Sole Survivors: Ranking The Final Girls Of Horror Films
Being it is the Halloween season and very soon we will be torn asunder by the juggernaut that is Christmas/Hanukkah/the holidays (damn these liberal sensibilities), it's a great time to look at some of the more popular horror films out there and explore the trope that is “the final girl.”
“The final girl” is that last survivor of the blood bath of the film. It finds its origins in the slasher sub-genre of horror, the one famous for all the blood, gore and gratuitous shots of naked co-eds (mostly women). Many critics deservingly call these “trash cinema”, but at the same time they featured very strong female characters that weren’t a hallmark of horror cinema up to that point. Horror films always put a mirror up to society to create monsters that played upon our own fears (nuclear disaster, disease, murderers) but they always neglected women.
These movies succeed in bridging a sort of gap.
1. Jamie Lee Curtis – Laurie Strode – “Halloween”
John Carpenter’s foray into the slasher film was really the one that set the tone for all that would follow and sparked the popularity that would bring life to characters like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger in years to come. He didn’t create the slasher film, but he certainly helped perfect it.
Jamie Lee Curtis, yogurt spokesman extraordinaire, plays final girl Laurie Strode and punches her card into horror film history. Laurie is bit too naïve and passive but still manages to be a tough character who fends off the ghastly superman Michael Meyers during the climax of the film.
Her character is expanded in some of the sequels, some good and some bad, but overall she is given a sharper edge and some real drive in the events of the story. This sets her apart from those who would follow, especially those in the “Friday The 13th” series. It is her story and she moves along with it as opposed to letting it move her.
2. Adrienne King – Alice – “Friday The 13th”
Speaking of “Friday The 13th,” Alice is the first and arguably the best of the final girl candidates across the Friday series. They are tough, smart, resourceful and more thoughtful than the female counterparts that don’t make it through the movie.
Their existence also shines a light on the idea of the slasher genre being a morality play of sorts. The killer usually punishes those who break social norms, only to be eventually beaten by the morally strong of the group later on in the film. OK, that much thought probably doesn't go into the creation of these films, but still.
Alice is perfect because she is the most normal. She’s the most grounded. She’s the person you can relate to the most in all of the movies. Hold her up for comparison against the stereotypical murder meat bags that inhabit the movie alongside and you see the difference instantly, and she stands out throughout ten sequels and a remake. I couldn’t name you one of the other ones to save my life, but they all owe a debt to Alice.
3. Heather Langenkamp – Nancy Thompson – “A Nightmare On Elm Street”
When you think of the “Friday” movies, you almost immediately drift to talk of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. There isn’t a better entry than the very first one for actual terror and creative use of gore, upping the anty in the slasher/horror genre from the get go.
With that, the role of the final girl was also boosted and given some real ability to think about the situations surrounding them. Previously you saw a physical battle between the final girl and the killer in these movies. But here, the killer exists outside of a physical realm and the final girl had to adapt.
Heather Langenkamp as Nancy shows off mental prowess and toughness by taking on the dream demon Freddy Krueger and besting him at his own game. And she does it without the support of those around her, save for Johnny Depp who is dispatched faster than “The Lone Ranger” at the box office.
Nancy is a detective, investigating the deaths of her friends, the mysterious past surrounding her neighborhood and the man in her dreams with the burned skin. She isn’t just bait to be stalked through the night. She plots and executes a plan to defeat her terror and bring peace back to her life. She stands above the previous girls and it is no surprise that “Nightmare” helped breathe life into the fading slasher genre in the mid-80s. It evolves those involved and gives the audience something other than kids and knives.
4. Sigourney Weaver – Ellen Ripley – “Alien”
One critic described “Alien” as a slasher film in space, and it is for the most part. The beast is really no different than Jason or Freddy, inhabiting the darkness and preying upon the unsuspecting. Ellen Ripley is far from unsuspecting though and is probably one of the brightest examples of a “final girl.” Other films followed schoolgirls who worried about boys and sleepovers, but “Alien” features a mature professional female in a role that most wouldn’t suspect is the lead from the very beginning. But Ripley is a professional and Ripley follows protocol and Ripley is prepared to step in at a moments notice when things begin to fall apart on the Nostromo. Like in other slasher films, this falls at odds with the desires of the rest of the group. But in the end, it is Ripley that persists onward to become a symbol of strong female characters throughout film via a series of sequels and starring roles.
They do still manage to get her in her underwear though.
5. Jodie Foster – Clarice Starling – “Silence of the Lambs”
They treat her like the little engine that could in the beginning, throwing her to the slaughter with Hannibal Lecter in a gambit that eventually pays off, but not due to their efforts. Instead, it is Dr. Lecter and the audience that sees that this young FBI agent is cunning, smart and persistent. Clarice is a perfect final girl from start to finish.
Jodi Foster plays Clarice much like Adrienne King does with Alice; she’s quiet and sort of naïve at first. But she’s also earnest and tenacious with a desire to succeed in the world of law enforcement.
She combines the detective we saw in Nancy and melds it with the professional demeanor we saw in Ripley to create a character the audience can see is right for the case and feels frustration when a roadblock appears.
And in the end, she wins the day. She shows the detractors she’s faced the entire film just what she is capable of doing by bringing down Buffalo Bill. More importantly, Clarice proves Dr. Lecter (and the audience) right in their assertion that Clarice is worth the trouble and there is more there than just a pretty face and heels.
6. Patricia Tallman – Barbara – “Night Of The Living Dead” (1990)
Judith O’Dea played Barbara in the original classic zombie film, but was limited to cowering in shock for most of the film. Patricia Tallman takes the character of Barbara from the corner and injects a bit of spinal fluid into her performance. It isn’t an automatic change from the very beginning, but Barbara comes to the realization that her situation won’t get any better by cowering and decides to take an initiative in improving conditions. She voices her opinion, battles with the undead hordes and generally marches towards dawn and survival.
Now if only Tom Savini didn’t change the ending!
7. Sissy Spacek – Carrie White – “Carrie”
This seems questionable, right?! Carrie White is also the eventual horror of the story – or so you are to believe. Carrie is no different than those women mentioned above. Pushed to the limits by abuse and horror, this time the horror of bullying, she lashes out and protects herself.
The horror here is the treatment of Carrie by her peers and by her mother. The agony she feels as a girl going through changes and having no one to truly comfort her. And finally she feels the humiliation of doing nothing to warrant her treatment, but feeling the brunt of it no matter.
Carrie is a victim and a final girl pushed into becoming a monster by those around her. She’s the avenging angel and the final girl, surviving the terror only to fall and succumb to her own powers.
Or did she?