9 Film Villains Who Actually Scare Me

When it comes to frightening cinematic villains, this list will likely seem tame to hardcore horror film fanatics — those who revel in phantasmagoria. But to my mind, horror films are very rarely scary, usually hovering somewhere between slapstick and melodrama. What makes for a really scary character to me has little to do with those qualities most often found with the horror film ghoul, being a penchant for brutality, a supposedly fraught psychological profile, or any underpinning mysticism. Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th films, for instance, can boast all three. Yet, despite this, his appeal translates similarly to that of a clown: He proceeds with a certain inevitable performative gravity. Just as everyone knows that a clown will take a pratfall, we all know that Jason will make his kill. The fun is in just how the ax falls, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, genuinely scary film characters don’t necessarily have to do anything. In fact, they’re more characterized by a sort of watchful unpredictability, or what they might do if given the chance, which could include pulling up a chair to warmly tell you about their day or, well, murdering you. This sort of lingering dread is different than suspense, which builds to a crisis. Here, the character’s presence — their mere existence — is the crisis. Though in many ways these nine film characters are not as obviously scary as your Jasons, Freddy Kruegers or Jigsaws et al., even the mention of some of them creeps me right out.

Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) in The Masque of the Red Death
Prospero represents the man of means, absolutely corrupted. He hypnotizes, tempts, and spreads death wherever he goes. In one scene he condemns some of his hapless subjects to die, relishing in the means of their execution. “Garrote them!” he says. In another scene, he casually mentions that he worships the devil.

Visitor #1 (Grace Zabriskie) in Inland Empire
This character’s profoundly strange appearance is short, but it makes a lasting impression. In the scene where Grace Zabriskie’s visitor calls on a character played by Laura Dern, she turns a fairly straightforward conversation between neighbors into a story about the nature of good and evil, with absolutely no provocation. The character is something straight out Grimm’s Fairy Tales, though even weirder, striking a stark contrast to the domestic setting, the home movie quality of the film, and especially Dern’s politely tense forbearance. Zabriskie is a great actor, often tapped to play characters on the brink, but this might be her best turn ever. (See the unembeddable clip here.)

The Beast in Krull
Evocative of the tentacled monsters of H.P. Lovecraft, the otherworldly villain of Krull surely qualifies as one of the scariest creatures of the sword-and-sorcery film genre. Plot-wise, the Beast has some vague prophecies attached, but no one seems to really know why or how it shows up from outer space to wreak havoc. Its immense form seems amphibious, but it appears shrouded in smoke and shoots lightning from his slimy, fish-like mouth. Most of Krull is total boilerplate, but the compelling fantasy imagery, especially as displayed in The Beast and the black-eyed Emerald Seer, make this film worth a look.

Sid (Erik von Detten, voice) in Toy Story
Why is Sid scary? Because he turns an otherwise cutely complicated world upside down. The Toy Story films don’t really get into the darker implications of the toy characters being subject to built-in obsolescence until the second film. Initially, the main conflict presents as a competition between Woody and Buzz for their owner’s favor, but Sid’s childish violence heightens the drama and foreshadows the darker material ahead.

Frank (Henry Fonda) in Once Upon a Time in the West
Like a lot of classic film villains, Frank seems to have no limits to how low he’ll go. He feels no moral qualms about murder or torture. What sets him apart is his almost provincial ambition to be a businessman. Eventually he realizes that he doesn’t have the entrepreneurial spirit, except where killing is involved. But the practicality initially motivating his cruelty both humanizes and demonizes him.

Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train
The character who infamously offers to “trade murders” with a man he has never met in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train carries something of The Joker, something of Huckleberry Hound, and quite a lot of one of Hitchcock’s other parentally obsessed villains, Norman Bates. But Bruno Antony is scarier to me than Bates, in that he more readily moves in society, spreading his madness throughout the privileged class he inhabits. (This trailer is fan-made and admittedly kind of cheesy, but it has some good clips.)

Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle) in Devil in a Blue Dress
Played expertly by Cheadle, Mouse Alexander is the ultimate blunt instrument. This film’s script would have allowed a cool-headed killer in Mouse, someone closer to, say, Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs. But Cheadle highlights the innocence of the character, adding new layers. His mild irritation about the blood on his jacket in the scene below reveals how casually he regards violence, how confused he is without a gun in his hand.

Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter
Much of the menace of Mitchum’s demented preacher is couched in the film being told from the perspective of children. Harry Powell’s religious talk might fool the grown-ups, but his would-be paternalism goes nowhere with the two young protagonists, who have him pegged from the start. The powerlessness of the children in a world inhabited by mad parental figures serves as the perfect contrast to Powell. And who can forget those “LOVE/HATE” tattoos?

Alex (Alex Frost) in Elephant
Director Gus Van Sant’s slow-paced, naturalistic take on the killings at Columbine High disturbed a lot of people. Alex is that disturbance, a wide-eyed victim of bullying who methodically plans a two-man military strike on his high school. Part Holden Caulfield, part Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon, this wounded, delusional character terrifies.

Nathan Pensky is an associate editor at PopMatters and a contributor at Forbes, among various other outlets. He can be found on Tumblr and Twitter as well.


  • wildeyed says:

    Rutger Hauer: The Hitcher

  • Steve says:

    Leonard Maltin. Just, well, because.

  • Curly L'Orange says:

    Kurtwood Smith in Robocop.

  • sweetbiscuit says:

    This is a great list. I'd add:

    Kevin Spacey in Se7en.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    Bobby "Just Like the Country" Peru (Willem Dafoe) in Wild at Heart.

    • Ha, Stu, I didn't see that this comment was made by you when I responded below, though of course it makes sense that you'd have a good addition!

      • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

        High five to that, and to Rip Torn in The Beastmaster, too. He totally threw that toddler in the fire!

  • Edward Wilson says:

    Fuck all. SCORPIO in Dirty Harry!

  • These are all great suggestions, especially Rutger Hauer in 'The Hitcher' and Willem Dafoe in 'Wild at Heart'. A couple others that I almost included in this list were Ruth Gordon in 'Rosemary's Baby' and Rip Torn in 'The Beastmaster'. Keep them coming!

  • Peteykins says:

    I actually think Grace Zabriski was way scarier in Wild at Heart. Supposedly they had to cut out most of her performance because it was freaking out test audiences too much.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      I dunno, I go back and forth on WoH. This came up during our Lynch chat a while back, but the Zabriskie/voodoo stuff kinda lapses into self-parody.... until it doesn't. I can totally see a stronger dose freaking folks out, but where it turned out feels diluted too much by weirdness for weirdness's sake.

  • AS says:

    Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), Kurt Russell (Death Proof), The Virus (Contagion), Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom), Tom Cruse (Collateral), Robert De Niro (Cape Fear)... but I think the top prize goes to CRS in The Game.

  • Sarah says:

    The wolves in Frozen.

  • Bob M. says:

    Javier Bardem's portrayal of Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men"......chilling.

  • Tanya says:

    JT Walsh in Breakdown. Chilling.

  • Cole says:

    The first person that came into my mind was Kenneth Branagh in Rabbit Proof Fence. What could be scarier than the villain who honestly believes that he is helping people?

    Aside from that I'd agree that Heath Ledger's Joker and John Doe from Se7en would be on my list, along with Noah Cross from Chinatown and, maybe Vidal from Pan's Labyrinth.

  • J Glazer says:

    Nicole Kidman in all things.

  • Gary says:

    The Humungus and Wez from the Road Warrior - 1981

  • KevyB says:

    John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire. When he's playing with the plastic gun and then just spaces out. Man, that's creepy.

    But I don't think any villain list is complete without some of the early Disney villains. Cruella De Vil, the Evil Queen, Maleficent, the Queen of Hearts, Stromboli, Prince John & Sir Hiss, Kaa & Shere Khan... newer Disney villains are much tamer, which makes you wonder why kids nowadays are so annoying. They haven't had the shit properly scared out of them yet!

  • RATED R says:

    this is stupid why do i waist my time looking at stuff on the comeputer screen when it scares me 2 death 😛