9 of the best female-led revenge movies
From 'Jennifer's Body' to 'Villainess', watch women get even.
Villainess movie still
Female-led revenge thrillers are refreshing. Conventionally, action films show nothing but whisky-sipping womanisers who are good at jumping from one moving car to the next. Tortured detectives firing AK-47s at gang members for killing their high school sweethearts. Men karate chopping their way out of buildings packed full of ninjas. With women drafted in as mute bodies in silk wrap-dresses, showing up in time for the inevitable kissing scene. That is boring and sexist. The following movies, are not. Instead, they flip the tropes and show powerful women getting even.
Female revenge thrillers became famous with Meir Zarchi’s 1978 I Spit on Your Grave. It followed an aspiring writer who is gang-raped before systematically hunting down her attackers to seek retribution. The esteemed critic Roger Ebert called the film a “vile bag of garbage” and “a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters”. He claimed that “attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of, my life”.
I Spit on Your Grave might have been particularly unpopular, but fortunately there are other films you can watch if you feel like seeing graphic castrations, or crave a heady dose of catharsis. If you want to see nasty men slashed to pieces, here are some of the best female-led revenge thrillers. Warning: the following contains a lot of gore:
Sophia Coppola’s latest film is set during the American civil war. After becoming wounded in the Virginia woods, soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is taken by schoolgirl Amy to the mansion of Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Initially, John arouses breathless giggles from the ladies, they dress up in their prettiest lace and take turns tending to his wounds. “You are not a guest,” insists Miss Martha, “and we are not here to entertain you”, although for a while the corporal seems to have his hosts under a spell. But who is beguiling who?
Filled with dappled light and gauzy colours, Coppola crafts a dreamy, cloistered world of female destruction and comradery. The Beguiled is less sledge hammers and samurai swords and more skin-prickling domestic tension as John slowly dissolves from lecherous charmer into emasculated victim: “What have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?”
Best quote: “There is nothing more frightening than a startled woman with a gun.”
Directed by Park Chan-wook of Oldboy, Lady Vengeance is a sickly-sweet whirlwind of gore. It follows Lee Geum-ja, a woman seeking justice after serving a prison sentence for a murder she did not commit. Men are tortured, women are raped, and children in snuff videos scream in terror as their anguished parents are forced to watch. A puppy even gets its head blown off. This is not for the faint of heart. But it’s damn good.
Best quote: “Atonement, do you know what that means? Big atonement for big sins. Small atonement for small sins.”
Bullied at school by cheerleaders, dragged by her hair into dark cupboards by her fanatically Catholic mother and laughed at by muscled football bros with names like Chad -- Carrie is ready for revenge. When her mum bans her from going to prom, Carrie develops telekinesis and traps her in the house. She struts out in a pink slip, ignoring the screaming accusations of satanic witchcraft. The rest of the film involves nail-biting moments of teenage awkwardness and a bucket of pig blood. Lesson is: don’t laugh at dorks in school.
Best quote: “I can see your dirty pillows, everyone will”, “Breasts, Mama. They're called breasts, and every woman has them.”
The film begins with Jennifer’s brutal murder at the hands of Satanic indie rockers. Luckily, she’s reincarnated as serpent-eyed demon who nourishes herself on male flesh. She might wear plush pink low-waisted sweatpants, but Jennifer is a terrifying baddie, setting off on a carnivorous rampage that must be stopped.
Best quote: "You're killing people!" "NO, I'm killing BOYS!"
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows Mikael and Lisbeth as they attempt to solve the mystery of a missing girl. Aside from delving into Sweden’s wartime history of Nazi sympathisers, it is Lisbeth, a misandrist vigilante with an ear stretcher and a penchant for black fetish wear, that makes the film interesting. A renowned computer hacker, Lisbeth is dextrous at unpacking code and lethal at exacting justice. Importantly, it is only through Lisbeth’s rage at the way she’s been abused by men, that Mikael can intuit the truth behind the missing girl.
Best quote: “He sometimes performs cunnilingus... Not often enough, in my opinion.”
Hard Candy is creepy. It follows Hayley, (Ellen Page) as she meets Jeff, a 30-year-old fashion photographer who messages underage girls on chat rooms. When she goes back to his apartment -- the walls groaning with images of nubile adolescents -- it seems dreadfully apparent what’s going to happen. But when Jeff awakens from a drugged stupor, naked and tied up, it appears his dreams of underage flesh have mutated into some avenging nightmare. “Playtime's over,” Hayley taunts. “It's time to wake up…” She coldly sharpens up a scalpel while revealing herself to be on a mission to punish chatroom paedophiles. You could call Hayley jailbait, except jail looks very inviting compared to what she's planned.
Best quote: When Jeff pleads with Hayley that turning him over to the police will ruin his career, she retorts: “Didn't Roman Polanski just win an Oscar?”
Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2
Kill Bill opens with Uma Thurman’s Bea, battered and bruised on the floor of a Chapel in El Paso, Texas. When she tells her boss she is pregnant with his baby, he shoots her in the head. Turns out Bea doesn’t die and what follows is a dizzying quest for revenge, which pulls from both spaghetti westerns and Asian martial arts. Look out for lethal knife fights, eyeball gouging, live burials and a karate chop that can explode a heart in five steps.
Best quote: “That woman deserves her revenge and we deserve to die.”
This violent Korean thriller begins with our leather clad assassin Sook-hee cutting men to pieces in a neon-lit hallway. Filmed partly from first-person perspective, each body appears at every turn like avatars in a video game. Sook-hee is eventually captured by the secret service, before being restrained and refashioned (by way of plastic surgery) as one of their own. The film is gloriously overdone, lurching between melodrama, satire and kung fu grindhouse. At one point, it bizarrely sways into a K-drama rom-com, complete with a swooning, devoted love interest. Watch out for an epic set piece involving apocalyptic rain, a bus, a machete and a self-driving car.
Best quote: “Let me show you what you made me into.”
In Revenge, Jen is whisked away for a romantic weekend in the country by her lover Richard. When Jen is raped by one of his associates, Richard ends up pushing her off a cliff where she ends up impaled on a tree. Horrific. The whole film is bathed in this beautiful day-glo sepia colour, which is ruptured by the red splattered violence. Seeing her as some Lolita-ish Barbie, the men wrongly interpret Jen as weak. But she resurrects herself as a Lara Croft-style khaki-wearing action woman, stripping away the men’s sense of entitlement one hilariously morbid step at a time. Revenge is so gory that paramedics were actually called out to the set.
Best quote: “Women always have to put up a fight.”