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South by Southwest Film always includes a handful of horror flicks as part of their late-night lineup. One of this year’s films, Hush, features Maddie, a deaf protagonist who gets stalked by a sadistic killer while finishing her latest novel in a secluded forest cabin — of course, she’s alone in the woods: where else would she be?
The film uses muted audio and sparse dialogue to put the viewer in her shoes, and Maddie proves a capable adversary as she cleverly thwarts her stalker at several turns. But it reminded us of Audrey Hepburn’s 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, which got us thinking about other horror and suspense films with disabled people at their cores. So we found 10 examples to share with you.
Some of the older films in our list literally depict disabled characters as monsters or helpless victims, hardly empowering or empathetic, but we sidestepped films that lazily explain their killer’s motives away as a “mental illness” or arising from transgender identity because too many films use those tired and hateful tropes (whether transgender identity is even a medical disability at all is a topic for another article). Instead, we chose films that illustrate different aspects of disability on film and show how disabled portrayals have changed throughout time, especially amidst life’s many macabre horrors.
1. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Quasimodo, the titular “hunchback” in the film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, has a facial deformity and kyphosis, a curvature of the spine that give him his hunched-over appearance. He gets treated pretty brutally in the film as he is publicly whipped for abducting the film’s heroine Esmerelda. In fact, the film’s violence and allusions to torture compelled a 1940 The New York Times review called the film “a freak show.”
2. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
This film actually has two disabled people: Blanche, a woman who became paraplegic in an auto “accident”, and her sister Jane whose mental illness worsens as the film progresses. Jane imprisons Blanche in the family home Misery-style, cut off from almost all outside contact and forced to suffer the indignities of Jane’s “care.” The film’s infamously feuding co-stars (Joan Crawford and Betty Davis) helped elevate its drama into high camp, but it still points to an ugly truth: People with disabilities are sometimes abused by their caregivers, many of whom are close family members.
3. Wait Until Dark (1967)
Susy (Audrey Hepburn), a blind woman, unknowingly comes into possession of a doll used to smuggle heroin. She soon finds herself harassed by three con-men who lie their way into her home and threaten to stab and burn her alive if she doesn’t give up the goods. The film has many contrived plot holes, but Hepburn’s performance as a terrified woman forced to defend herself against makes it strangely effecting, despite its narrative flaws.
4. Silver Bullet (1985)
Based on Stephen King’s illustrated novelette Cycle of the Werewolf, Silver Bullet features ’80s heartthrob Corey Haim as Marty, a paraplegic in a dysfunctional family. While a werewolf literally tears his community to shreds, Marty believes he knows the werewolf’s true identity. Like Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, Silver Bullet‘s disabled hero can stand up for himself: He rides a speedy assistive device and proves mighty handy with fireworks. But is he any match for the cruelty of a full moon monster?
5. Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
The teenagers of Westin Hospital suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and drug addiction: all understandable responses when your friends and neighbors are being murdered in their dreams by a razor-fingered boogey man. A familiar disability trope rears its head here: These kids aren’t mentally ill, they’re just the only sane ones left in a community in denial about its unstoppable serial murderer.
6. Monkey Shines (1988)
You might not have known this, but the late ’80s had a preoccupation with super intelligent monkeys that spawned films like Matthew Broderick’s Project X and Monkey Shines. After Allan gets hit by a truck, the once-athlete becomes quadriplegic and is forced to depend on a trained helper-monkey. But Ella the monkey isn’t all friendly and cute like Michael Jackson’s famed chimp Bubbles — she’s had human brain tissue transplanted into her own, making her both empathic to Allan’s vengeful thoughts and quite capable of killing. It’s probably for the best: Monkeys really make better outdoor creatures.
7. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Poor Jacob Singer hasn’t felt quite right since doing his military stint in Vietnam. He got stabbed in the stomach and has been having horrible waking nightmares ever since. The twist: so have his other platoon mates. While he tries to figure out the cause of his waking nightmares, his mates begin to drop like flies — either they’re all suffering from the same deadly PTSD, they were all poisoned while fighting abroad or something much darker and conspiratorial is afoot. Finding the answer could very well kill them. Genuinely scary, Jacob’s Ladder brings up another disturbing disability trope: that sometimes death seems preferable to life as a disabled person.
8. Jennifer 8 (1992)
There’s a sicko targeting blind women, and Sargent John Berlin (Andy Garcia) is determined to get to stop him. When the murderer sets his sights on blind music student Helena Robertson (Uma Thurman), Berlin vows to protect her, but the killer could be one of his co-investigator — hell, it might even be him. Jennifer 8 bombed in the theatre, partly because it’s a standard police-whodunnit; but its portrayal of blind women as helpless victims proved a dud as well.
9. The Bone Collector (1999)
Denzel Washington plays tetraplegic forensics investigator who is depressed, suicidal and yet still very much a badass. Not only does he help figure out the identity of the grisly torturer-slash-murderer known as “The Bone Collector” (so named because they collect bone fragments from their victims), but he’s also so good at his job that he ends up targeted by the killer in the film’s second half. The plot is formulaic, but the grisly murder scenes will haunt you.
10. The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
Like other people with Alzheimer’s, Deborah Logan has become increasingly aggressive. But as the film goes on, it become less clear whether Deborah’s behavior comes from the disease or some other evil force. It’s certainly disturbing to see an elderly person treated as a monster, but Deborah’s family members end up having to make the dramatic choice of whether to save her or euthanize her before she harms herself and others.