Movie Monday: 5 Femme-Led Horror Films To Watch This Halloween

The horror genre often fails its female protagonists through misogynistic and simple depictions of their female characters even if they're the film's protagonists. They're reduced to monstrous mothers, temptresses, hags, harpies, hyper-sexual party girls, or virginal and plucky Final Girls. Women find themselves often victimized, slut-shamed, or tortured, in need of shedding their femininity to survive. Luckily, there is a canon of female-driven horror that breaks these molds. Readers beware: there might be some spoilers ahead!

  1. 1. Alien (1979) directed by Ridley Scott

    This science-fiction horror classic starts the iconic Warrant Officer Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver. In the film, she and the rest of the Nostromo crew find themselves fighting for their lives in the middle of deep space when a murderous alien life form makes its way into the ship. Throughout the film, Ripley is the only member of the crew to follow protocols and prioritize the lives of those aboard the ship. One could say nothing in the film would have happened if she had been listened to. She’s ingenious, smart, fast, and fights until the end to destroy the alien and save her crew. Ripley is widely considered one of the first “strong female characters” in mainstream cinema. And she is strong: physically, mentally, and emotionally. In the midst of a traumatic situation, she keeps a cool head and makes difficult decisions. 

  2. 2. Corpse Bride (2005) directed by Tim Burton

    While it isn’t technically horror, the stop-motion animated dark fantasy has some horrific elements. The beginning of the Victorian-set film would have you think Victor Van Dort is the lead character, but very early on, Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), the title corpse bride, lets us know she is the one that drives the plot. After Victor accidentally marries the beautiful dead woman, she becomes enchanted with the idea of their marriage, as she was murdered after eloping and denied the love story of her dreams. Without giving too much away, Emily’s empathic nature and capacity for self-reflection lead her to find peace outside of marriage. Her final decision results in a “happily-ever-after” for everyone. The film provides her with the agency and happy ending usually denied to characters like her. 

  3. 3. Under the Skin (2013) directed by Jonathan Glazer

    In this sci-fi horror drama, the unnamed alien protagonist, dubbed “The Female”, (Scarlett Johansson) lures men into her van and to their end in Scotland. She employs flirtation and her beautiful appearance to entice them. But, the Female breaks the mold of the typical “space siren”. She’s afforded humanity rarely seen in characters like these. She begins questioning her motives and what “womanhood” means to her. She seeks to understand herself, her body, and her place in the world she hunts in. As she interacts with more humans, she begins questioning her own identity. The film also makes a heartbreaking statement on gendered violence.

  4. 4. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) directed by Ana Lily Amirpour

    In this Iranian “vampire western”, a veiled vampire dubbed the Girl skates through the ghost-town Bad City in search of bad men to get rid of. Bad City is lonely and ravaged by drugs and crimes. The Girl repurposes what Barbara Creeds calls “monstrous-femininity” into a fight against the patriarchy. The Girl chooses her victims very carefully to help make Bad City a better place to live. However, she has an inner life of her own. When she’s not on the hunt for rapists and abusers, she likes to dance and has an affinity for older music. A boy named Arash catches her attention. It is rare that we see a Middle-Eastern vampire, and much less a feminist one. The film is equally horrific and sweet, a rare combination. 

  5. 5. Annihilation (2018) directed by Alex Garland

    Biologist Lena’s (Natalie Portman) husband disappears. He returns mysteriously and becomes gravely ill. She joins an expedition into a zone being slowly consumed by a mysterious iridescent membrane named "the Shimmer”, the same mission her husband was a part of. The team is made of Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist; Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist; and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic; all led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Inside the Shimmer, they find something more horrific than they could have ever imagined. The film already breaks the norm with its entirely female leading cast, but it takes a step further by avoiding “strong female character” archetypes. These women have painful pasts and their own reasons for having joined the expedition. Some of them are fighters, and some of them are not. They cry under pressure and fear for their lives. The circumstances in which they find themselves warrant it and their strength is never questioned to how they react to them. 

All of these films are original, terrifying, and stray from clichés, allowing you to enjoy a good scare without having to put up with sexist and misogynist tropes.