The season of horror movies is upon us! That’s right. August is in the bag, and that means it’s time to start thinking Halloween thoughts. In my house, the celebration goes beyond the night of tricks and treats and consumes pretty much every day from September 1 until the jack-o-lantern turns black. And if I’m not using that time period to watch some great horror movies, then I have failed. Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds — probably more than 1,000 — but only a relatively small percentage of villains have managed to stand out from the pack. Speak of the Devil. Here they are now:
1. Michael Myers
The original Halloween is as methodical as its pale-faced killer. In the 1978 film, Michael Myers has returned to his hometown to kill babysitters. It isn’t known until the sequel that the one he has his eye on is really his sister, but that’s what makes Halloween a superior film. He isn’t a dark supernatural deity. He’s a normal guy killing people for no other reason than he feels compelled to. We’re not given a motive, and we don’t need one. The original could easily happen in real life, and that’s what makes it effective.
It’s hard to believe the same director who gave us A Christmas Story could be responsible for some of the most bone-chilling obscene phone calls in the history of cinema, but that’s exactly the case with the 1974 version of Black Christmas. The film predated Halloween, and most film scholars consider it to be the moment where the modern American slasher movie, as it would come to be known throughout the 1980s, was born. We know the killer’s name is “Billy” from his phone ranting, and we know he’s somewhere inside the house, where he will soon be killing his sorority girl victims, but beyond that, director Bob Clark keeps us frightfully unaware of what will happen next. With Billy, it is what you hear, rather than see, that makes him so terrifying.
3. The Raincoat Killer
I could call this killer by the human name, but that would spoil an excellent slasher film for those who haven’t seen it. Alice, Sweet Alice focuses on a troubled 12-year-old, who falls under suspicion when her younger sister is butchered at her first communion. Alice is definitely troubled, but so much that she would dress in a yellow raincoat while wearing a creepy mask and hack people to pieces with a knife that’s half as big as she is? Surely not! You’ll have to watch to find out, but it won’t be easy. You’ll see this killer in your dreams and when you turn out the bedroom light to go to sleep. A remake to this one is currently in the works: details here.
4. The Dwarf
The Dwarf is seen briefly in the bizarre erotic thriller Don’t Look Now, but it’s a short moment of cinema that will stay forever ingrained in your mind. This killer is very reminiscent of the Raincoat Killer in ASA (see No. 3), and she’s equally as vicious. We’re pretty sure the woman, who plays her, was a sweet old lady in real life, though little is known about her outside of this appearance. Sweet or no, if we saw her walking on the same side of the street, we’d probably cross to the other side.
5. Jason Voorhees
Kane Hodder gets a lot of credit for playing the hockey-masked maniac more than any other actor, but for our money, the only times Jason was actually scary were in Hodder-less films, namely Friday The 13th Parts II and IV. He’s not the killer in part one, and in part three he acquires the mask but we’re too detached from the characters to care what he does to them. That’s not to say we hate all the Fridays (or even most). But beyond these two entries and the Jason-less original, they’re just not that scary.
6. The Unknown Soldier
The Prowler was a 1980s slasher directed and FX’d by the same team that would go on to do Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter. Both are masterpieces of the 80s horror movies, and both make grand use of their masked villains. This one is an absolute bloodbath brought to you by the handiwork of FX man Tom Savini. And the killer is a shroud rather than a person. You don’t know what is hiding behind the mask, and you don’t want to know.
All right, I’m just going to say it. Psycho is a great film, an influential film, but it’s not a scary film. That honor goes to its first sequel, Psycho II, released 22 years after the original. Director Richard Franklin’s homage to his former mentor is a twisty, turn-y mystery with just the right amount of blood and a creepy “Mother” killer, who stays mostly in the shadows. And don’t be so quick to think it’s Norman. Frankly, this killer is more menacing than he ever was.
8. Buffalo Bill
To this day, watching the last five minutes of The Silence of the Lambs is unnerving. Knowing Clarice (Jodie Foster) is having to deal with this twisted serial killer on her own, in a darkened house, with nothing but a gun and the little bumps in the dark to go on as the killer stares at her through night vision goggles… shudder.
9. The Scarecrow
Dark Night of the Scarecrow, the classic (and we’re not using that word loosely here) revenge thriller, is a worthy entry into the genre of horror movies as a whole. Larry Drake (who would go on to star in Dr. Giggles) plays a simpleton, who is wrongly executed by a group of vigilantes while hiding in the body of a scarecrow. As Halloween rolls around, the men, who’ve gotten off for lack of evidence, begin to see the scarecrow and, eventually, die one-by-one. The Scarecrow is the visually scary element in this film, but if you watch and listen closely — particularly to the movie’s climax — you’ll walk away with, let’s say, a different interpretation.
Candyman is one of the best Clive Barker creations ever put to film. Tony Todd knocked it out of the park in the original. The sequels? Not so much. But to this day, you’ve got to brace yourself for when some idiot says his name into the mirror a fifth and final time.
Stephen King’s It was a great example of horror movies done right until the lackluster climax just about blew everything the mini-series worked hard to establish. As disappointing as the final creature reveal is, however, Pennywise (Tim Curry) is unapproachable. As a kid, I was afraid to even run my finger over the front cover of the VHS.
Terror Tract is an unlikely entry on this list of horror movies if for no other reason than the fact it stars John Ritter. Never mind him, though. What really works is the last segment of this anthology film. A boy with psychic ability finds himself plagued by visions of the Granny Killer, a weird guy in a hag mask, who likes to talk like he’s a grandmother, right before he does something terrible to you, of course.
13. The Hag
And while we’re on the subject of hags, what about the killer in Curtains?
14. Lora Lee Sherman
Cherry Falls, a horror-comedy about a killer posing as one-time gang rape victim Lora Lee Sherman — or is it Lora herself? — finds the raven-haired “lady” hacking the town’s virgins to bits. If the students at Cherry Falls want to survive, they’ll need to have sex in a hurry.
15. Harry Warden
Pick your Warden. The Miner in both the 1980s My Bloody Valentine and the Patrick Lussier remake look identical and engage in extremely bloody acts of violence. We prefer the uncut 80s version, though the 2009 isn’t a waste of time.
Campfire Tales, the 1997 version, is another solid anthology to go with Terror Tract on our list of horror movies. The middle segment, “People Can Lick Too” (you know where that’s going) features a hulking child predator named “Jessica,” who is after our lovable pre-teen heroine. Even though you know a lot of what’s coming, this is one guy that can give you the willies anyway. Unfortunately, no pic available of this one. You’ll just have to seek this one out.
Most horror movies are fun. Megan Is Missing is not. Of course, it never claims to be. It’s an all-too-real type of horror that was made as much to bring awareness to the dangers of the Internet for young girls as it was to tell a story. You’ll see disturbing imagery and scenes of violence in this horrifying found footage flick that’ll make you want to pull your little girls close to you and never let them grow up. “Josh” is the reason Megan Is Missing, and he’ll be the reason you have a hard time sleeping at night.
“The Killer is gonna get you, he’s gonna get you!” With that silly childhood chant, an axe-wielding madman was born. The original Prom Night is a cheap, low-budget slasher, but it has Jamie Lee Curtis, and it’s a heck of a lot better than the PG-13 crapfest remake Hollywood pushed on us a few years back.
19. Kenny Hampson
Terror Train places a group of prank-loving med students on board a train for an epic end-of-year party. Little do the seniors know, the classmate they wronged a few years prior is out of the mental institute and roaming the train looking for revenge while wearing a variety of killer costumes.
20. The Sleeper
Justin Russell’s 80s slasher throwback The Sleeper wins major points for so painstakingly recreating the era in which the slasher film ruled the box office. You could even have trouble distinguishing this with some of the genre’s greats like He Knows You’re Alone and When A Stranger Calls. The killer doesn’t wear a mask, but he’s sheer rage, and as with Michael, he doesn’t need a reason to kill you.
Those are our picks for the 20 most frightening killers in horror movies. Which ones do you think should have made the list?
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