Carol J. Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is essential reading for horror cinema lovers. It’s also where the author coined the term “final girl,” referencing the last woman alive in a horror movie who faces off against the killer. She’s usually the quiet, practical, or smart one — the non-threatening girl whose competence (and sexual reluctance) will ultimately save her life. Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema is celebrating the role of the final girl in horror film history with a special slate of screenings throughout October. We decided to join the party by ranking ten of horror cinema’s greatest final girls. Spoilers ahead.
10. Alice, Friday the 13th
Adrienne King’s Alice became an early template for the final girl in 1980’s Friday the 13th. It’s established that the cheerful camp counselor is in a relationship with the campground’s owner, Steve (Peter Brouwer), but in typical final girl fashion they never consummate their love on the big screen. Against all odds, Alice lives to take down the monster—in this case, it’s the deceased Jason Voorhees’ mother (Betsy Palmer) who initially comes across as a kindly old lady. Female murderers in early slasher cinema were almost unheard of, and this does throw Alice for a loop. Still, she saves the day. But this is Jason’s film series, and Alice becomes a victim in the film sequel.
9. Marie, High Tension
Cécile de France’s Marie in Alexandre Aja’s Haute tension (High Tension) looks and acts every bit the final girl, according to Clover’s definition. (“The final girl is boyish, in a word.”) The role of Marie was physically demanding (the star even trained with a Thai boxer to prepare for the part), which adds to her independent, resilient demeanor. But the New French Extremity director subverts our notion of the trope with a major narrative twist in the film’s gory finale, during which it’s revealed that Marie is also the killer.
8. Kirsty, Hellraiser
A fairy tale in hell, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser immediately posits Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty as the atypical teenage girl. She refuses to live with her stepmother and moves into her own place. She supports herself financially by working in a pet shop. And she’s onto her family’s bullshit, refusing to accept things at face value. Kirsty accidentally summons a group of demonic creatures known as the Cenobites through a mysterious puzzle box, but she’s also clever enough to trick them into dragging a different victim back to hell—eventually defeating them. Barker allows her to do all this without casting her boyfriend as the savior, which is remarkable in a male-dominated genre like horror.
7. Sidney, Scream
Scream’s Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has an edge above other final girls in that she is written to understand the rules of survival within the genre. Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s post-modern horror opus finds Sidney confronting the masked killer and breaking one of the biggest rules in horror: don’t have sex (which she does with her boyfriend).
6. Suzy, Suspiria
Not quite a giallo film or a slasher, Dario Argento’s 1977 stunner Suspiria leads American ballet student Suzy Bannion down a dizzying, Technicolor rabbit hole at a prestigious German dance academy. The trip could have easily consumed a lesser character (fighting an ancient evil is no easy task), but Suzy resists supernatural seduction and embarks on her own investigative journey to the heart of darkness. Lastly, the determined Suzy uses the killer’s first choice of weapon, a knife, to destroy the evil that haunts her.
5. Jess, Black Christmas
It’s distressing that Bob Clark’s influential Black Christmas isn’t mentioned as often as it should be, even though it is widely considered one of the first slasher films (released in 1974). Olivia Hussey’s Jess Bradford takes matters into her own hands when a faceless killer stalks the young women in her sorority house. She endures the harassment all while dealing with an incompetent police department and the difficulty of an abortion. And by the way, this is probably one of the only horror films you’ll ever see where the subject of abortion is dealt with in a realistic, progressive manner. Bradford declares her desire to have the abortion to boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) and refuses to back down when he asks her to reconsider.
4. Sally, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Sally Hardesty’s (Marilyn Burns) road trip to the family homestead turned out to be a living nightmare. Following a bizarre run-in with a self-mutilating hitchhiker who injures her brother (Sally is ever the caretaker), she is wounded and tortured by a family of cannibalistic lunatics. Sally’s sheer will to survive makes her a fighter. Burns’ portrayal of Hardesty is natural and believable, which gives her final screen moments an emotional resonance that is hard to shake.
3. Nancy, A Nightmare on Elm Street
“The grittiest of the Final Girls is Nancy of A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Clover writes. “Aware in advance that the killer will be paying her a visit, she plans an elaborate defense. When he enters the house, she dares him to come at her, then charges him in direct attack. As they struggle, he springs the contraptions she has set. . . . When he rises yet again, she chases him around the house, bashing him with a chair.” Heather Langenkamp’s insightful 16-year-old Nancy looks like the all-American girl next door, but her ability to see beyond the white-picket facade of her small town (Springwood’s dark secret about child murderer Freddy Krueger) and within her own family (divorced parents who hide the truth from her, an alcoholic mother, and absent father) makes her much more than the average teen. She also the first final girl to survive most of her franchise.
2. Ripley, Alien
It doesn’t feature a cabin in the woods or masked murderer, but Alien is a slasher film at heart. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is one of horror cinema’s most complex final girls. She holds a position of power amongst a male-dominated crew and possesses a clear-minded intelligence that enables her survival. Ripley symbolizes the subdued sex/gender traits of the final girl, right down to her ambiguous name. But she also breaks those conventions when the series later reveals her maternal side (the fact that she battles a “female” alien is also unusual), all while she remains gender neutral.
1. Laurie, Halloween
If you thought Adrienne King’s Alice had it tough in Friday the 13th, making a judgment call for her survival by slaying an old woman, then imagine the internal dialogue in Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) head during her battles with mute madman Michael Myers—who is essentially a child in an adult’s body. In John Carpenter’s Halloween, Curtis skillfully balances Laurie’s final girl traits (anxiety regarding men, bookishness, bravery) with a vulnerability that audiences could relate to. She is the babysitter turned heroine who springs into action when she realizes she is the killer’s next target. She’s also the first to notice the killer’s presence well before the attacks against her friends. A knitting needle, clothes hanger, and Myers own knife become her only defense against the silent foe (she’s also severely wounded during the fight). One of the earliest final girls in horror cinema, Carpenter and Curtis popularized the trope in the slasher film cycle, proving that the bogeyman can be beat—and that a woman is the right one for the job.