Toni Collette

Toni Collette in 'Hereditary'. Image sourced from IMDB Production Credit:A24.

Women have driven many of the most acclaimed horror films due to their brilliant performances. Characters such as Shelley Duvall in “The Shining”, Tippi Hedren in Hitchock’s “The Birds”, Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween”, Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby”, and Neve Campbell in the ‘90s slasher flick “Scream” stand the test of time. These women fearlessly fought the monsters of their realities, and for the most part —survived. 

Here is a list of outstanding performances by women in horror cinema: 

Toni Collette in “Hereditary"

The family drama, directed by Ari Aster, is an essential modern staple to the horror genre. Debuted in the summer of 2018, the dysfunctional family horror-drama finds Annie (Toni Collette) reeling from the loss of her family members, only for the mysteries of her family’s past to lead the film down a rabbit hole of the occult. Toni Collette doesn’t act, she becomes the character. Through Annie’s tears and wailing in pain, the obsessive compulsions that drive her throughout the story give way to a dark performance. Toni Collete received a nomination for Best Female Lead, and Ari Aster was nominated for Best First Feature, at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. 

Isabelle Adjani in “Possession”

“Possession,” directed by Andrzej Żuławski and released in 1981, was heavily censored in the U.S. and otherwise banned for a time in the U.K. Britain labeled the film as a ‘video nasty’ and was otherwise heavily edited by different studios. In recent years, the film has acquired a cult following, partially due to the inability to find a copy of the faithful version of Żuławski’s film. After a young mother named Anna (Isabelle Adjani) begs her husband for a divorce, their relationship falls into a startling mess of terror. Adjani gives a full-bodied, unrestrained performance, willing the camera to herself as she slowly descends into her possession. As Anna, Adjani utilizes her body, especially the chaos in her hands and legs and delivers a spine-chilling performance through her screams. Adjani received the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as at the French equivalent César Awards. 

Lupita Nyong’o in “Us” 

Jordan Peele’s sophomore film, released in 2019, follows Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family vacationing in Santa Cruz, California, where their ‘tethered’ —Peele’s depiction of doppelgänger’s— erupt from the tunnels below the seaside town and begin to pick off their counterparts one by one. Nyong’o dominates the film with her portrayal of Adelaide and her doppelgänger, Red. Nyong’o commits fully to both roles, interchangeably. It is choreographed deliberately, every intrinsic detail from Nyong’o’s tiny head tilt as Red, and delivery as both Adelaide and her ‘tethered’ is both careful and deliberate and very much well-crafted. It is a revelation. 

Many of these on-screen stories could be considered horror-tinged coming-age-drama’s, as these characters confront the darkest parts of themselves. They morph into otherworldly presences that begin to eat away at not only their own lives but the lives around them. The monsters are metaphors, in the grimmest way possible. And yet the directors of these films give us a sense of hope and rebirth in the worst and unexpected way possible: death.