Most female characters in film succumb to the Devil. They are used as vessels or conduits for the Anti-Christ, lesser demons or the grandiose ideas of an occult. More often than not- they are chased, seduced or beaten into submission by satanic happenings. But some of these women do display degrees of ingenuity, agency, and physical prowess in their battle against coercion and the corruption of souls. Ranked from weakest characterization to strongest, the following list discusses the faculties that these women retain in the face of evil. (Minor spoilers ahead).
Lisa Reiner in Lisa and the Devil (1973)
Lisa (Elke Sommer) is overtaken by the spirit of a long deceased woman named Elena and the Devil all at once. Trapped deep in her mind, we hardly know Lisa outside of her light, carefree existence as an American tourist right before her possession. Purely a vessel for the malevolent temptation of a priest or explaining why the Devil makes Elena and a house full of people play out the same scenario over and over again in hellish limbo- this film has little to do with the woman at center stage. The exploitative aspects of the plot only carry the film so far before it reveals how truly empty it is. The priest is concerned about releasing the poor, sweet girl buried deep within the beast before him but the visuals of the film are inordinately focused on the green goo (which is neon, not the pea soup green of The Exorcist) spilling forth and the naked conjurings at hand. The camp and over-the-top spin on events can be entertaining (along with the Devil’s lollipop licking assistant Telly Savalas) but Lisa and the rest of the characters are so lost to the Devil, that we have no idea who they once were and what they would have done or said without the satanic influence.
Maya Larkin in Lost Souls (2000)
Maya Larkin (Winona Ryder) and a group of Catholics believe that Satan has secured the body of a man to inhabit, just as God used the body of his son Jesus. Maya will go to any length to stop this possession that may spell the end of the world and tries desperately to convince Peter (Ben Chaplin) that he is the chosen one before he turns. While the special effects are top-notch, the suspense and dialogue fall flat. Maya is book smart, doesn’t dress to impress and isn’t at all made out to be a romantic interest. Lost Souls is to be commended for an entirely different take on a woman determined to best Satan with her mind and a little bit of brawn. Being the last one left standing with the knowledge of the Devil’s plan, the fate of humanity ultimately falls to her as the moment of transformation draws near. Chaplin’s Peter is almost entirely speechless and irate with inaction, but Maya presses the urgency of the situation with her words. It’s too bad that not nearly enough time is spent on talking about her life before her focus on Peter, as the exposition might have significantly helped amplify the disappointing catharsis we are served. Lost Souls is dull with little payoff but Maya’s powerful albeit underwritten co-lead makes it a strange curio.
Alison Parker in The Sentinel (1977)
A fashion model who has everything going for her but isn’t quite ready to get married to her overly anxious boyfriend, moves into a large house filled a bizarre assortment of characters that invite her into their offbeat lives. Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is naive but cognizant that not everything seems right with how close her neighbors want to be to her. The Sentinel takes the viewer to weird places- the most notable being a cat’s birthday party and the disturbing use of disabled people as a legion of demons. Alison floats between scenes, running from the unknown but somehow finds a place of power within the madness. Although this position may not be entirely of her own volition, it feels more like a privilege than the usual punishment that awaits most women characters in horror. It takes a while for The Sentinel to find a good pace and embrace its eccentricities, but the last third of the movie gives its heroine enough real reason to fear that it makes it a pleasantly peculiar watch.
John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is a one-of-a-kind take on the Devil. In this story, we have been lied to since the dawn of religion. The Devil is actually a foreign body- a substance kept hidden for centuries. If unleashed it will call forth the real evil we have to fear- an anti-God from outside our universe. Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) is a physics student drawn into the discovery of the substance who is lamely objectified by Jameson Parker (Simon & Simon) from the start by but doesn’t register being impressed by him in the least. Instead, she focuses on the momentous terror in front of her. Although she bears witness to the doom of others without much effectiveness- her action in the final part of the film is brave and clever as she ventures further than any of her other colleagues are willing to go. Prince of Darkness is a slow boil, with a lot of talk that’s thick with science and theology preceding anything happening- but the special effects are impressive and the end leaves you on the edge of wanting to know more of what happens to Catherine.
Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Farrow’s performance is spectacular as Rosemary, a sunny woman who turns sickly as her neighbors and husband progressively take away her independence and the welfare of her unborn child. She ranges from unmovable hope to grasping at life from the confines of a bed guarded by dark forces. Rosemary is on an odyssey of her mind and body. Isolated, vulnerable and increasingly paranoid (with good cause)- she nobly keeps up her will to live and to protect her child from the monsters that hold them prisoner. By arming herself with knowledge and riding her system of the supplements meant to placate her- Rosemary takes absolute charge of herself even if it seems like an insurmountable situation. Rosemary’s fate is not entirely in her hands but she is valiant in her undying effort to not fail her baby. Locked into a quiet hell, Rosemary is the saddest but most rewarding female who challenges the Devil and his minions because she is so brilliantly realized as a human being that is more than her body.
Katherine in The Reaping (2007)
Hilary Swank plays Katherine, a former Christian missionary who has become a professor, rationally explaining away biblical phenomena for a living. Enter David Morrissey (The Walking Dead, State of Play) hoping to get her to journey out to his small bible belt town to find out why their local river has turned red before the townspeople go after a small child (AnnaSophia Robb) affiliated with Satan worshippers. Katherine is allowed to stand on her own as the protagonist- although almost constantly surrounded by men who want to convince her of the power of faith- a faith she lost when her little girl died. Intelligent and curious, this woman is a professional who primarily explores her personal conflict with God and guilt without being a sacrificial lamb. With plagues of locusts, blood and pestilence raining down on the town, The Reaping packs an emotional and visual gauntlet of light religious horror into its running time. Although she is tricked and quite wrong at a few turns- her quick and competent thinking gives The Reaping a qualified edge over other ‘end of the world’ movies whose muted heroines run strictly behind men trying to make sense of what’s going on.
Jeryline in Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995)
Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight is laughable, ludicrous and beyond silly. The fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously helps ease the preposterous of the dialogue and action but it is how it surprisingly treats one woman in particular- that makes it stand out above other movies in the genre. Not that this film treats the other female characters with any semblance of respect- sleaze and cliches abound with a prostitute and nameless women used to tempt men. Billy Zane’s “The Collector” is clearly a middle-management demon looking to move up and to do so- he needs souls. He is well on his way to getting the job done when he matches wits with the gutsy Jeryline (Jada Pinkett before she was Pinkett Smith). Pinkett plays an ex-con trying to eek out an honest life. Watching roommates and strangers lose appendages and their lives to demonic pacts, she resists her deal. It’s an act of great strength to deny an offer of unlimited world travel after being so confined. The small statured Pinkett emerges as the last woman standing (as she would again in Set It Off) and it’s up to her when the satanic carnage ends. Her line deliveries are fiercely independent, not willing to let anyone or anything take hold of her spirit.