Slashers ruled the horror genre, and pop culture at large, during the 1980s, thanks to the dominance of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and countless clones. By the end of the decade, however, the subgenre had grown stale and repetitive, and audiences had moved on. The 1990s were mostly downtime for horror movies, with few making a lasting impact like so many did in the decades before. Still, as these women show, there was enough life left in the final girl trope to make these characters forever memorable in film history.
9. Marianne Hagan as Kara Strode in ‘Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers’ (1995)
By the mid 1990s, the Halloween franchise was a shell of what it used to be, but this fun yet odd entry, which is most known for helping to launch the career of Paul Rudd and was the last film of Donald Pleasance, has one of the best final girls of the series. With the Jamie Lloyd character from the previous two films killed off early on, it was up to a little known actress to carry the legacy forward. Kara Strode is not your typical final girl. At nearly thirty years old, Kara is a single mom living at home with her mother and abusive father. She’s struggling in life but continues to move forward. To make matters worse, Michael Myers and the cult that has taken him in is after Kara’s son so that his powers can be transferred to the young boy. No biggie. Kara shows that she will do all to save her son, even battling a supernatural Boogeyman.
8. Alicia Witt as Natalie Simon in ‘Urban Legend’ (1998)
After the success of Scream, countless imitators followed throughout the late 1990s. This is one of the better ones, mostly for its clever premise of a serial killer that murders based on popular urban legends. Natalie Simon is your typical final girl: young, pretty, likable. She has a dark past, however. Natalie is in college but in high school, during an urban legend prank she pulled, someone was accidentally killed. Now, all of her friends are dying around her, in the same urban legend fashion, as if the killer knows what she did. Natalie is a good person, despite her tragic mistake, and as the killer strikes, we watch her running into danger and doing everything to save her friends, including Paul (Jared Leto). A twist ending reveals the killer to be a woman (Rebecca Gayheart), a rarity in slashers, who is out for revenge, for it was her boyfriend that Natalie accidentally killed. While technically the final scene shows that the thought-dead killer is still alive, Natalie survives.
7. Jennifer Love Hewitt as Julie James in ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (1997)
This is the most popular of the Scream clones, with a hip 90s cast to match (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Ryan Phillipe are all here). Just as in Urban Legend, a killer is hunting down teenagers due to a car accident that resulted in a person’s death. Worse, these guys covered it up and took no responsibility. You almost root for the killer because of this, but Julie James’ strong and likable presence, along with her girl-next-door looks, is enough to pull you back in favor of the film’s protagonists. Julie is ashamed and remorseful for what happened, rather than cowardly. Still, when her friends start dying, she doesn’t turn away. She’s driven to find out who it is, investigating all the clues. In the end, she’s able to face down her attacker in a fight to the death. As in so many slashers, the dead killer returns for a jump scare in the last frame, setting up a sequel, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, where Julie emerges as the final girl once more.
6. A.J. Langer as Alice in ‘The People Under the Stairs’ (1991)
Horror may have not been a strong genre in the 1990s, but Wes Craven didn’t get the memo, as he had several big hits in the decade. In this clever film, a boy, Fool, (Brandon Adams) becomes trapped in a house with a psychotic couple (Everett McGill and Wendie Robie). He discovers a bunch of creepy kids locked in the basement, along with a more normal, kidnapped teenage girl named Alice. She has lived her entire life trapped in the home, but she and Fool help each other escape. Rather than having something awful happen to her while in the midst of living her normal life like most final girls, Alice has spent almost every day experiencing constant horrors, which makes her strength and will to get out all that much more admirable. You don’t just root for her to survive, you want Alice to live.
5. Jada Pinkett Smith as Jeryline in ‘Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight’ (1995)
One of the worst parts of the final girl trope is that the heroine is almost always white. Sometimes in the 90s there would be a Black woman who would make it to the end without being the final girl, such as Brandy in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer or Loretta Devine in Urban Legend, but to have a Black woman be the final girl is something you don’t see much of. Jeryline is a great exception. This film is both fun and scary, and though it’s a little “out there” at times, it’s kept under control by its protagonist. Her backstory is thin, but her portrayal is strong. Jeryline can take care of herself. While most final girls face very human antagonists, she has to take on demons. The fact that she comes out the victor against such seemingly insurmountable odds makes her a final girl that deserves more respect than she gets.
4. Christine Elise as Kyle in ‘Child’s Play 2’ (1990)
In the original Child’s Play, young Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) had his mom and a cop to help him fight the evil doll Chucky, who’s out to possess poor Andy. In the sequel his mom is institutionalized and the cop is nowhere to be seen. Andy is worse off, now in foster care and all alone. He is saved in more ways than one by a tough teenage foster girl in his home named Kyle. She doesn’t believe Andy’s stories about a doll come to life (who would?) but she cares about Andy and looks after him. When she realizes that Andy is telling the truth, she fights to save the young boy’s life. The film’s climax, a fun scene inside a doll factory, finds Andy and Kyle working together to take down the killer doll. They not only live, but now these two lost and lonely souls have each other.
3. Heather Langenkamp as Herself in ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’ (1994)
A decade after becoming the ultimate final girl of the 1980s, Heather Langenkamp came back to the franchise that made her a star, but this time, with a twist. She’s not playing her character of Nancy Thompson, who was killed off in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, but is playing a fictionalized version of herself. The slasher genre was seemingly dead, but a clever premise from Wes Craven brought Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) back, scarier than he’d been since the original film. This time, the villain isn’t actually Freddy but a demonic entity who has taken his form in a world where the Nightmare on Elm Street films are just that. Langenkamp gives us a bit of the Nancy that we all love, while also making the character different enough to resemble herself. This time around, she’s not a teenager. The stakes are raised as high as possible, for she’s a widow now, her husband killed by the entity, and she’s not a fictionalized heroine but a normal person who must save her young child’s life.
2. Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in ‘Halloween H20’ (1998)
In 1978, Halloween changed the horror landscape forever and made the final girl trope something everyone knew about thanks to the popularity of its survivor, Laurie Strode. Twenty years later, after several ridiculous sequels, the franchise reset itself, stripping everything away except the brother and sister connection of Michael Myers and Laurie. Laurie works here by not being a carbon copy of the 1978 character. She’s a product of trauma now, and has run away from life by faking her death and moving far away to California. She has a teenage son (Josh Hartnett) that she pushes away, and drinks to cope with the bad memories. Laurie is weak, but when her brother returns, she decides that she’s had enough of running and goes on the attack to reclaim her identity. In the end she finally kills her brother (let’s just ignore the stupidity that brought The Shape back in Halloween: Resurrection), and is able to breathe and be herself once again.
1. Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott in ‘Scream’ (1996)
Wes Craven saved the horror genre in the 1990s. There is no greater example than this film, which reinvented the slasher, with a meta take first examined in New Nightmare. Here, the tropes are not only used, but called out, ridiculed, examined, and leaned into. Sidney Prescott fits the final girl trope perfectly as a virginal and timid good girl. As with many, she’s also dealing with tragedy, as her mother was murdered months earlier. When a Ghostface killer starts murdering her friends and comes after her, Sidney gives us a performance that’s expected for a final girl without becoming a parody. She’s strong and inventive in her own way, and smart enough to outwit not one but two killers. It’s a portrayal that’s so familiar yet original that audiences have yet to tire of Sidney as the final girl, even four films and twenty-five years later.