Almost every slasher movie has a final girl, a virginal do-gooder who manages to survive the myriad horrors of being in a slasher flick while her friends drop like flies around her. While final girls have been a horror trope since the 1970s, the term was coined in 1992 by Carol J. Clover in her seminal study of sexuality and horror cinema, Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Clover defines the Final Girl as “the Girl Scout, the bookworm, the mechanic. Unlike her girlfriends … she is not sexually active. ...The Final Girl is also watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore, she registers. Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in a pinch.” The Final Girl is also usually (but not always) brunette, and often has a gender-neutral name.
The Final Girl has become a staple of horror cinema, from Laurie in Halloween to Sidney in Scream (though the latter manages to have sex and still survive). Subverting old tropes is currently en vogue, however, and a recent swathe of horror flicks has taken the trope to task. Here are five of the best subverted Final Girls, each with her own unique twist on the formula. (Spoilers ahead!)
Drew Goddard’s horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods is a fantastic meta-examination of horror tropes. Five friends go to a remote cabin for a vacation, only to get sucked into a plot to satisfy ancient gods through human sacrifice, using horror tropes as weapons. Dana (House of Cards’ Kristen Connolly) is the “virgin,” the final girl who can survive, as long as all of her friends have already died. Each of the five friends fits into a horror stereotype: the athlete, the fool, the whore and the scholar. Dana even argues against being “the virgin,” but the Director in charge of the sacrifices (Sigourney Weaver) tells her that they’ll “take what they can get.”
Dana fits the mold of a typical final girl: she’s fairly chaste, intelligent and resourceful. She manages to survive despite having the odds heavily stacked against her. What makes Dana unique, however, is that she eventually learns about her final girl status. She then has to deal with this knowledge, and the fact that she can only survive if her friends don’t. Watching Dana grapple with her final girl status and what that means sets her apart, and makes for a great climax in a film based around deconstructing tropes.
If The Cabin in the Woods subverts tropes, The Final Girls examines them before smashing them to bits. This comedy-slasher flick stars American Horror Story’s Taissa Farmiga as Max, one of the titular final girls. Max’s mother was an actress who starred as the final girl, Nancy, in an ’80s slasher flick called Camp Bloodbath. After losing her mother in a car accident, Max and her friends accidentally end up in Camp Bloodbath. They then must use their knowledge of the film (and horror tropes in general) to survive the film’s machete-wielding maniac.
Max not only endures the trials of being a final girl, but also the pain of seeing Nancy alive in the flesh when her mother is dead. She tries to help Nancy survive, hoping that maybe the two of them can be together in that way. For a slasher film, The Final Girls has an incredible amount of heart. It’s surprisingly sweet, and its PG-13 rating means families can enjoy it together. Max is one of the most fascinating final girls in movie history because she knows what she is from the start.
Final girls are supposed to be resourceful, but they generally don’t fight back. That is not the case, however, in the indie horror flick You’re Next. Step Up 3D’s Sharni Vinson stars as Erin, a young woman who grew up on a survivalist compound with her family. Erin goes with her boyfriend Crispian to his family’s reunion dinner when all hell breaks loose. Home invaders in white animal masks begin killing off the guests and family one by one, but Erin strikes back.
Erin is a total badass, and she turns the tables on her would-be attackers. She brutally kills them using a variety of weapons and skills. Her unusual upbringing makes her perfectly prepared for the masked assailants. Her competence as a survivalist takes You’re Next’s third act in an unexpected direction, and cements her place as one of the most entertaining final girls in cinema.
In Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse entry, Death Proof, a crazed killer named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) brutally murders beautiful women using his car as the weapon. After recovering from a wreck in which he killed five women, Stuntman Mike sets his sights on the films’ second set of victims: Zoë (Zoë Bell), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and Kim (Tracie Thoms). The trio are out on a dangerous joyride while they play “ships’ mast” and Zoë hangs onto the car’s hood. Mike tries to run them off the road, and the games begin.
Each of the girls is a twist on the final girl trope. Abernathy isn’t virginal but is decidedly more prudish than her friends. Kim is a tough girl whose specialty is stunt driving, and Zoë is a stuntwoman who has cat-like reflexes. Combined, the trio make a perfect final girl, though they end up not only surviving Mike, but punishing him, as well. The movie’s final scene depicts the girls beating Stuntman Mike bloody while “Chick Habit” by April March plays. It’s deeply satisfying to see the “victims” take control and beat the sniveling Mike senseless.
In the indie horror The Witch, a devout Puritan farmer and his family are banished from their church-controlled village due to differences in beliefs. Teenage daughter Thomasin is left in charge of her siblings, including troublesome twins, Mercy and Jonas. One day, Thomasin is playing with her baby brother Samuel when Samuel mysteriously disappears. From that moment forward, evil plagues the family.
Thomasin is an especially unique final girl. While The Witch is not a slasher, it still has the kind of body count expected from that kind of horror. Thomasin is virginal, intelligent and resourceful. Instead of simply surviving the evil of the witch, Thomasin embraces it and becomes a witch herself. She moves beyond final girl status and becomes part of the very darkness that overtook her family. There is a real kind of power in her acceptance of the wild, feminine, sexual side of herself.