1. Fatal Attraction (1987)
"Don't you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not?" a spurned Cameron Diaz asks Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, before taking an act of life-changing vengeance on him. Avenging-women movies often focus on righteous revenge for the raped and abused, but sometimes they're about the irrational acts of a woman who thinks an erstwhile lover has reneged on that unspoken body-promise. The modern era's best-known example is Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne's sleazy thriller about a husband and father (Michael Douglas) whose body makes a promise to Glenn Close that the rest of him has no intention of keeping. She isn't pleased, and when she retaliates, she brings the crazy in a number of memorable ways. In an era of rapidly increasing sexual freedom (and rapidly lowering social stigma for women who chose not to remain blushing virgins until the wedding day), Fatal Attraction sounded a shrill warning bell: That casual affair may cost you your family, social position, peace of mind, and pet bunny.
2. Medea (1987)
The Euripides tragedy Medea remains the touchstone for all cold-blooded female-revenge stories, so it seems appropriate that Lars von Trier, a Danish director known for putting women through the ringer in films like Breaking The Waves and Dancer In The Dark, would tackle the play in all its unrelenting bleakness. Working from a script co-written by his late countryman Carl Dreyer (The Passion Of Joan Of Arc)—with whom he claimed to communicate telepathically throughout the production—von Trier follows Medea (Kirsten Oleson), a wronged woman who takes a decidedly more active role in her fate than the women in his other films. After benefiting from her sorcery and black magic, her lover Jason (the adventurer of Argonauts fame) abandons her and their two sons for a politically advantageous marriage to the king's daughter. His betrayal triggers a response so outrageously disproportional to the crime that it remains shocking to this day.
3. Ms. 45 (1981)
Abel Ferrara's lurid thriller about a mute seamstress who "speaks" through violence could be called a feminist exploitation picture if it weren't such a contradiction in terms. The crude set-up finds Zoe Lund, a mute woman who gets raped twice in one day—once in an alley on the way home from work, again by a burglar in her apartment—taking matters into her own hands. After getting the upper hand on the second attacker, whom she kills in self-defense and whose remains she disposes of in a number of paper bags, Lund buys a gun and heads into the night. Though Ms. 45 is a rape-revenge story, the "revenge" part is disturbingly nebulous: She isn't out to kill any specific violator, just lecherous males in general. The spectacular finale, set at a Halloween party where Lund appears in a nun's habit, must be seen to be believed.
4. Lipstick (1976)
Margaux Hemingway was 22, and her sister Mariel was 14, when they both made their big-screen debuts in the 1976 thriller Lipstick. Infamous for its extended, almost casually brutal rape scene of Margeaux—and, thankfully, a less graphic one of Mariel—by an ice-veined Chris Sarandon (fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in Dog Day Afternoon), Lipstick takes the bluntest way out imaginable. After being acquitted of assault on a technicality and ready to walk free, Sarandon is made to stare down the barrel of justice when Margaux, in a fit of android-like rage, chases him down in a parking lot in broad daylight, shotgun blazing. It's a hollow revenge, though, as Margaux surrenders what humanity she has left in order to become an executioner—and a sad one, in retrospect, since the troubled actress took her own life in a far quieter manner 20 years later.
5. Enough (2002)
In Enough, Jennifer Lopez doesn't play a mere woman scorned—she's a woman controlled, abused, and stalked by her cartoonishly psychopathic husband, who's fond of overexplaining his evil ways like an actual cartoon psychopath. "Love is a scary thing, how powerful it is, what it does to you," he reminds her, unnecessarily, after a beating. Lopez leaves with her daughter and a series of wigs and tries to hide, only to be found or intimidated by her husband or his band of thugs. She goes to a lawyer—just the one, but apparently he represents the entire legal system—but he tells her the law can't help her. Unable to hide, and unable to turn to the police because that one lawyer said so, Lopez turns to the only things left that can help her: Krav Maga, the Israeli martial arts; Vaseline, which she smears on her neck and face before the fight scene to prevent scratches; and a bevy of high-tech devices to assist her in jumping her estranged husband in his house in a big finale showdown. (Oh, also her wealthy estranged father named—no joke—Jupiter, who gives her money to start a new life.) Evidently the only way to stop a violent cartoonish psychopath is to become one.
6. Friday The 13th (1980)
The Friday The 13th series is so completely associated in the minds of moviegoers with the hockey-masked, machete-wielding maniac Jason Voorhees that it's easy to forget he wasn't the main villain until the second film. The first movie, which launched a thousand dismal slasher flicks, featured well-traveled B-actress Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, an unassuming middle-aged cafeteria lady, and it was she who was punishing teenagers for doing what teenagers do. Her killing spree was triggered by the drowning death of her little boy Jason decades earlier, which happened because of the lifeguards' raging hormones. In a way, it's sad the franchise didn't stick with her as the antagonist: who wouldn't have enjoyed Freddy Vs. Jason's Mom, featuring Robert Englund dueling with a frumpy 77-year-old woman?
7. Sudden Impact (1983)
Shortly before their messy real-life split, Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke teamed up for the fourth installment of the Dirty Harry franchise. Locke co-stars as a woman who was gang-raped, along with her sister, in a sleepy California town. The trauma left Locke's sister in a vegetative state, so—years later, of course—Locke decides to track down all of the perpetrators and murder them. (Her mode, naturally, is to shoot them once in the genitals and once in the head.) At some point, Eastwood gets wise to her plan, but he beds her first. In the film's climactic final scene, Dirty Harry shoots the rapist, saves the girl, and allows the local lawmen to believe she had nothing to do with a string of brutal murders. Justice is served!
8. Extremities (1986)
"What she did to survive is nothing compared to what she'll do to get even." Whoa, that's a hell of a tagline, isn't it? In this 1986 film—adapted from William Mastrosimone's stage play—Farrah Fawcett escapes a serial rapist but leaves her wallet behind. The cops refuse to help, and naturally, the rapist shows up at her house, playing mind games and psychologically torturing her. But Fawcett is able to turn the tables with the help of some insect repellant and a table lamp—and then she faces a decision (along with her roommates, who eventually show up). Does she give the rapist the justice that she knows society won't, or does she call the cops? Either way, she's gonna mess with him for a while first.
9. I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
One of those films that's notorious more for its reputation than the number of people who have actually seen it, Meir Zarchi's infamous grade-Z exploitation flick I Spit On Your Grave (also known as Day Of The Woman—or, leaning in the other direction, I Hate Your Guts) is provocative, if nothing else. It famously inspired film critic Roger Ebert to describe a screening as "one of the most depressing experiences of my lifetime," and its notoriety led to banning in some quarters. The plot, such as it is, involves journalist Camille Keaton being sexually abused and tortured at the hands of some backwoods dimwits and their mentally retarded buddy, then exacting an extremely gross revenge. Zarchi, bizarrely enough, tried to spin it as a tale of female empowerment, but as modern torture-porn flicks have made clear, it's the crime, not the punishment, that audiences use to get off.
10. The Match Factory Girl (1990)
In Aki Kaurismäki's minimalist classic, the limits of Kati Outinen's life are narrowly defined: During the day, she's a cog in the machine, sitting dead-eyed while bundles of matchsticks tumble across her line of vision. At night, she comes home to her neglectful parents, who treat her with contempt on the rare occasion they acknowledge her at all. So Outinen can be forgiven for investing too much hope in a one-night stand who, when morning comes, wants nothing more to do with her. And when she returns to him again, this time with news of her pregnancy, he's even crueler, responding with check and a simple handwritten note that reads "Get rid of it." Though she's quietly absorbed such abuses all her life, something breaks in Outinen, and with firm resolve, she purchases a bottle of rat poison. Without a thought to covering up her crimes, she sets about raising a glass with all the people who have wronged her.
11. Kill Bill (2003/4)
All Uma Thurman wanted was to leave behind her life as a highly trained international assassin, get married, and raise a family. But in a fit of pique, her old boss, David Carradine, assembled her old strike team, The Deady Vipers, and massacred everyone in her wedding party, leaving Thurman in a coma. Now fully recovered, Thurman goes after the Vipers one by one, whether they be running successful corporations or cleaning toilets in a dive bar. For Thurman, vengeance isn't about cosmic fairness; it's about selfishly finishing her to-do list so she can get on with her life.
12. Serial Mom (1994)
It isn't one of John Waters' best films, but Serial Mom still delivers some kicks, partly due to the casting of an outrageously prim, proper Kathleen Turner as the titular maniac. But what's really delightful about the movie isn't the stunt casting so much as the utterly banal nature of the offenses for which Turner's character wreaks her bloody revenge. While most vengeful-woman sagas are triggered by rape, assault, or the death of a loved one, Serial Mom murders for such high crimes as littering, impoliteness, and failure to properly rewind a videotape. In one of the movie's funniest moments, Turner—her life and freedom at stake as she prepares to stand trial for her crimes—is murderously distracted by a member of the jury wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
13. What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)
Bette Davis plays a child star whose career didn't survive puberty; Joan Crawford is her sister, a movie star stuck in a wheelchair after an accident that Davis caused. As if that weren't bad enough, Davis gets so riled up at Crawford's plans to sell their gloomy L.A. mansion that she mercilessly mocks Crawford's condition, and at one point kills their pet rat and serves it to Crawford for dinner. Davis is like a deranged Woody Woodpecker, getting even with Crawford for her unpardonable sin of betting more successful.
14. Carrie (1976)
The kids at Carrie White's high school deserve a little payback, after making fun of the sad, shy girl year after year. But when they play the ultimate prank on Carrie by setting her up on a prom date with the handsomest boy in school, then dumping a bucket of pig's blood on her head, Carrie maybe overreacts just a little, using her telekinetic powers to destroy the school and everyone in her path. Jeez, Carrie, they were only kidding. Can't you take a joke?
15. The Brave One (2007)
A common theme among "Hell hath no fury" stories is about a woman's need to reclaim control in a male-dominated world by answering men's violence with even greater violence. Thirty years after being "saved" by Robert De Niro's deranged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jodie Foster again winds up in a compromised position in The Brave One, but this time, she's the one taking the power back. After a Central Park mugging leaves her fiancé Naveen Andrews dead and her in a coma, radio talk-show host Foster buys a gun for protection and winds up using it for revenge, prowling the streets at night like some warrior of justice. Her relationship with a detective (Terrence Howard) has an intriguing undercurrent, because he seems to know from the start that she's out there shooting pimps, stick-up men, and murderers, but he's slow to reel her back to sanity. Best to keep out of her way, for now.
16. Provoked (2006)
Naveen Andrews shows up again as the victimizer rather than the victim in Provoked, a soppy, sobby dramatization of a real-life story about a woman driven to the edge. Andrews plays the abusive husband of a quiet Punjabi woman (Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai) who endures his beatings, rapes, and mockery pitifully until she finally feels so cornered that she sets him on fire while he sleeps. Her murder trial changed the face of British law, but the movie isn't nearly as groundbreaking; much of it consists of watching her cry, stare blankly around her in prison, and slowly learn how to be a person again. In a way, the women's group who spearheads her defense on the grounds of provocation is enacting vengeance more than she is.
17. Lady Vengeance (2005)
Park Chan-wook's revenge trilogy upped the ante with each successive entry, so by the time he got to Lady Vengeance, following Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, the South Korean director had become the master of Grand Guignol, ultra-mega-super-revenge movies. When Lee Yeong-ae first appears, she's serving out the end of a 13-year prison sentence for kidnapping and murdering a 6-year-old boy. But her fellow prisoners consider her an angel: Flashbacks reveal her selflessly caring for the prison geriatric, donating a kidney to a fellow inmate, and warmly counseling a weeping prisoner on prayer and redemption. Lee also has some devil in her, though. About an hour into the film, it's revealed that she's been wronged—horribly, horribly wronged—by a kindergarten teacher, and her charity in prison is just part of an elaborate scheme to exact the cruelest (and most unimpeachably stylish) revenge.
18. She-Devil (1989)
When accountant Ed Begley Jr. leaves his frumpy, prominent-facial-mole-having wife Roseanne Barr for glamorous (for 1989) romance novelist Meryl Streep, he tells Roseanne that he has four assets: his home, his family, his career, and his freedom. Roseanne quickly turns that into a checklist for destruction. After blowing up the family home, she drops off his two teenage kids at Streep's "pink palace by the sea." Soon, with the help of new friend Mary Hunt, Roseanne has started an employment agency for women who deserve second chances—an outfit that she uses to destroy Begley's career, via an attractive secretary who knows all of Begley's embezzlement secrets. By the end of the movie, Begley is in jail, Streep has moved on, and Roseanne is far less frumpy and now prominent-facial-mole-free. She-Devil suggests that the best revenge is a combination of a life well-lived, and, you know, actual calculated revenge.
19-20. Coffy (1973)/ Foxy Brown (1974)
Jack Hill's blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown have something for everyone: endless T&A; and gratuitous nudity for men, a strong, empowered female protagonist for the ladies. In both films, Pam Grier plays what Coffy's poster aptly calls a "One Chick Hit Squad" who turns vigilante after bad guys harm someone close to her. In Coffy, it's her sister; in Foxy Brown, it's her murdered boyfriend. Grier enacts fierce revenge on her enemies, after winding up in a series of salacious, sexually degrading scenarios. Hill gave Grier two of her most iconic roles, feminists a strong role model, and the trenchcoat crowd a potent cocktail of sex and violence.
21. Hard Candy (2005)
Before she became America's Pregnant Teen Sweetheart with Juno, Ellen Page dazzled critics and at least a dozen or so members of the general public in Hard Candy, which cast her as a sexually and intellectually precocious teen whose date with online hook-up Patrick Wilson takes a dark, sinister turn when she ties him up and tortures him as punishment for his crimes against women. But is Page a righteous avenger or a deranged kook? Alas, after a knockout 20 minutes that function as a perfect standalone short film, Hard Candy devolves into a brutal, wildly melodramatic revenge fantasy, albeit an extraordinarily well-acted one.
22. King Of The Underworld (1939)
When pseudo-intellectual crime boss Humphrey Bogart gets doctor Kay Francis in trouble with the law, and gets Francis' husband killed by the cops, Francis flees and sets up shop in a small town where some of Bogart's lackeys are serving out a jail term. There, she finagles her way into becoming Bogart's personal physician, and with the help of an itinerant author, coddles the gangster's vanity until she can spring her trap, which involves blinding Bogart and sending him out to face the feds. Who's king of the underworld now, huh?