The horror film genre has given us over a century’s worth of scares and chills. But sometimes, the monsters and demons that inhabit these movies are way more effective than the works they inhabit. A villain who haunts our dreams and thoughts long after its crappy movie is over is still a great accomplishment from its creators, but it’s too bad that the source material doesn’t do them much justice.
Still, we have to give credit when it’s deserved, so let’s take a look at some of the most terrifying villains from films that did their antagonists wrong. Here are some of the monsters, murderers, and misfits who gave us the creeps — even while their stories didn’t.
15. Pennywise the Dancing Clown – It
Our first pick may be controversial (it won’t be the only one), but we can’t think of any memorable scenes in the 1990 TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s epic novel that don’t include Tim Curry’s turn as the inter-dimensional demon. We remember the basic plot — adults return to their hometown to battle the evil they defeated when they were children — but the actual details of what happen elude us. We do remember, however, that the film ends with Pennywise turning into a giant spider, and then the heroes just sort of go and push it over, and that sorts everything out, but that memory persists for the wrong reasons. Because it’s super lame.
But earlier, clown-filled scenes in It still give us the creeps when we think about them. Like the one in which Pennywise appears in a storm drain and then just straight-up murders a little kid. And the other one that has him showing up in the school shower. Clearly, the guy has a thing for drains, but we’re pretty sure it’s the creepy makeup in conjunction with demon eyes and pointy teeth that scare us in these segments.
Pennywise gave an entire generation of children new reasons to fear clowns, and just when we’d finally gotten over that creepy statue in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure five years earlier.
14. Victor Crowley – Hatchet
The poster for 2006’s Hatchet promises “old-school American horror,” and we suppose it delivers, considering that this basically promises an overpowered, unstoppable killing machine like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. And Victor Crowley is definitely one of those.
Hatchet is an exceedingly formulaic affair: Idiot kids go into a dangerous place and die one at a time until only one girl is left, and she gets away (or does she?). It has some remarkable practical makeup and gore effects, but those don’t really obviate its overwhelming averageness.
Still, Crowley draws some scares for the same reason his predecessors do: He’s relentless, unfeeling, and he can rip your head apart like cotton candy. And it is nonetheless a nice change to see a return to actors wearing spooky prosthetics over the computer-generated ghosts and non-practical effects that continue to dominate the genre. And Kane Hodder, who plays the villain, is in good form, bringing some overt menace that he couldn’t show off behind Jason Voorhees’ iconic mask in three installments of the Friday the 13th series.
13. Mary Shaw – Dead Silence
One of the few things we can award a creep factor comparable to a clown is a ventriloquist dolls, but we have to go to the source here.
Director James Wan (Furious 7, Aquaman) and writer Leigh Whannell were riding the success of the first Saw film’s great reception at Sundance when Whannell devised Dead Silence. It was kind of an insurance move in case the other film didn’t do well, but it was not a good experience for anyone involved. Whannell himself details the torturous experience on his blog. He describes it as “creativity at gunpoint,” so it isn’t just us saying the thing doesn’t work.
With [the studio’s] deadline looming, I finally settled on something that James seemed to like. I was so happy to have thought of something we could go out with that I mistook relief for love. I was not excited about the idea – I was excited to have pleased everyone around me. This is an example of the cart pulling the horse if there ever was one – you should never go out and pitch a script just to make a deal; you should go out and pitch a script because you have a story that you are absolutely in love with and you want to see it made.
Still, the visuals in Dead Silence are effective, and Mary Shaw’s creepy even before she dies. She’s actually Wan’s first “woman in black,” a motif tied to the gothic, Hammer Studios tradition — one which he continues in his later series, Insidious and The Conjuring. But mostly, the idea of a creepy-looking, vengeful ghost who will rip your tongue out for doing what comes naturally when you see a creepy-looking, vengeful ghost (read: screaming) and also turns people into dolls is just plain nightmare fuel.
12. The Collector – The Collector
Screenwriters Mark Dunstan and Patrick Melton, who penned the last four Saw films, stepped away from that franchise momentarily to make The Collector, which somehow manages to make even less sense than the last four Saw films. Dunstan and Melton originally pitched it as a Saw prequel, but it turns out that some ideas were too weird, even for that series.
It’s about a killer whose plan involves breaking into people’s houses, rigging them with traps, and then … waits for everyone else to die, we think? He definitely hangs on to one person every time he does this, hence his nickname, but the rest of it just sounds like a ton of work for what ultimately amounts to a kidnapping.
And that extra hustle is probably why The Collector freaks us out so much. Any fictional murderer can grab a knife or a chainsaw, but we just get a few extra shivers knowing that he fills up a cart at his local hardware store before he heads out to do his thing.
11. Mutated tardigrades – Harbinger Down
Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., the heads of effects house Amalgamated Dynamics (Tremors, X-Men: First Class), pledged to make a monster movie that relied on practical creature effects after Universal replaced most of their work in 2011’s The Thing with CGI. This included completely covering up a beautiful animatronic of the alien ship’s pilot with a silly-looking, digital tower made of Tetris blocks.
Harbinger Down was that film, and while it seemed to have everything going for it, like a starring turn from genre favorite Lance Henriksen (Aliens), the final product was sadly disappointing. Rather than being a spiritual successor to John Carpenter’s original The Thing, which boasts amazing effects from Rob Bottin (Robocop), Harbinger is a mostly predictable experience that doesn’t even bother to put enough light on those cool monsters Amalgamated put so much hard work into.
But it has a lot of potential and a clever villain: a clutch of tardigrades that have returned to Earth after suffering exposure to cosmic rays. And rather than making them superheroes like the Fantastic Four, the bombardment instead made them super-smart, shapeshifting monsters that can absorb living things to add to their own biomass.
So basically, these normally adorable animals have become The Thing. And The Thing is one of the scariest monsters we can imagine.
10. The Creeper – Jeepers Creepers
Movies are full of inhuman killing machines, but we can’t think of very many that also listen to contextually relevant music and drive custom trucks. In fact, we can only think of one: The Creeper.
It would have been easy for writer/director Victor Salva to make the villain of 2001’s Jeepers Creepers just another weird thing that wants to eat us, but he really puts the work in and creates something new. The Creeper hibernates most of the time, but it emerges for 23 days every 23 years to hunt, replacing its worn-out organs from involuntary human donors.
The good news is that it probably won’t attack you unless you have something it needs, but try telling that to the siblings it terrorizes throughout the first film (Gina Philips and Justin Long) before it ultimately busts open the brother’s head to get them peepers.
The Creeper is definitely the highlight of the first film (the highlight of the sequel being Twin Peaks‘ Ray Wise and his truck-mounted harpoon). Unfortunately, the rest plays out amid a host of tired genre tropes, including the one where the kids comment on the fact that the stupid thing they’re doing is a horror cliché.
9. Henry Kane – Poltergeist II: The Other Side
Like It, we can’t remember much of what happens in 1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which follows up director Tobe Hooper’s original classic with one of the most bland sequels we’ve ever seen. Nothing much happens, and we can’t recommend it. But its antagonist, ghostly preacher Henry Kane, is completely terrifying.
Kane led a doomsday cult that he took into a cave to await the apocalypse, according to his own prediction. When the world didn’t end, he left his followers behind to die. His acts were so evil that when he passed on himself, he became The Beast, an It-style transdimensional demon with a creepy design by Swiss surrealist painter H. R. Giger (designer of the original creature in Alien). But at least he wasn’t a giant spider, so he edges out Pennywise there.
The truly horrifying version of Kane, however, is his human form, and the reasoning behind it is as sad as it is effective. When Poltergeist II was filming, actor Julian Beck, who played the villain, was in the late stages of stomach cancer. That’s not amazing, creepy makeup: His gaunt appearance onscreen is due to the fact that he was actually pretty near death. He passed away before filming completed, which we’d think was an incredible bit of method acting if it weren’t so completely tragic.
8. The Trilobite – Prometheus
Director Ridley Scott’s semi-prequel to Alien looks amazing, but unfortunately, most of its characters are complete idiots who are bad at their jobs and literally can’t make a good decision to save their lives. We aren’t sure whose idea it was to have the guy controlling the map-making robots get lost, but it’s just one of our many issues with Prometheus.
Regardless, it contains some fantastic design, including the creepy Trilobite, which starts out almost cute, except for the fact that it was growing inside hero Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). It’s like a little, four-armed squid that would make an adorable plushy.
But eventually (and improbably), the Trilobite grows into a horrifying, giant version of the Alien franchise’s Xenomorph-implanting Facehuggers, and it immediately overpowers and latches onto the movie’s antagonist Engineer. This is a 10-foot-tall guy who had recently ripped an android’s head off with his bare hands and then used it to bludgeon several people to death, so he’s no pushover — unless it’s the Trilobite doing the pushing.
It’s not that this monster is big, slimy, covered in tentacles, possessed of razor-sharp teeth in its central mouth, or that it forcibly implants an alien larva into its victim. It’s that it’s all of these things simultaneously.
7. Martin Brundle – The Fly II
The follow-up to director David Cronenberg’s brilliant body-horror film was hardly necessary, but it was probably inevitable considering the success of its predecessor. And it’s far from the worst thing we’ve ever seen, but The Fly is an almost impossible act to follow, and we don’t envy this sequel for having to do it.
It tells the story of Martin Brundle (Eric Stoltz), the son of Jeff Goldblum’s character in the original, who seems normal enough until he spins a cocoon around himself and emerges as an inhuman, insectoid monster. And while the first Brundlefly is an asymmetrical, unwieldy creature due to his altered genetic makeup, Martin has always had weird DNA, so his final form is more complete and menacing.
Martinfly has four arms; creepy, red eyes; sprays a digestive enzyme that will just melt your face right off (link NSFW); and a horrific, compound mouth kind of like the vampires in Blade II and book/TV series The Strain. The thing just looks mean and nasty, and it’s the highlight of an otherwise mediocre sequel.
6. The Gargoyle – Tales from the Darkside: The Movie
The film adaptation of Night of the Living Dead director George Romero’s anthology TV series has some solid makeup effects work. It comes from a team that includes Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger, who have gone on to create the zombies for AMC’s The Walking Dead television show, the Deadites in Army of Darkness, and the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, along with dozens of other movies and shows. They know what they’re doing.
But the movie itself isn’t the best, since the few characters who are actually likable end up dying horribly. This includes the third segment, “Lover’s Vow,” which stars James Remar (Dexter, The Warriors) and Rae Dawn Chong (Commando) and is based partly on writer Lufcadio Hearn’s version of the Japanese folklore story of the Yuki-onna (“snow woman”). Remar plays a depressed artist named Preston who happens upon a gargoyle murdering someone. Instead of taking out the witness, the gargoyle makes Preston promise never to tell anyone, ever. It was probably tuckered out from killing that other guy. We understand; it sounds like a lot of work.
Completely unrelated to that (wink!), Preston soon meets a woman named Carola (Chong), and she turns his life around. He stops drinking, finds some success, and he and Carola marry and have two children. But this is a downer movie, so eventually Preston tells his wife about his run-in with the monster, and guess what? She was the gargoyle this whole time, surprising no one.
Carola turns back into her demonic form, and their children change into admittedly cute little gargoyles, and then she chomps out Preston’s throat because that’s what happens to snitches. The monster looks a little silly, to be fair, but there’s something about its big eyes and permanent, razor-toothed smile that still scares us over 25 years later.
5. The bedroom door – Paranormal Activity
We aren’t talking about the invisible, demonic entity that plagues the dumb characters in Paranormal Activity, because it takes more than a burning spirit board and some flour footprints to scare us. That door, though … that’s something else.
Sometimes, it opens seemingly on its own. And then it closes just as mysteriously. And sometimes it doesn’t do anything at all, but it was the main place we looked the whole time we were watching this overhyped snoozer because it provides most of the action. The spooky door does more than the characters, who seriously spend most of the runtime sleeping. Apparently, the filmmakers realized they had to put something immediately scary into their horror movie, and the door picks up the slack.
It faces some competition from the bedspread, sure, but all that thing can do is fall off the bed. That door swings both ways; it’s versatile. And while it was the focus of horror for us watching the movie, our emotional center was the tripod, which valiantly introduces stability into the otherwise shaky found-footage subgenre. And our hearts broke when it did.
4. Esther – Orphan
Kids are scary, alright? Especially when you find out that the creepy one who has been unnerving you for almost two hours isn’t a child at all, but is in fact a woman in her 30s who has used a glandular disorder to pose as a little girl for decades. Her “plan” — if we can call it one — is to have families adopt her and then seduce her new “fathers,” which is, like, a whole other level of creepy.
We aren’t even sure what’s next for her if she succeeds, but we know that when she fails, she gets a little stabby.
This is a really bizarre movie, but Isabelle Fuhrman, who plays Esther, manages to play both “sweet little girl” and “jacked-up, murderous dwarf” effectively, which makes it even more alarming when she switches between the two. She joins the tradition of other weird kids in films like Village of the Damned; Kill Baby, Kill; and The Shining, except her movie just isn’t nearly as good.
3. Nurses – Silent Hill
Silent Hill, by director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf), attempts to be two things: a horror film and an adaptation of developer Konami’s surreal game series of the same name. It fails at both.
The pieces are all there; it’s full of fog, scary monsters, and the titular spooky town with a horrific alternate version. But none of it makes sense, even by the source material’s standards, and most of the fan-favorite creatures are there simply because they’re fan favorites and not because they actually add anything. Gans and screenwriter Roger Avary (Beowulf) just stick them in there, stripped of their original meaning, metaphor, and significance.
That’s not to say, however, that the series-standard Nurses aren’t completely terrifying. They show up in the final act when main character Rose (Radha Mitchell) descends to the basement of a scary hospital to face the
final boss villain causing all the trouble. Once there, she encounters a group of the faceless, twitching things and has to sneak past them. It’s the most effective scene by far, and it provides some genuine tension and horror in a story that’s mostly just needlessly confusing.
The geeks in us can’t help pointing out that these are the more erotic Silent Hill 2 nurses, which represent that main character’s sexual frustration due to his wife’s sickness. But the movie is based on the first Silent Hill game, in which the monstrous nurses represent villain Alessa’s fear and hatred of hospitals after she suffers nearly fatal burns over almost her entire body. The ones in this scene still work, though. They’re just wrong.
2. The Blair Witch – The Blair Witch Project
Most of the villains on this list earned their places through scary makeup or a great performance, but the titular Blair Witch manages to terrify us despite the fact that we never see her. She’s simultaneously absent and present the entire time, her influence hanging over the spooky woods even when she isn’t shaking the heroes’ tent in the middle of the night or festooning the forest with cairns.
It’s a pretty impressive achievement from the filmmakers, but it doesn’t quite make up for the nausea-inducing “cinematography” that somehow manages to look even worse than you’d expect from a bunch of untrained camera operators wandering across uneven ground. And we aren’t sure if the unease we feel watching The Blair Witch Project is from the oppressive shadow of dread she throws over the whole thing or if it’s just motion sickness, but we’re pretty sure it’s a combination of the two.
Despite our issues with how it turned out, we have to recognize the effectiveness of creating a completely terrifying villain who never appears onscreen. And the last minute still gets us.
1. The Predalien – Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
Despite having one of the dumbest names among all monster movies, the Predalien — a Xenomorph hatched from a Predator — is still pretty darn scary. It’s just too bad it shows up in the weakest entry of two already hit-and-miss franchises.
Requiem picks up immediately after the first Alien vs. Predator — despite both films containing multiple aliens, they didn’t decide to pluralize them until the sequel — with the newborn creature taking out an entire ship of creatures that are ostensibly both equipped and prepared to fight Xenomorphs. So… whoops on their part, we guess?
The vessel crashes on Earth, freeing the Predalien to wreak havoc on a small town in Colorado. This includes a really horrific scene in which the beast uses its own ovipositor to implant a bunch of embryos into an entire maternity ward’s worth of patients, and that’s an ability that neither Aliens nor Predators (that we know of) have on their own, but it doesn’t have to make complete sense to be gruesome as hell.
Did we leave out any of your favorite villains that were better than their movies? Be sure to let us know in the comments.