Ed. Note: This was supposed to go up on Wednesday. Powers outside my control kept it from posting. I have fixed that, and we will resume our weekly posts this Wednesday
Welcome to the 2nd Annual Sacred Walloween! Once again we spend the month counting down the spookiest, scariest lists possible across pop culture, in honor of my favorite holiday, Halloween. We will begin our four-week journey with the Top Ten Greatest Horror Movie Characters. The general concept here isn’t too challenging: I will be ranking the ten greatest characters to appear in a horror film, be they the hero, the villain, or the sidekick (ok, they’re mostly going to be the first two). For this list, I simply have three rules: first, they will be judged on their iconic status, as well as the performance in question. While I’m ranking the character and not the performer, part of the reason we remember them is because of how great the performance is. Second, they must be some variation of human. The greatest movie monsters and villains will be a separate list, so I want to focus on the actual characters going through the ordeal, as opposed to the otherworldly force. For example, the Xenomorph is ineligible for this list, but Chucky is, as he used to be human. Obviously, he is an honorable mention. And third, in the event that that there are multiple phenomenal characters in a movie, they will be rewarded as a team effort, in order to spread the love. As a result, this is closer to a Top Twelve List than a Top Ten.
As per usual, we will be looking at the Honorable Mentions before we announce the Top Ten. Obviously, Chucky is a memorable villain with his one-liners and horrific appearance (plus, killer doll). Other great villains that were considered include Friday the 13th’s shockingly memorable Pamela Vorhees, Psycho’s eponymous Norman Bates, The Silence of the Lambs’ creepy, seductive Buffalo Bill, The Shining’s over-the-top Jack Torrence, Misery’s lovably insane Annie Wilkes, Sleepaway Camp’s batsh*t crazy Angela, and Hellraiser’s iconic Pinhead. Memorable heroes include Jaws’ creepy, determined Quint, Poltergeist’s Carol Ann and The Sixth Sense’s innocent Cole Seer. And as the only nominated sidekick, let’s not forget Scream’s uber-meta Randy Meeks. Each of these characters are memorable, creepy, funny, and wonderful, and just missed out on the Top Ten. However, that’s not what you’re reading this list for. So without further ado, here are the Top Ten Greatest Horror Movie Characters!
10. Ben (Duane Jones) – Night of the Living Dead
The calm, cool, collected protagonist is a well-worn staple in the horror genre. While most of society panics, or missteps, or gives in to their worst temptations, the protagonist is require to think clearly and intelligently to lead society to a better tomorrow. It’s one of the oldest archetypes in the genre, and while I can’t say with any certainty that Duane Jones’ Ben is the oldest example, I can say that he’s arguably the best of his type. Ben is cool and collected as the dead come to life, taking over as leader after Johnny “They’re Coming To Get You Barbra” Blair dies in the opening scene. He allows a small group into the farmhouse he’s secured, and from that point on he has the viewer’s attention. As travelling father Harry makes angrily pointed bad suggestions, and teenage Tom panics in the face of danger, Ben is the one barricading the door, listening to the radio, and making runs for supplies. He’s also the one that knows how to handle the zombies that have invaded the house, correctly assuming (and setting the precedent for all zombie films to come) that a zombie bite could lead to infection, an infection to death, and a death to reanimation. Ben holds the audience’s captivation throughout, and in one of the biggest coups in Hollywood history, he’s African-American. That’s right: in 1968 Hollywood, an African-American was portrayed as the cool, collected voice of reason who attempts to save the day. It’s a decision that not only goes against Hollywood expectations as a whole, but against expectations of the genre (for once, the black guy doesn’t die first). While the ending of the film is painful to watch for a whole bunch of reasons, it’s the most poignant moment not only of the film, but of Ben’s arc overall, and secures him a spot on the list of the greatest horror movie characters.
9. Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) – The Exorcist
Kids are creepy, y’all. I can’t tell you why horror movies so often rely on kids as a creepy crutch. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of their innocence with ultimate evil. All I know is when the child actor is at the top of their game, struggling with something beyond either their parents or their own control, it makes for great horror. Her actual character may be forgotten to the ages after her transformation, but I can’t think of a better example of the duality of man than Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, as played by the Academy Award-nominated Linda Blair. Regan is your average 12-year-old girl, travelling around as her famous actress mother takes on new roles. She’s shy, innocent, and lovable. She represents all that is good about this world, and about God (despite mixed feelings from the Catholic Church, The Exorcist is arguably one of the most spiritual films ever made). When she starts talking about her imaginary friend, we think nothing of it, as this is just another innocent product of childhood. And then the creepiness starts to occur. She starts acting out. She pees herself in public. She starts having violent seizures. Are these the early throws of her teenage years? Perhaps, and on a symbolic level, there’s probably some truth to that. However, we soon learn the truth, as we come to learn that Pazuzu, a form of the Devil himself, has possessed this innocent girl. And here’s where Regan, and Blair’s award-nominated performance, really become memorable. Because now, there are two types of performances going on: there’s the innocent, frightened Regan, who wants nothing more than to escape from the hell that is her life. And there’s Pazuzu Regan, who hurls insults, contorts her body, spins her head around, levitates, and famously commits one of the most shocking acts in the history of film, which I won’t spoil here. All the while, Blair demonstrates both the greatest of innocence and the worst of banality, and it makes for one of the silver screen’s greatest characters.
8. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) – Carrie
Part of the reason that Sissy Spacek’s Carrie White is so memorable is because for the first three-quarters of the movie, she’s the protagonist, before becoming a raging anti-hero at the very end. Every step of Carrie’s journey makes sense, from her horrid upbringing by a fundamentalist mother to her bullying by the other girls in school to the trauma of her first period three years too late in the worst way possible (and with no knowledge of what’s happening to her body, thanks to that terrible mother once again). We learn that she is a shy, worried girl who has no control over her own life at a time when humans need to have control. We pity her, and we empathize with her. So when she demonstrates the ability to move things with her mind, it should be a triumphant moment. She’s Matilda! What do we have to worry about? Well, unfortunately, humans are still cruel beings that ruin everything they touch. And despite finally possessing some agency, Carrie cannot escape the cruelties of her mother (who now wants to murder her) or her classmates. It is here that Carrie becomes memorable, mostly thanks to Spacek’s otherworldly ability to look beautiful and demented, often in the same shot. For when Carrie is named Prom Queen as a joke, and a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on her head in front of everyone, she loses it. And God’s wrath is unleashed on humanity. People are horrifically killed. People are electrocuted, shot, and beheaded. Cars are flipped, and the peaceful town is completely destroyed. And all because humanity couldn’t be nice to one struggling young girl. Spacek is incredible as the unfortunate teenager, portraying pain, triumph, humiliation, and violent retribution, all at the same time. She earned an Oscar nomination for her efforts, and we earned one of the most memorable horror movie characters of all time.
7. Damien Thorne (Harvey Spencer Stephens) – The Omen
Remember when I wrote about Regan, and I said she was memorable because of her childlike innocence? Want to know what would happen if you removed that innocence from her character, leaving only Satan himself to torment us? Meet Damien Thorne, played by the creepy little sh*t known as Harvey Spencer Stephens. For much of the beginning of the film, Damien feels like your average little boy from a wealthy family. He’s spoiled rotten, enjoys playing with his toys, and doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Well, except for his fear of churches. And the fact that zoo animals run in fear of him. And the fact that a large dog stands guard over their house whenever he’s home. But that’s all normal, right? Well, things really kick into gear when Damien stares into the eyes of his nanny – deliberately, eerily, for an extended period of time. And the next thing you know, the nanny has jumped off the roof and hung herself, declaring that she was “Doing this for you, Damien!” And he just looks so f*cking pleased about it. Yes, Damien is a special child, not born of this world. He was the son of a woman and a jackal, the animal form of Satan, thus making young Damien the Antichrist. And from the minute we learn that, Damien becomes a horror movie character for the ages. Stephens gives him an otherworldly sense of calm and terror, making every sequence he’s onscreen or interacting with another human being feel like a lesson in horror moviemaking. He rides his tricycle into his mother to push her over the balcony in order to cause her to miscarry her only real child. His smile burns into your subconscious, especially at the end of the film when he stares directly into the camera at the end, preparing to begin his reign of terror across the Earth. Damien is evil incarnate, the very name is now representative of evil incarnate, and he is the seventh-greatest horror movie character of all time.
6. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – Alien
Alien is an odd, genre-bending little thriller. It starts out as an average sci-fi, nothing out of the ordinary. It involves investigation, exploration, and great special effects. There is no lead – there’s an ensemble of crew members, none more memorable than the rest. When something goes wrong, it just feels like your normal stakes or thrills, nothing special. And then an alien bursts out of a guy’s chest, and things really take effect. At first, there still isn’t a clear lead to this thing – the crew is working together to defeat this great evil. However, as people start getting killed off, and the threat becomes larger and larger, eventually somebody smart, calm, and skilled has to step up to save the day. Enter an unknown Sigourney Weaver as the fifth most important character, Ellen Ripley. She’s the one that comes up with the plan to flush out the alien. When a cyborg named Ash challenges her power and tries to eliminate the humans, she’s the one that puts an end to him. And when the rest of her crew is wiped out, she’s the one that has to battle the alien mano e mano, destroying the ship and her best chance of being rescued in her quest to kill the ultimate evil. At its core, Alien is a haunted house movie in space, and Ellen Ripley is our Final Woman. She’s smart, cool, and collected under pressure. In fact, she became so memorable, that it not only launched Weaver’s career, but the character was brought back for an Alien sequel, which focused on Ripley’s PTSD as she tries to navigate humans through a war with the aliens, all while trying to learn to trust a cyborg and taking care of an orphaned child. It is there that she gets the incredible one-liner when she dons a giant robo-suit and challenges the Alien Queen to “Get away from her, you bitch!” It is also there that she received an Oscar nomination, demonstrating a time when the Academy was cool. However, whether you prefer Alien or Aliens (I prefer the original, one thing’s for sure: Ripley is one of the most beloved horror characters of all time.
5. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) – A Nightmare on Elm Street
His melted face is burned into our memory. His striped sweater and fedora haunt our nightmares. And that knived glove is a part of the pop culture lexicon. No, there are few villains that have had the shelf life and the popularity of Freddy Krueger. Brought to life with impeccable charm and terror by Robert Englund, Freddy is terrifying because he is an embodiment of everything the suburbs feared in the 1980s. He’s a child molester haunting the streets, an example of vigilante justice gone too far, and the sins of the past come to haunt a community in the present. The town may have thought that murdering the monster would help protect their town, but instead made things much, much worse: now he can haunt our nightmares, making him nearly undefeatable, and his image is much more terrifying. And the way he kills people – my God, it’s terrifying. The minute you fall asleep, something our body makes us automatically do, he has a chance to kill you, and he’ll do it in the worst ways possible. Hanging you with your bed sheets. Dragging you across the walls while he claws your chest to bits. Molesting you in the bathtub. Sucking you into the bed and shooting out your blood. These are horrifying, horrifying images, all enacted by one man given the powers of Hell itself. Of course, what really makes Freddy frightening is how much joy Englund gets playing him. He cracks jokes, he uses a child chorus, he contorts his arms in a sense of wicked humor, and he seems to genuinely enjoy murdering teenagers. While the sequels water him down and play up the jokes, he’s at his best in the first film, where the humor is darker and the murders are more visceral. There’s a reason that even people who don’t know his name know who Freddy Krueger is, and that’s because he is one of the most terrifying, memorable horror movie characters the cinema has ever seen.
4. Hannibal Lector/Clarice Starling (Anthony Hopkins/Jodie Foster) – Silence of the Lambs
This is my first selection of two contenders, as both performances in The Silence of the Lambs are deserving of praise. They are amongst the best the cinema has to offer, from the most inspirational of heroes to the most horrifying of villains, and both performances earned Oscars for their stars (the only winners on this list). They are Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector, as played by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. What makes these great characters are the choices that the actors make portraying them, finding pathos in two characters tortured by society who must work together to stop a greater evil, and the bond they form in realizing they are the only two who will ever understand each other. As Starling, Foster gives us one of the greatest heroes the film has ever held. Whip-smart and morally just, Starling must deal with misogyny wherever she goes, from the creepy men who run mental hospitals to the backwards bumpkins in small towns to the halls of the FBI, the one place she’s ever truly belonged. We never get a full glimpse into her backstory, but we do know that the death of her father and her witnessing of the slaughter of lambs gave her a strong sense of protecting the innocent, no matter the cost. Foster relishes in every acting decision as Starling, making sure her detective proves herself to a world that doesn’t appreciate or deserve her. Surprisingly, the only person who does understand her, and perhaps even love her, is a man imprisoned for horrible crimes. That man is Hannibal Lector, portrayed by Hopkins as a good man trapped in a bad body. Lector is the perfect example of a sociopath, instilled with a genius mind and a well-meaning heart (the only people we see him kill during this film were abusive guards and a sexually abusive inmate), but he can’t help the urges that make him desire to devour human flesh. Still, it’s telling that he is the figure we most often remember from this film, considering he’s only in it for sixteen minutes. That’s right, Lector shows up a handful of times, lulls us into a sense of security with his charming, soothing accent, and then staring into our souls as he utters the most terrifying and unnerving of phrases. We fear those who are too smart, and that’s exactly what Lector is: a man too smart for his own good. These are two characters misunderstood by society out to protect us from even worse violent, soulless people, and because of the care that these actors put into their performances, they are both two of the greatest performances the screen has ever seen and two of the greatest horror movie performances we have ever seen.
3. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) – Night of the Hunter
As Freddy Kruger evidenced, the thing that terrifies us more than anything is someone who would willingly harm children. Although in my experience they are nothing but little monsters, there is something about their innocence that makes us feel even more easily accosted when they are threatened. I think that’s what makes Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter so terrifying. His horrific crimes are almost exclusively focused at women and children, murdering women due to his deep misogyny and trying to murder children out of greed. To hide his crimes, he takes the form of a local preacher, allowing him to travel through a deeply religious South as a hero. This also adds to the true terror of the character, as he speaks with a commanding, calm nature that waxes philosophic on religion and God, with his tattoos reading “Love” and “Hate.” There are really two key reasons why Harry Powell is such a memorable frightening villain. The first is director Charles Laughton’s use of German Expressionism to extrapolate on the black-and-white terror of this world. Powell is seen exclusively in shadow, with his looming presence almost exclusively revealed in silhouette and an eerie whistling (church hymns have never sounded so sinister). The second reason for his terrifying nature is just how far Robert Mitchum pushes himself into this role. He seems otherworldly, almost as if he were a character in a nightmare. His deep, booming voice adds a nightmarish quality to every line he utters, most of which involve threatening to “slit little Johnny’s throat.” Powell is not your usual horror character – he toys with your mind, making himself a hero to the rest of the town so that no one will believe you, and intentionally preys on the weakest among us. He’s a terrifying villain, memorable, influential, and all-around game changing. He is, without a doubt, one of the most horrifying movie villains of all-time.
2. Laurie Strode/Michael Myers (Jamie Lee Curtis/Nick Castle) – Halloween
As we near the end of this list, I once again want to give a shout out to a hero/villain duo. This time, the credit goes to two characters that not only remain memorable in their own right, but created an entire genre inside their archetypes. They are the brother-and-sister duo of Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. Truth be told, I really don’t give the sibling thing that much credence. Yes, I understand it’s canon, and I don’t want to be a truther about it or anything, but these characters almost work better without the explanation of the sequels. How much more interesting is their dynamic, and how much more terrifying is the message if Myers is just a sociopath and Laurie is just some smart girl he’s chosen to attack at random? It makes for a better story, makes their relationship more interesting, and actually makes these characters more memorable and relatable. Well, relatable isn’t the right word for Michael. Portrayed by Nick Castle and referred to as “The Shape” in the credits, Michael Myers is evil incarnate. We don’t know why he wants to murder teenagers. We don’t know if he enjoys it or feels compelled towards it. All we know is that he has set his sights on a specific teenage girl, and is going to murder everyone he can to get close to her. Without a motive, he is a representation of all the evil in the world we cannot explain, no matter how hard we try. He’s made worse by his appearance – he chooses not to run when he murders, shuffling along at a simple walk, simply focused on achieving his task, and in no hurry to do so. His outfit consists of simple overalls and a William Shatner mask, covering everything but his crazed hair and revealing a hauntingly emotionless face. However, perhaps the mask is an improvement, for as long as he’s wearing it, we can imagine he’s some deformed demon from another world, and not have to accept the reality we are posed with in the first film: that underneath, he’s just some random guy. There’s nothing special about him (other than his inability to die): he’s just some guy who wants to murder people because he can. In the post-Manson age, this was a terrifying concept, and quite franky, it’s just as horrific to day. However, if I have to pick a favorite character from this movie, it would have to be Laurie Strode. Laurie is your average teenager – she teases, she smokes weed, she’s smart, and she just wants to hang out with her friends. There’s nothing special about her that would make her the target of a serial killer, nor make her better suited to deal with one. And yet, that ordinariness is what makes Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance so memorable. She’s afraid like us, and she runs like us, but she’s willing to stand up to that terrifying Shape and give it her all to protect the kids and to kill the Beast. She uses her brains, her cunning, and her talents to wound, stab, and escape from the creature that’s been following her, and even gains the upper hand two or three times in their battle. She is the original Final Girl, and unlike those that came after her, she’s not overly virginal, innocent, or naïve. She is an ordinary human being, put into extraordinary circumstances, and she makes us root for her to come out on top throughout. Laurie and Michael created the slasher film dichotomy of Final Girl-Serial Killer, and yet they have never been matched in their brilliance. They are two of the greatest horror movie characters of all-time, only to be topped by one man in 100 years of horror cinema…
1. Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) – Evil Dead Series
There really wasn’t any question about who was going to be #1 on this list. There are few characters who have started in a $300,000 student film and become so iconic, they have inspired three sequels, a TV show, and single-handedly funded the career of a well-regarded character actor. So is the fate of Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams, a Michigan State student and S-Mart employee who started out as an everyman caught in the worst day of his life before becoming a witty, lovably idiotic legend in his follow-up films. To be quite honest, there’s not a lot to remember about Ash from the original film. He’s simply the last man standing of a group of five friends because he’s one of the only two good-hearted ones (his sister, Cheryl, is the other, and she needs to serve as his possessed foil). As his friends start getting murdered by deadites and possessed by the ultimate evil, Ash has to battle his way to safety, surviving the night, killing his friends, family, and girlfriend multiple times over, and loses buckets and buckets of blood. And just when you think he’s safe, a final entity lunges for him. That’s how the first movie ends, and there’s really nothing overwhelmingly special about that. This is partially why director Sam Raimi retcons the character for Evil Dead II, allowing Ash to develop a personality more suited for Campbell’s charm, charisma, and physical talents. And when that happens…my God, it is the stuff of legends. Ash morphs from an Everyman square into the idiot’s take on John Wayne – strong, cocky, street-smart, and yet kind of dumb when it comes down to it. In fact, he’s more likely to defeat himself than let a deadite cause him any further harm. He’s got devilish looks, a pocketful of one-liners (“Good, bad…I’m the guy with the gun,” “This is my boomstick!” and, of course, “Groovy”), and one hand. How did that happen, you ask? Well, it got possessed by demons, so he had to battle his own hand to the death, beating himself up in a work of art that would make the Three Stooges proud. And then he lops it off with a chainsaw. Which he then places on the stump. My God, Ash is a legend. So when it comes down to it, there is only one character funny enough, legendary enough, and cool enough to be #1. And that’s Ash Williams. Hail to the King, baby.
I hope you enjoyed the first week of Sacred Walloween! Let me know in the comments if there are any horror movie characters you think I missed or that you personally love! Have a great week, and remember to stay spooky, scary!