Horror has no shortage of badass female characters. Thanks to the 70s-born Final Girl trope, women have been surviving, kicking slasher butt, and achieving iconic, stereotype-busting status in the process. But the horror films of old Hollywood predated the final girl, and they were often dominated by women relegated to fainting damsels at the mercy of the latest top-billed monster. Yet classic Hollywood horror still harbors a hidden trove of inspiring female characters. From monsters to musterers, these women faced incredible dangers with their own uniquely formidable powers. So in honor of Women in Horror Month, let’s celebrate ten of the most badass women of classic horror.
10. Mary Gibson in The Seventh Victim (1943)
There’s no stopping a sister in protective mode. And despite her genteel upbringing at a Catholic boarding school, Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) isn’t about to sit around and pray when she discovers her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) has gone missing. Instead, she takes off for New York City, exploring every shady lead she can. She braves a seriously scary darkened hallway, beauty parlors run by devil worshipers, and even after a Psycho reminiscent shower threat she still doesn’t back down. She may not succeed in saving her sister from nihilistic doom, but you can’t fault her for trying and facing down some twisted Satanists in the process.
9. Lila Crane in Psycho (1960)
Speaking of shower scenes, joining Mary in the ranks of the unstoppable sister is Lila Crane (Vera Miles), sibling of poor Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho. When it’s clear that her sister stole money from her employer, Lila travels to visit Marion’s boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) to gather information, only to discover that Marion has vanished. After the private investigator searching for Marion fails to return from the Bates Motel, Lila and Sam pose as a couple to investigate the location themselves. Lila works up the courage to venture into the terrifying house and makes the gruesome discovery in the basement at the end, making her one of the gutsiest of final girls.
8. Sandra Carpenter in Lured (1947)
In Douglas Sirk’s serial killer noir Lured, Lucille Ball plays a down on her luck American dancer living in London. She takes the dangerous job of an undercover investigator to try to save her friend from the clutches of a serial killer. During the course of her missions, she almost falls victim to an unhinged fashion designer played by Boris Karloff himself, among many other threatening and violent characters who inhabit the underbelly of London. Sandra needs to be rescued from many of these encounters, but that doesn’t make her any less badass. Any good undercover agent needs to be extracted from a dangerous situation every once in a while. Sandra got her mission based on her keen observations, bravery, and loyalty to her friend. Any woman willing to face a serial killer to save other women is a true badass, landing Sandra a spot on this list. Plus, she’s played by Lucille Ball!
7. Iris Henderson in The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Before the icy, poorly treated blondes of his films from the 50s and 60s, Hitchcock’s 1940s heroines were plucky and resourceful, facing perilous challenges with ingenuity and determination. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is one such character. In Hitchcock’s classic adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1936 mystery novel, young Iris finds herself gaslit by just about every soul aboard a European train. They insist that the old woman Iris had befriended during her trip never existed. Iris won’t give up so easily, and she determinedly investigates the mystery of her friend’s disappearance. She convinces a fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) to help her and braves dangers and intrigue to solve the mystery and stand up for her sanity. It’s as strange a predicament as any young tourist could find herself in, but Iris is up for the challenge.
6. Nicole Horner in Les Diaboliques (1955)
In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, a wife and mistress team up to off the abusive man they have in common. Christina (Vera Clouzot) is the frail, anxiety-ridden, and nearly broken wife of the tyrannical Michel (Paul Meurisse), and Nicole (Simone Signoret) is in contrast, a woman you do not want to mess with. Just look at how calmly and confidently she plans a murder. How insistent she is when Christina’s resolve wavers. The matter of fact way she holds their victim’s head underwater while watching the clock is the picture of scary efficiency and determination. There’s a lot more to Les Diaboliques than meets the eye (avoid spoilers at all costs). But Nicole’s calculating power is exactly what she projects from the very first scene.
5. Nell Bowen in Bedlam (1946)
Is there anything more badass than a determined social reformer? In Bedlam (1946), Nel Bowen (Anna Lee) is a young woman horrified by the mistreatment of the mentally ill that she witnesses at the hands of Dr. George Sims (Boris Karloff). When she decides to lead a campaign against his practices she ends up committed to his asylum herself. But while the horrors of an 18th-century asylum could break most men, Nel keeps her wits and ends up rallying the patients to rebellion. Bedlam was Val Lewton’s last horror production for RKO, and it is rich in some disturbing real-world horrors, a formidable villain from Karloff, and a determined female protagonist in Nell.
4. Charlie Newton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is a brilliant lesson in trusting your intuition, even when you belong to the frequently disbelieved demographic of the bored teenage girl. Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright)’s suspicions that her beloved uncle might be a serial killer turn out to be a bit more than adolescent fantasies, and her observations put her into a dangerous game of suspicion and murder. Charlie is an intelligent, resourceful, and emotionally resilient girl placed in an impossible situation. She’s one of Hitchcock’s most unassuming and impressive heroines, and a precursor to observant teen final girls like Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).
3. Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (1954)
Another Hitchcock heroine, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is a perfect example of not judging a book by the cover. Lisa is one of Hitchcock’s blonde ice queens from his 50s and 60s films, but despite their glamour (and tendency to be abused by their director), there was a lot of strength and fire burning in many of these ice queen’s souls. Lisa is a high fashion model who visits her wheelchair-bound boyfriend Jeff (Jimmy Stewart) wearing designer gowns. Hitchcock could have pigeonholed Lisa in the stereotypical role of the doubting girlfriend who scolds her partner’s imagination. Instead, when presented with Jeff’s theory that his neighbor killed his wife, Lisa is all in. She does all the risky in-person investigating, heels and all. She even finds herself in life-threatening danger and at the center of the most suspenseful moments of the entire film. Lisa is a contradictory embodiment of brave, adventurous glamour — a badass in taffeta and stilettos.
2. Florence Dempsey in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
The Mystery of the Wax Museum is less well known than its 1953 remake House of Wax. But the original incarnation of the mad wax artist shocker is worth seeing for its groundbreaking and rare two-strip technicolor, its pre-code insanity, and its fascinating legacy as a formally lost film. Plus Fay Wray screaming! Can’t go wrong with that. While Wray’s Charlotte dutifully plays the damsel in distress, Glenda Farrell brings the spunk and investigative know-how as reporter Florence Dempsey. Hunting down leads in order to preserve her job and crack the case of the wax museum, Florence braves dangers, drinks like a sailor, stands up to villains, and even saves the day in the end. Florence is an example of the tough lady characters that thrived in the pre-code era before patriarchal censors put a stop to it. Take a trip back to the early thirties to witness badass women aplenty on film!
1. Paula Alquist in Gaslight (1944)
Gaslight is one of the most harrowing depictions of emotional abuse and, well, gaslighting ever depicted on film. There’s a reason it coined the term that describes manipulating a victim into questioning reality and their own sanity as a form of control. It’s also an atmospheric and fascinating mystery and a stunning depiction of a victim eventually reclaiming her power and getting some extremely satisfying payback. Ingrid Bergman is spectacular as the young bride Paula, and we really believe her complete emotional and mental degradation at the hands of her husband (Charles Boyer). But when she finally breaks free of his control, it’s one the most cathartic, stand up and cheer moments of a victim’s revenge on film. I won’t spoil it, but prepare to have your expectations ecstatically subverted. For all she survived and how she came out on top, Paula Alquist earns the title of a true classic horror badass.
These ten women each faced their situation in different, realistic, and powerful ways, proving that incredible women in horror don’t have a cut off date. This is only a sampling of the badass ladies that populate classic horror. Did we forget your favorite? Let us know over on Nightmare on Film Street’s Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages! And keep checking back here at Nightmare on Film Street all month long for celebrations of the incredible women in front of and behind the cameras of horror cinema. Happy Women in Horror Month!