Filmmaker and co-founder of BleedFest, Elisabeth Fies schooled me on “10 of the Most Innovative Women in Horror.” She has now enlightened me with 10 of the Deadliest Female Killers in Classic Horror Movies, which I’ve sprinkled here with a little cinematic and cultural context.
#10. Miriam from “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte” Robert Aldrich dared the unexplored female psyche, or psychosis, at a time when June Cleaver reined supreme. In 1960s America, women were wielding the Cleaver in the kitchen and rarely across their misogynistic husband’s head, at least on TV. Aldrich’s “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte” starred one of the most innovative women in horror, Bette Davis, but the real killer here is Olivia de Havilland as Miriam. Miriam embodies the metaphorical unraveling of Charlotte’s insanity, using everything at her disposal, including chairs and stairs, to keep Charlotte crazy.
# 9. Julia Cotton in “Hellraiser” & “Hellbound: Hellraiser II” Actress Clare Higgins tackled some of Horror’s most disturbing scenes as Julia Cotton in Clive Barker’s landmark “Hellraiser.” Julia’s antics in obtaining flesh fodder for the incubating body of her dead lover’s demon soul give new meaning to ulterior motives. At the time of the original “Hellraiser” release, she became the most twisted femme fatale in the horror imagination. She took the wicked stepmother archetype to disturbing places in “Hellraiser,” but as Cotton says in “Hellbound: Hellraiser II,” “I’m no longer just the wicked stepmother; now I’m the evil queen.”
#8. “Deep Red” If you haven’t seen this classic film from horror master Dario Argento, the plot is already spoiling as you now know the killer is a woman. To avoid full spoilage, let’s just revel at the amazing Italian actress Clara Calamai, who portrays the killer in “Deep Red.” A single scene made Calamai a sensation in Alessandro Blasetti’s “La cena delle beffe” (“The Jesters’ Supper”). Calamai bared a piece of her soul… okay she flashed her breasts, but this was 1940s Italy under Vatican censorship. Calamai went on to star in Luchino Visconti’s groundbreaking, “Ossessione.” She had that rare ability to captivate with sexuality and then rock your emotions. With “Deep Red” she is something else entirely: terrifying.
#7. “Countess Dracula” Ingrid Pitt was the original Queen of the Damned and broke skin as a lesbian vampire in “The Vampire Lovers,” but captured her crown in “Countess Dracula.” The 1971 film resurrects the legend of Countess Elizabeth Báthory of Hungary, who bathed in the blood of virgins for immortality. She is sometimes dubbed the most legendary female serial killer, but the 71′ Hammer Horror film connected the obvious: only a vampire could take on that much blood. Thus, Ingrid Pitt portrayed not only the most notorious killer, but set the bar for other Queens of the Night.
#6. “Single White Female” Terror resides in small, shy packages, especially when it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Single White Female.” For anyone who’s had a crazy roommate, this is the guidebook to red flags. The film is loaded with symbolic distinctions between the successful modern woman and those wandering the empty void of what it once meant. Leigh’s character tries desperately to drain all that her roommate (Bridget Fonda) worked to obtain. Director Barbet Schroeder wasn’t just good at creeping us out; he knew exactly how to strike embedded fears of the modern woman.
#5. “Cat People” Like footprints of a stealthy feline, “Cat People” laid the groundwork for repressed female sexuality manifested as horror. The character of Irena Dubrovna Reed as the seductive, yet repressed shape shifter scratched deep influence in horror. A cursed predator is a deadly breed as a woman who kills because she has to. In 1940s America, illusionary promises haunted immigrants like the character of Irena. In what seemed like the Promised Land, women still feared aroused passions, for it could endanger who they love. When misunderstood with fear, a woman’s dreams are as deadly as an escaped panther from the zoo.
#4. Annie Wilkes in “Misery” One word: Sledgehammer.
#3. “Carrie” Stephen King may have warned to never underestimate fanatics with Annie in “Misery,” but his warning in “Carrie” was far greater. In Brian De Palma’s adaptation, Sissy Spacek was the original small, shy package of horrors beyond imagination. King’s novel was often banned from schools, which sadly could’ve been textbook analysis for bullying. Carrie’s telekinetic powers are like a metaphor for young girls who keep pain locked up. It’s all in her head and Carrie’s wrath shows that this is the most dangerous place to hide it.
#2 . Mrs. Voorhees in “Friday the 13th” Hell hath no fury like a mother’s revenge. While Hitchcock’s “Pyscho” showed how mothers can turn their sons into killers, even Norman Bates would be scarred silly by Jason Voorhees’s mom. In fact, I don’t even want to think about what Mrs. Voorhees would do to Norman if she caught him peeping again at the Bates Motel. The original Mrs. Voorhees played by Betsy Palmer is still one of the scariest slashers on screen.
#1. “Suspiria” The only thing scarier than a mother’s vengeance is a twisted coven of witches who prey on the vulnerabilities of young dancers. How hard can it be to scare the delicate fears of dancers already on edge? What matters most here is the encroaching terror of surrealistic atmospheres created by Dario Argento, which many would argue are still unsurpassed. “Suspiria” stylistically mines fear of the unknown with the most visceral sensations of cinema. It almost seems incidental that this paranoia of the unexplainable manifests as a woman, but the film cannot be explained outside of just experiencing it. Dario Argento is master, because if anyone else directed “Suspiria” it’d be: Nina Sayer’s from “Black Swan” goes to Hogwarts on a head full of acid.