Covens, Sisterhoods and Packs: Ensemble Female Casts in Horror Films

With the recent news that 3 members of The Craft were being booked for conventions while Rachel True was conspicuously absent from proceedings it has really brought home how important ensemble casts are within horror films. The term ensemble suggests that each character within a film is given roughly equal amounts of screen time and the horror genre has done a great deal with the format including playing it straight and also subverting expectations, particularly within horrors aimed at a teen audience where star power is often a big selling point.

With February being Women in Horror Month I thought there would be no better time to explore some of my favourite groups of women in horror films. For this I’ve excluded duos and have looked to groups of three or more. In addition, I’ve excluded entries where men are part of the ensemble (which rules out a surprising amount). Unfortunately, this list is majority-white, which is perhaps indicative of the fact that BAME characters are frequently sidelined, or that I’m just not watching the right kind of content. I’d love to hear your recommendations for more diverse horror films and am certainly excited to start making my way through the Horror Noire syllabus.

The key thing about a horror film which revolves an ensemble female cast is that it broadens the character types to be played, even if some still fall into the realm of stereotypes. So often, there are calls for strong female characters to be represented in horror (and other genres, of course) and sometimes I feel that it is interpreted that strong characters are all to be heroic, perfect figures who are able to outrun, outsmart and outshine any villain they come up against. For me, strong characters mean depth, flaws and often becoming villains themselves. This idea is reflected within this list. The list has been arranged in chronological order and will contain spoilers for the films featured.

The Craft (1996) – Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell and Rachel True

The revelation that Rachel True was being excluded from reunions concerning the film also prompted confessions from True that some of her parts within the film had also been trimmed, meaning that her character was not given the same importance as her white co-stars. While Fairuza Balk’s Nancy Downs is arguably the breakout character that everyone recalls first when thinking about the film, it simply wouldn’t work without the contribution of all the actresses for balance.

The Craft is primarily a film about four teenage girls struggling to navigate their way through high school and while their interest in witchcraft adds some unique challenges, the majority of what they deal with is based in the teenage experience. All the girls have experiences and backgrounds which cause them to turn further to witchcraft and one another. They are empowered by their relationships, but it is also a story about how power can corrupt and how easily people who want to be seen can go along with it.

In having four characters who find a kinship with one another, despite their different backgrounds and goals The Craft remains an excellent teen movie, although it has a darker edge. Nancy is undoubtedly a victim of a mental illness, strengthened by her childhood problems and she suffers for it. Bonnie and Rochelle too, are punished for their transgressions and Sarah has to carefully come to terms with her own past and family history in order to improve. While their friendship is doomed to fail, their statement ‘we are the weirdos mister’ serves as a wonderful, subversive moment which kicks back at what young women are ‘supposed’ to be.

Jawbreaker (1999) – Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, Julie Benz and Judy Greer

Placing Jawbreaker in this article feels like something of a stretch, but this pitch-black comedy clearly owes a debt to the horror genre in terms of its dark comedy and also it’s casting choices involving a number of women who featured in other horror ensembles. McGowan (Scream), Gayheart (Urban Legends), and Benz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) have all worked within teen horror vehicles. The cruelty of high school is also invoked by the casting of a number of actors from Carrie in small roles.

I have fond memories of watching Jawbreaker – its excellent soundtrack, glossy production designs and suitably 90s fashions as well as its acerbic tone make it feel different to other teen movies of its type by being unafraid to deal with dark material and make its central figures truly villainous. As with The Craft there is always a moment where the true villain emerges and in Jawbreaker, it is undoubtedly Rose McGowan’s alpha-bitch Courtney (Satan in heels) who has to face the greatest punishments for her transgressions. Her calm and emotionless, “I killed Liz, I killed the teen dream. Deal with it.” being repeated over and over on a recording from a birthday card reveals her to the school as someone far more toxic than anyone imagined. Courtney truly is a dark figure. As soon as the accident in which their friend is killed by being choked by a jawbreaker in a botched birthday kidnapping, her mind immediately turns to staging a rape and sewing the seeds that the ‘perfect’ Liz Purr had a secret life with much more adult appetites. However, there’s relatively little room for anything too serious within the film – much of the film has its tongue placed firmly in its cheek and certainly owes a debt to Heathers.

Laughably dim Marcie (Julie Benz) is a real highlight of the film. Benz is clearly aware that she’s a sidekick within the ensemble, but her delivery of Marcie’s ditsy dialogue is so joyful it’s impossible for her to fade into the background. Rebecca Gayheart’s Julie is the conscience of the “Flawless Four” and is the most clearly affected by Liz’ death and Courtney’s manipulation of Fern. Fern (Judy Greer being delightful, as always) is a shy, geeky girl who finds out about the death and is promptly adopted by Courtney as a pet project. A zany makeover sequence turns Fern into Vylette (a plant to a flower) and she joins their ranks. Again, it’s a comment on the corruption of popularity within the high school and soon Vylette embraces her position. Fern is an admirer of Liz at the outset of the film and so the chance to become anything like her is particularly tempting. A Pam Grier cameo as Detective Vera Cruz is huge amounts of fun and her questioning sequences with the girls are wonderfully played.

While Jawbreaker is mostly a surface-level comedy with a dark edge but little in the way of commentary, it still allows its female characters to be good, bad, but most vitally, interesting. Now, 20 years after the original film, creator Darren Stein is listed as being involved in a Jawbreaker TV series. While little has been revealed about the project thus far, it seems that the accident occurs at a bachelorette party, aging the central group from the original high school setting. If the characters are even a little as fun as the original cast I’m sure it will be an interesting show.

The Descent (2005) – Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring and Nora-Jane Noone

The first entry on this list which I’d describe as terrifying – The Descent combines the claustrophobic nature of caving with a monster film and also an intense breakdown of female friendships to create a really effective horror which feels ageless thanks to its universal themes and carefully crafted environments.

Unlike the previous entries on this list, The Descent concerns slightly older women with a variety of different priorities in life, but all are invested in extreme sports. This immediately sets The Descent apart from some other female-led films by removing them from traditional domestic situations. In many female-led horror films, the horror invades women’s spaces, whereas in The Descent the female characters go looking for danger and thrills. This separation from domesticity occurs violently for Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) who we see lose her husband and daughter in a car crash a year before the caving expedition. The expedition is organised by Juno (Natalie Mendoza) who seeks to bring Sarah out of an isolated depression following the accident. While Sarah and Juno are central characters the other women are still represented as having their own concerns, opinions and skill sets which lead them to the weekend. Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) is represented as being reckless and in the true fashion of horror is punished for this by enduring a very bad accident in which her leg is broken.

Beth (Alex Reid) acts as a referee between some of the more forceful personalities and is also the most supportive of and sensitive to Sarah. Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are also more calm figures, with Sam’s medical skills helping to stabilise Holly’s leg. Over the course of the film the women all reveal insecurities and flaws which make them vulnerable to attack. Juno is quick to fight the creatures and it is her willingness to fight so quickly which results in her inadvertently killing Beth – the voice of reason and calm. Beth’s death does however reveal another side to Juno in that she had been having an affair with Sarah’s husband before his death. This exposes the tension between the two women as being more than a simple lack of Juno being there for her. It further ruptures Sarah’s idea of her previous life as a wife and mother and forces a confrontation between Sarah and Juno which, according to Linnie Blake evokes the “duelling traditions of the post-Peckinpah Western” ( The Wounds of Nations : Horror Cinema, Historical Trauma and National Identity) – another way in which traditionally masculine behaviour is transposed onto the women.

The threat of the monsters within the cave, especially given that they have evolved to live and hunt perfectly within the dark and damp atmosphere of the caves is reduced as the women become more dangerous themselves. The Descent has Sarah’s need for vengeance and catharsis through fighting and killing Juno override her ability to save herself or the other women from their hopeless situation. Her turn to something more primal and self-focused is not something usually seen in female characters and this is one of the biggest reasons that The Descent still feels so fresh a number of years on.

The Woman (2011) – Angela Bettis, Pollyanna McIntosh, Lauren Ashley Carter and Shyla Molhusen

I have made no secret about how much I love The Woman. It is an unashamedly dark piece of work which focuses on a man attempting to ‘civilise’ a feral woman he captures and the impact this has on his wider family. Unlike The Descent where we watch the characters descend (fully intended) into more primal versions of themselves, The Woman begins by showing us a female figure (Pollyanna McIntosh) who has made her own space in the world outside of normal society. She is seen as feral, but with an unspoken understanding with wolves in the area. When taken to the Cleek household by vicious patriarch Chris (played skin-crawlingly well by Sean Bridgers) she remains speechless, responding with only the violence she is capable of enacting from her vulnerable position.

Chris Cleek is an absolute monster and his crimes are revealed throughout the film. He is abusive to his wife Belle (Angela Bettis) and daughters Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) and Darlin (Shyla Molhusen) while encouraging son Brian (Zach Rand) to experiment with cruelty against The Woman, which soon extends to his classmates. Peggy is clearly the subject of abuse and a suspected pregnancy from her father. While mother Belle is clearly undermined, beaten by and fearful of Chris, she allows her children and The Woman to suffer rather than question him too far. This is why, when Peggy finally decides to unleash The Woman that she attacks Belle with equal ferocity to Chris due to her inaction. It is a complex and upsetting idea, because there is a feeling that Belle was a victim of circumstance, yet she allows that to result in pain and suffering for others.

The most shocking moment comes as Peggy’s worried schoolteacher approaches the home to confront Chris about his daughter’s pregnancy. The innocent schoolteacher is thrown into the barn with two German Shepard dogs, but also Socket (Alexa Marcigliano) – another feral woman who joins the dogs in their attack. It is the shock of this reveal which prompts Peggy to release The Woman. In The Descent Sarah unleashes her primal nature by choosing to kill Juno, whereas in this film The Woman becomes the physical embodiment of primal violence. Polite society, in the form of an intervening schoolteacher has failed and so Peggy is forced to fight along the same lines, even if she doesn’t possess the violence within her.

The ending of The Woman features The Woman, Socket, Darlin and Peggy all accepting that a life together in the wilderness is preferable to the chaos left behind and a world that has consistently failed them. Darlin’s reverence and trust of The Woman is especially touching as it is clearly something she has not experienced in her young life. Pollyanna McIntosh has directed a sequel to the film called Darlin which will debut at SXSW on March 9th. While I’m excited for the continuation of the ideas first displayed in this film and cannot wait to see what Darlin has to offer I’m also slightly concerned that the subject of the film hints at the dissolution of the strange family unit formed at the closure of The Woman.  Making Darlin the focal point hints at some very interesting possibilities.

American Mary (2012) – Katherine Isabelle, Tristan Risk and Paula Lindberg

In another example of images being deceiving, it is the female characters who at first appear as unusual and even potentially dangerous who are revealed as innocent people trying to find their way in a world which refuses to see them as anything more than ‘other’. Beatress (Tristan Risk) and Ruby (Paula Lindberg) don’t share a huge amount of screen time with our antihero Mary (Katherine Isabelle) but their characters and impacts have a long-lasting effect on the film.

Ruby seeks to turn herself into something more doll-like to protect herself from sexualisation. Beatress’ reasons for her transformation to a Betty-Boop-like figure are not fully explored although it is possible that it adds a unique selling point to her stripping performances. The film elevates the characters from their initial quirks and while Mary originally views Beatress as something of an unusual annoyance she does soften towards her.

The fact that all three succumb to male violence originally made me feel very despondent about the ending of the film and how much it could actually empower. However, that misses the point of the empowerment and how it moves through the film. Mary’s decline into being more of a villain than a hero after her rape is saddening but also suggests an ability for her to repair herself. This is most effectively realised in the film’s finale where Mary quite literally sews herself back together. She has to die, just because she is so far removed from the girl she started out as, but her death is restorative. In terms of Ruby and Beatress, they are primarily women who are self-actualised and walking their own paths, supported by their own money and means. While it is saddening and maddening that they are attacked that feeling can only be evoked by the fact that we care about them.

The fact that Mary is irretrievably changed by her attack at the hands of Doctor Grant and even her mutilation of him does not change how she feels (it only serves to send her on a darker path) is a subversion of many other rape-revenge films in which female characters are galvanised by their revenge plans and actions. Far from being a cathartic act, like Sarah in The Descent her desire for vengeance traps her and holds her in place, unable to move on. It would be easy (and perhaps preferable, if like me Beatress’ final phone call prompts you to cry all of the water out of your body) to have the film end with all three women heading off into the sunset, but it would do little for the depth of the world those characters are created in.

What are your favourite female-led ensemble cast in horror? Leave your suggestions in the comments or on Twitter @scaredsheepless.

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