- Some of the scariest villains in movies come from non-horror genres, proving that terror can be found in unexpected places.
- Characters don’t have to be the main villain to be terrifying; even small, bone-chilling roles can steal the scene and haunt audiences.
- The scariest characters are not always the ones covered in blood; psychological thrillers and dystopian nightmares can create a deeper sense of uncanny fear.
Horror movies have their fair share of terrifying villains, but some of the scariest, and most notorious, characters originate from their non-horror counterparts. To make a character terrifying they don’t necessarily have to be the main villain, or antagonist. They can be, and often are, but they can also be a small bone-chilling role that ends up stealing the scene. Conversely, there is more than more horror villain who ends up being more silly than scary in the end.
There are more ways than one to be scary. Body horror movies and buckets of blood have the shock and awe factor, but psychological thrillers and dystopian nightmares create a deeper sense of uncanny in the viewer. Some characters feel that their actions are morally justified, they rarely believe they are acting out of evil, but their effect on the people around them can be all the more shocking due to their twisted sense of right and wrong. Some of these characters might never harm anyone, but they leave the audience jumping at shadows for weeks to come.
12 Christof (The Truman Show)
Ed Harris’ single-minded portrayal of Christof in The Truman Show was an unforgettable performance. The mastermind behind an entire world designed to trick one man and put his life on display for the world’s entertainment is terrifying on its own. Adding his fixation on Truman (Jim Carrey) and strange belief that he is both his surrogate father and his god makes Christof a powerful and unsettling force. With the money, power, and resources to keep Truman trapped his entire life, Christof almost convinces Truman to stay and be his puppet forever. However, in the beloved The Truman Show ending, Truman escapes.
11 Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)
“I’ve killed for you; who else can say that?” Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) whispers to her husband Nicholas (Ben Affleck) in the psychological thriller, Gone Girl. One of the best villains in David Fincher’s movies, Amy’s intelligence and willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals aren’t that scary on paper. However, when her goal becomes complete revenge on her cheating husband things take a dark turn. A dark horse fan favorite, Amy is as obsession-worthy as she is scary.
10 The Pale Man (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairytale movie, Pan’s Labyrinth is a fantastical story set against the background of Spain’s political unrest and fascism of the 1940s. Although, Vidal (Sergi López) is a sadistic villain, the creature, The Pale Man (Doug Jones), is the most outright terrifying. Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) narrow escape from being his dinner makes the small scene that centers around The Pale Man a pulse-pounding addition to the movie.
9 Eli Sunday (There Will Be Blood)
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a bad man, but Eli Sunday’s (Paul Dano) manipulation of his faith and the people is a chilling standout in There Will Be Blood. Watching the pair struggle for power over each other and the town makes the audience question who is right, and who is wrong, if either of them. However, it’s Eli’s use of religion and morality to meet his own ends that set him apart as a formidable enemy.
8 Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest)
Faye Dunaway’s campy role as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest still holds up today, and has a beloved cult following. Despite the camp, there are parts of her performance that are genuinely terrifying. Based on Christina Crawford’s memoir of the same title, the movie follows Joan Crawford as an abusive and appalling mother who only cares about her career and fame. There is some debate over whether all of Christina’s accusations were true, but it is certain that the Crawford depicted in the movie is decidedly sinister.
7 Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction)
The scariest part of Fatal Attraction isn’t exactly Glenn Close as Alex Forrest, but what the performance was interpreted as. The film was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek comment on how people were perceiving single women as single-minded bordering on obsessive in their hunt for a man. Instead, audiences used this performance to confirm their biases stereotyping women. Alex’s actions may have been frightening to watch, but her legacy is much more. Fatal Attraction‘s ending is the nail in the coffin for this interpretation.
6 The Child Catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, starring Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts, is a classic example of a happy-go-lucky children’s movie with surprisingly dark undertones. The Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann) plays the secondary antagonist in the story within the story that Potts tells his young children. However, he is hardly second in terrifying young children, and grown adults, who watch the film. His genuine efforts to capture the children and ominous appearance make for a character of nightmares.
5 Keller Dover (Prisoners)
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) might be tied for both the saddest and scariest character in Prisoners. After his daughter is kidnapped he grows increasingly more paranoid and desperate over the course of the film, and there is nothing more scary than someone with nothing to lose. In a scene of pure brutality, Keller tortures Alex Jones (Paul Dano) because he believes Jones has his daughter. In the end, this turns out not to be the case, but it’s clear Keller would do it again if he had to. In the Prisoners ending, Keller’s fate is unclear after his dark decisions in the movie.
4 The Joker (The Dark Knight)
One of the most iconic characters, and performances, of all time Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is a petrifying man with no regard for human life. Over the course he murders, disfigures, and obliterates the people of Gotham and the city itself. Ledger was an enormous part of this character having the legacy he does, and gives a fantastically horrifying performance. Even in his final moments, the Joker laughs in Batman’s face because if there’s chaos in the world, he’s won.
3 Immortan Joe (Mad Max: Fury Road)
It’s not only Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) physical appearance that gives the audience chills in Mad Max: Fury Road. His actions and vicious control of resources and human beings is enough to make anyone queasy. As if the nightmarish reality of the world isn’t enough, Immortan Joe makes for a thrilling and awful antagonist to Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Max (Tom Hardy). To be chased by him through the unforgiving desert would make anyone squeamish.
2 Kevin (We Need To Talk About Kevin)
Ezra Miller’s performance as Kevin in We Need To Talk About Kevin makes for a sinister foil to Tilda Swinton who plays his mother, Eva. We Need To Talk About Kevin is terrifying on the whole, but Kevin is the central figure and reason for this. His ability to shift his personality to fit the people around him, only showing his darkest and most unnerving side to his mother, gives the movie a feeling of being constantly on edge. As the audience identifies with Eva and her growing fear of Kevin, his every action leaves an eerie air to the scene.
1 Hans Landa (Inglourious Basterds)
The first scene of Inglourious Basterds is one of the most memorably anxiety-inducing of the modern era, and it’s Christoph Waltz’s performance as Hans Landa that makes it this way. Though little if any of Inglourious Basterds is true, the fear that Landa strikes in the hearts of the protagonists of the film, as well as the audience, is all too real. His cruelty and ability to drag out a confrontation when he knows he is going to succeed provide a palpable sense of dread that hangs over his every scene.