Monstrous Women: The 5 Best Women-Turned-Monsters in Film
In horror and science fiction genres, female monsters and baddies have graced the big screen for decades. This article will count down the five best monstrous women in film. To clarify, I'm avoiding villainesses – antagonistic characters that usually enter the film already fully-formed monsters. Instead, I'm interested in looking at women who transform into monsters over the course of the film (or a series of films), and with whom the audience generally sympathizes and identifies. I have also avoided including women who are demonically possessed or turned into vampires; to me, the more interesting characters are women who are transformed into monsters through the machinations of science, genetics, or something even more bizarre.
1) Irena Dubrovna (Cat People, 1942)
This Jacques Tourner directed and Val Lewton produced gem is a nuanced portrayal of sexual repression and dysfunction. Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian national, has moved to America to work as a fashion artist; she meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), an American engineer, and falls in love. They marry and begin their life together. But Irena has a terrible secret: the people of her village (she calls them "cat people") have a legend that in times of great emotion they transform into dangerous panthers. Although the Hays Code wouldn't allow anything so explicit, the unstated problem is that Irena thinks that if she has sex with Oliver, she will transform into a panther and kill him by accident. Oliver promises to give her "time," but rather quickly pushes her to see a psychiatrist (the sleazy Dr. Judd) to empty her head of these "fairy tales". Things are made even more complicated by Oliver's relationship with his coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph), who is in love with him. At a certain point in the film, the viewer is encouraged to begin identifying with Alice, and to fear Irena, who has become 'psychotic' and intransigent, refusing to be admitted into a mental institution. However, in the end both Oliver and Alice realize that Irena was not crazy – she actually does transform into a panther, stalking them and killing Dr. Judd when he attempts to kiss her. The final line of the movie, "She never lied to us" is uttered by Oliver as he and Alice look down at the dead body of Irena. This is small consolation, considering that the two of them gaslit Irena, pressured her into treatment against her will, and ultimately led to her death. Even though the relationship between Alice and Oliver becomes the main focus of the film towards the end, Irena is still the most fascinating character in Cat People, and her monstrous transformation its most compelling element.
2) Ellen Ripley (the Alien franchise 1979-1997)
Aboard the space vessel Nostromo, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is a tough-as-nails warrant officer, protecting herself and her crew members from the titular alien (aka the "xenomorph") that boards their ship. At the end of Alien (1979), Ripley is the only remaining crew member, having expelled the alien into space via an airlock. The second film (Aliens,1986) picks up 57 years later, with Ripley awakening from stasis only to learn that Weyland-Yutani, the corporation that sent her crew to their deaths in the previous film, wants her to head to a terraforming colony they believe has been infiltrated by aliens. After initially refusing, Ripley's conscience drives her to go – she knows that the aliens are too dangerous to be left alive. Again, the aliens prove to be a formidable foe, and only a few soldiers and colonists make it out alive, Ripley included. Alien 3 (1992) begins with the escape pod from the end of Aliens crash-landing onto a prison planet. Ripley is – once again – the only survivor. And – once again – an alien has hitched a ride into the prison and is wreaking havoc, with Ripley being the only person that can stop it. More troubling, though, is that Ripley herself has been implanted with an alien embryo. This monstrous turn – from her being the alien's only true adversary to an incubator for the alien species – can be read as a problematic undoing of the toughness and impenetrability of the former Ripley. However, the film ends with Ripley heroically sacrificing herself – leaping into a furnace, killing the alien embryo inside her and preventing Weyland-Yutani from enacting their scheme to use the aliens as a biological weapon. Ripley's story doesn't end there, as she is cloned – her DNA mixed with that of a xenomorph - and returns in Alien: Resurrection (1997). In the final film of the original Alien series, Ripley has fully transformed into an alien-human hybrid, having traits like enhanced strength and acidic blood that more closely align her with the xenomorphs than with humanity. Despite this shift, Ripley 8 (as the clone is dubbed) still fights against the aliens and once again saves humanity from total destruction.
3) Gloria (Colossal, 2016)
In Colossal, Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a hard-partying city girl, returns to her small hometown after a difficult break-up. While she's trying to get back on her feet, strange things start happening across the world – in Seoul a kaiju seemingly apparates into existence and starts destroying neighborhoods. Through a series of complicated turns, Gloria realizes that the monster only appears when she is in a local park at exactly 8:05 AM; not only that, but the monster is apparently controlled by her, mimicking her every movement. Things get even more complicated when her childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), joins Gloria in the park and a giant robot appears in Seoul. The appearance of Gloria and Oscar's "doubles" creates worldwide panic, and obviously incredible guilt for the two accidental-monsters. But, accidental or no, Oscar soon becomes obsessed with the power he wields over Gloria; not only does he know her terrible secret, he also has the power to destroy Seoul, which he holds over her head in an effort to guilt and abuse her. In the end, rather than being a film about a woman fighting with the monstrous side of herself, Colossal is about abuse, power, and vulnerability: Oscar is the true monster, and [SPOILER] Gloria is only able to defeat him by fully embracing her own monstrous nature. Unlike the other monstrous women on this list, Gloria's body is never transformed into something monstrous – it comes as no surprise, then, that she is also the only woman on the list whose story has an (arguably) happy ending.
4) Carrie White (Carrie, 1976)
High-schooler Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is tormented by both her peers – who treat her as an outcast and mock her – and her mother, who is obsessively religious and controlling. Her understandable rage at her lack of control manifests as telekinetic powers, which develop when Carrie reaches sexual maturity. A teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), and fellow student Sue (Amy Irving), take pity on Carrie and encourage her to attend prom with a popular boy that has begrudgingly agreed to accompany Carrie upon Sue's request. However, some other students – angry that they have been punished for bullying Carrie – decide to get revenge by rigging the votes for Prom Queen so Carrie wins, and then dumping a bucket of pig blood on her when she goes on stage, humiliating her in front of the entire school. This final indignity pushes Carrie over the edge, and she uses her telekinesis to burn down the school and kill nearly all of her peers. Although the film's conflation of female sexuality with monstrosity could be read as misogynistic, Carrie's repression at the hands of a religious fundamentalist (her mother) and the bullying she endures from sexually mature women showcase the double bind of womanhood: the virgin and the slut are criticized in equal measure. Carrie's monstrous transformation is all the more terrifying because it mirrors the lack of control women have over their bodies and stories, and offers no reprieve for the tortured girl but death.
5) Nola Carveth (The Brood, 1979)
At the Somafree Institute, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) is studying "psychoplasmics" - a therapy that induces rage in a patient that then manifests into welts, tumors, and other physical alterations in the body. Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) has been admitted to the institute following a mental breakdown, and is shown receiving "therapy" in which Raglan roleplays as her father. During these therapy sessions it is revealed that Nola's parents were abusive and neglectful; and although it is never shown, there are indications that Raglan is sexually abusing her. Raglan and Nola's disturbing relationship aside, the film mostly focuses on Nola's estranged husband, Frank (Art Hindle), and daughter, Candy (Cindy Hines). Frank believes that Nola is abusing Candy during their visits, and wants to gain full custody of their daughter. Nola's rage at Frank, especially when she starts to think he is having an affair, manifests in more and more terrifying ways. Ultimately it is revealed that, through psychoplasmics, Nola's rage has created children – a "brood" of monstrous creatures that enact the violence that Nola imagines against those that have abused her. The most iconic scene in the film – where Nola reveals an external womb in which her children are manifested, before birthing one and licking the blood from its skin – is genuinely disturbing, not just because Nola's body has become a monstrous incubator of murderous not-children, but also because we recognize the abuse against her mind and body that has led to this. Although the death of Nola, Raglan, and their brood is meant to signal a happy ending for Frank and Candy, who both manage to survive the onslaught, we can see red welts appearing on the young girl's skin as they drive away. The message is clear – like her mother, Candy is capable of creating physical manifestations of her rage. Monstrosity is passed genetically, and it is hard to believe that at the end of the film the cycle of violence and abuse has been broken.