HAPPY SACRED WALLOWEEN EVERYBODY! Yes, Halloween has finally fallen on a Wednesday, which means it’s time for one last Wednesday Listicle! And since we looked at all of the great non-human monsters last week, I thought we’d take the time this week to look at the Top Ten Horror Movie Killers!
Building off of where we left off last week, today’s list will break down the greatest human villains in horror movie history! There are no little green ghouls here, and no possessed dolls with knives here – just humans (or mostly humans) who lack any sense of moral compass, committing horrific acts and changing the horror lexicon forever. Now, thanks to the 80s, I have a large swath of candidates to choose from, but unfortunately, only about 16 of them are actually good – the 80s were a cultural cesspool and don’t try to change my mind. So we only have a few Honorable Mentions this week. These mentions can basically be split into two groups: serial killers, like John Doe from Se7en and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, or the criminally insane, like Annie Wilkes from Misery and Angela (spoiler alert) from Sleepaway Camp. And I do feel it is only fair to mention that I have yet to see Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Black Christmas, both of which are considered horror high water marks, so Henry and Billy are unfortunately ineligible for this list. With that being said, let’s take a quick look at the Ten Greatest Horror Movie Killers!
Oh, and while this should go without saying…SPOILER ALERT.
10. Jigsaw – Saw
Jigsaw is perhaps the most complex character on this list – while most of these villains would align with Chatoic Evil or Neutral Evil on an Alignment Chart, Jigsaw would fall under Lawful Evil – he’s sick and twisted, but he has a purpose. For Tobin Bell’s John Kramer, aka The Jigsaw Killer, is not solely interested in murder or destroy those he kidnaps, but instead to teach them the importance of life. After developing inoperable tumors in his brain and cancer in his colon, Jigsaw set out to give those who had lost value in their lives a new lease. His traps have the capability of murder, but more often than not just maim and terrorize – they range from bear traps to poisonous gas to chains and a hacksaw. While the victims may leave his lair scarred and disfigured, they also leave with an appreciation for their time left on this planet. And that is Jigsaw’s sole purpose in life. Of course, he does so with a sense of theatricality and humor – his setups are humorously over the top, he speaks to each captive through a creepy puppet, and he spends the entirety of the first movie pretending to be dead in the middle of a room just to prove a point. While he isn’t the greatest horror villain of all time, Jigsaw’s memorability and creativity are more than enough to earn a spot on this list.
9. The Zodiac Killer – Zodiac
I did my best to avoid using “based on a true story” slashers on this list – they tend to be fairly cheap, more than a little exploitative of real-life crimes, and ultimately not as scary as they should be. However, it is impossible to concoct a list of the best horror movie killers without giving credit to the most terrifying real-life killer of all time: The Zodiac. There’s a variety of reasons that David Fincher’s take on a real-life slasher is so haunting, and it starts with the fact that to this day, we have no idea who this killer was. All DNA evidence points away from the most obvious suspects, and it truly could be anyone. Fincher plays with this idea with a series of misdirects and verbal cues, leading the audience down a litany of rabbit holes that all prove to be dead ends. What’s more, whenever we see the killer portrayed onscreen, Fincher casts a different actor, each with a different size, shape, and voice, meaning every person is a suspect and every suspect could be innocent. However, beyond the way Fincher shapes his killer, there’s also the way he presents him. While the second half of the film is an investigative piece not unlike Vertigo or All The President’s Men, the first half is undeniably a horror film, recreating the famous kills, from a shocking shooting in Vallejo to an assassination in Presidio Heights. However, the scene that most painfully sticks with you is the murder committed at Lake Berryessa. Watching the killer slowly emerge from the forest with knife and a gun, masked in an executioner’s outfit, is a frightening visual, and it only gets worse when he ties up and summarily stabs two law students with brutal force. The truth of the story makes it all the more frightening, but at the end of the day, The Zodiac Killer still stands tall against the horror lexicon as one of the best movie slashers of all time.
8. Peter and Paul – Funny Games
Peter and Paul are evil incarnate, make no mistake. Michael Haneke captures something truly striking in his 1997 film Funny Games, the closest he’s ever come to a slasher flick. On paper, there is little difference between Funny Games and the slasher genre: the film follows two psychopathic young men who break into houses, take the family hostage, and torture them before moving on to the next house and family. However, what makes Peter and Paul so memorable is the way Haneke employs them. These two are not just you’re stereotypical villains who can bend the laws of physics to get their kills like our #5 killer, or even simply self-aware villains like our #6 killer. Peter and Paul are self-aware to the point that they can break the laws of physics completely. They know they are in a horror movie, and they use that fact for their own benefit. The hero managed to smuggle a knife? They throw it into the lake. Kids tend to survive the horror movie? Off the little bugger in the first thirty minutes, so he has no chance of escape. One of the killers is vanquished? Rewind the film so they can be saved. The system is rigged so that the villains will come out on top. However, what may be worse is the way they taunt the audience themselves. They wink at us consistently, making us complicit in their crimes. They know that we are there to see characters sliced up and killed, and they make sure we know that our hidden desire is wrong. Peter and Paul are a unique type of horror villain, ones who break all the rules and change the game, and that makes them two of the best of all time.
7. Norman Bates – Psycho
Norman Bates is, for all intents and purposes, the very first slasher villain in the history of cinema. The second of three villains on this list inspired by Ed Gein (the serial killer/grave robber who also inspired Buffalo Bill), Norman is frightening because, for most of the movie, he isn’t frightening. When we meet Norman, he is a timid mama’s boy who can’t escape the grasp of his tyrannical mother. We pity him as he is forced to clean up after his mother’s massacres, which include a brutal stairway stabbing and the infamous shower murder of Marion Crane, the first person Norman showed affection to in years. However, while we’d seen clues about the twist throughout the film (distorted voices, obsessions with taxidermy, slips of the tongue, etc.), there is nothing that can prepare you for the final twist: Norman’s mother is long since dead, stuffed and hidden away in the basement of the Bates Motel, and the criminally insane Norman not only kills people in her stead, but dresses as her and hears her voice while he does so. Modern day interpretations seem to believe that the ending is campy, or that the film is attempting to villainize either the schizophrenic/DID community or the trans community. However, Norman’s psychosis has nothing to do with either of these, and is all the more frightening because of it. Because actor Anthony Perkins plays Norman so straight, so kindly, and so innocent, he truly seems like he could blend into the crowd, to be a monster among men. His insanity has nothing to do with his sexuality, gender, or behavioral issues. There is something truly rotten at his core, something stemming from his mother’s personality, and it is one of the greatest villainous performances in movie history.
6. Ghostface – Scream
What makes Ghostface so scary? Is it his appearance, with the infamous Scream mask played against a black robe? Is it his scheme, consisting of a cross between Curt Duncan’s nightmarish calls in When a Stranger Calls and Michael Myers’ psychotic stalkings in Halloween? Or is it because, for most of the film, his motive seems to simply consist of “I want to be in a horror movie” – a Peter and Paul-esque coup. Of course, we now know that this theory is baloney (or at least we should) – even Wes Craven knew so in 1996 when he allowed one of his two Ghostfaces to declare the illogically logical line, “Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!” No matter which option you choose, Ghostface is an iconic slasher. Voiced with aplomb by Roger L. Jackson, Ghostface’s scheme is almost comical in setup, and frightening execution. He simply calls up random teenagers, quizzes them on horror movie history (“What’s your favorite scary movie?”) and if they get the question wrong (and they often do, thanks to a series of trick questions), he brutally butchers them. That plan is scarier enough without subtext, but subtext is there: that we, as a society, prop up the act of murder so much, between the news, movies and more, without the appropriate attention paid to the victims, and unfortunately fuel the psychos of the world even more. In the end, the motive behind the crimes is a little disappointing – Final Girl Sidney’s ex-boyfriend Billy is mad because Sidney’s mom broke up his dad’s marriage, and Billy dragged his douchey friend Stu into the mix for good measure. However, in the end, the motive for these types of crimes and criminals is rarely ever deserving – it is the terror they create that really matters. And in that regard, Ghostfaces ranks amongst the best of the best.
5. Jason Voorhees – Friday the 13th Series
If this were simply a ranking of the “best” horror movie villains, I’m not sure that Jason would qualify. After all, the best film in his series – Friday the 13th – decidedly never features the future serial killer, and the rest of the films range from hilariously bad to unhilariously unwatchable. But despite these technicalities, you can’t leave Jason off a list of the greatest slasher villains – quite frankly, he is the quintessential ideal. Standing 6’5” tall, covered in a Detroit Red Wings hockey mask, and armed with a machete (or a pitchfork, or a spear, or his bare hands, or…), Jason’s motivations are slightly…murky. Thought dead in the first movie and “avenged” by his psycho mom, Jason returns in Friday the 13th: Part 2 in order to avenge his mother’s death. Deformed due to a birth defect as well as years or rotting away, Jason covers his face in the first movie with a sack over his head. Things don’t become really good, however, until the third movie, at which point Jason, having successfully avenged his mother, dons his famous hockey mask, picks up his machete, and decides that his life mission is to hunt down introducers at his home, Camp Crystal Lake (where he was thought drowned in the first movie) and hunting down any teenagers having sex or smoking doobies. Does this sound dumb? It should. And it gets dumber – the sequels include an arch-nemesis in the form of teenager Tommy Jarvis, a quest to wreak havoc upon the streets of Manhattan, a journey into Hell, a battle with the next killer on this list, and somehow a trip into space in the year 2455. And yet, people are fascinated with this sex-hating behemoth who can somehow teleport, utilize ridiculous superhuman strength, and kill people in increasingly hilarious and over-the-top ways. The reason, I think, is the formula. While Jason himself isn’t scary, people like the fact that they know that when a person says, “I’ll be right back” and goes into the woods with their significant other for some nookie, things are going to go terribly wrong, often with a cheap jump scare. It’s good, clean, dumb fun, like a magic trick. And in that regard, Jason Voorhees is the David Blaine of slasher movies.
4. Freddy Kruger – A Nightmare on Elm Street
Nine times out of ten, horror movie villains are better when they are silent. There’s something creepy about the silence and the inhumanity that comes from their mute frames as they commit their atrocities on unsuspecting teens and families. The tenth time, you get Freddy Kruger. Long gone were the days when horror villains stalked in silence – Kruger not only deployed a series of terrible puns as he hacked his victims to bits, but he got off on it. He enjoyed every over-the-top dreamscape, nightmare form and off-the-cuff joke, and it helped make him memorable. Of course, Freddy is more than just a silly prankster (although that is primarily what he’s known for). From his backstory to his appearance to his method for killing, he is very much the definition of the title: a nightmare. For Freddy isn’t just your average killer – in his past life, he was a child molester, murdered by mob rule after being found innocent. And now he’s back for revenge on the town that wronged him, entering their dreamscape, crafting nightmares and murdering them as they sleep. And his choice of outfit? A haunting fedora, a misleading striped sweater, and a glove of knives. Watching that glove appear in the bathtub as hero Nancy snoozes in the tub, invisibly slash up a girl after dragging her across the ceiling, or make Johnny Depp explode in a pool of blood (ok, that’s not so bad) is truly frightening, and it makes Freddy stand tall with the genre’s best. Sure, Freddy is eventually defeated in what essentially amounts to a Home Alone scenario is kind of dumb, and the series wasn’t that good to begin with, but if there’s one thing that makes this a film worth watching, it’s Robert Englund’s indelible performance.
3. Hannibal Lector – Silence of the Lambs
Only one character on this list has earned an Oscar for his performance as a horror movie slasher, and quite frankly, it could not be more deserved. That would be Anthony Hopkins’ smart, scary, soulful portrayal as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. Lector is a remarkable horror movie killer because there are two distinct halves to his performance that could not be more different, but cannot be separated from the other. The first is a decent human being longing for connection, who loathes other serial killers and wants to do right by the only human to understand him, Clarice Starling. The other half is a violent, vicious killer who murders, desecrates, and devours everyone he comes across. Lector is less terrifying because of his presence, or even his crimes, but because of his sheer intellect. He is smarter than you – aggressively so – and he uses his intellect to outsmart and psychologically torture his victims. He convinces Miggs to chew out his own tongue, and he forces Clarice to repeatedly relive her worst memories for his pleasure. But make no mistake: he’s capable of horrific things. And not just passing references, like the infamous liver with fava beans (and a nice Chianti). He escapes from prison by beating one man to death, removing another’s face and wearing it, and following his tormentor to Bermuda to “have an old friend for dinner.” Lector is terrifying because he is a good man compelled to do evil things, and he uses those good traits to perform them. It is a complex, brilliant performance, and one of the best movie serial killers of all time.
2. Leatherface – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
While Norman Bates started the slasher trend, Leatherface created the modern slasher model. However, with the exception of the #1 villain on this list, no villain has been as expertly crafted as the infamous slasher from Texas. Portrayed menacingly by Gunnar Hansen, Leatherface is a monstrously tall man with long black hair, an ill-fitting suit, a mask made of human skin, and a living room filled with bones. He wields both a hammer and chainsaw, and those he captures he hangs on a meat hook, properly skins, and cooks for dinner. Like Bill and Bates before him Leatherface was inspired by Ed Gein, particularly in his love of human furniture and costumes. However, what makes Hansen’s killer different is both the creepiness and the pathos he brings to the role. For Leatherface is not your average killer – when he is confronted with the hippies on his doorstep, his reaction is not of stoic monstrosity or menace, but of panic. Having never met a human being other than his family (themselves inbred cannibalistic butchers), Leatherface panics when he runs into the hippies, and resorts to the only reaction he knows – murder and cooking. There’s a sense of tragedy inside the character; as the youngest in the family, as well as the dumbest, he is often mocked and tortured by his brethren, who have turned him into the matriarch of the family. He doesn’t necessarily like murdering and eating people; he just doesn’t know any other way of life. Still, his very appearance, with the mask and the chainsaw is frightening, and when he waves his chainsaw in the sunrise with reckless abandon, he carves his way into the history books as one of the greatest horror villains of all time.
1. Michael Myers/The Shape – Halloween
If you know me, or you follow this site, you know there was no other choice for #1. Halloween is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of the greatest horror films every made, and that is in no small part because of Michael Myers. Myers needs no backstory to be efficient, but he is given a haunting one nonetheless – on Halloween night, at the age of six, he butchered his older sister to death with a kitchen knife. And on Halloween, 1978, he returns to his hometown to stalk a young woman named Laurie Strode. There are many reasons given over the course of the terrifying series as to why Myers (known in the first movie as The Shape) desires to torment and murder this young girl and her friends – he suffers from the Curse of Thorn, the result of a demonic cult that controls Halloween, Laurie Strode (and later her son and daughter) are members of his own family, and he wants to finish the job, he suffered a broken childhood and it messed him up for life. However, if you ask me, I prefer the reason given in the first movie, and carried along in the sequel: because he can. Myers’ The Shape (as portrayed by Nick Castle while masked and Tony Moran when unmasked) is one of two things. The first, and most likely example, is he is the Boogeyman – a symbol of the night with unnatural strength, no motive, and a thirst for evil; a being who cannot be killed and is unstoppable, unexplainable evil. The second explanation, while more logical, is probably more frightening, and it comes when the mask is taken off. When you remove Jason’s mask, or Leatherface’s mask, you see some sort of deformed demon, an inhuman abomination that people can fear and Otherize. When Michael’s mask is removed at the end of Halloween, he is Tony Moran – which is to say, a normal guy. He is just like us, meaning that any of us, at any time, could become Michael Myers. We all have the evil inside us that could become a stalker who follows around this teen girl, who silently pops up behind a traumatized young girl, who stabs and murders because we can. However, whether Michael is a Boogeyman who silently hunts by night or a human being devoid of all goodness, he is far and away the greatest horror movie killer of all time.
I hope you all had a very happy Sacred Walloween! Starting tomorrow, we’ll take a look back at the month that was before returning to our usual Oscar season coverage. And one last time before the month ends: Happy Halloween, everybody!