25 Memorable Slasher Starlets

With Sorority Row in theatres this week, we take a look at the actress-slash-victims of the past, present, and future...

by | September 10, 2009 | Comments

In this week’s Sorority Row, the sexy starlets got us thinking about slasher-genre scream queens past, present and future. Why they’re cast is a no brainer — they’re cheap, they look good, they can act a little and scream in terror a lot. Why they take the roles is similarly easy to answer — most slasher movies find an eager and devoted audience and get actresses exposure. But what happens next depends on how well they play their 15 minutes of fright fame. Sometimes, it leads to enduring popularity and even Oscars. Othertimes, to obscurity. And as we’ll see, being the “final girl” alive isn’t always an advantage.

Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal slasher took Janet Leigh, already a star, and made her an immortal — by killing her off early in the indelible shower scene. Leigh got an Oscar nomination for her work, remained a big star through the 1960s and, importantly for the genre, gave birth to Jamie Lee Curtis, with whom she’d co-star in 1998’s Halloween: H20. Meanwhile, Psycho‘s Vera Miles, who played “final girl” Marion, worked only sporadically in B-grade flicks until she took a role in 1983’s Psycho II. A lesson here: sometimes it pays to die big.

Bob Clark’s hugely influential slasher flick, which anticipated Halloween‘s seasonal title and stalker-cam, as well the he’s-calling-from-inside-the-house of When a Stranger Calls, offered two lead scream queens. Olivia Hussey, already a star for Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, played “final girl” Jess. But it was up-and-comer Margot Kidder, as the boozy, foul-mouthed and soon-to-die Barb that audiences remembered. While Hussey’s star waned, Kidder’s soared, thanks to the Superman movies and The Amityville Horror. Her career derailed in the mid-1990s due to her bipolar disorder, but she returned to acting and popped up recently as Laurie Strode’s headshrinker in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. Another lesson: old scream queens never die, they just do cameos.

Arguably the most enduring and liked scream queen in cinematic history, Jamie took a leaf from her mom’s book by making her name with her debut in John Carpenter’s terrifying Halloween. While Laurie was in danger of being overshadowed by her more sexed-up co-stars, particularly P.J. Soles, her nice-gal virgin status meant she lived to see the end credits. And Curtis wasn’t above making more genre flicks — and for the next five years she did nothing else, with The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train, Halloween II (pictured) and Road Games. Realizing she needed to move on, Curtis successfully branched into comedy with hits Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda and Freaky Friday, and also showed us how good she could look in True Lies. Not forgetting her roots, the actress also returned to the Laurie Strode role in Halloween: H20 and Halloween Resurrection.

By the time Carol Kane made this film, she was a very respected actress who’d starred in The Last Detail, Dog Day Afternoon and Annie Hall, and who’d been Oscar-nominated for 1975’s Hester Street. It was an unusual choice, but the film was a minor box-office hit, largely on the strength of its opening 22 minutes. But after that Kane’s career trajectory saw her take more supporting roles, and not always in successful films, with Transylvania 6-5000 and Joe Versus the Volcano stinking up her resume. Things weren’t helped by Kane reprising the Jill Johnson role in 1993’s TV movie When A Stranger Calls Back. Possible lesson: if you’ve worked with Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet and Hal Ashby, you probably don’t need to do a slasher film.

Having seen what Halloween did for Jamie Lee, no doubt Adrienne King had her sights set on stardom when she landed the “final girl” role of Alice in Friday the 13th. She survived the film — memorably chopping off mama Vorhees’ head — and starred in 1981’s Friday the 13th: Part 2. Problem was, her screen presence inspired a deranged stalker, who tried to break down the door of her apartment. The life imitating art angle of this impressed Adrienne not at all, and she instead carved out a career as a voice actress and artist. Her role in this year’s horror Walking Distance marks her first screen appearance in 28 years.

What’s a 1970s TV star to do when falling ratings finally mean you get evicted from The Little House On The Prairie? In Melissa Sue Anderson’s case she took the lead in this Canadian slasher, whose poster memorably promised death by shish kebab. Tastier is that Melissa played both Ginny, the “final girl”, and her doppelganger, the birthday-obsessed wack job. Look for a new generation of fans when it’s re-released on DVD this year, with the original artwork intact. But Happy Birthday To Me didn’t break Melissa Sue Anderson into the big-screen business, with her subsequent acting in either TV movies (10.5 Apocalypse) or obscure indies (1990’s Dead Men Don’t Die).

Just as Halloween aped Black Christmas and Friday the 13th aped Halloween, The Burning was a close fit for Friday the 13th, being the story of kids at a camp where bad stuff once went down. Enter a killer named Cropsy. He has a molten face, a big pair of scissors and a very bad attitude. The Burning‘s trailer, with its repeated voiceover warning “Don’t!”, was one of the inspirations for Edgar Wright’s hilarious fake trailer in Grindhouse. This is most notable for being the debut for Holly Hunter who, perhaps anticipating her Oscar-winning turn in 1993’s The Piano, was given no dialogue. Other fun facts — Jason Alexander, future George in Seinfeld, was in this, and it was the first flick produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein under their Miramax banner. [Note: Holly’s… not pictured.]

Wes Craven’s slasher revitalized the ailing, hacky genre with the introduction of a new supernatural villain who was even freakier than Halloween‘s The Shape, Friday‘s Jason or The Burning‘s Cropsy. But Freddy Krueger’s charisma was a problem for Heather Langenkamp, who played “final girl” Nancy Thompson. While popular in the original and two sequels, she wasn’t able to translate that success into mainstream success, with the nearest thing she got to fame again being a five-episode arc in 1980s sitcom Growing Pains. Not to worry, though, she found a niche running the environmentally friendly Malibu Gum Company.

Early in her career, Renée Zellweger teamed up with Matthew McConaughey for this flat-out insane take on the family of cannibal killers. Written and directed by Kim Henkel, who wrote Tobe Hooper’s 1973 original, this has long been derided as one of the worst movies of the 1990s. Take another look. Yes, it’s loud and crass and crazy but it’ll also have you on the edge of your seat, thanks to the wild performances from McConaughey, as the killer with the robot leg and some sort of Lynchian link to world power, and Zellweger as his much-abused victim who finally finds the will to fight. Within a few years, Zellweger would, thanks to Jerry Maguire and her Oscar-winning Cold Mountain, have no further use for the horror genre. But, with her last three live-action movies bombing (New in Town, Leatherheads, Appaloosa), maybe she could use the boost that creepy-kid flick Case 39 might offer.

After Elm Street, slasher-horror entered a decline until Wes Craven and scriptwriter Kevin Williamson turned the genre on its severed ear by sending up its conventions in the hyper-self-aware Scream. The Weinsteins put up the $14m budget — a fortune for such fare — and that meant it needed names, which it got in Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox and Neve Campbell. But it was also the launch-pad for little known Rose McGowan, who’d until then been relegated to bit parts in Pauly Shore flicks and was the praised lead in underseen indie The Doom Generation. While her character Tatum’s mission to get brewskis from the garage would lead to Ghostface arranging her head-squashing with the roller door, McGowan’s career fared a bit better, with Charmed and Planet Terror earning her a devoted fanbase, if not yet a breakout mainstream hit.

The success of Scream helped this straighter, duller slasher, also from the pen of Kevin Williamson, get into cinemas. Jennifer Love Hewitt was the “final girl” but before long her similarly tripled-barreled co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar would be the bigger star. That year saw her take on TV’s Buffy and the megahit Scream 2. A smart gal, she opted for a more serious route with Cruel Intentions and went for rom-com in Simply Irresistible. Thing is, audiences really want to see her spooked, whether for laughs in the massive-grossing Scooby-Doo flicks or in the likes of The Grudge, which raked in $110m. With her last few flicks (Suburban Girl, The Air I Breathe) tanking, it might be time for Sarah to face off once again against a creep in a yellow slicker, a creep in a ghost mask… or maybe just Edward Cullen.

Following the Psycho formula re-established by Scream‘s early kill of Drew Barrymore, this one offed Natasha Gregson-Wagner in the opener. That left Rebecca Gayheart, Alicia Witt and new cutie Tara Reid in the picture to be killed off. Playing a college sex therapist helped audiences remember Tara, and she was soon on her way to the A-list with American Pie and Cruel Intentions. Even flops like Josie and the Pussycats and Dr. T and the Women weren’t career killers, and she was back at the top of the box office with American Pie‘s sequel and early Ryan Reynolds’ hit Van Wilder. But then the Tara Reid car crash began, with her party-girl shenanigans making people forget how they’d warmed to her raspy comic appeal. The slide translated to the big screen, with her thereafter languishing in F-grade horror such as Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark and Incubus.

Between Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There and Wendy and Lucy, Oscar nominee Michelle Williams is shaping up as one of the finest actresses of her generation. But her first big box-office hit was this belated resurrection of the franchise. In it, she stars as Molly, a horny student at the exclusive school run by Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. Of course, Michael, aka, The Shape comes a-calling. Getting chased by him did Michelle’s career no harm but, that said, it’s unlikely she’ll be back ducking psycho blades at any time in the future. Unless, of course, you count Scorsese’s Shutter Island.

In this under-rated and sly comic take on the slasher genre, the kids scramble to lose their virginity because the maniac only kills the pure, hence the title. Having then-rising star Brittany Murphy, fresh off Girl, Interrupted, didn’t help Cherry Falls‘ prospects and this $14m production, which had to go to the MPAA five times before they approved a cut, didn’t even make it to theaters. Brittany’s climb would continue for a while — with 8 Mile, Just Married and Sin City — but the misses soon outnumbered the hits. As her pay packet has shrunk, she’s returned to horror-tinged thrills with Deadline, Abandoned and Something Wicked.

No-one can accuse Ms. Heigl of being an overnight success, and she’s been working solidly since 1992. During the ’90s she played daughter roles to Gerard Depardieu and Steven Segal, and in 1999 signed on to this, director Jamie Blanks’ follow up to Urban Legend. In it, Heigl, who supposedly later claimed she wouldn’t have done it if she’d read the script properly, plays Shelley, a med student who has her throat slit early in proceedings. Fun fact: Tara Reid and Jennifer Love Hewitt were originally cast in the roles that went to Jessica Capshaw and Denise Richards. As for Heigl, despite being dead, she passed her med school exams and graduated to mega-stardom in Grey’s Anatomy and then Knocked Up, 27 Dresses and this year’s The Ugly Truth.

Like any number of slasher starlets before her, Jessica Biel jumped from a successful TV series — in this case, 7th Heaven — to “final girl” in Marcus Nispel’s forceful remake of Tobe Hooper’s ferocious original. Dudes who wouldn’t be caught dead watching 7th Heaven became overnight Biel fans. But it has been a rocky-ish road since then for the actress. After Blade: Trinity, Biel broadened her horizons but hasn’t often found the right material to suit her talents. She was good in The Illusionist, but seemed out of place in I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry and Stealth. Horror’s not on her immediate horizon, but her next flick Nailed sounds like it could be on offcut from an offal-spiller. In it, she plays a girl who gets a nail stuck in her head, which causes her to act erratically but leads her into the arms of Jake Gyllenhaal.

This $1.2m indie, which generated a franchise worth half-a-billion, added “torture porn” to the psychotic killer mix, with controversial results. A considerable degree of Saw‘s impact was thanks to a cunning viral campaign which featured Shawnee Smith with her mouth about to be ripped off by an explosive face trap. Despite having done a lot of movies in the 1980s and 1990s, including Summer School and The Desperate Hours, Smith was at the time of Saw‘s production best known as “the dumb girl from Becker“. This movie changed all of that, and she’s appeared in each of the sequels (see Saw II, pictured). As for whether she’ll break from horror, well, if she’s getting back-end each time a Saw is released in time for Halloween, she’ll probably never need to work again.

The loose remake of the 1933 early-Technicolor experiment Mystery of the Wax Museum and 1953 3-D hit House of Wax had one special effect: Paris Hilton’s ability to generate publicity. Producer Joel Silver admitted the heiress had been cast for just that reason. In fairness, she wasn’t terrible in the film, but the death scene, which mocked her infamous home video, was just, well, weird. Happily, this one’s box-office failure just as effectively killed off Paris’ serious big-screen hopes. But if you really want to be frightened by a film she’s in, just try to sit through The Hillz or The Hottie and the Nottie.

This franchise cast Death his bad self as a serial killer, whose favorite method is inescapable fate, directed mostly at teens via insanely complicated series of events that culminate in spectacular terminations. Mary Elizabeth Winstead — who’d been noticed in kiddie comedy Sky High — landed the role of the final girl, the one who lives long enough to see her pals suntanned to death, impaled and nail gunned. She wasn’t so lucky in 2006’s Black Christmas remake (above), which saw her blood spray all over a car, but she at least avoided such a fate in 2007’s Death Proof. Winstead’s next role — as love interest Ramona V. Flowers in Edgar Wright’s comic fantasy Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World — sounds just the change of pace.

Once Mr. Zombie had established the whys-and-whats of Michael Myers’ “backstory” in his reimagining of Halloween, he switched over to more familiar ground — The Shape stalking Laurie Strode on Halloween. Compton held her ground well enough against her big, bad brother well enough that she was brought back for Halloween II. The daughter of a mortician, she’s a true believer in the genre and happy to tell fans about her love for Chucky, Jason and, of course, The Shape. She has another teen thriller in the can — Triple Dog, which looks a cross between Sorority Row and Dead Man’s Curve — but after that, Scout’s smartly diversifying as Lita Ford, opposite Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, in The Runaways.

This blonde beauty’s career started with a bang — her third film was Pearl Harbor — but there’s been a lot of whimper since and she has struggled to nail leading lady status on the big screen. Her turn as Goldie in Sin City helped keep her in fanboy hearts but critically panned flicks like White Chicks, Bulletproof Monk and The Spirit did her few favors. Redemption, perhaps, has been found in the slasher genre. As Sarah in this year’s 3-D My Bloody Valentine remake, she was the last girl standing, with the film clocking up an impressive $51m at the box office. Realizing she’s on a good thing, King has signed on for Saw sequel director Darren Lynn Bousman’s remake of Mother’s Day.

Like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danielle got her start in Sky High. She then gravitated toward the killer-thriller with a supporting role as Kevin Costner’s daughter in the nutty but enjoyable Mr. Brooks. She embraced the role of Jenna in Friday the 13th but didn’t quite make it out of that one alive. She did however impress enough that her next two flicks are horrors. Panabaker co-stars opposite Timothy Olyphant in next year’s remake of George A. Romero’s viral horror The Crazies and she’s now shooting The Ward, Halloween director John Carpenter’s long-awaited return to fright features.

We won’t spoil it for you by revealing when/if/how the daughter of Bruce and Demi buys the farm in this week’s Sorority Row. But we’re thinking that after playing support roles in her parents’ movies — 1996’s Striptease; 2005’s Hostage — this is Ms. Willis’ way of announcing herself to the world. But we can’t really foresee a scream queen future for her, with her next film supposedly a quirky comedy called Slightly Single in L.A. As for her star prospects, we’d rate them as pretty good. It’s in the genes, you know. And in the address book.

For our money, Briana Evigan is the one to watch out of the current crop of slasher starlets. Like Rumer, her dad was an actor, most famous as B.J. McKay in B.J. and the Bear (where, one asks, is the big-screen version of that?). Briana made her debut in 1997, aged just 10, opposite him in horror flick Spectre, but really impressed with both her dancing and acting in last year’s Step Up 2 the Streets. As moral center Cassidy in Sorority Row, she’s a knockout, and it helps that the movie is shaping up to be one of the more enjoyable slashers in years. But it’s the one-woman film she already has in the can that really could prove her breakthrough. Burning Bright (above) has her as a teenage girl who has to protect her autistic brother from a tiger loose in their house in the chaos after a hurricane. “Briana is authentically Briana,” Bright‘s director Carlos Brooks told RT. “That’s why both the fanboys and the girls love her. She’s got huge crossover appeal — she’ll be a star because she’s got the guts to be herself.”

Rooney’s the wild card because so little is known about her work. She did make her debut in 2005’s straight-to-disc Urban Legends: Bloody Mary and has a part in the upcoming Michael Cera comedy Youth in Revolt. What we do know is that she’ll take on the Nancy Thompson role and that she has apparently signed on for a sequel. Lesson: learn from the Langenkamp.