This week marks the opening of yet another horror remake: the new Nightmare on Elm Street releases on April 23, with the magnificent Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen, Little Children) as the king of night terrors Freddy Krueger. Robert Englund lent his spooky, almost silly persona to Krueger in all the previous Nightmare movies (there are eight if you include 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, but the best of them are the original Nightmare  Nightmare…3: Dream Warriors  and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare –feel free to make your case for your favorites in the comments).
In case you couldn’t tell, Hollywood’s unwilling to let any cash cow go unmilked, so the series continued…and continued…and continues. Krueger is one of horror cinema’s most terrifying villains because he’s inescapable. Though in a way, he is terror incarnate, Krueger’s physical modus operandi is to haunt the dreams of teenagers and kill them in their sleep. And there’s the rub: humans have to sleep. In an interview with Clive Barker, original Nightmare director Wes Craven said, “I think horror films serve the same function as nightmares serve in the human condition…They are a vent for disturbing but very powerful and important thought…It’s life and death, blood and guts” (from Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, ed. Stephen Jones). Is it any wonder I like this guy?
Krueger’s knives for fingers aside, this week’s Listicle is all about the best horror cinema villains. These are our favorites. Add your own in the comments!
The Firefly Family in The Devil’s Rejects, 2005 (dir. Rob Zombie)
House of 1000 Corpses felt like a ridiculous, overlong, overly saturated music video to me, and the characters were hardly memorable. When shock-rocker Rob Zombie released The Devil’s Rejects in 2005, though, he had me at first kill. Long-haired Zombie-lookalike Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), evil clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), sweet and sinister Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), repulsive Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook), and Tiny (actual giant Matthew McGrory) make up the Firefly clan. They are the epitome of redneck, low-class, inbred terror. Lots of horror film has dealt with an inherent American fear of the less familiar landscapes (woods and desert, mostly), hill people, rednecks, inbreeding, and revulsion toward the “uncivilized.” And yet, The Devil’s Rejects features a cast of repulsively evil characters who murder, maim, and have sex with dead bodies, but with whom you almost identify. This is, of course, due to the insertion of Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) whose “civilized” nature certainly doesn’t prevent him inflicting the worst kinds of torture on our main characters, The Fireflys.
The trope of evil-hill-family vs. good-civilized-people has been used before, notably in The Hills Have Eyes, but Zombie is perfectly aware of his predecessors. Though Zombie’s hit-or-miss for me, he knew exactly what he was doing in making the Fireflys utterly hateable and completely believable. The movie features venerable horror legends Michael Berryman (whose deformity made him famous in The Hills Have Eyes), Danny Trejo (From Dusk til Dawn), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), P.J. Soles (Carrie), and newcomers Tyler Mane (Zombie’s Halloween movies) and Kane Hodder (look up “bad horror movie” and you’re likely to see his name). It’s a horror geek’s wet dream, and the family are fantastic villains because they’re both over-the-top and oddly familiar—and who knows if on that next family road trip, we might end up in their dirty, grimy clutches.
Pennywise, a.k.a. IT in Stephen King’s “IT,” 1990 (dir. Tommy Lee Wallace)
Let’s face it: clowns are terrifying. There’s something inherently spooky about adults caking on grotesque fake smiles and capering about, often mutely pantomiming instead of speaking. Something about it speaks to dysfunction and quite possibly insanity. (For instance, mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, a.k.a. Pogo the Clown, killed thirty-three young men and buried them under his floorboards in Des Plaines, Illinois in the 1970s.) The spectrum of clowns in horror film covers all of cinematic history, but the clown that left much of my generation with coulrophobia (the clinical term for fear of clowns) is undoubtedly Pennywise, played by Tim Curry in the miniseries of Stephen King’s epic novel IT. Like Freddy Krueger, Pennywise is a manifestation of an ancient evil, a creature so old and base it can’t be perceived by the human mind. Of course, that creature would take the form of a clown. Pennywise first appears in a storm drain, luring a little boy to grab a balloon, smell the cotton candy! “We all float down here,” he growls before growing fangs the size of knitting needles. Throughout the film, Curry plays Pennywise with an utterly spooky grace and malice. His bulging yellow eyeballs, clawed fingers, and grotesquery haunted the dreams of many a kid (and some adults).
Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991 (dir. Jonathan Demme)
Hannibal Lecter is one of horror’s most iconic characters. Portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the films based on Thomas Harris’s books (which also include 2001’s Red Dragon and 2002’s Hannibal), Lecter became a figurehead for civilized evil. He is a soft-spoken, sophisticated psychologist who also happens to be mass murderer, who also consumes his victims’ body parts (hence the infamous line, “I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti”). Lecter is a hypnotically fascinating man whose refined sensibilities and immense intelligence make it hard to reconcile his penchant for brutal murder. In a sense, he’s the ultimate antihero. In The Silence of the Lambs (far and away the best of the trio), new FBI recruit Clarice Starling has to utilize Lecter’s knowledge of her prey, Buffalo Bill, and finds herself entangled in a battle of wits and wisdom with a madman. Lecter seems to have x-ray eyes; you have this nasty feeling he’d be able to see each and every one of your sins and foibles just be taking one look into your eyes. And then he might beat you to death, sauté your innards, and serve them to a dinner party after an opera. None of it makes sense, and it all adds up to complete and utter horror.
Candyman in Candyman, 1992 (dir. Bernard Rose)
Candyman is one of many urban horror movies, and it’s one of the only ones that doesn’t make you chuckle along the way. It uses classism and racism and the very real terror of the cultural Other to build and buffet its terror (another, much cheesier, favorite of mine is Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs). Candyman (the terrifically creepy Shakespearean actor Tony Todd) lived during and after the Civil War. Before he was Candyman, he was Daniel Robitaille, an artist and former slave who courted his employer’s white daughter. For this sin he was brutally murdered by what’s effectively a lynch mob. Candyman is a scorned lover, an innocent who now kills the innocent. Like Hannibal Lecter, he’s refined, with a deep, sensuous voice and gentle gestures. He reappears to haunt anyone who speaks his name five times in the mirror—much like the “Bloody Mary” game we all played in dark bathrooms as kids.
Candyman’s favorite haunt is Cabrini Green, a housing project in Chicago, and when two middle-class grad students venture into Cabrini Green to study the horrors of the projects and the way inhabitants translate real-life terror into fantasy, things start getting really nasty. The film, which was actually made in and around Cabrini Green, features a truly spooky setting (evidently the filmmakers were shot at during filming). Violence is a very real horror in big cities, and Candyman manages to create a fantastical, ancient terror that also embodies and thrives on the very real terror of pain, anguish, and poverty.
Ghostface in Scream, 1996; Scream 2, 1997; Scream 3, 2000 (dir. Wes Craven)
Ghostface is played by multiple actors, but everyone knows his mask. I’m going to treat the character as an entity, since the ghostly, elongated face reappears in each film and on costume store shelves every Halloween. Ghostface isn’t terror incarnate, like Krueger, Candyman, or Pennywise. Nope, the banality is what makes this character horrifying. Originally, Ghostface was invented just because some crazy person wants to start killing other people. In the first Scream, there’s no real motive save for “the millennium” and a convoluted revenge scheme. When shooting down motives one character berates, “Don’t blame the movies, Sid! Movies don’t create psychos, movies just make psychos more creative!” In the second and third movies, the villain is given a bit more motivation, but it’s nothing as all-encompassing as “to strike terror in the hearts of teenagers everywhere” or “to seek vengeance after death for the abuses dealt to me during life.” No; Ghostface is a series of insane people who just want to kill.
Horror film may be a catharsis, a releasing of tension that builds up due to everyday repression. But what’s scariest is the news every day. The John Wayne Gacys, the Ed Geins, the Ted Bundys: these were men who just wanted to kill other people, and there’s nothing supernatural about it in the least. What makes Ghostface an effectively terrifying villain is that we could be living next door to him, we could be smiling at him in the grocery aisle, and we wouldn’t have the slightest idea. That’s true horror.
Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (dir. Tod Browning, 1927)
The Unknown is an all-but-unknown horror classic from the end of the silent era from two filmmaking icons with more prominent films on their resume. Director Tod Browning would go on to direct Bela Lugosi to stardom in the original Dracula and craft the superior and still-chilling Freaks, and of course Lon Chaney, Sr. was the first true horror star, having brought to life The Phantom of the Opera, and Quasimodo himself. (The Unknown also starred a then-also-unknown actress named Joan Crawford. Perhaps you’ve heard of her?)
In the film, Alonzo the Armless (Cheney) is an armless knife-thrower in a circus sideshow, and in love with Nanon Zanzi (Crawford) who has a paralyzing fear of being touched by men. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Well, unfortunately for Alonzo he’s actually a wanted murderer on the run who only pretends to be a double-amputee. So, for love, Alonzo takes leave of the circus to actually get his arms removed, but while he’s out Nanon overcomes her fears thanks to the love of Malabar the Mighty, the Circus’s resident strongman. When Alonzo returns to a freshly broken heart and the realization that his ultimate sacrifice was completely in vain, the fiendish murder plot begins, and it’s a doozy. A great horror villain who deserves to be far better… well, known.
Michael Myers in Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, 1978)
It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker missing the point more radically than Rob Zombie, who devoted his entire remake of Carpenter’s original Halloween to explaining prolific serial killer Michael Myers’ homicidal behavior. The genius of Carpenter’s original film was that Michael Myers could not be explained. He simply had no soul. There was nothing behind his eyes. Even subsequent sequels, which gave Myers some vague motivation about finding his long-lost sister, only served to dilute the chilling reminder that sometimes evil men have no purpose, nor any chance for redemption. Also, Myers has been portrayed by a large number of actors over the years, but it was Nick Castle (who would go on to direct his own films, like the sci-fi classic The Last Starfighter) who did it best, bringing a sleek rock star swagger to a role which would later find its way to less elegant and decidedly more muscle bound performers.
John Ryder in The Hitcher (dir. Robert Harmon, 1986)
Many horror movies feature a main character doing something they’re not supposed to and getting punished for it. But never has the punishment so far exceeded the crime than in The Hitcher, in which C. Thomas Howell gets a lot more than he bargained for when he picks up Rutger Hauer on the side of a desert road. Howell realizes his mistake quickly when Hauer, giving one of his most iconic performances (that’s saying something), starts asking questions like, “You wanna know what happens to an eyeball when it gets punctured?” Um, no… No he doesn’t. But soon the enigmatic murderer known only as John Ryder has developed a psychotic fixation on our hero and follows him along increasingly lonely highways, murdering everyone the poor bastard so much as talks to.
Before long, Howell has been framed for a mass murder at a police station and is in the middle of a high speed chase running from three highway patrol cars and a helicopter when John Ryder suddenly appears driving a pickup truck off-road and keeping pace beside them, smoking a cigarette and firing a revolver left-handed from a speeding vehicle, shooting the helicopter out of the sky and causing each police car to crash into its wreckage. Really. And knowing Rutger Hauer, he probably improvised the entire scene on set. John Ryder might not be the most plausible horror villain in history, but he is officially the most badass.
Jerry Blake in The Stepfather (dir. Joseph Ruben, 1987)
Before Terry O’Quinn was a half-mad survivalist on “Lost,” he was an entirely mad serial killer who just wanted his own slice of the American Dream. You see, Jerry Blake seduces single mothers and marries them in order to find the family he always wanted. But as soon as he notices the cracks in the façade – the normal, everyday difficulties and sacrifices even the best families have to endure – he murders everyone who fails to live up to his impossible standards and starts again. In The Stepfather he makes the mistake of marrying into a household with a teenager (but then, having a teenager around never goes well for anyone). Although O’Quinn’s performance is nothing short of Oscar-worthy he was, of course, completely ignored by the Academy. But as you watch him struggle to maintain his identity as he flits between the family he’s about to murder and the new family he’s about to infiltrate, it’s plain to see that he’s giving one of the best performances in any horror film ever made. If your stepfather ever has to ask “Who am I here?” just take it from me… Run.
Dr. Philip K. Dekker in Nightbreed (dir. Clive Barker, 1990)
David Cronenberg is best known for directing such classics as The Fly, Dead Ringers and A History of Violence, but he has also lent his intellectual on-screen persona (not to mention his velvety voice) to more than a few films. Sure, we all love his cameo in Jason X (“I want him soft” was a line of dialogue Cronenberg himself contributed, as you might have guessed), but his piece de resistance was his role as the psychologist Dr. Philip K. Dekker in Clive Barker’s best film, Nightbreed. You see, Dr. Dekker is a soulless serial killer with one of the scariest masks in film history, but he’s a serial killer with a rather devious plan. Dekker spends the first part of the film framing one of his own patients, a man named Boone (A River Runs Through It’s Craig Sheffer), by giving the poor bastard fake memories of Dekker’s own crimes during hypnosis.
Boone, convinced of his own guilt, runs off to Midian, an underground city populated by monsters. Boone expects to be welcomed with open arms, but is shocked to discover that his soul is pure. It’s only when Dekker gets Boone killed by a trigger happy mob that Boone returns from the dead, so now Dekker has to wage war on a society of supernatural monsters with powers beyond those of mortal men. And Dekker is so evil, so unstoppable, that frankly you’re never convinced that the monsters have a chance. Cronenberg gives an exceptional performance in a film that has a cult audience, but deserves a bigger one. Hopefully the recently-discovered Director’s Cut will see a proper DVD release and finally earn Nightbreed the acclaim it truly deserves.
Who/what are your favorite horror villains?