Last time you heard from me, I co-presented Still Alive: The Top 10 Final Girls to honor the heroines of horror that we adore. However, I would be lying if I denied an appreciation for villainy as well. Let’s flip the coin, take a trip to the dark side, and pay tribute to my favorite fiendish ladies.
Less introduction is needed this time around, but let’s set some ground rules: men in drag, sympathetic protagonists, and possessed women are disqualified (that narrows down the selection more than you’d think. Let’s begin.
Olga Baclanova in Freaks (1932)
The cruelty of beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra, isn’t comparable to the death and suffering caused by others listed here, but she is an excellent example of the female villain in early film. The evil woman in this time period is generally possessed, a minion under the spell of a man, or programmed by a man to wreak havoc (e.g., the brides of Dracula, Machine-Maria of Metropolis). The gorgeous and bawdy Cleopatra may be the first in classic film to commit vile acts for her own pleasure.
She resides in a traveling carnival alongside other entertainers and a close-knit troupe of sideshow freaks (i.e., little people, deformed children, and hermaphrodites). Hans, a sweet little person, is unfortunately bewitched by the lovely woman and forsakes his fiancé, Frieda, to court her. Laughing behind his back with the Strong Man, she feigns affection and coaxes gifts and money from him in return. Soon, Cleopatra devises a greedy scheme to marry Hans, poison him at the wedding feast, and claim his fortune. Although she serves her new husband toxic wine and revels in her depravity during the celebration, I will grant her one thing. The initiation rite performed by the freaks to accept her as one of their own is fucking creepy (“ONE OF US. ONE OF US”). Even so, recoiling from the kindly gesture in disgust and calling the outcasts “dirty slimy freaks” is terrible dinner etiquette. Ultimately, she shows her true colors and gets what she deserves in a disturbing final act. The exploitation of the disadvantaged by the beautiful and privileged for amusement’s sake is a universal evil that remains frightening today.
9. Mrs. Carmody
Marcia Gay Harden in The Mist (2007)
A thick mist suddenly rolls into a New England town and blankets the area with an impenetrable and blinding white. A group of bewildered shoppers takes refuge in a grocery store amidst rumors of hideous creatures concealed in the haze that soon prove true. Mrs. Carmody, a spiteful born-again fanatic, believes the End-Times have arrived. While many of the survivors do their best to fortify the shelter, fight off invading monstrosities, and take care of the injured, this unstable zealot preaches a message of fear and hatred. Her Doomsday prophecy quickly spreads like a sickness and gains her vulnerable followers who are frightened of God’s judgment. Trapped in a scenario that easily supports her argument, it’s not long before her orders for human sacrifice (including that of a child) are obediently followed. Mrs. Carmody is scary because, unlike most of these women, we know for a fact that she exists. Whether it’s an earthquake, hurricane or other disaster, she’s quick to use the suffering of others to validate her faith and easily manipulates the panicked and weak-willed into submission. Just waiting for a chance to punish the sinful, she’s real, she’s been with us for centuries, and she’s everywhere.
8. Annie Wilkes
Kathy Bates in Misery (1990)
Annie Wilkes is Paul Sheldon’s #1 fan. While driving through a nasty blizzard to deliver a new book, the popular romance author is injured and almost killed in a horrible car accident. Annie, a nurse and devoted reader, pulls him from the wreck and carries him to the “safety” of her isolated home to care for him. At first, the snowstorm rages outside and the prudish, cheerful caregiver appears to have good intentions. As time passes and the weather subsides, Paul starts to wonder when he’ll be transferred to a hospital and granted the ability to communicate with the outside world. Answers to his inquiries are vague. Sheldon keeps pressing for more information and Annie’s pleasant facade finally cracks. She exhibits terrifying mood-swings when he doesn’t behave according to her plan (anything from foul language to killing her favorite fictional character) and it becomes clear that she intends to imprison him in her home. She’ll drug him, restrain him, and break his ankles with a sledgehammer to keep him if necessary (as a last resort, a murder-suicide will suffice). That, my friends, is true love.
7. Asami Yamazaki
Eihi Shiina in Audition (1999)
Aoyama, a widower, wants to try dating again. With the help of a friend in the movie business, he coordinates a fake audition to gather young and beautiful women for his evaluation. A quiet girl named Asami auditions and he finds her fascinating. Ok. Let’s pause the synopsis for a moment. Takashi Miike’s Audition starts out as an awkward romantic comedy. I wish more horror fans could experience the film without prior knowledge of the conclusion. Sadly, that’s not the case and there’s a reason she’s on this list. Something is terribly wrong with the lovely and distant Asami. Her history is riddled with abuse, her job references lead to bizarre murders, and…well…I started this and I’m gonna finish it. She keeps a horribly mutilated man tied into a sack and feeds him her vomit. Moving on. Her dark nature is revealed throughout the rest of the film and peaks in a shocking torture sequence in the last act. I admit I could be wrong, but I get the impression this film scares men more than it scares women. The older man taking advantage of the shy and pretty girl is not uncommon, but this tale ends with a giggling sadist pushing needles into his face. The vision of unmasked Asami with black shoulder-length gloves, apron, and razor wire is beautiful nightmare fuel.
Catherine Begin in Martyrs (2008)
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is a brutal film about pain and spirituality. I love the strong feminine presence in the new wave of French horror and Mademoiselle is among my favorite villains in recent memory. Here’s the problem. The film has only been available for three years and I can’t quite describe my love for her without major spoilers slipping out. I can say that she is the mastermind behind much grotesque torture and violence (scenes which caused controversy in the film world), but her motivations are compelling. It’s an intelligent film and Mademoiselle intrigues me. Her story’s conclusion hits me particularly hard. I have questions. I want to know more and answers aren’t coming. I love it.
5. The Three Mothers
Uncredited actress as “The Mother of Sighs” in Suspiria (1977), Veronica Lazar as “The Mother of Darkness” in Inferno (1980), and Moran Atias as “The Mother of Tears” in The Mother of Tears (2007)
Whether you’re a fan of the vibrant and psychosexual works of Giallo or not, Dario Argento’s “The Three Mothers” are an incredibly important female presence in horror. They are a dominating force that always remains unseen until the last act, but rules all, pulling the strings off camera. Despite the comparative quality of the three films (i.e. The Mother of Tears is awful), it’s impossible to talk about one Mother without including the others. The Mother of Sighs (Suspiria), the wise crone, secretly lies decaying within a school of dance. The Mother of Darkness (Inferno), the youngest and most cruel, masquerades as a human within an apartment building. The Mother of Tears, the most beautiful and powerful, holds court within dark catacombs. Each dwells hidden inside a labyrinth-like structure designed to conceal them and their murderous covens. Not unlike Lovecraft, knowledge of them is strictly forbidden and those who seek it are destroyed. The Three Mothers may have been witches once. Now, they are Death Incarnate.
4. Julia Cotton
Clare Higgins in Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Julia Cotton, a beautiful woman unsatisfied with her husband, is horrified to discover a gruesome monster in the attic. Before she can flee, it speaks to her and the voice is familiar. The creature is revealed to be Frank Cotton, her brother-in-law and former lover, who had been presumed missing. Frank had died and gone to a realm of unspeakable suffering after performing an occult ritual involving a certain puzzle box, of course. He was able to escape and partially regenerate his body with the aid of blood, but he remains hideously incomplete and needs more to become whole again. Julia, still inspired by lust despite his repulsive form, is willing to comply. Attracting men at bars and bringing them to the attic with the promise of sex, she commits a series of vicious murders to sustain him. With this steady supply of blood, Frank slowly develops a fully formed body needing only skin to finish the reconstruction. The malicious lovers are ultimately unable to save themselves from a world of pain (and they would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling step-kid). No matter how the story ends, Julia’s savagery for the sake of desire and subsequent rise from the dead to do the bidding of Hell ensure her place on my list of favorite villains.
3. Mrs. Pamela Voorhees
Betsy Palmer in Friday the 13th (1980)
I’m spoiling the ending of the film, but horror fans really should have seen this 30-year old classic by now. Although Jason Voorhees is known as the slasher of the franchise, the hulking monstrosity we all know and love didn’t appear until the second film (or don the iconic hockey mask until the third). In Friday the 13th, his loving mother is revealed to be the killer. Jason, a young disabled child attending Camp Crystal Lake, tragically drowned while negligent counselors were occupied with sex and drugs. Since her child’s “death”, the grieving Mrs. Voorhees hears voices telling her to kill and she returns to the camp multiple times to fulfill her need for revenge. Punishing the promiscuous had already been a subtle theme in slashers, but this woman addresses the subject directly. Specifically, she addresses the subject with a big fucking knife. Pamela Voorhees. Loving mother and classic slasher.
2. Sadako Yamamura / Samara Morgan
Rie Ino’o in Ringu (1998) / Daveigh Chase in The Ring (2002)
I would like to honor the importance of both Sadako Yamamura and Samara Morgan. Other than some cultural differences, they are nearly identical. In Ringu/The Ring, a mysterious videotape circulates among teens and anyone unlucky enough to watch the frightening video is haunted and found dead seven days later. A reporter investigates the bizarre deaths, ends up seeing the tape for herself, and does her best to solve the mystery of the curse before her time runs out. Her research leads to the unsettling tale of a powerful young girl thrown into a deep dark well and left there to die. A girl whose vengeful spirit created the cursed tape, crawls out of the television, and claims the lives of those who watch it.
Now, I used to make a habit of asking everyone the following question: “What’s the last horror film that truly scared you?” The consensus may have changed by now, but the replies at the time consisted of The Ring and little else. This film terrified people. In one rare exception to this remake curmudgeon’s stance, I think the American version was an improvement, but Hideo Nakata’s contributions to the genre are significant. From our perspective in the States, a powerful new wave of Asian cinema emerged in the late 90s and changed the face of horror as we knew it (or obscured it with miles and miles of stringy black hair). However shocking and different they seemed at the time, these scares were nothing new.
The Japanese legend of the Onryō has existed for centuries. The Onryō is a furious spirit, usually female, who returns to the physical world for vengeance. Although the original myths never designated a particular appearance for the spirits, a standard representation was developed through Kabuki tradition. A white funeral kimono, a pale face, and long disheveled black hair. That sounds familiar. That said, it would have been easy to list a number of furious dead ladies with hair in their face (e.g. The Grudge, Dark Water, even A Tale of Two Sisters), but Sadako Yamamura inspired the cinematic revival of the Onryō and she’s clearly the best choice to represent them all. On behalf of a nation terrified, thank you, Sadako. Thank you for the nightmares.
1. La Femme
Beatrice Dalle in Inside (2007)
As I mentioned before, we love French horror. The films are horrifically violent and incredibly feminine. Although it’s quite new and there’s a good deal of classic competition, Inside is my favorite slasher. This disturbing film is excellent overall, but my love is largely due to the incredible antagonist La Femme.
Late at night, a pregnant widow named Sarah is alarmed by a suspicious woman knocking at her door and demanding to come inside. The woman appears to know far too much about Sarah and she panics, calling the police at once. When the authorities investigate, the woman is nowhere to be found and they assure the expectant mother that all is well. Eventually able to fall asleep, she later wakes to the obsessed stalker hovering over her and pressing a pair of sharp scissors to her navel. Beatrice Dalle’s La Femme wants a baby. She’s not patient. She wants it now. A blood-drenched game of cat and mouse ensues as the women ferociously fight for the unborn child.
La Femme’s determination to savagely cut the baby from Sarah’s womb is terrifying. Her motivations are unique. Her methods are brutal. She is, without a doubt, my #1 female villain.
* Special thanks to Rae Winters for villain assessment and support.