Don’t believe me? In an industry dominated by men, horror has been and continues to be a genre populated by female leads. From Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween to Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, usually, when the serial killer is finally thwarted, the zombie hoards disperse, or the vague evil banished from whence it came, it’s a woman who’s left standing. It’s such a given that it’s become a trope: the “final girl.” This term was coined in 1992 by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
Of course, there are exceptions and horror is not immune to the misogyny that seems ingrained in pop culture. Traditionally, the final girl survives to the end because she has been deemed “pure” enough. As a character in Wes Craven’s Scream explains:
“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. Big no no! Big no no! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It’s a sin. It’s an extension of number one.”
So, when it comes to the final girl, only “sinless” need apply. This usually translates to blonde, conventionally pretty, straight-edge, straight, and virginal.
But, while summer blockbusters struggle to step over the embarrassingly low bar set by the Bechtel Test, horror films traverse it with ease. Yes, the two sorority sisters in that slasher movie may just be talking about how trashed they plan on getting this weekend at that haunted lake house, but they are female characters with actual lines that aren’t about how “hot” the male lead is. Basically, if a woman wants to see female characters on screen her best bet is the horror genre. And, if you define “chick flicks” as movies women can see themselves represented in and want to watch, then horror movies are definitely chick flicks.
Of course, not all chick flicks are created equal. While some can’t seem to fathom using their female characters for anything other than exploitative changing scenes and gore fodder, other horror films show a bit more respect. It is the treatment of their female characters that propel them from run-of-the-mill genre films to cinematic experiences that stick with you…especially when you know you’re home alone, but you’re convinced you heard something moving downstairs…
The following is a list of some movies—ranging across horror’s many sub-genres—that would be perfect for your next Girls’ Night In.
If someone mentions the horror movie genre, the image of a scantily-clad co-ed running from a masked killer wielding large (and obviously phallic) weapon may be what first springs to mind. Welcome to the slasher genre, so named because, by the end of the film, most of the cast will be resting in pieces.
While the killer may be the “star” of the show—as shown by the popularity of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, etc.—he (or she) does have to be defeated (no matter how temporarily) before the movie ends. The one who usually does the defeating is the final girl who, when everyone else is dead and the killer has backed her into a corner, refuses to become another victim and fights back. It’s a common dramatic structure, but one that’s really explored and revitalized in two films: Scream and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.
I’ve already mentioned Scream, but it’s hard not to when discussing horror movies. The film itself is one long analysis of horror tropes wrapped inside a genuinely good horror film. The story follows a group of teenagers as their town becomes the hunting ground of a serial killer known as Ghostface. Pretty standard for a slasher film, but what makes Scream so great is that all the characters are aware of that. The movie is rife with references to other films, offering its audience a witty commentary on the genre. If you’re a fan of horror, Scream is required viewing.
Unlike Scream, the teenagers in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane aren’t as self-aware. Not knowing that they’re practically begging for death, a group of rich high-schoolers plan to spend a weekend of fun at a ranch house in the middle of nowhere. They decide to invite Mandy Lane, a former “nobody” who blossomed into the hottest girl in school over summer break, earning her a spot with the popular crowd. As they begin to drop one-by-one, taken out by some unknown killer, the film takes a turn, veering off the course of a typical slasher and into uncharted territory. Here there be monsters.
In horror movies, the danger doesn’t always come from a madman in a mask. A lot of movies deal with the supernatural—ghosts or demonic forces whose existence the characters have to come to terms with before they can properly face them. The standard is the “haunted house” movie. You probably know it well: an unwitting family move into a house that it host to some evil force or another. After said force significantly threatens them, they’re forced to stay and fight (because everyone knows that moving won’t help). It’s a formula that’s played with in Oculus and The Babadook.
Oculus is about a haunted mirror. It’s also about revenge. Ten years after her parents’ murder, Kaylie Russell sets out to prove that perpetrator wasn’t human, but a dark force existing in the family’s antique mirror, one she plans on destroying once and for all. If you hate horror films because the characters constantly make “stupid mistakes,” Oculus is for you. The methodical way Kaylie tracks down the mirror, sets out to prove its haunted, and the steps she takes to keep herself safe are all ingenious. Seriously, she’s who the Ghostbusters call when they can’t handle it.
The Babadook is Australian-Canadian film written and directed by Jennifer Kent. It follows a woman whose home and family are tormented by an entity her son calls the Babadook. Since its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film has received critical acclaim for its moody atmosphere and genuinely terrifying storyline. It’s a dark film that offers more than jump scares and is definitely worth checking out.
Living is a terrifying thing, mostly because of everything that can go wrong. Body horror is a sub-genre of film that focuses on that, tapping into into our primal fears of decay and disease. If you’re someone who thinks that, when it comes to horror movies, bloodier is better, then this genre delivers. For example, zombie films, while they can be considered their own genre, fit into this gory category.
Pretty Dead is a zombie movie, but one that focuses on the transformation from human to zombie itself rather then a mass infestation. It’s shot in the “found footage” style that Paranormal Activity made popular, but don’t hold that against it. Told through her video diary and taped psychiatric sessions, the story follows Dr. Regina Stevens as she as begins to undergo bizarre after being exposed to a strange substance. And when I say “bizarre,” I mean uncontrollable-hunger-for-human-flesh bizarre.
The main character in the next movie is also hungry, but for fame. Starry Eyed is about what a young actress named Sarah is willing to do to make it in Hollywood. (Hint: it involves some kind of ritualistic sacrifice.) Sarah’s transformation from young hopeful to successful star is very physical and utterly grotesque. In a society where women are expected to be beautiful at all times, it’s refreshing to see how ugly this movie allows her to be.
Currently, all of these films are on Netflix except for Pretty Dead, which is available for streaming on Hulu.