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Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.

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The hair was big, the pants were parachute, and the women were bad. Very bad. The ’80s produced some of the very best psychological thrillers–and the most diabolical anti-heroines of all time. Men were no match for these brilliant, fierce, powerful women…and even though some of their motives and actions may have been questionable, you gotta admire their awesomeness.

From mildly disturbing to the queen of the sadists, here are my top five picks for the baddest bitches of all time.

1) Greta Scacchi in Presumed Innocent. When the movie starts, Scacchi’s Carolyn Polhemus is already dead, but that doesn’t stop her from almost ruining Harrison Ford’s life and career. She’d already ruined his marriage–all in a power-hungry quest to become the next District Attorney. Polhemus gives new meaning to the word “ruthless.”

2) Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Over two decades later, people are still talking about Stone’s brilliant portrayal of sociopath Catherine Tramell (and her predilection for not wearing underwear). Is Catherine a cold-hearted killer, or is someone framing her? She keeps you guessing until the very last scene, and even then, you’re not sure. One thing’s for certain, though–when those closest to her are brutally murdered, she doesn’t care very much.

3) Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female. Women everywhere thought twice about having a roommate when this movie came out. Leigh’s Heddy Carlson takes obsession to a new level as she becomes a carbon copy of her hapless roommate…stealing her style, her name, and even attempting to nab Allie’s boyfriend. But the most terrifying thing about Hedra? What she can’t steal, she destroys. And she still expects you to love her. Brr!

4) Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. We can thank this movie for the term “bunny boiler,” which is still used to describe a dangerously obsessed woman. Close’s Alex Forrest was chilling enough to keep men from straying, but a lot of female viewers secretly cheered as she refused to be another one-night stand. Nothing could keep her from her man–not even his wife and child. And if Alex can’t convince poor Dan Gallagher they’re soul mates, well…there’s always that butcher knife.

5) Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. No one can play a sadistic psychopath like De Mornay. Those chilling ice-blue eyes, that sweet smile that manages to fool just about everyone…and who could forget that moment in the greenhouse bathroom when she completely loses her shit? Unlike the other women on this list, Peyton had a deep need for vengeance that we can almost sympathize with. She blames the Bartel family for ruining her life, so she vows to ruin theirs…by becoming the perfect nanny. Peyton is nothing if not creative, and before the Bartels realize this nanny is not what she seems, almost everything they hold dear has been destroyed.

Who is your favourite girl gone wrong? And I’ve got to ask–to those who’ve seen Basic Instinct, what did you think of the ending? Did she or didn’t she? That scene has always haunted me.

PS: If you like this post, you’ll love The Five Creepiest Children in Film.

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39 Comments

  1. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    Now I’m going to have to go back and watch all these movies again – I forgot how good they were/are! Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      No problem, Madeline. Glad you liked the post! In my opinion, they haven’t made a decent psychological thriller since the early ’90s. Not sure why they fell out of vogue.

      Reply
  2. Anita

    These are all great picks, all of which have terrified me over the years, but my money goes to Rebecca De Mornay in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”–that role probably affected me the most right up until the very end. As to “Basic Instinct,” I mean, they want us to think she did it and she’ll do it again, but it could go either way 😉

    Reply
    • JH

      Yeah, the ending of Basic Instinct really got me and showed me the power of unresolved stories. She *could* have done it, but since she claims to have been framed, who says the real killer didn’t leave it there?

      It was creepy, whatever the truth is! And yeah, De Mornay is my pick too. She was brilliant in that movie.

      Reply
  3. Elle

    I always thought Bonnie Bedelia was the scary one in “Presumed Innocent.” She was so kind on the surface but absolutely unwavering in her mission. But the other four women were absolutely terrifying.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ah, and therein lies the rub, Elle. I was going to pick Bonnie, but I didn’t want to give away the ending in case someone hadn’t watched it. When I started thinking, it was really the character of Carolyn who set the wife’s madness in motion, so it made sense to choose her and keep a little mystery. 😉

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
      • Elle

        After almost 25 years, I wasn’t afraid to be a spoiler 🙂

        Reply
        • JH

          Better you than me! 🙂 I don’t want people coming after me with their pitchforks and torches.

          Reply
  4. Lisa

    Ooooh love them all…I don’t think I could pick my favourite – they are all bad bitches in their own special way!

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Lisa! Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  5. Paul

    No Robin Wright from House of Cards? If we ignore season 3 that is….

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, Paul! Hope to see you here again.

      I’m sorry to say that I’m way behind when it comes to television. I haven’t seen House of Cards. But I’d definitely nominate Jessica Lange from any season of American Horror Story.

      Reply
  6. Toby

    I can’t believe how few of these movies I’ve seen! Guess I have some searching to do on Netflix…. And yes, I would definitely add Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) from House of Cards on to this list!

    Reply
    • JH

      Hi Toby! Welcome to the blog, and thanks for commenting. Definitely check out these movies if you enjoy psychological thrillers. Some of the styles may be dated (I’m thinking Alex’s hair in Fatal Attraction, mostly) but their awesomeness is timeless.

      Reply
  7. hanelene

    I never finished watching The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. I am the mom to little kids, and the idea of someone like that near them… No. No can do.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Hanelene, and welcome to my blog! Hope to see you here again.

      I can see how that movie would be very disturbing for mothers, but you can rest assured that good wins in the end. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Stephanie Faris

    There was an odd trend of movies about women going psycho, now that you mention it. That’s odd!!! Maybe we were through the “battle of the sexes” and women were ready to show they could kick butt, even in movies?

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, the ’80s were all about female power, at least on this side of the world. Maybe people got tired of woman-as-victim and decided it was time to turn the tables?

      No matter the reason, there were some great thrillers in that decade! You inspired me to climb back into the A to Z trenches…looking forward to reading your posts!

      Reply
  9. Robyn Petrik

    For some reason, I watched The Hand That Rocks the Cradle when I was a kid (my parents allowed this?!), and I still have spooky memories of it. De Mornay certainly played her part very well!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks so much for commenting, Robyn, and welcome to my blog. De Mornay was the best female psychopath I’ve ever seen. Her performance was certainly memorable, I agree!

      Hope to see you back here.

      Reply
      • Henry

        Some excellent choices J.H. Very bad girls. First one that came to mind for me was Glenn Close. I know Juliette Lewis in ‘Natural Born Killers’ would make my list too.

        Reply
        • JH

          Ooh, she was terrifying in that movie. One thing I didn’t like about NBK was that it glorified killing like it was a sport. Highly disturbing.

          Thanks for commenting!

          Reply
  10. Chrys Fey

    Their portrayals in these movies are chilling. They did them so well. I think you picked a few of the best. I’m drawing a blank right now. I just keep thinking of your normal bad ass girls like Sarah Connor and Ripley from Alien. But they weren’t psycho. lol

    Reply
    • JH

      No, not psycho, but great characters though. I love the Sarah Connor character so much.

      Reply
  11. C. Lee McKenzie

    All of these were major creep-outs for me! I still see that hapless rabbit in the pot, and I’ll never recover from the surprise ending of Presumed Innocent. I read the book, and it was equally as compelling.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Lee…the book was fantastic. He wrote one other that I really liked, and then things started to get formulaic, sadly.

      Reply
      • C. Lee McKenzie

        I suppose there’s the time pressure to get another book out that probably contributes to resorting to formula. Haven’t read any of the author’s other books, so I can’t say anything about them.

        Reply
        • JH

          Yes, or pressure to conform to what readers will expect. It happens to so many “big” authors. It’s sad, really.

          Reply
  12. Ryan Carty

    Resumed Innocent is an all time favorite of mine. I totally agree with your description of Greta Scacchi performance. She was on point.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Ryan. Me too. It’s a quiet movie with a huge punch.

      Reply
  13. Heather M. Gardner

    Excellent choices! Women are damn scary when they want to be. 🙂

    Heather

    Reply
    • JH

      Can’t argue with that! I’ve been on the receiving end a few times.

      Reply
  14. Samantha Bryant

    I hadn’t really realized that those movies were all so much of a period. Makes me want to write another good dangerous woman who is dangerous psychologically rather than because of any particular fighting skills.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes! They were fabulous movies, and great roles for women. Dooooo eeet!

      Reply
  15. Susan Scott

    Basic Instinct was terrifying as was Fatal Attraction – I didn’t see the others but may seek them out. They do seem of a time period don’t they? although I haven’t see Hunger Games could this be of a piece – I really don’t know?

    Reply
    • JH

      While Kat from Hunger Games is a stronger female character, she’s definitely not an anti-hero or a psycho. These movies seemed to peak in the ’90s and haven’t been seen since, although I’m sure someone will remake the whole lot, with the way things are going.

      Sigh.

      Reply
  16. Birgit

    Now how did I miss this post! Greta Scacci is just evil(whatever became of her anyway??) and Glenn Close is pure nuts. Sharon Stone is nasty in that look at my vagina kind of way and I do think she did do it. I have to add Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage…a real guttersnipe. Gene Tierney as a demented psycho in Leave Her to Heaven..a brilliant performance. Shelley Winters as the troubled sister in What’s the Matter with Helen and of course Kathy Bates with her hammer in Misery. Yikes!

    Reply
    • JH

      Ooh, Misery is a great one! I haven’t seen the others but I’ll have to make a point of it. How about Davis in All About Eve? I’ve heard she was creepy in that too…those eyes!

      I also loved Davis in Burnt Offerings, where she plays a victim for a change.

      Reply
      • Birgit

        All About Eve is comedic in some spots but I would not say Davis was the meanie in this film and I don’t want to give away anything if you have not seen the film. Another great is Mildred Pierce. Joan Crawford is the suffering one (Ha!) and her daughter is the evil. I love Eve Arden in this film and love her quote…”Crocodiles have the right idea, they eat their young.”

        Reply

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