Noteworthy Heroines of Horror is a recurring segment on Wicked Horror where we shine the spotlight on a female character from the annals of horror history that has made a significant contribution to the genre. The characters we select may not be the obvious final girls that regularly grace top ten lists, but their contributions to the genre are meaningful and worthy of note.
The remake of the Vincent Price classic House on Haunted Hill from 1999 is something of an overlooked or forgotten gem in horror. With lots of recognizable faces, a flashy style, and more than enough blood, the movie is quick, brainless fun that still plays out well and looks good even sixteen years later. The cast includes Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Peter Gallagher, and Jeffrey Combs. But off in the corner there is Ali Larter, who was just beginning her movie career after a few television roles. She would go on to star in the hit Final Destination the next year, but we can’t forget the way she played Sara Wolfe in House on Haunted Hill. She is part of a large cast and may not be that memorable to other fans, but the way Larter plays Sara makes her the kind of Noteworthy Heroine of Horror that I could get behind.House on Haunted Hill is more of an ensemble movie, so Sara is not really our main character. She is, however, one of only three female characters in the entire movie (except for the weird Lisa Loeb cameo at the beginning) and the only one amongst them who is either likable or relatable. Famke Janssen plays the bitchy Evelyn Price well, but she’s definitely more of a villain than a victim. Bridgette Wilson as the television host Melissa Marr is just annoyingly fascinated with the strange house, only interested in keeping her camera pointed at all the weird things that happen. That leaves Sara, who first introduces herself as Jennifer Jenzen. Sara stole the invitation to the party at the House on Haunted Hill from her boss Jennifer after she was fired, hoping to collect the promised one million dollars at the end of the night. So Sara is a bit desperate, but also not against dishing out a little payback when she is wronged.
Though, the title suggests, the movie is simply about a haunted house, it actually turns out to be something much different than that – and also much different from the original film. House on Haunted Hill is one of the more bloody ghost stories out there, with lots of gory and violent deaths, which is something our characters don’t know at the beginning. But the direness of their situation first becomes evident when the house goes on full lockdown, sealing all the doors and windows. Sara is one of the only characters (along with Eddie, played by Taye Diggs) who doesn’t just sit around with their thumb up their collective butt when this happens, but actually tries to think of something to do. And once a plan is made, she takes charge and goes about seeing it through.
The fact that Sara is constantly proactive in her situation is very admirable. She doesn’t seem to like just sitting back and letting the others do all the work. She stays involved in the group’s efforts to escape the house–and doesn’t do anything stupid like wander off by herself to explore. When she, Eddie, and Pritchett head down to the basement to find the control room, she has no problem leading the way with the flashlight, despite the increasingly spooky atmosphere of the maze-like hallways. When she realizes they need more light to navigate, she works with the wiring and gets the original lights working again. Although this part is a little unbelievable because of how easy it is, it at least shows that Sara has some skills and a brain.
Sara is not exactly fearless, but she doesn’t let her (perfectly rational) fear stop her from what she knows she needs to do. When things get a little hairy in one scene and a character pulls a gun on everybody, she draws hers and diffuses the situation. Later on in the movie after yet another character is found brutally murdered and all the evidence points to one person as the prime suspects, Sara finally loses her cool. She angrily goes in search of him, gun in hand, prepared to take down the one they all believe is responsible for the murders. And when he advances on her and won’t stop, she shoots him. Actually, she unloads the entire clip into him. This probably mostly due to an adrenaline rush, but it is also strangely satisfying to the audience. How many times have you gotten annoyed when a character stops at stabbing or shooting the bad guy just once and doesn’t actually finish the job? Sara doesn’t disappoint there.
Being a horror heroine is not always about being the final girl who butchers the bad guy at the end. We should admire all those female characters in horror films that proactively work to save themselves and others, and don’t just go through the movie reacting and letting things happen. Sara from House on Haunted Hill has a take-charge attitude and she’s not afraid to bring down complete strangers. While most of the cast is either afraid or has their own agenda, Sara doesn’t give up her efforts to escape and that alone makes her a Noteworthy Heroine of Horror!