Leatherface
Jason Voorhees

2016 has been an exceptional all-around year for horror and sci-fi films—from the indie realm, we’ve been gifted with an enormous amount of brilliant cinematic stories throughout the past 12 months, and we even saw studios step up their game with an almost unprecedented amount of quality releases.

And along with this wealth of top-notch entertainment, we also saw an incredible number of fantastic female characters over the course of 2016—some heroic, some villainous, but all endlessly engaging in their own right. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to celebrate some of my favorite female performers from this year who gave us complex, interesting, and wholly compelling reasons to keep falling in love with genre cinema all over again (and again).

Kika Magalhaes – The Eyes of My Mother

Nicolas’ Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother is easily one of the best horror films to be released in 2016, and a big reason for its success is due to its star, Kika Magalhaes, who gives a powerfully raw and breathtaking performance that will haunt you long after the film is finished. I don’t know if there’s a character from this year that caught me as off guard as Francisca from Eyes did, but Magalhaes is equal parts horrifying and breathtaking to behold in the role, especially in the film’s unforgettable final moments.

In my review, I said that Kika reminded me of a young Felissa Rose meets Jessica Harper (which I can confirm still feels spot-on after seeing Eyes for a second time recently), and I do hope this ends up being a breakthrough role for her career because I’d love to see more from her in the future. A film I first viewed back during the summer, I’ve honestly not been able to forget Magalhaes’ captivating and sorrowful portrayal of a young woman who desperately yearns for some kind of real human connection in her isolated world.

Samantha Robinson – The Love Witch

2016 has been a fantastic year for complicated and compelling female characters, especially in the realm of genre cinema, with Elaine from The Love Witch being yet another wonderfully paradoxical addition to the mix. Robinson plays her part with such an unfettered sense of earnestness, making for the perfect juxtaposition against her character’s true cold-blooded and often selfish nature. When it comes to getting what she wants, Elaine is always keenly aware of the power she wields over the opposite sex, so she’s willing to play the part of a doting and subservient paramour if it means she can finally nab herself someone who will worship her until their dying day (which often comes a bit sooner than later, due to Elaine).

Writer/director Anna Biller’s exploration of the duality and conflicting way women are often perceived is both thoughtful and perfectly ambiguous, never trying to give us any hard answers because there aren’t any to be had. If you think about it, Elaine is a mesmerizing and enchanting woman, but in reality, her pursuit of affection is what continues to leave her isolated in a love-starved existence, proving that not all fairy tales have a happy ending attached to them.

Personally, I love that, because guess what? Women are complicated. Men are complicated. Love is complicated, too, and the way Biller explores these ideas with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek is audaciously adroit, and the manner in which Robinson manifests those ideas in physical form for The Love Witch is total cinematic perfection.

Zoe Kazan – The Monster

Mother-daughter relationships can be both great and the absolute worst at the same time, with the latter being true when it comes to Bryan Bertino’s latest film, The Monster. In the movie, we watch as Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) caustic relationship practically materializes in the form of a bloodthirsty monstrosity who wants to consume them both (maybe figuratively, maybe even literally) after an accident leaves them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

The creature itself is fantastic, but it’s Kazan’s performance in The Monster that was the biggest highlight for me overall. The horror aspects of The Monster’s script are all solidly crafted, but the film’s dramatic elements make it such a standout effort from Bertino and his wonderfully talented female co-stars. Kazan’s portrayal of Kathy, a broken woman who would rather hit the bottle than raise her daughter properly is both heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time.

A flashback scene of Kathy and Lizzy in a garage where the duo are just verbally destroying each other may be one of the toughest scenes I’ve watched throughout all of 2016. Kazan’s ability to instill such a nuanced sense of duality in the acerbic Kathy—a character you can’t help but root for despite her many shortcomings and flaws—hit me out of nowhere. She provides viewers with stingingly authentic work in The Monster.

Jane Levy – Don’t Breathe

It’s bad guys versus an even badder guy in Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe, and at the center of the conflict is Jane Levy’s character, Rocky, whose own aspirations for a better life come with a hefty price tag attached for her and her friends after they decide to break into a reclusive blind man’s home and rob him of a life-changing payday. What awaits inside their victim’s home is nothing they could possibly be prepared for, though, as a dangerous cat and mouse game ensues once the homeowner realizes he must defend both his home and the secrets contained within its walls.

The thing about Rocky is that on paper, she’s not very likeable at all. Sure, she wants to escape the hell that is trailer park living outside of Detroit (completely get it), but really, it’s her own selfishness that ultimately pushes the robbery plan into action, leading to some deadly consequences for her cohorts Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette). Perhaps in the hands of an actress of lesser talents, Rocky would come off villainous in Don’t Breathe—or, even worse, a stereotype—but Levy’s ability to give Rocky an emotional center that most of us can relate to is the reason we end up rooting for her against the man she and her friends have targeted for their easy score.

Also, Levy gets bonus points for truly going through hell for Don’t Breathe, a role that was emotionally and physically taxing in ways that made her prior experiences as a tortured drug addict in Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake look like a downright walk in the park in comparison. Levy is absolutely fearless in Don’t Breathe and her work here demonstrates she is a total badass.

Barbara Crampton & Sarah Hagan – Sun Choke

Control is the name of the game in Ben Cresciman’s Sun Choke, which features masterful performances from legendary actress Barbara Crampton and the equally talented Sarah Hagan (best known for her work on both Freaks and Geeks and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). In the film, Crampton plays Irma, a caretaker to a troubled young woman by the name of Janie (Hagan), who uses a myriad of often oppressive techniques to keep her on track so that Janie’s more disturbing character traits stay buried deep within her psyche.

But just as Irma begins to believe her treatments are making a positive impact, she allows her ward more freedom, and that’s when Sun Choke takes a dangerous turn once Janie sets her sights on her lovely neighbor Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane). Once her obsession can no longer be contained, we see exactly the kind of brutality and unrestrained violence Janie is capable of in Sun Choke, and the way Cresciman quietly leads up to the film’s shocking showdown between Irma and Janie is absolutely masterful, allowing both Crampton and Hagan the room to show us just how deep they are willing to dig to deliver two unrelenting and tenacious performances.

If you missed Sun Choke this year, I’d urge you to rectify that oversight as soon as possible. And if you’re looking for more equally compelling work from Crampton in 2016, I’d also recommend seeing her in Road Games and Beyond the Gates as well.

Imogen Poots – Green Room

If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that Imogen Poots would end up delivering one of my favorite performances, there’s no way I would have believed you—and yet, here we are. Sure, Poots was solid in 28 Weeks Later and the 2011 Fright Night remake, but with Green Room, the young actress is an absolute revelation with her unpredictable and transformative portrayal of Amber, a neo-Nazi who sees her friend murdered by those she associates with, and ends up in the crosshairs of a war that breaks out between the skinheads and a struggling young band who has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In a film fueled with violence and unfettered ferocity, Poots’ character Amber acts as a quiet-yet-sassy observer of all the chaos around her, quietly quipping along with those she’s being held captive with, and using her own resourcefulness in order to figure a way out of her hellish ordeal. Amber also has the biggest character arc in Green Room next to the film’s star Anton Yelchin (playing a reluctant hero who finds his inner warrior unleashed once the proverbial crap hits the fan), and the way Poots plays her with a “cool as a cucumber” attitude makes her performance all the more intriguing to watch throughout Green Room.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t tip my hat to the final moments of Green Room, and a big reason that scene ended up being one of my very favorite scenes from any movie this year is due to Poots (and Yelchin, too, of course).

Honorable Mentions: Isabelle Huppert in Elle, Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee in The Handmaiden, the women of The Neon Demon and Trash Fire, Garance Marillier in Raw (the film comes out in 2017, so she’ll absolutely make my list for next year), Natasha Lyonne in Antibirth, Elma Begovic in Bite (who shows great promise as an up-and-coming actress in the ambitious creature feature), and Geena Davis in The Exorcist (which I cannot discuss without going into spoilers, but suffice to say her return to the horror genre in 2016 has been an amazing one).