The Final Girl has been a fabric in the tapestry of horror cinema for as long as slashers and stalkers have been killing oversexed teenagers. It’s a common trope in horror cinema, still used today in just about every other horror film, and throughout the years the Final Girl has not only kicked off a franchise, it’s kickstarted careers.
The idea of one last girl, usually virginal and innocent and ultimately independent, has often been a way for the audience to identify with the characters in a horror movie. As Carol J. Clover points out in her book, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in The Modern Horror Film, the audience begins these films seeing things from the side of the killer or killers; before long, a strong female survivor begins to emerge, and the audience perspective shifts to their plight and ultimate defeat of whatever evil that’s in front of them.
And there have been some terrific Final Girls. Despite sharing so many traits, the best Final Girls manage to fit inside a box of identifiers while simultaneously forging their own path to freedom. Their escapes from the clutches of evil are often as iconic as the evil in question, their character sometimes just as impactful on pop culture as their adversary. We salute you, Final Girl, and we celebrate these five legends in the slasher-stopping business…
5. Nancy Thompson, A Nightmare on Elm Street – Heather Langenkamp got the rare (and by rare I mean only) opportunity to play The Final Girl both as her character, Nancy, and as herself in Wes Craven’s meta New Nightmare a decade later. Langenkamp isn’t the greatest actress no matter who she’s playing, but she fits here if by no other reason than she’s the one who got the gig.
Nancy stands out from so many Final Girls in that her sexuality, while incomparable to her poor friend Tina who gets sliced and diced on the ceiling, is not nearly as bottled up as those who came before and after her. Her sexuality is noticeable, at least more so than other survivors in these films, and she has a sharp edge to her persona to match the razor-handed Freddy Krueger.
4. Sally Hardesty, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – A few years before Jamie Lee Curtis gave a definite identity to The Final Girl, Marilyn Burns gave us what is still the most underrated final girl in slasher cinema history. And it’s hard to believe, because poor Sally has to endure, arguably, more pure insanity than anyone else on this list.
Both Sally and her friend, Pam, are on this trip with their boyfriends, so virginal virtues are probably out the window here. However, what gives Sally the sympathetic advantage over her doomed friends is the fact she’s saddled with Franklin, her pathetic invalid brother who we all can’t wait to see split in half by Leatherface. Sally is tortured at that iconic dinner scene, and sacrifices her body to escape more than just about any other Final Girl in cinematic history. And her last scene, at day break in the back of that truck, laughing maniacally, is one of the most impactful moments of pure madness in horror movie history.
3. Sidney Prescott, Scream – There were technically two Final Girls in Wes Craven’s horror deconstruction classic. But Gale Weathers doesn’t fit the traditional Final Girl trope. She has Dewey, she’s an outsider in this world of slasher victims, and she isn’t the icon of the franchise the way Neve Campbell’s sweet, virginal Sydney is.
Campbell is set up to be the Final Girl from the beginning, transforming from innocent girl next door to determined, vengeful enforcer – somewhere in those scenes after she lost her virginity, if we’re keeping up with what Craven is doing here. Campbell’s Prescott also got to be the Final Girl a few more times, in sequels of increasingly diminishing quality. And she got to be the last chick standing in all of the Scream films, an award shared with only one more: the next person on this list.
2. Ellen Ripley, Alien – True, there are those AvP films where Ellen Ripley wasn’t the last one to show down with acid-spewing Xenomorphs. But nobody cares about those, let’s be honest. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley has no sexuality, really, save for a few scantily-clad shots in the original Alien. She’s more concerned with destroying these creatures, she has no time for sex.
And that’s the unique thing about Ripley and her relationship with the killer stalking her. She has no complicated tie to the Xenomorph. She was just there when it infiltrated the Nostromo, and she is motivated by nothing more than pure, unadulterated hatred for the alien. She wants to destroy it, and she succeeds time and time again.
1. Laurie Strode, Halloween – Despite the fact that Sally was before her, and the true original Final Girl was Jesse Bradford (Olivia Hussey) in Black Christmas, it was Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode who, from top to bottom, defined The Final Girl forever.
Laurie Strode is sweet, innocent, a little nerdy, and loyal to her friends. She’s stuck babysitting these kids while her friend is busy hooking up across the street. Now she does smoke a little pot earlier int he day, before Michael Myers begins slicing throats, but hey this is the 70s. Everyone smoked pot in the movies. Regardless, Laurie’s evolution from innocent girl next door to true survivor is the overwhelming catalyst for John Carpenter’s classic.