Since Halloween is just around the corner, I thought it only appropriate that I pay tribute to some of my personal favourite horror movie villains. However, given that I am the author of “Robin’s Underrated Gems”, I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that I won’t be paying tribute to the usual suspects. You won’t find the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers on this list. No, this column will be shining the spotlight on those great horror movie villains that have never gotten the adulation they deserve. In some cases, these selections were overshadowed by another iconic horror villain from the same film, but that doesn’t mean their contributions weren’t as valuable. I always feel that it’s my duty to champion the underdog, and while I guess it might sound weird to be referring to such evil, despicable characters as “underdogs”, I nonetheless present to you “Ten Underrated Horror Movie Villains”…
Captain Rhodes – Day of the Dead (1985):
It’s common for horror films involving a non-human threat to have at least one human antagonist who is also a threat to the heroes, with prime examples being Harry Cooper in Night of the Living Dead or Burke in Aliens. However, in terms of being a pure sadistic asshole, you can’t beat Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead. Played with gusto by Joseph Pilato, Rhodes assumes command of a military-supported scientific team after the death of their leader, and it’s clear that this is one guy you do not want in a position of authority. He is hostile and pissed off one hundred percent of the time and is capable of shooting one of his co-workers at a moment’s notice. Though the film is well-regarded today, George Romero’s conclusion to his original “living dead” trilogy was considered a bit of a disappointment upon its original release, as it was much talkier and slower-paced than its predecessors and contained a lot of unlikable characters. Most of these characters are trigger-happy dickhead soldiers lead by Captain Rhodes who get way more screen time than the zombies, but that gives the climax of the film a lot of punch. You actually wind up cheering for the living dead since you really want to see these assholes die horrible gruesome deaths at their hands. Romero more than delivers the goods here and saves the best for last, as Rhodes’ comeuppance earned the #2 slot on my “Top 10 Most Satisfying Villain Death Scenes” list. Even while being torn in half as zombies are eating his intestines, Rhodes uses his dying breath to shout the words “CHOKE ON ‘EM!!” to demonstrate that he is biologically programmed to remain an asshole until the bitter end.
Dad Meiks – Frailty (2002):
Throughout most of his career, Bill Paxton has generally been cast as the likable hero or the comedic relief, but he has shined when given the rare opportunity to play a villain. Paxton was a lot of fun as a baddie in Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated vampire flick, Near Dark, but he really excelled when he cast himself as the lead villain in his directorial debut, Frailty. I consider Frailty to be one of the most criminally underrated horror films of the past decade, telling the story of two young boys whose father suddenly becomes an axe murderer. Paxton plays Dad Meiks (whose real first name is never revealed), a seemingly honest, hard-working man who starts to believe that God has given him the task of killing people who have been possessed by demons. Dad winds up using his trusty axe, “Otis”, to kill victims right in front of his horrified children, and he eventually tries to get the two boys to do some killing of their own. When the oldest son, Fenton, refuses to go along with it, Dad decides to subject him to such punishments as being locked in a cellar for a week without food. They say that the most interesting screen villains are those who genuinely believe that what they are doing is right and that certainly applies to Dad Meiks. His actions may make him sound like a monster, but you know that Mr. Meiks honestly does believe that God has given him this task. It’s pretty chilling to watch someone who is a good man at heart and genuinely loves his sons suddenly go off the deep end and start murdering people for what he thinks is the greater good. Seeing the normally likable Bill Paxton as a psycho gives the character an extra edge, and Frailty wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if Dad Meiks had been played by an actor who is normally typecast in these roles.
Otis – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986):
I’ve already written an “Underrated Gems” column on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which I consider to be one of the most disturbing and unsettling films ever made, and you know that watching it won’t be a pleasant experience when the title character isn’t even the most unlikable person in the movie. The characters of Henry and Otis were obviously inspired by real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, but while Ottis Toole was more of a mentally disabled, childlike individual, the Otis in this film is just simply a sadistic bastard. Otis is established as a lecherous creep right at the outset who loves making passes at his sister, Becky, but he doesn’t become a murderer until Henry starts taking him along on his killing sprees. However, Otis starts garnering even more enjoyment out of killing than Henry does and, in the movie’s most disturbing scene, he accompanies Henry on a home invasion where they wipe out an entire family and Otis even makes an attempt to have sex with the mother’s corpse. Because Henry treats Becky very nicely and Otis remains a despicable creep, you actually wind up rooting for Henry near the end… even though you’ve already SEEN HIM MURDER SEVERAL PEOPLE!! Yes, this movie almost causes you to start sympathizing with a serial killer, simply because the other major character is a lot worse! That should give you an idea of what a truly hateful individual Otis really is. Michael Rooker went to have a successful career as a character actor in Hollywood after his amazing performance as Henry, but Tom Towles’ performance as Otis is just as good. Even though he has worked steadily since then, Towles’ career may have suffered simply because it’s hard not to look at him without thinking of Otis and feeling your skin crawl.
Fred “Weasel” Padowski – The Last House on the Left (1972):
I’ve never missed any opportunity to pay tribute to the late, great David Hess, who delivered an unforgettable performance in Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left and made the character of Krug Stillo into one of the most evil, hateful screen psychos of all time. However, credit must also be given to Fred Lincoln for his strong performance as Krug’s sidekick, Fred “Weasel” Padowski, who is an equally memorable villain for much different reasons. When we first meet Weasel, a news bulletin is saying that he is wanted for “child molesting, Peeping Tomism and assault with a deadly weapon” and while he certainly sounds like a monster, he really doesn’t look all that threatening on the surface. He comes off as a bit of a goofball and has a very quirky sense of humour (“How’d we get into the sex crime business anyway? My brother, Sol, a plumber, makes twice as much money as me and gets three weeks’ vacation too”) that makes him strangely likable. However, it soon becomes apparent that Weasel is easily capable of morphing into a vicious psycho and his cold detachment while committing horrific acts of violence is quite unsettling. Early on in the film, Weasel says “Do that again and you’re dead!” to a girl who spits in his face, and much later on, he actually makes good on his threat when the same girl spits blood in his face and he responds by viciously stabbing her several times.
Fred Lincoln would actually go on to become one of the most prolific directors in the adult film business, but on the basis of his strong performance in Last House, I think he probably could have had a solid career as a legitimate actor. He claims he’s always been ashamed of having done Last House, but that didn’t stop him from making a porn parody…
To avoid cumming, keep repeating: “It’s only a movie… only a movie…”
Frank Hallett – The Little Who Lives Down the Lane (1976):
It goes without saying that pedophiles are the easiest people in the world to hate, but a movie really goes the extra mile when it gives us a pedophile who also happens to be *GASP* a hamster-killer! I recently did an “Underrated Gems” column on The Little Who Lives Down the Lane, a fine little thriller featuring a standout performance from 13-year old Jodie Foster as Rynn, a young girl who seemingly lives all alone in her father’s house and may be concealing some dark secrets in her cellar. It also features an atypically creepy turn by Martin Sheen, who is not the first actor you’d envision playing the role of a pedophile (his son, on the other hand…), but he does a terrific job as the monstrous Frank Hallett. Like far too many pedophiles in the real world, Frank seems like a normal guy on the surface, living an uneventful life in a tight-knit community with a wife and two stepchildren, but he also has a very influential mother who likes to cover up his unhealthy interest in young girls. After making several unsuccessful advances towards Rynn, Frank eventually discovers that she does indeed have some dark little secrets and he offers to stay silent in exchange for sexual favours from her. The most twisted thing about Frank is that even though he thinks Rynn may have murdered his mother, he’s doesn’t seem particularly upset about it, and is actually more delighted about the fact that Rynn has given him some perfect blackmail material! There have been a lot of creepy pedophiles in the annals of cinema, but few of them have truly made your skin crawl as much as Frank Hallett. The evil bastard even burns a sweet innocent little hamster with a cigarette and throws it into the fireplace!
Evelyn Draper – Play Misty for Me (1971):
I had to include this female psycho because she inspired one of the more overrated screen villains of all time. Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction currently rests at #7 on the American Film Institute’s “Top 50 Greatest Villains” list, but while that film was a monster hit, I’ve always thought of it as an inferior knockoff of Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. Eastwood stars as Steve, a disc jockey who conducts an affair with Evelyn Draper, a devout fan who frequently calls into his radio show. Steve only intends their encounter to be a one-night stand, but Evelyn wants their relationship to be a whole lot more than that and eventually reveals herself to be an insanely jealous, mentally unbalanced psycho. I think the main reason Play Misty for Me has always worked better than Fatal Attraction is because the protagonist is a lot more sympathetic. Steve only has an affair with Evelyn because he’s in the midst of a separation with his girlfriend, whereas Michael Douglas’ character flat-out cheats on his wife for no good reason (and, really, who would want to cheat on Anne Archer with Glenn Close?!). Evelyn Draper is played by Jessica Walter, who is best known for her role as Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development, and fans of that show might be taken aback by how batshit crazy Walter is here. Evelyn is a character who merely seems very eccentric and annoying at first, but the film does a solid job at slowly revealing just how unhinged she really is until she eventually becomes every man’s worst nightmare. Even though Glenn Close’s performance in Fatal Attraction garnered all the acclaim and an Academy Award nomination, it was Jessica Walter’s work in Play Misty for Me that opened the door for it.
Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb – The Silence of the Lambs (1991):
While we’re on the subject of the AFI’s “Top 50 Greatest Villains” list, guess who came it at #1? A certain doctor who loves liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Now, of course, Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning portrayal of Hannibal Lecter was quite frightening at the time The Silence of the Lambs originally came out, but the problem with most of the really famous horror movie villains is that they become such pop culture icons and return for so many sequels that they cross the line into self-parody and cease to be scary any more (for other examples of this, see Freddy, Jason, etc.). Hannibal Lecter is such an iconic character that when you watch The Silence of the Lambs today, it’s hard to be that terrified by him. Buffalo Bill, on the other hand… still total fuckin’ nightmare material! The scenes with Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb keeping his captive victim at the bottom of a well in his basement still bring a chill down your spine (not to mention his infamous nude dance in front of the mirror), and the climax where he stalks Clarice Starling in the darkness while wearing night vision goggles is still one of the most tension-filled sequences in horror history. Even though Silence of the Lambs cleaned up at Oscar time, it’s a shame that character actor Ted Levine didn’t get any recognition for his truly frightening performance in the role. In a sense, it’s almost a good thing that Buffalo Bill remains an underrated horror villain because it hasn’t caused him to lose any of his edge after twenty years. For another underrated villain in the Hannibal Lecter universe, also see Tom Noonan’s frightening portrayal of “The Tooth Fairy” in Manhunter.
Jerry Blake – The Stepfather (1987):
The Stepfather is one those slasher films with an over-the-top premise that could have failed really badly if they did not cast the right actor in the title role. Long-time character actor Terry O’Quinn is best known for playing John Locke on Lost and for his portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Rocketeer, but the standout performance of his career came in this underrated cult film. In The Stepfather’s chilling opening sequence, O’Quinn’s character is shown cleaning up after himself and altering his appearance after having murdered his entire family. He then assumes the identity of Jerry Blake and eventually marries a widowed woman with a teenage daughter. It’s soon revealed that Jerry is completely and utterly obsessed with creating the perfect family unit, and that if they wind up disappointing him in any way, he will snap and kill them all before starting over again and moving on to a new family. The majority of the time, Jerry seems like the nicest, most pleasant guy in the world, but when anything happens that threatens to shatter his image of the “perfect family”, he will go completely off the deep end. It’s a challenging role, but Terry O’Quinn pulls it off beautifully, finding the dark humour in Jerry’s over-the-top attempts to be a perfect Ward Cleaver-esque sitcom dad, but coming off as genuinely terrifying when his violent rage takes over.
Unfortunately, Hollywood insisted on doing a bland and completely unnecessary remake to The Stepfather a few years ago. I guess it could have turned out fine since there are a lot of great actors out there who could have done some interesting things with the role, but instead they decided to cast… the guy from Congo?!
“I’m not a pound of sugar, I’m a stepfather!”
Drayton Sawyer – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974):
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced the world to Leatherface, one of the most famous horror movie villains of all time, but people tend to forget that the film features an entire family of creepy bad guys. Edwin Neal gives a very memorable performance as the demented hitchhiker, and the image of the 124-year old Grandpa sucking blood from the finger of Sally the heroine is one of the cringe-inducing scenes you are likely to see. However, for my money, some of the most frightening moments in the film belong to Drayton Sawyer, the proprietor of the local gas station who also happens to be the patriarch of Leatherface’s family. Simply referred to as “Old Man” in the end credits (his name would not be revealed until he returned for the mediocre Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Drayton seems to have a split personality that can be flicked on and off like a light switch. One moment, he will be showing sympathy and compassion towards his victim and then, all of a sudden, he’ll start taking sadistic delight in torturing her. Back when I showed Chainsaw Massacre to some friends of mine in high school, the scene that actually freaked them out the most is the one where Drayton has Sally tied up in a sack in the front seat of his truck, and he keeps going back and forth between reassuring that her everything’s going to be okay and laughing sadistically while he pokes her with a broom handle. Texan actor Jim Siedow is so convincing in the role that I actually thought they must have sprung him from some local insane asylum in order to cast him in the movie. Leatherface is definitely the villain that people remember from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Drayton Sawyer is the most frighteningly real.
Raymond Lemorne – The Vanishing (1988):
Okay, I now I’ve gushed about this guy before in my “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column about The Vanishing and I even listed him at #2 on our Shouts From the Back Row podcast about “The Villians We Love”. However, I still stand by my assessment that Raymond Lemorne is the most underrated villain in screen history, but may be the most frightening horror movie villain EVER! Chillingly played by French actor Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Raymond Lemorne is such an effective villain simply due to the fact that he has no real motivation for what he does and because he just seems so damn ordinary. Raymond lives a very uneventful life as a chemistry teacher with a wife and two daughters, and you can almost believe that he makes the decision to commit an act of evil out of sheer boredom. In fact, Raymond’s explanation is that he simply wanted to see if he was capable of evil and needed to prove that his fate wasn’t predestined. After kidnapping a woman, Raymond discovers that her boyfriend is still looking for her years later and actually feels a lot of empathy for the guy… but still chooses to reveal the truth to him in the most sadistic way possible! Anyway, the sad reality is that most of the psychopaths in this world look less like Hannibal Lecter and more like Raymond Lemorne, which is why people never see their acts of evil coming. The character has so many wonderfully creepy moments, like when he innocently mimics the act of chloroforming a victim while playing with his young daughter, and I love how the movie takes the time to show all the details (and mistakes) that go into Raymond’s diabolical plan. Amazingly, the atrocious Hollywood remake cast Jeff friggin’ Bridges in this golden role and somehow managed to blow it, so make sure you check out the unparalleled original instead.