Leading women as antagonists in thriller/horror movies is a quite recent phenomena in the film industry excepting only a handful of films from the past. While there are a few examples from the previous century, it is quite common that in those still the foul actions of the antagonizing women needed a male catalyst (such as in Jack Tournier’s Cat People (1942)), a religious motivation (Friedkin’s Exorcist (1973)) or the actions were decidedly gender-specific (such as in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992)) or the femme fatales were human females outwardly only (such as in Donaldson’s Species (1995)). Perhaps the first ever female stalker was Jessica Walter playing poor Evelyn in Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971) which precursors Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) by a hefty 15 years or so and perhaps the first female villain in traditional slasher fare was Paula E.Sheppard in Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) but again a male catalyst in all of them was needed to spark the on-screen violence.
But try and list films in which the villainous female antagonist is decidedly monstrous from the get-go in it’s own right and you don’t get a very long list. Reiner’s Misery (1990) springs to mind easily as well as De Palma’s Sisters (1972) and Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) in which the lovely Mimsy Farmer plays a mentally unstable murderous stalker Nina Tobias. You do get the occasional female killers in Italian giallo-films such as Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows (1976) in which a sadomasochistic release is enough to spark a killing and Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) with another unstable mind in action and of course Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and many others as well but like in most gialli the female killer roles in these are not portrayed as the leading lady roles. Betsy Palmer as Pamela Voorhees in Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) is not exactly a leading lady role either and neither is Clare Higgins as Julia in Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). If you include the more obscure slashers from the crazed years of 1980’s, perhaps McCullough Sr’s Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1986) fits the bill. With some teeth grinding you could announce Tura Satana as Varla in Meyer’s black comedy Faster Pussycat … Kill Kill (1965) as such. In any case … you really have to rub your temples to compose a decent list.
A distinct change then happened around the turn of the millennium and monstrous female villains in thriller/horror movies since then have become not only common but almost crowded. One of the key reasons appears to be that there has been a shift in movie audiences and in film industry. Young females have carved out a clear presence in the audiences and fan bases but also the industry has been blessed in attracting female directors and producers in troves. While it’s tricky to name a dozen monstrous female villains from the entire 20th century, it’s trivial to name more from the first 15 years of the 21st century alone!
This time I’ve illustrated America Olivo from Robert A.Masciantonio’s movie Neighbor (2009) in which America played the role of The Girl. A prime example of a monstrous female villain. This gory modern slasher never gives any reason for The Girl’s heinous acts of murder and torture – something that was pretty much reserved to male counterparts only during the previous century. Neither is she showing any remorse or regret for those acts and in fact revels in her victim’s agony and mocks them without empathy. She isn’t discriminating either and kills males and females with equal vigor. It’s left for the viewer then to judge if this movie has a feminist angle buried in it’s context but certainly the film shows without a shadow of a doubt that in this century it’s just fine to have a murderous female villain reveling in killing and bloodshed just as it was common place for males during the previous one.