Terror Cult: Lady Killers

Devon Ashby introduces you to the best and most disturbing movies about female murderers.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

In American culture especially, psychopaths and serial killers occupy a unique pop cultural position. They’re feared and loathed as much as they are anywhere else, but more often than not, they are also oddly celebrated. The success of shows like “Dexter” is a testament to this. Something about the myth of the psychotic murderer fascinates and allures us. Films like American Psycho, conversely, have drawn uncomfortable parallels between the modus operandi of psychotic predators and the daily habits and philosophies that drive capitalist social politics.

Possibly the reasoning behind these dual treatments is that psychopaths represent total, unchecked personal autonomy. They’re driven by their own deep primal hungers, and they allow nothing outside of themselves to restrain them from ultimately satisfying those urges. In a culture so preoccupied with rugged individualism, competitive dynamism, and the ruthless pursuit of success, it’s not hard to understand why a person who worships his own purest and darkest urges to the exclusion of all else appears so simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

The idea of total autonomy in its most brutal form – of humanity’s desires to consume, to destroy, and to subjugate run totally amok – is scary enough when it belongs to a faceless individual. A whole new set of anxieties arise, however, when those qualities are projected onto a representative member of society that is typically abused, marginalized, and depicted as humiliatingly powerless and vulnerable. Horror films centered on the predatory prowess, not of dangerous men, but of dangerous women, combine the fear of dark and unexplored individual psychology with deeper and more personal terrors about the ambiguity of loving someone, and the fragility of human relationships.

Murderous women often represent the destructive possibilities of sexual and emotional receptivity. At the same time, they play deeply into the fear of righteous retribution – the idea that the systematically victimized will one day rise up and forcefully assert their own autonomy, with horrific and devastating results.

The Woman (2011)

Cult horror director Lucky McKee’s third feature film, The Woman, is also his most engaging and his most blatantly socially conscious. A stark Feminist parable set against the backdrop of an idyllic nuclear home, The Woman tells the story of a domineering father who discovers a nude, feral woman in the woods near his family’s property. Convinced it his responsibility to “civilize” her before presenting her to authorities, he embarks on an increasingly questionable regimen of confinement and disciplinary abuse, goading his skittish and reluctant family gradually further and further into participation. The movie was co-written by horror novelist Jack Ketchum, notorious for his novelization of the infamous Sylvia Likens murder, a case both eerily similar and deeply relevant to the themes explored in McKee’s film. The Woman is a raw and violent movie, both visually and emotionally, and it raises complicated questions about gender relationships without any pompous attempts to unambiguously resolve them. Rape, domestic abuse, and misogyny are ugly things, and The Woman is boldly unafraid to display them as such.

Misery (1990)

Based on a Stephen King novel of the same title, Misery stars James Caan as Paul Sheldon, a successful romance author whose life is suddenly thrust into peril when his car skids off the road in a rural mountain wilderness, knocking him unconscious and temporarily destroying his legs. At first, Paul is relieved to be rescued by Annie Wilkes, a matronly local woman played by Cathy Bates. Paul soon discovers, however, that Annie is not only cloyingly obsessed with his pulpy body of work, but psychotically controlling, and intent on keeping him confined in her secluded backwoods home for the rest of his earthly existence. Misery is mainly about the anxieties of being an artist, and the often possessive and predatory behavior of fans toward characters and creators they identify with, which mirror the aggressions of domestic abusers.

The Brood (1979)

Like all early Cronenberg films, The Brood is a surrealistic gore opera, interlaced with a thematic network of themes about psychology, personal relationships, and the body. Specifically, The Brood is a movie both about motherhood and about psychopathic pathology, exploring the often-impenetrable differences between confronting mental instability, and merely exacerbating it. Oliver Reed gives a creepy, intense performance, but the real star of the show is Samantha Eggar, a deranged mother confined to a boutique mental institution, whose emotional projections appear to be causing the violent and bloody deaths of people in her life whom she feels have caused her harm. The Brood is one of Cronenberg’s most accessible and creepiest early films, chillingly exploring the cyclical nature of family abuse, as well as the devouring strength of mental illness and emotional trauma.

Audition (1999)

Audition is the brainchild of notoriously gonzo gore purveyor Takashi Miike, and is possibly his best-known film internationally. In one sense, Audition falls under the umbrella of revenge horror but like The Brood, its agenda is more twisted and obscure than most other entries in that genre. Three years after the tragic death of his wife, a middle-aged Japanese businessman with an adolescent son resolves to find a new wife. Cajoled by his friend into arranging a fake audition for a non-existent film project in order to cavalierly “screen” a number of attractive young women and assess their comelier qualities, he settles on a seemingly demure and sweet young ballet dancer named Asami, whom he eventually discovers is not at all who she appears to be. Audition is notorious for its harrowing final torture sequence, but the meat of its premise is steeped in uncomfortable probings about the functional role of women in Japanese society, and the humiliating gesticulations they are often forced to endure in order to secure love and social acceptance.

May (2002)

Also directed by Lucky McKee, May was the director’s breakout feature. It stars the inimitable Angela Bettis as an awkward and socially isolated young woman who, after several painfully aborted attempts at friendship and intimacy with her peers, becomes obsessed with the idea of assembling a friend from scratch – literally. May is a beautiful and sad film about loneliness, and although she’s the perpetrator of most of its violence, May remains a tragically sympathetic character throughout, struggling through a veil of constant pain and confusion to create and sustain some consistent source of safety and love.

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

A weird little low-budget potboiler from the grindhouse era, Alice, Sweet Alice is most often referenced today as the first movie ever to feature Brooke Shields. Bitterly jealous of her angelic younger sister, disgruntled and disheveled Alice appears deeply disturbed after her sister is brutally murdered on the day of her first communion. Ever the family’s black sheep, Alice’s problems worsen as snide accusations are endlessly flung at her by a mounting array of her parents’ callous suburban associates, a few of whom subsequently begin mysteriously terrorized by a masked stalker in a yellow raincoat. Alice, Sweet Alice addresses themes about female adolescence, but it’s also notable for presaging the masked murderer craze of the 1980s with a mysterious but obviously female masked stalker becoming the movie’s foremost actor fairly early on in the story.

Antichrist (2009)

The most complex and disturbing movie on this list is Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, and not only because it includes graphic close-ups of what is ostensibly Willem Defoe’s actual penis. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as the grieving mother of a dead child, Antichrist is a searing and provocative exploration of female subjugation and retaliation, not just in a single instance, but as a largely obscured and brutally embedded historical tradition. As beautiful and haunting as it is shatteringly violent, Antichrist is a devastating film, emotionally, philosophically, and visually.

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Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline and writer of the weekly series Terror Cult. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby.