinetic powers, Ginger’s blood draws the attention of the neighborhood werewolf. After Ginger is bitten, the film gives us a front-row seat to her bodily and psychological changes while her sister Brigitte desperately tries to save her from herself.
Ginger Snaps is notable for many things, its practical effects, the obvious parallels between puberty and becoming a werewolf, the peak 2000s hard rock and alternative metal soundtrack, but what’s most memorable is that the fundamental relationship in the film is between Brigitte and Ginger. It’s a horror movie about the bonds of sisterhood, and that’s something special.
6. Teeth (2007)
Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Teeth’s reputation may precede it. Yes, it is the movie about a girl whose vagina has teeth, but it’s also an empathetic look at a young girl who has been taught to hate her body and fear her desire, eventually learning to own both.
Dawn begins the movie as an abstinence-only spokesperson, espousing the dangers of sex to her fellow teens. When one of her abstinence only group members sexually assaults her, she learns that not all of her abstinence only group members are practicing what they preach. During this traumatic encounter, Dawn also rips her rapist’s penis off with her vagina, alerting her to the fact that she has a “vagina dentata.” The audience then watches her come to understand and accept her body, learning along the way that she can have sex without risking castration when she is enthusiastically consenting.
Teeth manages to be a fantastic coming-of-age story caked in camp, because it takes its characters seriously while also acknowledging the absurdity of its concept.
5. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Director: Karyn Kusama
You’ve likely heard that it’s no longer cool to dislike Jennifer’s Body. But the movie never deserved the disrespect it got when it was released, an issue that this Vox article explains much better than I could.
Jennifer’s Body may be for friendship what Ginger Snaps is for sisterhood. The titular Jennifer becomes a literal man-eating succubus after an indie band attempts to sacrifice her to the devil in exchange for rock stardom (like Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body is a wonderful music time capsule). The film then focuses on Jennifer’s insatiable bloodlust and her friend Needy, short for Anita but yes she actually goes by the word “needy,” desperately trying to turn Jennifer back into the person she was before. The film also treats the audience to some fantastic creature and gore effects.
It also has one of the best kisses I’ve ever seen and gets its name from a Hole song.
4. Spring (2014)
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
In most of the female-led horror films on this list, the audience is made to identify primarily with the powerful and perhaps even monstrous women from the start. Spring is a bit different, as we begin the film following Evan, a young American who travels to Italy after the death of his mother.
In Italy, Evan meets Louise, a mysterious young woman who he quickly falls for. Louise keeps Evan at arms length during their courtship as strange things start happening around the small town that serves as the film’s setting. Eventually Evan learns that Louise isn’t all that she seems, or rather that she’s much more than she seems. She’s a mutant with the ability to live forever, she just has to go through a slightly gruelling molting esque process every few decades and he’s caught her right in the middle of such a process.
Spring is special for a lot of reasons. Wikipedia describes it as a “romantic body horror film”, a genre it likely inhabits alone, but what really makes it stick out is that we meet Louise years, literally centuries, into living her life as this different type of human. We see her as self-assured, knowing exactly what is going on with her body even if it freaks Evan out when he first discovers her convulsively shapeshifting.
3. The Witch (2015)
Director: Robert Eggers
I mean, what did you expect? By most accounts, The Witch is a modern classic that introduced the world to the incomparable Anya Taylor-Joy and gave the internet the ever meme-able Black Phillip.
Robert Eggers’ intensely researched and period accurate debut places us in Thomasin’s shoes as she and her family are exiled from “the plantation” in early 1600s New England. With her family living alone in the woods, and given their strict religious beliefs, it is not surprising that when things begin to go wrong they look to blame their teenage daughter, an easy target for ire even today, just think of how many people hate certain music simply because teenage girls like it.
What sets The Witch apart from many of the films on this list is that Thomasin doesn’t undergo any change as an inciting incident for the story, in fact all the scapegoating of her happens before she very actively chooses to make a change because of the repressive/oppressive environment that her family has created. The story isn’t one of learning to accept an unwanted power, but of choosing to take up a potentially evil power to escape an unjust world.
2. Thelma (2017)
Director: Joachim Trier
Thelma, the eponymous heroine of Thelma, has telekinetic powers very similar to Carrie’s. But for Thelma there’s a more definite connection between her desire and her power that’s made clear early on. The first sign of Thelma’s growing power comes when the beautiful Anja sits next to her in the library – a potential meet-cute that’s disrupted by a murder of crows frantically slamming into the windows.
Like Carrie, Thelma has grown up in a religious household with parents who want to control every aspect of her life, although they do this in much sweeter and more subtle ways than Carrie’s mother, allowing Thelma to live on campus at college but checking in constantly about her schedule that they’ve memorized.
Unlike Carrie, Thelma essentially becomes a romance with touches of horror throughout that never veer into anything gratuitous, but are still incredibly effective. In fact, it’s this grounded style that makes Thelma such a great film. It never feels fantastical or like an all-out genre film removed from reality, it plays its premise straight and lets us care about Thelma as a real young woman accepting and embracing her desire and newfound power.
1. Raw (2017)
Director: Julia Ducournau
Raw and Thelma will always be cut from the same cloth for me. They both came out in 2017 (at least in the US), they focus on young women in their first year of university away from home, and parallel sexual awakenings with something less universal. For Raw’s Justine, her sexual desire comes hand in hand with a more literal hunger for flesh. After having been a vegetarian her entire life, Justine is forced to eat a rabbit kidney as part of a hazing ritual at her veterinary school, leading her to crave more and more raw meat.
As with many French horror films of the 21st century, Raw has touches of extreme violence and a focus on the body in both violent and sexual experiences, and of course the mingling of the two.
Raw was nominated for a number of César Awards, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for writer/director Julia Ducournau and Most Promising Actress for star Garance Marillier.
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