Distressing Damsels: The Ass-Kicking Leading Ladies of Subversive Horror

I love horror. It’s a fantastic genre, full of a wide-ranging plethora of different flavors and styles of filmmaking. There’s so many unique and fascinating subgenres and breeds of horror films that odds are, even the staunchest critic of the genre can find something that suits their interests.

But that isn’t to say that it isn’t without its flaws. Chief among these is the way that the genre has traditionally treated women within the confines of its most common archetypes and tropes. To say that women have historically been given the short end of the stick in horror films would be a drastic understatement to a problem that has persisted ever since the days of black-and-white silent cinema.

Despite the fact that women are the most common survivors in many of the more straightforward horror like slashers, they’re often subjected to the most unfair and sadistic treatment that these films have to offer. Usually, women only exist in the context of many cheaper, schlockier horror films to be eye candy/sex scene fodder, and/or to be brutally murdered by the antagonist of the film. A pure, innocent, often virginal “Final Girl” will usually be the one to then defeat the killer/killers, but will go through absolute hell in the process.

I’m not going to go into the societal or psychological ramifications of this particular trend today, mostly because it’s been analyzed to death already by people much smarter than I am. In fact, the term “Final Girl” itself, which has become industry and fandom vernacular for the sole survivor of a horror film, actually originated from a cultural analysis of the Freudian implications of the slasher heroine, in Carol J. Clover’s excellent Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

No, instead of lampshading how terrible some of these films are in regards to representation, I’d like instead to take a look at a few films that defy the standard treatment of women in horror films, particularly slashers and their kin. These films feature women acting under their own agency, reacting intelligently and rationally, fighting back, and in general, kicking ass. These films often purposefully play with established, stereotypical horror tropes in order to satirize them and redefine the expected gender parameters that have persisted for so many decades within the genre.

Also, they’re a lot of fun.

Here are a few great examples of horror films with smart, capable, badass female leads:


I absolutely adore horror films that implore some sort of sensory gimmick to their premise. Whether it’s Stephen Lang’s creepy blind villain in Don’t Breath or the sound-hunting aliens from A Quiet Place, I find it incredibly compelling when characters are forced to either stifle or solely rely on one of their senses to survive. Mike Flanagan’s fantastic Hush takes this concept to a new, yet incredibly intuitive place with its plot, following a deaf author as she attempts to survive the night while being assailed by a relentless and sadistic masked intruder. The film makes excellent use of its auditory premise, creatively implementing its character’s disability as a tool to build suspense for both her and the audience. It’s a highly intelligent script, not simply satisfied with banking on its gimmick alone. Rather, it implores a determined, resourceful protagonist in a journey that’s equally compelling as a bizarre sort of underdog story as it a horror movie. Not only does our heroine have to overcome a psychopath hellbent on gutting her like a fish, she has to contend with her own disability as well. It’s one of the most compelling narratives I’ve seen in a slasher film, and it’s so simplistic and masterfully barebones. Of all the films on this list, this is the one that will most have you rooting for its victim until the very end.

You’re Next

Most horror is primarily focused on dishing out pain to its characters. Very rarely does it give the chance for them to really dole out some of their own. Director Adam Wingard (of V/H/S and Godzilla v Kong fame) does just that in his ultra-cathartic and violently-satisfying You’re Next. The film follows a young women attending an anniversary getaway with her in-laws as she unexpectedly finds herself and the family under assault by masked maniacs operating with tactical precision. While the premise may at first seem familiar, it’s quickly turned on its head when it’s revealed that our protagonist is not quite as helpless as she appears. This is a home invasion film in reverse, where, rather than following a victim as they’re hunted by dangerous intruders, we instead see said intruders being hunted by their supposed-victim instead. Where Hush has you on the edge of your seat, holding your breath to see if its hero makes it out alive, You’re Next instead has the energy of a Rambo film, making you almost fear more for the assailants instead. All of this ultimately culminates into a smart, unpredictable finale that gives this film plenty of substance to back up its spectacle.

Ready or Not

Moving into slightly more comedic territory, we have filmmaker collective Radio Silence’s 2019 riot of a film, Ready or Not. Very similar to You’re Next, Ready or Not follows a young woman on her wedding night as she’s invited to a ceremony with her new in-laws to welcome her into the family. The heirs to a massive boardgame empire, the wealthy family has a tradition on the eve of a new member being inducted into the clan: A simple game night, chosen at random from an heirloom set of choices ranging from poker to tag to classic childhoods classics like Monopoly and Candyland. Unfortunately, our unsuspecting heroine is chosen to play hide and seek, which in this family, is played for keeps. What follows is a hectic, hilarious joyride as she eludes the psychotic, cartoonishly narcissistic and out-of-touch members of her new family as they hunt her through the night. Smart, fast-paced, and unpredictable, Ready or Not shows us what happens when a horror movie victim decides she’s had enough, and takes the fight to her would-be killers. Think a much more violent version of Game Night.

The Descent

Veering back into more straightforward horror territory, The Descent is an excellent, pulse-pounding British horror flick from 2005 that follows a group of women as they venture out on a cave spelunking trip somewhere deep in Appalachia. As this is a horror film, they obviously get lost and trapped within the caves, because if things went according to plan, the movie would be over in twenty minutes. The terrifying thing about this film is that, even without the sharp left turn into monster-movie territory about halfway through, just the concept of being trapped in a dark, restrictive cave system is terrifying enough. The excellent cinematography and use of spatial awareness in the film is suffocatingly claustrophobic, and if you’re scared of tight spaces, will absolutely drive you mad. And then, of course, bloodthirsty cannibal cave-dwelling creatures show up, and the real fun begins. Suddenly, our characters’ biggest concerns are no longer the absence of light or the tight corridors they have to constantly crawl through. No, it’s the threat of being eaten alive. The film is a fantastic rumination on trauma and grief, as our main heroine is dealing with the loss of her husband and daughter, as well as the revelation that her best friend, whose arrogance got them trapped down here in the first place, was sleeping with her husband before he was killed. The third act of this film follows this poor woman as she finally snaps under the sheer mental and emotional weight of all this, and decides she’s going to take it out on these carnivorous cave-crawlers to let loose a little steam. It’s spectacular when she goes off, and the last thirty minutes of this film basically serves as the bloodiest therapy session you’re ever likely to see.  Hell hath no fury like woman scorned, especially one armed with a climbing pick.

Halloween 2018

Halloween, like most major slasher franchises, hasn’t exactly had a great track record with its predominantly-female protagonists. They’re usually victims first-and-foremost, with even the original film’s Final Girl Laurie Strode, played by then newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis, basically playing little part in defeating her terrorizer, the enigmatic and relentless Michael Myers. Subsequent films would keep to this trend: the sole survivor, while making it through the film certainly by their own guile an ingenuity, would rarely be offered the chance to fight back in any significant fashion, usually managing to be saved by the local police or some other macho figure with a big gun. Luckily, David Gordan Green’s 2018 “rebootquel,” which ignores the parade of subpar sequels that spawned in the wake of the original, gives Curtis the chance to finally take a stab at the faceless maniac, over thirty years later. The new film follows a very different Laurie Strode, who’s spent the last several decades training and preparing for Michael’s inevitable return (turns out she’s pretty genre-savvy). And while a lot of films would be content to tease this, and yet ultimately allow her to end up a victim again nonetheless, Halloween instead lets Laurie absolutely kick Michael’s ass. She doesn’t finish him for good (there’s still two more movies in the trilogy, after all), but she gets enough licks in to justify this film’s existence and then some. Not only do we get to see a badass lady in a slasher film here, but one who’s well into her 50s as well, making it extra rare, and doubly satisfying.

Bonus: Alien

I neglected putting this on here, because I gush enough about this movie as it is, but come on. How could I not? Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is the gold standard to which all horror movie Final Girls should be held to. She’s smart, she’s level-headed, and she’s determined, but she’s not overpowered or invincible. She’s a vulnerable woman who just happens to find herself in a nightmarish, Lovecraftian scenario of cosmic horror, and instead of buckling under the pressure, she stands up and decides she’s not going to take any lip (or tongue) from some alien creepy-crawly. I’ve heard Alien described as “a movie where nobody listens to the smart woman, and then they all die except for the smart woman and her cat,” which, as far as I’m concerned, is 100% accurate. There has never been a more brilliantly terrifying monster in a horror film as the Xenomorph in Alien, and therefore any character who can not only survive a sparring match against the creature, but manage to straight-up blast it into space, deserves all the adoration in the world. Alien (and Aliens, while we’re at it) should be a feminist icon if it already isn’t.

There are so, so many other horror films that give the ladies an opportunity to bash some heads and ruin some pyscho’s day, but these are just a few of my all-time favorites. Shout out some of your own in the comments!

Happy Halloween!

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