Top Five Sister Horror Movies

I’m lucky enough to have two sisters, and the relationships I have with them are some of the most important in my life. Because we have so much shared history and are close in age, I don’t think there’s anybody who knows me better, maybe even better than I know myself. But at the same time, there’s a lot of competition and rivalry between sisters that just makes me want to snarl sometimes. That’s why sister horror movies are some of my favorites in the genre. When you have sister characters, there’s natural, built-in conflict. You know there’s nobody who would have your back more but who you might want to drop-kick a minute later. As of right now, here are some of favorite sister horror movies.

1. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is my top sister horror film. Two aging, reclusive sisters have a battle of wills that has been years in the making. Blanche, the older sister, has respect and good will as a silver screen star, who was cut down in her prime in an automobile accident that was believed to have been caused by her younger sister Jane. She’s been in a wheelchair ever since then with Jane taking care of her. Jane had a successful career in her youth as a vaudeville performer who went by the name Baby Jane. She supported her family during these early years, but when she grew up, her talent did not. She’s been riding Blanche’s coattails ever since, a position that she resents. Now, Jane is a blowsy drunk out of touch with reality, who decides to stage a career comeback by reviving her stage persona Baby Jane, complete with floppy hair bow and ruffled pinafore. Bette Davis pulls out all the stops in this performance, and I love her bravery in bringing such an ugly caricature to life. What I also like in this movie is that each of the sisters had a position of power at some time in their sibling relationship, and then the positions were flip-flopped. Typically in a sister story, one sister is more dominant than the other—more beautiful, more talented, more something—but in reality, I’ve found that these positions switch all the time. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the two actresses playing Baby Jane and Blanche, hated each other, and this really comes through in the scenes where they fight, making for good, dishy fun. Since we have a wheelchair at our disposal, my sister Kristi and I have threatened for years to be Baby Jane and Blanche for Halloween. I’d be Baby Jane.

2. Night of the Comet

This eighties gem came out when Halley’s Comet could be seen from Earth, and people were getting a little pre-millennial. Sisters Regina and Samantha end up staying the night in protected spaces while everybody else has comet parties, and they remain human as a result. The rest of the population has either turned into red dust or zombies. Thankfully, the Belmont sisters had a father in the military, who taught them how to fight and use guns, so they’re able to protect themselves and other stragglers that they come across. There’s some sibling rivalry when older sister Regina has chemistry with what appears to be the last guy left on earth, but Regina and Samantha have sister-bonding moments, too. Night of the Comet is B-movie horror in the same vein as Evil Dead II. It’s goofy and a real time capsule of eighties fashion, reveling in neon and pastel colors, asymmetrical collars, and big, glorious hair.

3. An American Crime

An American Crime is a devastating movie based on a true story, and it will haunt you for days. It’s billed as a drama, but trust me, it’s horror. Sylvia Likens and her younger sister Jenny are the children of carnival workers who travel around a lot. When their mother and father get ready to go on the circuit again, the father decides to board his daughters with Gertrude Baniszewski, mother of their new friends, for $20 a week. When the second week’s payment doesn’t show up, Gertrude whips Sylvia and Jenny. Sylvia asks to take most of Jenny’s punishment when her sister falls because of the brace on her leg, and after that, Sylvia becomes the focus of Gertrude’s abuse, sparing Jenny. But it doesn’t stop with that. Gertrude enlists the help of her own children in the torture of Sylvia, so there are sisters beating on sisters. Catherine Keener gives an incredible performance as Gertrude Baniszewski, and there is such nuance to it that you can see the glimmers of how abuse originates, the cycle that goes on in perpetuity if left unchecked.

4. Ginger Snaps

Ginger Snaps showcases the Fitzgerald sisters, Ginger and Brigette, who are so close in age that they’re in the same grade in high school. Ginger is slightly older, and these two sisters of the weird, whose shared passion is death photography, have a pact to be together forever—in life or death. Ginger and Brigette are late bloomers—hard to believe, but it’s a movie and some suspension of disbelief is necessary. They sneak out, and Ginger is bitten by something wolflike that claws open her chest. Brigette gets her home, and they find that the wound is magically healing. At the same time, Ginger experiences her first period. Following this are some comical body horror moments as Ginger deals with tampon shopping, extreme body hair, and a torrential flow. With this flood of hormones and magic, Ginger also becomes extremely sexual and starts experimenting with boys. The two are pulling apart and bickering, but Brigette is determined to save her older sister from becoming a werewolf. Mimi Rogers appears as the girls’ mother, and I feel like her role could have been so much more. She plays a square mother in hair scrunchies and sparkly sweaters trying to usher her utterly strange daughters through adolescence. She’s daffy but willing to do anything to help her girls. I think a great sequel would include the mother, but so far the two movies following Ginger Snaps have focused on one or both of the sisters.

5. A Tale of Two Sisters

A Tale of Two Sisters is a moody, atmospheric Korean horror movie that takes a couple of viewings before all of the puzzle pieces come together. But I like it because the movie takes American horror clichés and stands them on end, creating even more scares because they don’t play out the way they’re supposed to. In A Tale of Two Sisters, older sister Soo-mi, the dominant one, and Soo-yeon, the younger, dowdier sister, accompany their father and new stepmother out to their country house. The father seems disinterested in the girls’ situation, and they end up involved in great conflict with their crazy-acting stepmother. The scenes are bizarre and nonlinear, but they do come together in the end, and the mystery is eventually resolved. It’s a different kind of movie, but it will keep you thinking for days about the complex bond that sisters share and what happens when somebody tries to break that.

Are there any other sister horror movies that deserve to be on this list? Let me know if you can think of any, because I’m always looking for more.

Burnt Offerings

At a dinner recently with friends, I talked about my horror blog and the conversation segued into movies that had scared everybody the most as kids. The sisters Leora and Sharoan brought up Burnt Offerings and were nearly peeing themselves while talking about the scary limo driver. I had never seen this movie, but with a cast featuring Burgess Meredith, Bette Davis, and Karen Black (the original scream queen), I immediately Netflixed it and Kristi and I watched it this last weekend.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bette Davis (who could not?), but with her appearance in Burnt Offerings, she has become my old-lady idol. Screw wrinkles, she puts on her eyeliner anyway, and of course, it’s liquid eyeliner. Red or orange lips and a black cigarette always in her hands, punctuating her bitter sarcasm. I adore her, with her little pooch stomach hanging out but stylish in bold floral prints, the height of seventies fashion.

Karen Black is also strong as the loving wife who twists domesticity into horror. The ladies dominate this little movie with the one adult male figure (Oliver Reed as Black’s husband) reduced to an infantile state, even further regressed than his son at one point when the wicked home and hearth has had its way with him.

The ending was a surprise to me, not because of where the story leads–any horror fan could see that one coming–but because the young son is allowed to see his father cartwheel from the top of the house and is then covered with his father’s blood when he splats on the family station wagon. That just doesn’t happen any longer in Hollywood. Children are comforted and cosseted with happy endings, reassured that nothing traumatic can’t be undone.

Foreign filmmakers are more daring when dealing with children. I’m thinking of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage by Juan Antonio Bayona. I do remember critics saying that Pan’s Labyrinth could never be made in today’s Hollywood because of the traumatic ending that happens to a child. Last night, I attended a panel with the Japanese horror director Hideo Nakata who filmed the Ringu series. He said there are no ratings systems in Japan and anybody can go see a horror film, whether they’re one year old or a hundred. I wonder if that has something to do with it.