Few pieces of genre terminology have effortlessly been absorbed into the daily lexicon of cinema quite as easily as “final girl” was, after author Carol J. Clover coined it in her 1992 book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. It, like Nathan Rabin’s use of “manic pixie dream girl,” perfectly conveyed a stock character that had emerged in its era of film—in this case, in horror films, particularly slashers. It immediately gave every armchair horror geek a term to describe the typical protagonists of their favorite film genre.
Some 24 years later, the term “final girl” is more or less universally understood, having been used in the titles of multiple horror films in the last year alone. Its conventions are very well-understood and codified, but if you’re completely new to the term, allow me to give a very brief definition:
The “final girl” of a horror film is typically the last protagonist left alive or left vital, and is the force of good that needs to come into a final confrontation against the villain or killer. Traditionally (but not always) this character is female, virginal or otherwise “pure” in terms of behavior and must undergo traumatic transformation into a person capable of taking in the villain. As would-be supernatural killer Leslie Vernon observes in the wonderful film Behind the Mask (more on that later), “Yonic (opposite of phallic) imagery is very important in our work.” Which is to say, the final girl needs to be born again, battle-hardened, by her experiences.
Who, then, are cinema’s greatest examples of the final girl? How much weight should one give to the originators, such as Alice Hardy in the original 1980 Friday the 13th or Laurie Strode in 1978’s Halloween? How to rate the self-aware final girls of the genre satires that followed, such as Dana Polk in The Cabin in the Woods? Read on, and find out. It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but spoiler warning for most of these films.
It Follows, 2014
One can debate whether Jay is technically a “final” girl, given that the monster is only interested in her rather than killing her friends, but her role is clearly informed by and a twist on some of the genre’s classic tropes, such as the girl having a gender-neutral first name. If sex in a horror film tends to coincide with death, then It Follows is one of the ultimate examples, with its cursed follower literally being transmitted to a new host via sexual intercourse like an STI. In some sense it’s like if an invisible Jason Voorhees could be briefly diverted in a Friday the 13th movie by having sex with a random passerby.
I do love this film, but more for its cinematography and compelling, time-warped production design than the specific characterization of Jay. As a character and as a final girl, she’s somewhat passive. Despite seeing the monster early, it takes her a fairly long time to truly acknowledge it as real or a threat, and longer to start thinking about taking some kind of proactive action against it. The plan that she and her friends come up with, involving a pool and a bunch of household electronics, is amusingly (but realistically, for teens) incompetent, and she predominantly survives in the end via sheer luck as much as anything else. She makes the list, but there are a lot of final girls that are significantly more competent and classic.
The Final Girls, 2015
My expectations were on the low side for this horror comedy from last year, but The Final Girls surprises throughout with a genuinely funny, occasionally emotional tribute to slasher conventions, especially those of the Friday the 13th series. Seriously, go check out this movie; it’s worth your time if you enjoy horror comedies and especially if you’re geeky enough about slashers to enjoy a particularly silly deconstruction of them—much goofier than Scream or Behind the Mask, but truly funny and well written.
Our final girl here is Max, the daughter of an ’80s scream queen who attends a screening of her dead mother’s most infamous movie and is somehow sucked into the world of the film along with her friends. There, the modern teenagers must integrate with their 1986 counterparts and somehow find a way to survive the superpowered masked killer, Billy Murphy. It’s a little on-the-nose in its conventions, and it’s a bit obvious from the beginning that Max has to become the final girl, as the modern kids are intimately familiar with slasher film conventions. This leads to some amusing subversions and commentary on the idea of a final girl, but it also robs Max of a classic final girl character arc, as she’s a bit too self-aware of what it entails. But stick around, because the film has a wonderfully absurd ending.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, 1985
A male “final girl”? Yep, they exist, although it’s very rare. Suffice to say, the first sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street is a very weird film. Like, rabid exploding parakeets weird. YEAH.
But as for Jesse, we end up with the very rare case of a male character who hews to almost all of the final girl rules, to the point that the film almost feels like one originally written for a female lead before switching to a male. Instead, its eccentricities are mostly due to screenwriter David Chaskin, who long denied the film’s blatantly homoereotic subtext until admitting in 2010 that it was his intention. How one could miss it, in a film that involves a literal visit to a leather bar and a locker room shower towel-whipping scene, is perplexing. Star Mark Patton is also gay in real life, which only adds to the the film’s current cult reputation to gay viewers. As a final girl, Jesse’s fight against Freddy is an internal one, and quite different from other entries in the series. Throughout the film, Freddy attempts to possess Jesse’s body and force him to commit murder, and to be honest, is largely successful. Jesse’s eventual victory over him is fleeting and incomplete, which hurts his ranking on the list somewhat. But at the same time, it’s such a flamboyant, unusual character for the time that Jesse Walsh automatically becomes one of the most unique, memorable final girls of the mid-’80s.
Friday the 13th, Part 2, 1981
A notable omission from this list is Alice Hardy, the protagonist and final girl of the original 1980 Friday the 13th, but if we’re being totally honest, Alice is a bit of a bore. Sure, she dispatches the killer, but that killer is of course revealed to be the angora sweater-clad Pamela Voorhees, mother of the much more famous Jason. Part 2 is the first film in the series to star Jason himself, and Ginny Field, our final girl here, is for all intents and purposes a more satisfying version of Alice. She’s a realistic girl of her time period who, at the same time, has the guts and resolve to face off against Jason (sans hockey mask, which he didn’t get until the third film) and come out on top.
Memorable moment: There’s a scene in Part 2 where a prowling Jason is looking for Ginny, and she’s hiding under a bed. As he stalks around the room, a rat simultaneously approaches her, and the poor, crazed, overcome girl actually wets herself, and we the audience see a small slick of urine coming out from under the bed. It’s an embarrassing moment that really humanizes the character, because really, who could blame her? It feels like something that would never be done with a heroine today, unless the character was meant to be a “coward” who is destined to die. Ginny, on the other hand, manages to trump Jason by falling back on quick-thinking rather than brute force, as she uses his obsession/attachment with his dead mother as a distraction by dressing up as Pamela before attacking him with his own machete. She’s a capable model for many other final girls of the ’80s.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974
Sally is the model for the long-suffering, mentally resilient final girl, rather than the badass, “she fights back” final girl, which some might label as somewhat more realistic to how an average person would tend to react when placed into a horror movie situation. Regardless, when she and her friends are led astray by a self-mutilating hitchhiker and exposed to his cannibalistic backwoods family, things fall to hell pretty quickly. As her friends are picked off one by one, Sally ends up getting captured and exposed to the truly disturbing domestic/family life of Leatherface and his clan. The bits as she’s forced to participate in her dinner and awaiting her death are harrowing for the audience, as is her frenzied, limping escape with a chainsaw-wielding Leatherface in hot pursuit. One could make a solid claim that she belongs toward the bottom of such a list for the fact that she doesn’t do much to actively fight her captors, but to me she simply has a realistic outlook about how viable that would be, and instead takes advantage of an opportunity to escape when it presents itself. The final scene, when she clambers into a truck driving away and leaves Leatherface behind, exulting with his chainsaw in the road, is an incredible moment of catharsis, as she dares to hope for the first time ages that she might actually survive. You can see that emotion written on her face, and it’s an iconic look.
Feast still seems oddly underseen by horror fans, perhaps because its meta structure isn’t widely known and they think it’s just another run-of-the-mill monster movie. No, it’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is, but it’s still a lot of fun as it messes with conventions. This is a movie that takes place in a bar besieged by monsters, and begins with a man called “Hero” bursting in and telling everyone he’ll keep them safe … moments before being mercilessly torn apart by said monsters. We then shift to rooting for his wife, “Heroine,” but wait, did she just get bumped off, as well? Who’s the actual final girl here?
That would be the character of Tuffy, a waitress, single mom and reluctant prostitute who’s been trapped in this roadside honky tonk far longer than it’s been surrounded by bloodthirsty creatures. Tuffy is smart, devoted to her son and significantly more capable than anyone in her workplace gives her credit for. Indeed, as more patrons and employees of the bar get bumped off, and as she tragically loses her young son, she ends up completely taking control of the group … and lo and behold, her name (all the characters are given on-screen title card nicknames) transforms to “Heroine 2.” She’s one of a few to survive and fight her way out through the creatures, but not until she’s lost the only thing that truly mattered to her.
The Cabin in the Woods, 2012
Among the many wry observations on classic American slashers present in The Cabin in the Woods is the idea that conventions must be observed … but that those rules can be bent, if not broken. Fittingly, then, Dana Polk as the final girl is not a “virgin,” but she is the virginal member of her “five man band,” at least compared to the slutty Jules. In reality, the behaviors of all five members—Jock, Slut, Brain, Fool and Virgin—are being manipulated chemically by the indifferent game masters in the facility below the cabin, as they conduct their annual ritual that staves off the far worse fate of the world being destroyed by giant, ancient gods. It’s a fair trade from a pragmatic point of view, but of course it looks a little bit different to those being sacrificed.
Dana the character is something of a blank canvas. We have a hard time pinning down what parts of her personality are truly “her own,” and which are constructs of the the controlled environment she’s entered. But slivers of personality shine through as the film progresses, and we begin to get an image of a funny, somewhat shy girl who really does fit many of the final girl tropes … especially in her willingness to fight, once her back has been put to the wall. The end of the film is where things get really interesting in terms of final girl structure, as one has to question what the more “final girl” choice would be: Sacrifice your stoner friend to save humanity, or flip the middle finger toward existence itself by allowing the ancient gods to rise and destroy everything? Dana goes with the far more punk rock option, and the audience simultaneously admires her rebellious nature while feeling a little miffed that it simultaneously means her death. The ending of The Cabin in the Woods is fabulous but disappointing, if only because it would be so much fun to watch a sequel with a new experiment. But that’s probably too much to ask.
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, 1988
Great final girls are determined not only by how much they suffer or fight, but also by how cool their skillset is, or by the amusement factor offered by their supporting cast. For those reasons, I’ve always been partial to Tina from the wonderfully kitschy Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood—that’s the seventh Friday, and the first after Jason returns as a fully undead terror in Friday VI: Jason Lives. She’s actually the first female main protagonist at this point since Friday the 13th Part 3, which in some sense was the series going back to its roots. She’s surrounded by another group of hilariously stupid teens, especially the snobby queen bitch Melissa, who is a joy to see get axed. Seriously, Melissa is terrible.
Tina, on the other hand, is your typically mousy final girl who is suffering from guilt that revolves around the childhood death of her father in an accident that Tina caused … with her latent telekinetic powers! Oh yeah, Tina’s basically an X-Man, did I fail to mention that? In what is certainly the most unique method of fighting back against a killer on this list, Tina’s path is all about literally tapping into her hidden reserves of mental strength. The nigh-indestructible Jason Voorhees is the perfect opponent, because once Tina gets going she would simply shred any mortal man in 10 seconds with the power of her mind. Few Friday films have a conclusion as good as this one, as Tina, in the space of about 15 minutes, attacks Jason via electrocution, strangulation, flying housing nails and complete, fiery immolation before luring him back to the lake that is destined to be his resting place, now and always. Tina is a very cheesy final girl, but her story is pure, audience-serving satisfaction.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, 1988, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, 1989 and Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, 1995
When Jamie Lee Curtis set Michael Myers ablaze at the end of Halloween 2 it was supposed to be the end of both Michael and his grizzled psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis, but after the disappointing and confusing attempt at an anthology in Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, bringing back Myers was a no-brainer. And given that Jamie Lee Curtis declined to return, it was time to “next generation” this shit by introducing Laurie Strode’s daughter, Jamie (yep, named after Curtis). Laurie, we were told, was killed in a car accident, and the 8-year-old Jamie now lives with a foster family. Myers, meanwhile, wakes from a 10-year coma to stalk his young niece.
Let’s get one thing straight: Halloween 4 and Halloween 5 get a lot of hate, but they’re perfectly worthy installments in the series, especially 4. Much of that is thanks to little Danielle Harris as Jamie, who gives one of the best performances by a kid in a horror film—and really, how many slasher films are there that star a child actor as the lead? As a final girl, she’s especially disadvantaged, because what can she do to fight the supreme embodiment of evil that is her uncle? Yet despite the terror, Jamie is resourceful and quick on her feet, resilient to pain and to horror, and she never gives up, even when the people around her are dying. At the end of Halloween 4, she falls victim to a shocking twist that led audiences to believe she might become “the next Michael Myers,” but the producers backed off on that possibility in the sequel, which is something many fans resent. Still, she has some great moments in Halloween 5 as she struggles with some serious trauma and the hatred of the local townsfolk. She also technically appears in the opening of 1995’s Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, where she meets her end, but this older version of Jamie is more or less hated and considered non-canon by Halloween purists, as is the entire film. If this entry interests you, I implore you: Don’t watch the supremely disappointing Halloween 6, unless you want to see a young Paul Rudd in a Halloween movie.
Danielle Harris, meanwhile, grew up to be a scream queen who has played final girls in several other films, most notably in the Hatchett series as Marybeth Dunston. That is one prolific final girl.
Note: Jamie’s first appearance in Halloween 4 has the cruelest grade school kids in the history of cinema. They literally chant “Jamie’s an orphan!” at her. It’s unreal.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, 1988 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, 1989
A teenage final girl making it through one slasher movie is a tough feat. Making it through two movies? That’s nearly impossible, but Alice pulls it off. She has some big shoes to fill in terms of this franchise, considering that her film comes one installment after Dream Warriors, which is undoubtedly the best of the Nightmare sequels, featuring original final girl Nancy Thompson mentoring a new crop of children in their fight against Freddy. This film essentially picks up where the third one leaves off, sans Nancy, with some of the kids from Dream Warriors sticking around while Alice is the newcomer. Of course, Freddy isn’t dead (he never, ever is), and as he returns he starts to pick off all the kids who made it through the past film. A slasher film note: It’s usually a bad sign for your health when you’re a returning character from the last installment.
Alice, on the other hand, has unusual proclivities toward dreaming—a sort of lucid dreamer who is naturally suited to combat Krueger. The film sticks with one of the central conceits of Dream Warriors in that all the kids have certain “dream powers,” but adds a new wrinkle by essentially making Alice into Mega Man—she inherits the various powers of her friends when they’re killed, which she uses to eventually take the fight to Freddy. In the sequel, The Dream Child, Alice is pregnant and faces a new threat from Freddy, who is trying to worm his way back into the world via the unguarded dreams of her unborn child. With the help of her child’s dream projection, as well as the spirit of Freddy’s own mother (Dream Child is a pretty goofy film), Alice conquers him for a second time. That alone is worthy of a high ranking, as is Alice’s tough-as-nails attitude and pragmatic approach toward fighting a supernatural killer. And she even survives having had sex!
Here we go, with a deeper cut that many American horror geeks haven’t seen. Frontier(s) is a pretty strange, grisly French horror film that has a certain bit of Eli Roth’s Hostel in its DNA, but especially seems inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Following the election of a far-right candidate to the French presidency (Donatien Trumplamoose?), Paris erupts in riots and a group of young thieves take advantage of the chaos to stage a robbery and escape into the countryside. Going by back roads, they eventually run afoul of a secret family of Nazi holdout sadists and are captured to be used as food, slaves or worse.
Among this group is Yasmine, a fairly singular final girl in the sense that she’s actually pregnant throughout with the child of one of the group’s other members. Like Sally Hardesty in Texas Chainsaw, Yasmine truly suffers and watches her friends get picked off one by one, but unlike Sally, she refuses to simply run. Fighting her way through multiple members of the family, she delivers bloody, hyper-gory retribution throughout, clawing and throat-biting her way to freedom like she’s Rick on The Walking Dead. With an impossibly strong will to live, Yasmine is not someone you’d want to cross. I personally think of her as a stronger version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Sally.
You’re Next, 2011
You’re Next was a welcome breath of fresh air as far as slasher/home invasion horror movies went in 2011, courtesy of Adam Wingard, director of this year’s disappointing Blair Witch sequel. It feels like a darkly comedic (but very bloody and violent) take on the “old dark house” style of movie in some respects, and the twist is simple but great: The final girl of You’re Next is secretly a trained badass who has hidden her upbringing from all of the other characters.
Erin is just a girl trying to live a normal life after what sounds like a very strict, off-the-grid childhood, growing up in a survivalist compound where she was taught survival skills. So when masked killers start picking off members of her boyfriend’s family in their rural vacation home, Erin’s childhood instincts kick in, and she becomes an engine of destruction. And when I say destruction, I mean she tears through anyone standing in her way with any weapon at her disposal. She’s dispatching men with meat tenderizes, blenders and anything else within reach, while simultaneously laying booby traps like a deadly version of Kevin McCallister. At the same time, she has to apply her intelligence to figure out why all of these attacks are happening, and which members of the family may be involved in the terrible things happening to her. She’s an extremely self-sufficient character who is calm under pressure and is ready for anything. She clearly never wanted to use these types of skills again, but when you put her back to the wall, Erin will cave in your skull and not think twice about it.
The Descent, 2005 and The Descent Part 2, 2009
Would that there were more horror movies out there like The Descent, which works both as a fright delivery vehicle and a surprisingly adept psychological playlet about the interpersonal relationships between a group of women. Our central character is Sarah, a woman in recovery from a catastrophe wherein her husband and child were killed. A year later, she reunites with some friends, including her formerly close friend Juno, and the group of spelunking enthusiasts tackles an unexplored network of caves before being trapped. Unfortunately for them, the caves are also home to blind, crawling cannibal monsters. Bad news for our ladies.
Sarah is great because she’s significantly more complex and multifaceted than the vast majority of final girls. She’s been wronged in the past by Juno, whose infidelity with her husband comes to the surface, but at the same time she’s also not depicted as the perfect one of this tandem. Indeed, it’s Juno who really takes charge in the caves and protects the other women, until she accidentally (and mortally) wounds one in a misunderstanding. That misunderstanding amplifies the distrust between Sarah and Juno in particular, and results in some absolutely heart-pounding moments of suspense as they both grapple with the fallout of their friendship and whether they can count on each other while fighting off the monsters. Either of them could technically become the final girl—Juno via redemption, or Sarah via healing from her previous trauma. Shauna MacDonald goes on to reprise the role in the Part 2 sequel, a lesser film that isn’t as essential, but it still expands the story of Sarah and Juno in a fairly satisfying way. In general, few horror movie characters are as well developed as these two.
Hellraiser, 1987, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, 1988 and Hellraiser: Hellseeker, 2002
Hellraiser’s Kirsty arrived in the heyday of the classical final girl, but she actually deviates from the norm in some very interesting ways. Her purity is debatable, but what makes her so interesting is her own instincts for self-preservation and the things she’s willing to do in order to save her own skin, even as we, the audience, identify with her as the protagonist. The situations she ends up in are often of her own making—even if she doesn’t realize it at the time—and if there’s one ongoing theme of Hellraiser as a series, it’s that the ledger always has to equal out in the end. The Cenobites led by Pinhead always collect their due, one way or another, and Kirsty brings them quite a lot of souls in her own way.
This all begins with the first Hellraiser, which is a story of sick love and obsession between the deranged; aka, what Clive Barker sees whenever he closes his eyes. From the beginning, Ashley Laurence is mesmerizing as Kirsty, because there’s a certain darkness to her, and edge of sensuality and femme fatale leanings that is quintessentially Barker. She fights her reanimated, lecherous uncle as he tries to escape hell, and bargains with the Cenobites to have them take his soul instead of hers. In the sequel, Hellbound, Kirsty once again tries to use the nightmarish puzzle box for a fairly self-serving reason, to resurrect her father. And in a smaller (but important) role in the later sequel Hellseeker she completes her descent by bargaining her way out of death by promising the souls of five other people to Pinhead in exchange for her freedom. Kirsty manages to be a protagonist mostly by virtue of being just a hair more empathetic than the other monsters she’s faced with, which in turn makes her a character who is great to debate. The growing respect for her from the Cenobites, a race of extradimensional demons, is both an impressive achievement and a worrying accolade.
Halloween, 1978, Halloween 2, 1981 and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, 1998
There’s no more classic example of the final girl stock character than Laurie Strode in Halloween. Her character is one of the trope namers, and one of the characters who CREATED most of the cliches and characteristics that one expects to find in any final girl. She’s a very, very meek character at first—people tend to remember the second half of Halloween and forget what a loser Laurie is portrayed as earlier on. Even when her sluttier friend (and every single one of her friends is more assertive than Laurie is) gets her a date with the guy she already admitted to liking, Laurie begs and pleads with her to un-do that favor to her because she’s too embarrassed to actually go on the date. Even before Michael Myers shows up, Laurie is a bundle of nerves and neuroses.
That’s what makes her so interesting to watch after the “starting gun” point of the film—when she finds the bodies of her friends Lynda and Bob across the street, and is herself attacked by Michael. Laurie seems constantly on the verge of completely breaking down into a whimpering ball, but at the last possible moment she reaches out and acts decisively to protect the kids she’s babysitting. At first she vastly underestimates her foe, thinking she’s killed him with a pair of knitting needles. But of course she rises again, leading her to attack him with a coat hanger to the eye and a knife to the chest. But this being Michael Myers, he still isn’t dead, and Laurie is saved by some deus ex Loomis machina. She’s not the “perfect” final girl, but her trope-setting ways ensure her a high spot out of respect.
In the sequels, Laurie grows further. She’s fairly similar in character in Halloween 2, which mainly is important for the revelation that she’s Myers’ long-lost younger sister. Her really interesting return is in the dumbly named Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, which contradicts the Jamie Lloyd sequels by giving us an alternate take where Laurie faked her own death and changed her name. Older, wiser and now with a teenage son of her own, Laurie has grown into a much more assertive woman who ends up being more than a match for Michael. And yes, we must acknowledge that she technically appears (and dies) in the intro to Halloween: Resurrection in 2002, but let’s all just continue pretending that film doesn’t exist.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, 2006
An odd bit of film trivia: Actress Angela Goethals, who plays final girl Taylor in this film at the age of 29, isn’t the most recognizable face … as an adult. As a kid, though, she memorably appeared in Home Alone as one of Kevin’s sisters, Linnie, who is the one to deliver the line “You’re what the French call les incompétents.”
With that out of the way, I should perhaps say that if you’ve never seen Behind the Mask, you should just go watch it now before getting any more spoiled for you, because it’s a brilliant meta satire of slasher film conventions on par with and possibly exceeding Scream. Where Scream was all about a “real-life” killer inspired by film conventions, Behind the Mask goes several levels deeper to give us a world that is symbiotically tied to film, and where slasher characters such as Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger were actually real people. Our protagonist/antagonist, Leslie Vernon, is an aspiring supernatural killer trying to become the next one of “the greats.”
And naturally, if you’ve got such an immediately awesome killer, you also need an awesome final girl, although the identity of that final girl is misdirected all throughout the film until the end. Taylor is the leader of a film crew documenting Leslie’s upcoming killing spree, until the careful machinations of film cliches inexorably draws them into the action. That’s one of the things I love about the film—there’s a sense that some of the conventions are so powerful that even if you’re aware of them, you still can’t keep them from happening. As Taylor embraces her final girl role—they call it a “survivor girl” in the film—her transformation is delivered to the audience like a thesis on the entire idea of this stock character. There’s no film that will give you a more thorough education about slasher movies and final girls.
A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, 1987 and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, 1994
Nancy Thompson is an almost perfect synthesis of the final girl traits that we saw first in the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th, amplified and given more spitfire attitude. Unlike in one of the previous series, Freddy is a much more nebulous, invisible threat who is very hard to fight back against. The greatest struggle for Nancy is getting anyone to believe her in the first place, especially her sheriff father and alcoholic mother. Where Laurie Strode’s greatest challenge in everyday life is her own shyness, Nancy is a survivor of a badly fractured family life, and has simply overcome more before she even begins to tangle with Freddy.
She also embodies what Carol Clover called the “investigative spirit” of the final girl, and is the force that drives her group of friends to uncover the secret past of Krueger. Her repeated encounters with him leave her physically scarred but constantly gaining new knowledge that she may be able to use to defeat him. Each time they come into contact with each other, the stakes raise—he gets closer to killing him, and she gets closer to learning how to beat him.
After male “final girl” Jesse of Freddy’s Revenge, Nancy returns for Dream Warriors, which many consider the best film of the series, and certainly the best of the sequels. Here she’s battle-hardened, but has still retained a hugely empathetic spirit unlike say, Kirsty Cotton. She’s dedicated herself to helping troubled kids who have struggled with the same childhood issues she did, and she helps a new group defeat Freddy again. Then, Langenkamp put a meta spin on the character by playing herself, the actress portraying Nancy, in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the clever rebirth of the franchise that hinted at Craven’s Scream to come. No matter what universe she’s in, Nancy/Heather is an embodiment of the final girl. It’s telling that each of the Nightmare films she appears in are the best in the series.
Alien, 1979, Aliens, 1986, Alien 3, 1992 and Alien: Resurrection, 1997
Is Ripley a final girl? This is one of those cases where we would be criticized both for leaving her off and for including her, so we’ll just include her because she’s great. Did you know that Sigourney Weaver actually nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Aliens? You’d never see that in today’s drama-dominated category, but to be nominated in a xenomorph-rich horror/action movie was quite the feat.
Regardless of the rest of the series, though, Ripley is most definitely a final girl in the original 1979 Alien, because if that film is anything, it’s a sci-fi slasher movie in space. She’s introduced in an interesting way for being the ultimate protagonist, because it’s really not clear from the beginning of the film that Ripley is anything close to the “main character.” This is a classic method of setting up the final girl, as it makes Ripley appear more expendable until she’s forced to rise to the occasion when the xenomorph comes bursting out of John Hurt’s chest. That includes essentially taking command of the shift by being the most assertive, pragmatic crew member in dealing with the threat of the alien, circumventing the chain of (largely male) command. Eventually, we of course get a one-on-one showdown between the alien and Ripley, sans weaponry, which is more or less a death sentence to any normal human. But Ripley isn’t normal.
Of course that’s just the beginning of the character’s arc, as Ripley morphs into more of a full-on action hero in Aliens and the increasingly zany sequels that follow, but in terms of thinking of the character as a true final girl, it’s probably best to simply restrict our thought to Alien. Not many other films have ever transplanted this stock character into such an exotic location as space, and done it so effectively and terrifyingly.
Scream, 1996, Scream 2, 1997, Scream 3, 2000 and Scream 4, 2011
Using everything he had learned in making A Nightmare on Elm Street and everything he had observed in horror cinema throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Wes Craven set out to design Sidney Prescott in the ’90s as the “ultimate final girl.” That’s the very core of her being, born and bred to always be the last one standing. Her various antagonists, always donning the Ghostface mask, are obsessed with the conventions of horror films, which one imagines must make Sidney rather sick of them in short order. That’s the thing about Sidney—she’s not some horror movie expert herself. She’s always just having the cliches of horror movies thrust upon her in tragic fashion. Her survival of one such scenario simply motivates the next crop of Ghosfaces to pick up where the last left off, first in satire of “horror sequels,” and then in service of “the trilogy” and “the remake.” One wonders why everyone in her universe feels such a strong pull toward the theatrical.
As a character, Sidney Prescott begins in the tradition of Laurie Strode, as a (relatively) shy high schooler who seems chaste and ill-equipped to deal with trauma. Indeed, the killers (eventually revealed as her boyfriend and his friend) are so slavishly dedicated to convention that their orchestration of the events revolves around Sidney eventually having sex with her boyfriend for the first time, symbolically removing the “no sex” shield of protection. But of course, killing Sidney is never that easy. She racks up quite a body count throughout the course of the series, and tends to be the one that always gets the final death blow. Adept with a gun and a wisecrack, she’s rather like Charles Bronson in the body of a cheerleader.
By the time Scream 2 comes around, Sidney is fully formed as a character, and she never quite has that vulnerability ever again. Smartly, she seems to consider her ordeals never fully over, and she’s always proven right. Although popular supporting characters continue to get killed off throughout (RIP, Randy), Sidney has a certain bulletproof quality that you find in many final girls—you can hurt her really, really badly, but you can never finish the job, because she’s too damn tough.
Black Christmas, 1974
The nice thing about Jess Bradford and Black Christmas is that we get a complete story, with a complete character arc, but an ending that is still ambiguous, without the need for a sequel. One wonders what happens to Jess immediately after the events of the film, but it’s better to be left wondering than to be given a ham-handed answer to our question.
As a character, Jess is wonderfully complex. This is no Sidney Prescott, so clearly but unrealistically designed as a badass role model and figure that the audience would want to embody. Jess’s life is complicated. She’s trapped in a relationship with a neurotic concert pianist who she half-loves, and she’s pregnant with a baby she’s not ready to deliver. When she weighs her options and commits to the idea of an abortion, he tries to talk her out of it, and she sticks to her guns and asserts her independence. This is an absolutely radical position for a female lead in a horror movie to be taking—particularly one before the idea of the “final girl” is even fully formed, four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween. Jess Bradford is more independent, resilient and self-reliant than almost any other woman who’s ever been depicted in a slasher movie, in a way that has almost never been replicated in a way that didn’t seem forced.
As a member of a sorority house, Jess becomes the target of an unknown stalker and assailant—truly frightening in his anonymity, as we never do learn the identity of the man or why he chose to focus on her. Her fight is against an unknowable form of evil, as with Ripley in Alien, but one with cunning that surpasses the xenomorph. And despite this, she’s incredibly brave and self-sacrificing—when told by the police that the killer is “inside the house!” she ignores their commands to get outside and instead takes it upon herself to ascend the stairs in an attempt to save her housemates, knowing full well that it likely means her death. Jess defends herself with the resolve of many final girls, but carries herself with a down-to-earth strength of self-identity that is unique. That’s what makes her #1.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.