I am starting to list some of the most memorable women in peril films over the past decades that have left an impression on me, and have made their mark on the horror/Noir/mystery/thriller genres.
Here are the films that I plan on discussing in depth with individual reviews to follow. I’m sure that I’ve forgotten some, so I’ll be periodically adding whatever films I might have overlooked during this series. Each day I’ll offer another essay on most, if not all of the films seen here. If there’s a film that you’ve notice I’ve omitted please feel free to drop me a note and I’ll gladly add it to the mix.
I’ve considered adding Rosemary’s Baby and The Mephisto Waltz, but I’d like to save them as a pair of essays on Witchcraft in cinema.
The criteria that I am using to classify what I consider to be a woman in peril film is how i view the plot narrative as seen a) through the female gaze b)there is one or several main female characters who are central to the plot and are not just on the periphery of the film. There are so many films where women characters are either victims, in danger or are targeted, and so their presence satellites around the story but does not drive the narrative enough for me to qualify it as for this sub-genre study.
As in Psycho,Dressed To Kill where the female lead is killed in the beginning these films we are following more of the Protagonist(Norman Bates) as in Peeping Tom, or Silence of The Lambs( Hannibal Lechter)where women have been murdered, they should be reserved for solo review because the plot is viewed through the Protagonist’s lens. In The Boston Strangler 1968 , there are various women victims, yet the film is shot almost sensitively facilitated by Henry Fonda’s character who guides Tony Curtis(Albert DeSalvo) through a self reflexive process in order to reassemble the time line and the motivation and substance of his insanity which lead to his crimes. It is more Psychological True Crime Police Drama
The films are not in any chronological order nor are they sorted by definition of how much I either loved the film or at least found the film entertaining. Here are some general synopsis:
You will notice that I am a huge fan of Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Baxter Joan Bennett, Joan Crawford,Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Grahame, Lee Remick, Simone Signoret and more. 70’s actresses like Faye Dunaway,Tuesday Weld, Joan Hackett, Barbara Parkins , Joanna Pettit, Stefanie Powers and more.
Beware My Lovely (1952)
Stars Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan who’s volatile temper makes him a walking time bomb.
The Blue Gardenia (1953) Starring Ann Baxter and Richard Conte
Baxter gets mixed up in a murder mystery and must try and figure out whether she’s the killer or not!
Lady In A Cage (1964)
Olivia de Havilland stars as The lady , Mrs.Hilyard, a wealthy poetess who lives in a three-story city mansion. The cage that the film refers to is her elevator, which remains suspended above the main floor due to an electrical failure on a July 4th weekend. While ringing her outside alarm, she is noticed by a drunken derelict, who breaks into the house, avails himself of several items and alcohol, but doesn’t come to Mrs.Hilyard’s aide. He leaves with the goods but returns a while later with a prostitute and three teenage hoodlums, one of which is played by James Caan, who proceed to terrorize Mrs.Hilyard as they wreck her home. A very early home invasion film for it’s time.
Cast A Dark Shadow (1955)
Stars Dirk Bogarde as the sociopath Edward “Teddy” Bare who marries an elderly woman Margaret Lockwood, for her money. He dotes on her until the time is right, then moves onto his next victim.
Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)
A masterpiece of Gothic proportions Robert Aldridge directs this southern Gothic tale with
Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis, an aging recluse living out her life on the secluded family plantation, living with delusions of past , lost loves. Tortured by horrible memories and hallucinations. Thirty-seven years before, John Mayhew her married lover, was gruesomely beheaded and mutilated by an unknown assailant.
Charlotte is a wealthy southern spinster who is shunned by her community for the grisly murder some 40 years prior.
She is taken care of by her faithful servant Velma played brilliantly by Agnes Moorehead. Charlotte holds up in the house refusing to leave when she is issued an eviction notice. Enter, “Cousin Miriam” with her gentleman friend played by Joseph Cotton. Unfortunately Miriam has other motivations for coming to the Hollis Plantation. Miriam is the sole beneficiary once she can manage to have Charlotte committed for her odd and reclusive behavior.This is a tragic and twisted tale of revenge and greed.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
Directed again by the great Robert Aldridge this was the first time he brought the two great titans together , regardless of how tumultuous their relationship was off screen.
Bette Davis plays Jane Hudson, a washed up child star living as a recluse in her mansion with her invalid sister, Blanche played by Joan Crawford. The psychological warfare that Jane wages against her sister a virtual prisoner is intense. A story of envy, jealousy, loss of youth and revenge.
Sudden Fear (1952)
Starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame.After an ambitious actor insinuates himself into the life of a wealthy middle-aged playwright and marries her, he plots with his mistress to murder her.
Die Die My Darling aka Fanatic (1965)
Stephanie Powers stars as Patricia Carroll who arrives in London to get remarried, and regretfully takes a detour out to the rural English countryside to see her former fiance’s mother the controlling Mrs Trefoile.Played by Tallulah Bankhead. Mrs.Trefoile blames Pat for automobile accident that killed her son.
Sorry Wrong Number (1948)
Barbara Stanwyck plays Leona Stevenson a daddy’s little girl married to Burt Lancaster. She’s a sickly,dependent wife confined to her bed. One night, she picks up the phone and accidentally overhears a conversation between two men planning a murder. She becomes increasingly desperate as she tries to work out who the victim is so the crime can be prevented.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Joan Fontaine becomes the second Mrs de Winter, new wife of Maxim de Winter Laurence Olivier who brings his bride back to his estate Manderlay. Ultimately she winds up living in the shadows of the first Mrs and a battle of the wills ensues with the great characterization of Mrs Danvers played by Judith Anderson, who keeps her unholy obsession with the first wife alive. Secrets, and sensuality, murder and malice.
Dial M For Murder (1954)
Another Hitchcock thriller:
Ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice decides to murder his wife for her money. He blackmails an old college associate to strangle her, but when things go wrong he sees a way to turn events to his advantage.
Ray Milland plays Tony Wendice who finds out that his wife Margo played by Grace Kelly had an affair.Tony sets out to plan the perfect murder but his plans go terribly astray when the killer becomes the victim instead.Wendice trying to cover everything up, decides then to make it appear that Margo had an ulterior motive for killing the man.
The Spiral Staircase (1945)
directed by Robert Siodmak
Dorothy McGuire plays Helen a pretty mute, who is a domestic worker for old ailing Mrs. Warren, the great Ethel Barrymore. Warren’s two sons, Albert (a professor) and womanizing impudent Steven, also live in the Warren mansion.
There are a series of murders involving ‘women with afflictions’ and Mrs Warren starts to worry about Helen. and when another murder occurs inside the Warren mansion, it becomes obvious that Helen is in danger.
Why does the flame go down? In a London house where the fixtures are gas flames. The lovely Ingrid Bergman plays Paula Anton who is being driven mad by husband Charles Boyer. Joseph Cotton plays a Scotland Yard detective who suspects that something isn’t quite right. suspects. This Oscar winning (Best Actress) dark mystery,introduces Angela Lansbury in her first acting role plays one of the servants. Also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Boyer).
Repulsion (1965)Catherine Deneuve plays a very troubled Belgian girl, Carol, who works as a manicurist at a London beauty salon. . She shares a flat with her sister Helen and her sister’s married lover, Michael.Carol has a distrust of men. The Landlord is a lecherous sort who terrorizes her, and ultimately her mind begins to unravel over a long weekend while she’s alone in the flat. Roman Polanski directs this disturbing imaginative film. The scenes of catalepsy and hallucination are very heavy as Carol descends into madness. I wrote a song called There’s A Crack In The Wall off my neo classical album The Last Drive In as a tribute to this film.
Reflections of Murder (1974)
Directed by John Badham and stars Tuesday Weld, Sam Waterston and Joan Hackett.this is a very faithful retelling of Diabolique.
Nightmare (1964) Hammer Horror
A British thriller by the Hammer group. A young girl is released from an institution on her sixteenth birthday, after having been believed to have killed her parents. Is someone trying to drive her mad?
A Kiss Before Dying (1956)
Robert Wagner plays a perfect all American sociopath in this film about an opportunistic fellow who sets his sights on becoming successful at any cost. When girlfriend Joanne Woodward gets pregnant that puts an obstacle in his way
Scream Of Fear aka Touch of Fear (1961) Hammer Horror
Starring Ann Todd, Christopher Lee and Susan Strasberg and scripted by Jimmy Sangster
In England, the body of a young girl is found determined to be an apparent suicide In Nice, France, the chauffeur, , dutifully arrives at the airport to pick up Penny Appleby(Susan Strasberg
).She is confined to a wheelchair since a long-ago horse riding accident, Penny has come to stay with her wealthy father and stepmother, Jane played by Ann Todd
All Penny knows is that she’s told her father is away, but she keeps seeing his corpse all around the house.
A Place In The Sun (1951) Based on Theordore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, stars Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters.
One of Curtis Harrington’s best psychological thrillers starring James Caan, Katherine Ross and Simone Signoret. Ross and Caan are a New York City couple who like to play games. Suddenly Simone Signoret comes into their lives and now the atmosphere changes from parlor games to deadly games.
Diabolique (1955) directed by Henri -George Clouzot
and starring Simone Signoret as the mistress to a cruel head master at a private school for boys. She befriends the emotionally abused wife played by Vera Clouzot.And this friendship starts a series of events that are equally mysterious and disturbing.
What’s The Matter With Helen (1971)
Curtis Harrington’s best film, starring Debbie Reynold’s Shelley Winters and Dennis Weaver. The two film queens, play mothers of sons who are convicted of the sensational crime of murder. To escape the scrutiny of the press and the public, they move and open up a small dance studio for little girls. But terror follows them as some unknown assailant is lurking in the shadow, or is there something seriously wrong with Helen ( Shelley Winters)
Wait Until Dark (1967)
Audrey Hepburn plays Susie a blind woman who spends most of the film in the claustrophobic apartment waiting for her husband to come home. He’s been asked to hold a doll for a woman as they get off an airplane. The doll winds up in Susie’s possession.Enters, Richard Crenna and Alan Arkin who play memorable roles as the thugs who are after the doll which has been stuffed with heroine.
See No Evil aka Blind Terror (1971)After being blinded in a horseback-riding accident, Sarah Mia Farrow, moves in with her aunt, uncle and cousin.During her absence the entire family is murdered. She is unaware of this until she stumbles onto the bodies, and now Sarah is trapped in the remote farmhouse and must try and escape the killer who is now hunting her.
Fright (1971)Susan George is the young babysitter Amanda who arrives at the Lloyd residence to spend the evening looking after their young son. There is an escaped maniac from the local asylum on the loose and soon a series of frightening occurrences in the dark old house has Amanda frightened to death.Starring Honor Blackman and Ian Bannen.
And Soon The Darkness ( 1970)
Pamela Franklin stars in this film about two British tourists, young girls who decide to travel the lovely country side of France only to encounter a psycho sexual rapist/murderer who begins to stalk them while vacationing. Very taut and claustrophobic journey of two girls out of their element and in harms way.
The Collector 1965)
Freddie (Terence Stamp) is a shy psychopathic bank clerk whose passion is collecting butterflies, When he becomes obsessed with art student Miranda Grey (Sammantha Eggar) he sets out to acquire her the same way. He prepares the cellar of the house to be a collecting/killing jar. Based on the novel by John Fowles.
The Stepford Wives (1972) Written and scripted by Ira Levin who also wrote Rosemary’s Baby and Boys from Brazil. It stars Katherine Ross, who unwittingly becomes the target of an elite group of men who decide that their wives in this bedroom town of successful beautiful people, aren’t quite perfect as they are. Also starring Paula Prentiss.
No Way To Treat A Lady (1968) Starring Rod Steiger, George Segal and Lee Remick. Directed by Jack Smight. George Segal is a nice jewish boy detective who’s under his mother’s thumb, this weary yet clever cop winds up playing a cat and mouse game with a highly dramatic and psychotic killer who is using the art of disguise to lure and trap his women victims. The element of the Oedipus complex is richly explored in this film and Steiger is masterful as a man coming undone on his mission to destroy his mother with every stroke of the redlipstick he leaves as his calling card.
Blood Simple (1984)
Joel Coen’s of the Coen Brothers startling thriller with Frances McDormand, M.Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedaya. A bar owner hires a private eye to follow his wife to make sure that she’s not cheating on him.
Night Watch (1973) Elizabeth Taylor plays Ellen Wheeler, a rich widow, who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. One day, while staring out the window, she witnesses a murder. No one especially her husband played by Laurence Harvey nor friend Billy Whitelaw believes that she’s actually seen a gruesome murder take place in the abandoned house across the courtyard.
Klute (1971) http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2492530969/
John Klute’s (Donald Sutherland)friend has totally disappeared. The only clue a connection with a call girl, Bree Daniels played by Jane Fond. Klute sets up shop in Bree’s apartment to try and uncover the answers to what has happened, and must guard against the allure of the beautiful New York City call-girl he enlists to help him,while putting her in grave danger.
You’ll Like My Mother (1972) made for television film
Patty Duke stars as a young pregnant woman who comes to her mother-in- law’s house after her husband dies. Something is not quite right in the house and Richard Thomas plays a really convincing psychopath in this chilling made for tv movie also stars Rosemary Murphy
Night Must Fall (1937)
Robert Montgomery plays the likable psychopath who is hiding out on the loose and keeping his victim’s head in a hat box. I prefer this earlier adaptation of the film with Rosalind Russell to the later 1964 version with Albert Finney. Robert Montgomery is spectacular as the charming psychopath, and Dame May Whitty is superb.
Starring Katherine Hepburn, she plays the wife of Robert Taylor who may be a psychopath trying to kill her. Also starring Robert Mitchum.
Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) another Hitchcock masterpiece.
this one’s about good old uncle Charlie masterfully played by Joseph Cotton, who just might be the Merry Widow Killer. Teresa Wright is his niece who starts to see him for who he really is.
The Secret Behind The Door (1947)Fritz Lang
Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave are exceptional in this tale of newlyweds Celia and Mark Lamphere. This is a Freudian journey of insanity, undying love and redemption. Is Redgrave a twisted murderer and will Bennett survive what lies behind the door.
The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947)
Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck and Alexis Smith.
Bogart is brilliant as he plays struggling artist Gerry Carroll who meets Sally while on holiday in the country. A romance develops but he doesn’t tell her he’s already married. Suffering from mental illness, Gerry returns home where he paints an impression of his wife as the angel of death and then promptly poisons her. He marries Sally but after a while he finds a strange urge to paint her as the angel of death too and history seems about to repeat itself. The film also stars the angelic Ann Carter as Carroll’s lonely daughter.
Looking For Mr Goodbar (1977)Directed by Richard Brooks
Stars Diane Keaton as a dedicated teacher of deaf children by day but lives a dual life as she cruises the bars at night looking for abusive men to have dangerous sexual encounters with. Also stars Richard Gere, and Tuesday Weld.
Ladies In Retirement (1941) Starring Ida Lupino as a housekeeper trying to look out for her two emotionally disturbed sisters. One of which is the wonderful Elsa Lanchester.
The Night Walker (1964) directed William Castle and written by Robert Bloch it stars Barbara Stanwyck who’s dream lover Lloyd Bochner may or may not be real. She is haunted by these nightly visions of her dead husband. Also starts Robert Taylor.
Cape Fear (1962)
Exceptional thriller especially from great performances by Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Polly Bergen. Peck is the lawyer who puts Mitchum a rageful psychopath, Max Cady in jail, and now he’s out to terrorize the entire family.
Experiment In Terror (1962)
Directed by Blake Edwards, Lee Remick plays Kelly Sherwood a woman who is being terrorized by a creepy asthmatic man named Garland “Red”Lynch brilliantly played by Ross Martin. He wants her to steal $100,000 from the bank where she works. Red kidnaps Kelly’s younger sister Stefanie Powers in order to strong arm her into doing what he wants. Glenn Ford plays the cool agent on Red’s trail.
The Eyes Of Laura Mars (1978) written for the screen by John Carpenter
Stars Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Dourif a very underrated actor.
Dunaway is a high fashion photographer and her models are being assailed and gruesomely murdered by a psychopath who doesn’t approve of her point of view as art. Very disturbing and well done thriller.
Based on Michael Crichton’s book, stars Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas. Bujold becomes curious about several deaths where patients are inexplicably going into comas.
A Howling In The Woods(1971) Barbara Eden stars as a woman who comes back to the family estate, only to find that her father has disappeared and her stepmother is acting strange. So are all the town folk. Vera Miles and Larry Hagman also star in this made for TV film
Death Car On The Freeway (1979)
Starring Shelley Hack and Peter Graves. There is a psychotic driver playing fiery fiddle music on his 8 track stereo as he runs women off the L.A. Freeway in his van. Fun made for tv film.
The Screaming Woman (1972)
The great Olivia de Havilland hears a woman crying from underneath the ground on her property, but no one in the area will believe her. Has Ed Nelson buried his wife alive?
Crescendo ( 1970) Scripted by Jimmy Sangster, Stefanie Powers is an American girl who goes to France to work on her thesis. She stays with the family of a famous pianist/composer, but something isn’t quite right.
Scream Pretty Peggy(1973)
Directed by Gordon Hessler, it stars Bette Davis the mother of Ted Bessell(That Girl) a sculptor who hires young girls to come and take care of his aged mother and insane sister.
The Mad Room (1969)
Remake of 1941’s “Ladies in Retirement” Stars Stella Stevens as a psychotic women who is a companion to the wealthy Shelley Winters. Stella’s younger sister and brother have just been released from an institution have believed that they killed their parents years ago.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (1973) tv film
John Newland directed this really spooky film starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton. About little evil gremlins that have been trapped in the family fireplace down the cellar. Classic spooky tv film
When Michael Calls (1972) made for tv film
Starring Michael Douglas, Ben Gazzara and Elizabeth Ashley plays Helen who keeps on receiving phone calls from a child, who claims being her nephew Michael – but Michael died 15 years ago.
Sweet Sweet Rachel (1971) made for tv film starring Pat Hingle, Louise Latham and Stefanie Powers.
An ESP expert uses his powers to try to track down a psychic who uses telepathy to commit murder.
A Taste Of Evil (1971)
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, this film stars Barbara Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowall and William Windom. Barbara Parkins has been in an institution after a brutal rape as a child. Now she’s come home to her mother’s house where it happened, and strange things begin to happen. Is she going crazy or is she being assailed by an unseen stalker?
Picture Mommy Dead (1966)Bert I Gordon directs something other than things either growing large or shrinking into oblivion this film is starring Don Ameche, Martha Hyer,and Zsa Zsa Gabor
Susan Shelley is released from an asylum where she’s been confined to after the shock suffered over the fiery death of her mother.
Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974)
Starring Laurence Harvey a Korean War veteran who lives with his sister Joanna Petit. A girl wandering on the beach is taken in by Harvey but she soon learns of his strange appetites. Also starring John Ireland and Stuart Whitman.