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.