Horror has a reputation for being a male-dominated scene. It’s a genre run by men, made for men, starring men; that’s what the consensus seems to be. This has always been insane to me, because there are very few horror films with male leads. It’s actually a genre largely dominated by female protagonists. Strong, resourceful young women, and not just strong in that they can kick someone’s ass without breaking a sweat. Strength carries with it a need for vulnerability as well.
These characters are scared, thrown into a situation beyond anything they had ever really prepared themselves for. They do, usually, get to a point where they are able to fight back, but that’s not always expected or prepared for. Great horror heroines are characters who are genuinely well rounded, who find a strength within themselves to survive and protect the people they care about.
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It can get tough to determine who qualifies as an underrated heroine, but I’d like to think there are obvious choices. Ripley, Nancy Thompson, Laurie Strode, Kirsty Cotton, these are some of the most widely recognized, awesome protagonists in the genre. I love them all, but they get quite a bit of well-deserved recognition. Everyone knows how great they are.
There are, however, plenty of heroines who go overlooked. It’s a wide genre with a long history, so that’s bound to happen. Hopefully, I can shed some light on these characters. The final girl is not just a trope, to me. They’re one of the most important components of the genre. The more great heroines we can talk about, the better. Here are a few of my favorites that don’t get the credit they deserve. I can’t wait to hear some of yours as well.
Stretch from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Stretch, played by Caroline Williams, is an awesome protagonist. She is smart, witty, fierce, and where many characters are flung into their situation by chance, Stretch hears a murder live over the radio and feels a need to uncover the truth. She could have just walked away, but she didn’t. Not only can she fight her way out of a situation, she can talk her way out as well, which is an equally impressive skill. Particularly when she’s able to reason with Leatherface himself, using his feelings for her to calm him down and prevent him from hacking her to pieces on more than one occasion.
Sarah Brightman from Waxwork
No, not the famous Broadway singer, this is the character Deborah Foreman played in Waxwork. One of my favorites of its era, Waxwork is a late-‘80s monster spectacle that wears its B-Movie charm on its sleeve. Most of the characters are fun, but there’s not really much to them. Sarah is so layered, though, that she elevates the whole film. She’s a sendup of the stereotypical virgin. Her repressed sexuality is explored in a different way than most characters as Sarah shows a gradual interest in the Marquis de Sade, ultimately finding herself face to face with him and coming to terms with her own sexuality and interests.
Suzy Bannion from Suspiria
Suzy is the perfect protagonist for a film like Suspiria: wide-eyed and almost cartoonishly innocent. She fits into that heightened world very well. But she is also strong willed and has an investigative nature. Since she first arrives at the school, she is determined to get to the bottom of what is really going on there. When faced with witches and supernatural killers, Suzy still wants to bring an end to the occult happenings at the academy, no matter the personal cost.
Cynthia Cronenberg from Night of the Creeps
Night of the Creeps, after the prologue sequence, starts out as a prototypical college comedy. Cynthia is introduced as the object of our main character’s affections. We want to root for him to get the girl because of how smitten he is and because of how nice and genuine she seems from her very first scene. But it’s not a typical college comedy and when things go south, Cynthia steps up and is able to defend herself. She even uses a flamethrower to destroy zombies and alien slugs.
Stevie Wayne from The Fog
Adrienne Barbeau’s character in The Fog is really interesting, because she interacts with very few other characters in the movie, save for her son. Yet she’s the clear hero, saving everyone by reporting the movement of the fog. Her son is trapped out there, she’s right on the coast and would be safer inland, but she knows that staying at her post is the right thing to do. She’s not only a strong heroine, but her place in the film is an interesting approach to the idea of heroines in general.
Alice Johnson from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 & 5
Alice had big shoes to fill coming in as the new heroine of the franchise after Heather Langenkamp and Patricia Arquette as Nancy and Kristen. Alice is a quiet, meek girl and really the only well rounded new character introduced in The Dream Master. Alice’s transition to heroine actually feels like something of a superhero origin story. She starts off meek and unassuming and then undergoes a completely new look, using newfound powers to defeat Freddy on his own turf.
Julie Walker from Return of the Living Dead 3
I’ve discussed this film time and again, but one of the things that makes it so special to me is its central character. Julie undergoes so many transformations, all of them excellently played by Melinda Clarke. She’s both the hero and the monster. She’s undergoing a transformation but struggling for self control. Not only is she an underrated horror heroine, she’s something of an antihero as well, and that’s appealing to me. Her physical transformation is as fascinating as it is discomforting, only furthering the complexity of that character.