Halloween is in a few days, and I really wanted to do a piece about horror cinema. However, there are countless articles that list “the greatest horror films of all time” and “great films to watch this Halloween” – and quite frankly, it’s a tad bit tiring. I wanted to take a new approach, and do something somewhat unique and original, and approach this from a mindset that pays attention to the diversity of cinema and the arts in general, and pays tribute to some who are often overlooked when considering the great contributions made to cinema.
Therefore, it only seems worthy to look at horror cinema in general, but paying special attention to some truly incredible women that have worked in the genre of horror over the years, and have contributed some truly tremendous works, either behind or in front of the camera. In a world where horror is primarily defined by jump-scares and serial killers/monsters such as Jason Vorhees and Freddie Krueger, it is easy to overlook the fact that some of the most iconic moments in horror cinema are the result of the work of some incredibly talented women. This will shine a light on some of them, both famous and obscure. If you haven’t seen the work of some or all of these people (particularly their work in horror), then you certainly need to seek them out immediately, and hopefully in time for Halloween!
Just to note, I had some trouble compiling this list in the way that I had a ton of contenders, but a lot of them were known for just one iconic performance in a great horror film (such as Sissy Spacek in Carrie, Janet Leigh in Psycho, Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and Linda Blair in The Exorcist) – all of which are iconic in their own right and a part of film history – but their legacy is based only on one performance. This list will concentrate more on women that have contributed massively to horror (with the exception of one person on the list, who I feel really did something amazing in terms of horror cinema). I also have excluded Sigourney Weaver, as I feel the debate between whether or not the Alien film series falls under science fiction or horror is too potent to actually decide at this point.
Without any further ado, here is my list of the most influential and iconic women of horror, all of which are utterly amazing, and their contributions to the horror genre are so important and interesting, they deserve the acclaim and adoration that they receive.
#10 – Karen Black
Karen Black is most certainly one of the more interesting actresses of all time – her career was by no means short or unimpressive, yet she hardly made much of a splash when it came to being a star. It is bizarre, because whenever I watch Karen Black in a film, I am captivated by her unique talents. Black wasn’t primarily known for horror films, yet she managed to star in quite a few interesting ones, such as Trilogy of Terror, Killer Fish, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive and Children of the Night). They might not be the very definition of classic horror, but Black was great in all of them, and managed to find a place as a pretty fantastic actress in some seriously campy and often terrible horror films that are a joy to watch.
Most Terrifying Hour: As much as most of her horror performances were in terribly campy films, Black was absolutely outstanding in The House of 1000 Corpses, a truly brilliant and twisted horror from Rob Zombie. Her performance was enough to warrant her a place on this list and proved how incredibly unique Black was. It is a pity she didn’t return for the sequel, which was a great improvement.
#9 – Jennifer Lynch
A name not many people are familiar with, Jennifer Lynch is the daughter of my personal directorial hero, David Lynch. However, that isn’t the reason for her inclusion on this list. The reason I included her is because very rarely are female directors given the recognition they deserve – and unfortunately, a lot of the public consensus implies that women can only direct female-centered films, which is obviously absurd. It is so rare to find a female director in horror. However, someone like Lynch proves that this is an unfortunate occurrence, as she has made some incredible, yet very obscure, horror films that are even more disturbing than her father’s films at times. I really am hoping to see more and more female horror directors emerge, but with the rise in the likes of Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), I have faith that this will deficit in female horror directors will soon be a thing of the past.
Most Terrifying Hour: Not a lot disturbs me, but Lynch’s bizarre and twisted film Boxing Helena stands out as one of the more intense and terrifying films I have ever seen. The story of a man that grows obsessed with a woman and slowly amputates her limbs to prevent her from escaping is terrifying just in description, but it actually a masterfully crafted romantic horror that is truly unique.
#8 – Kathy Bates
Kathy Bates is one of the most talented actresses working today, and while she might not always be considered as one of the greats of horror cinema, her performance as Annie Wilkes was truly extraordinary, and even if Dolores Claiborne is not a traditional horror film, it is still a pretty terrifying movie. However, in recent years, Bates has successfully made the transition to American Horror Story, where she has managed to be utterly brilliant over the past four seasons (and she is currently doing her best work in American Horror Story: Roanoke).
Most Terrifying Hour: I want to be non-traditional and not choose Misery, but rather go for Episode 7 of American Horror Story: Roanoke, which shows Bates at her most brilliant – scary, vulnerable and utterly captivating. It is a masterclass in acting. Her performance in this particular season started out shakily, but has improved to an utterly insane level of excellent.
#7 – Shelley Duvall
Yes, she is known for one performance, and I swore that I wouldn’t choose people based on one performance – yet, Duvall is the best part of what I consider the greatest horror film ever made. She is absolutely perfect in The Shining, playing the role of devoted and caring mother, along with scared-senseless potential victim. There isn’t a lot to explain why Duvall is so brilliant in the film, other than the fact that she was just on another level. Unfortunately, Duvall is not known for much else (other than some tremendous work with Robert Altman, and as a steady character actress)
Most Terrifying Hour: Obviously, it has to be The Shining. Her performance is utterly excellent, and also unfortunately Razzie Award-nominated, a great disservice to an amazing performance.
#6 – Lin Shaye
Iconic performances are not always given by big stars, and sometimes, the best performances hide in the smaller roles. There isn’t a name I trust more when it comes to being a character actress in horror cinema than Lin Shaye, who has proven herself a formidable force, from more light-hearted horror fare like Critters, to some seriously scary modern horror films like the Insidious series and Ouija. Shaye may not be getting the lead roles, but she is certainly a powerful force in the supporting capacity, and she should be adored for the smaller performances she brings to the films, because they truly elevate them.
Most Terrifying Hour: It has to be Insidious. A nuanced and complex performance that could have otherwise have been wasted or comic relief, but was rather a deeply committed performance that is memorable and wonderful.
#5 – Vampira and Elvira
I expect this to annoy fans of either of these ladies, but I’m willing to face it – Vampira (Maila Nurmi) and Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) are both fictional characters, and essentially the same person – a seductive female vampire that serves as a hostess of horror-themed events and films. Neither one of them are actually involved in horror cinema directly, but they are certainly iconic characters and very influential when you consider the way horror cinema has been presented in the past. It is pretty obvious that horror cinema would not be the same without the trashy, Z-grade horror films produced so rapidly since the 1950s, and they certainly would not be the same without these two ladies, who brought something truly special to these films. Vampira retired her character a while ago, and sadly died in 2008. Elvira, however, continues to be a popular cult figure in cinema today, and remains a vital part of the horror community.
Most Terrifying Hour: I can’t speak for Elvira and her performances, but I personally find Vampira’s performance in Plan 9 from Outer Space one of the most terrifyingly bad performances in perhaps the worst film ever made. It is utterly incredible how bad that film was, and it was only made better by the fact that Vampira was in it, as campy and artificial as her character was supposed to be. I wouldn’t call it terrifying in the horror sense – more like it scared the hell out of me because of how bad it was.
#4 – Vera Farmiga
I think Vera Farmiga is our currently reigning Queen of Horror – deeply interesting, incredibly talented and wonderfully diverse, Farmiga has made some truly excellent horror films, such as the critically acclaimed and publicly adored The Conjuring films, Joshua and Orphan. Not to mention she is the saving grace of Bates Motel, and her incredible performance there is truly extraordinary. Farmiga is such an unbelievably talented actress, and I expect her to continue to grow as a performer and achieve the status of icon eventually. Her younger sister, Taissa, is also making impressive moves in the horror industry.
Most Terrifying Hour: I’m going to go with The Conjuring. Not only is it a great horror film, it is a great film in general, and a huge part of that is because of Farmiga’s incredible performance and her remarkable chemistry with Patrick Wilson and Lili Taylor.
#3 – Heather Langenkamp
Heather Langenkamp deserves a spot on this list because she managed to carry perhaps the greatest slasher film of all time – A Nightmare on Elm Street – all by herself. It helps that she had assistance from her terrifying and iconic co-star Robert Englund, but it was Langenkamp that managed to bring a huge sense of heart to the character and to the film. She did appear in a few other films in the series, and proved her talents as one of the finest scream queens in history.
Most Terrifying Hour: It would be wrong not to select A Nightmare on Elm Street – an iconic film that is made even better when you watch it and realize that Langenkamp is so much more complex than the legendary villain that started in this film and would lead into horror history.
2 – Neve Campbell
It is an undeniable fact that Wes Craven invented the modern slasher horror film (there were precursors, but the slasher films of today are all influenced by Craven) – but he also managed to reinvent his own genre with the Scream films. Hypnotic, funny and terrifying, the films were metafictional commentaries on the genre that they occupied, along with being great slasher films in themselves. The cast was absolutely wonderful, but it was Neve Campbell who carried the film series and did an amazing job all the way through.
Most Terrifying Hour: The original Scream is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and Campbell is utterly amazing in it. The entire series is worth watching, and Campbell remains brilliant throughout, and her performance as Sidney Prescott is truly extraordinary.
#1 – Jamie Lee Curtis
Do I really need to justify this choice? Jamie Lee Curtis is just the ultimate force in horror cinema – the daughter of Janet Leigh, who is iconic for her performance as Marion Crane in Psycho, Curtis forged herself a path as a formidable actress by her performances in films like Halloween, Terror Train and Prom Night. Utterly original, unique and insanely talented, Curtis has branched out into different genres, but it is in horror where her true roots remain. I just know that if Jamie Lee Curtis is around, everything will be alright. She is undeniably, in my opinion, one of the most important figures in horror cinema, and one of the most underrated actresses of all time in general. There is just no way that anyone can beat Jamie Lee Curtis when it comes to horror. She has even started showing how aware she is of her horror past by her performance in the television series Scream Queens, which allows her to show how she is still a horror icon.
Most Terrifying Hour: I have to go with Halloween. One of the most iconic performances in one of the most iconic horror films of all time. She is the very reason for the term “scream queen”, and for that, she is forever ingrained in horror film history.
In conclusion, there have been so many amazing contributions to the genre by women, and they need to be celebrated for how they have added to the canon of horror cinema. I couldn’t possibly list all the names of the influential women that have done amazing things in the world of horror, but suffice to say, there are many, and each and every one of them are as brilliant as the last.