Plenty of films and television shows have one. A bad guy. A villain. Some villains are exceptionally written and portrayed but don’t leave a lasting impact on our psyche. Others are either two-dimensional in scope or your average run-of-the-mill gangsters or serial killers that serve the plot but not much else. And then there are those villains that, for whatever reason, are far more frightening and even terrifying than most and stick with us long after we’ve turned off the television or the computer. The ones that send a chill up our spine, or cause us to pause and ask ourselves if there really are people that depraved in this world. Here are a few from the past decade that strike a nerve.
8. The Governor – The Walking Dead
There are those who would be quick to perish if the zombie apocalypse were ever unleashed upon the world and then there are those who just seem made for the chaos that would ensue in a post-apocalyptic world. The Walking Dead’s villainous Governor, played by the extremely talented (and shamefully little known to North American audiences) David Morrissey falls directly in the latter camp. As a series regular through seasons three and four, the Governor became the main antagonist for the survivors holed up at the prison. As dictator of the makeshift town of Woodbury, the Governor projected an idyllic sanctuary from the zombies outside the town’s walls, hosting BBQs and keeping the citizens happy. Woodbury was a place where all were welcome to stay, but as the viewer ultimately learns, none were able to leave, at least alive. Behind closed doors the Governor let his psychopathic tendencies shine keeping the heads of victims in an aquarium in his apartment.
After a failed assault on Rick and the prison that culminated in the Governor gunning down his own people in season 3, many wondered if that was the end of Morrissey’s character. By mid-point of season four the Governor was back, more bent on revenge than ever. After taking over an entire new camp of survivors with his rhetoric first and foremost, he led that group on another assault on the prison, this time decapitating a beloved character in the process. The Governor ultimately met his end midway through season four of The Walking Dead, but not before terrifying audiences of the show by illustrating that ordinary men can become something entirely more terrifying given the opportunity.
7. Errol Childress – True Detective
By now, the majority of HBO’s fantastic mini-series True Detective has been pored over with a fine-toothed comb; such is the depth in the subtext of the series. Plenty of the debate over the show has centered on unanswered questions like just who the ‘Yellow King’ is, and what, or where is Carcosa? Furthermore, much of the discussion beyond that centers on where writer Nic Pizzolatto came up with Rustin ‘Rust’ Cohle’s superbly nihilistic worldview (hint: read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti. Brilliant.)
Indeed, Matthew McConaughey’s character of Cohle steals the show for many, this writer included, for his utterly bleak and honest understanding of the human condition. Because of this, the main antagonist of the actual mystery in the bayou is overshadowed. A testament to such a superb show that an absolute psychopath goes largely unnoticed in comparison. But Errol Childress lives in the same non-reality that Cohle does, except that Childress is one of the ‘bad men’ that managed to get out, and write his own reality onto the peril of others. His staged, creepy folkloric murders and the care in which he takes in creating a scene to behold suggest his break with society’s reality began with the ritual abuse he suffered at the hands of his family members who were involved in the cult murders of children in the bayou. His lines stating that he can sometimes “see the infernal plane” and speak of his “ascension” is proof that Errol Childress firmly stands alone when it comes to exploring the depths of his own terrifying insanity.
6. The Strangers – The Strangers
There are not many things more terrifying than the idea of a home invasion. Who honestly doesn’t check the deadbolt twice before going to sleep? Or peer out a window at the first hint of a noise at 4 am? Now how about when that home of yours is in a secluded area, and those wishing to get inside are there for the sole purpose of utterly terrorizing and torturing you? That’s basically the premise of The Strangers, the 2008 Liv Tyler film that scared audiences half to death. While the second half of the film degenerates into typical horror fare, the tension in the first half makes The Strangers truly scary thanks to the title characters, a collection of three masked intruders who first toy with Liv Tyler and her boyfriend Scott Speedman’s characters by lurking in the shadows outside the home, knocking on the door and disappearing, then finally entering the home, playing a creepy record player over and over, and stalking the pair.
Eventually the violence erupts, and the intruders inflict numerous injuries upon the couple, before finally bounding them and stabbing them, left to be found by two schoolboys the following morning. Even more shocking than three masked strangers sadistically stalking then torturing the characters however, is the even more terrifying motive, or complete lack thereof. At one point Liv Tyler screams “Why are you doing this to us!?” and the youngest of the strangers chillingly replies “because you were home.”
5. ‘The Twins’ – Luther
There’s nothing like a bunch of Magic card gamers who also have a penchant for homicidal rage. And chaos. And anarchy. Probably a healthy does of nihilism as well. ‘The Twins’ from season two of the extremely well done BBC drama Luther starring Idris Elba as the title character, are some of the most terrifying villains to ever be portrayed on television. When spray painted chaos symbols are found at the crime scenes Luther investigates, it becomes clear that there is indeed a homicidal maniac on the loose, but at first, it appears as though only one man is stalking London, selecting targets at random, and administering various forms of violence against persons via hammer to the head, or acid to the face.
Once the initial suspect is in custody however, the violence only continues. One could say it escalates as an entire subway station is terrorized, and, in one of the most shocking scenes, the twin brother of the man in custody walks along the street in the rain, stops a mini van at random, opens the door and beats the occupants with a hammer. Ultimately, the twins were competing with each other in their own game of chaos Magic, rolling a dice to decide what acts of violence were to be carried out, and how many points would be awarded for each. The seemingly complete randomness of the violence, and the twins’ belief in chaos easily make them some of the most terrifying characters to grace the small screen ever.
4. Otis Driftwood – The Devil’s Rejects
Bill Moseley almost made murderous, sadistic psychopaths cool in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. Almost. Positioned as an anti-hero as much as anything in the more western styled sequel to the far more campy and cartoonish House of 1,000 Corpses, Moseley plays Otis Driftwood like a hillbilly tweaker who made a pact with the devil. And that’s probably exactly the point. When you first appear on screen in bed with a woman’s corpse, all bets are off. Throughout the film Otis runs amok in pools of blood, killing at will, by knife, or by gun, or by beating a man with a 2×4, all culminating in an epic shootout with an army of police. In one of the more disturbing scenes, Otis deems it necessary to cut off a man’s face (much like in House of 1,000 Corpses), and place it on his still living wife, before hanging her from a coat hook. The man who proclaimed, “I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil’s work” certainly succeeds with his agenda in The Devil’s Rejects easily placing him on this list.
3. The Joker – The Dark Knight
The late Heath Ledger‘s Oscar winning portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight may well go down in history as one of cinema’s greatest performances of sheer madness. This wasn’t Jack Nicholson‘s slapstick Joker; Christopher Nolan‘s reboot of the Batman franchise returned it to its darkest elements, including introducing an anarchistic nihilist in the Joker as the second film’s antagonist. While the initial response to Ledger’s casting was wholly negative, the world was proven wrong by his take on the Joker. In part horrifying, terrifying and utterly insane, the Joker wreaked havoc upon Gotham City by blowing up hospitals, murdering citizens at will, including the mayor and police commissioner, and corrupting its most noble champion, District Attorney Harvey ‘Two Face’ Dent. And while most other villains have a desire for power or money as the impetus for their reign of terror, the Joker held no such belief in anything. A self proclaimed “agent of chaos”, the butler Alfred summed up the madman to Batman best by stating: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” It is in that line that the Joker’s terrifying reality truly comes into focus.
2. Anton Chigurh – No Country For Old Men
When you have a villain with a Beatles haircut carrying around a cattle gun and you’re attempting to portray him as one of the most terrifying bad guys to grace the silver screen, the character better be portrayed by an actor up to the task. The Cohen brothers’ superb adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s literary juggernaut No Country For Old Men hit cinematic gold when they cast Javier Bardem as the sinister Anton Chigurh, a role for which he won an Oscar.
A hit man looking for a lot of stolen money, Chigurh is about as eerie and terrifying as villains come. Letting the flip of a coin decide who lives and dies as often as not, the tension in every monotone line spoken by the stoic Chigurh will haunt you. In particular, the cold, unflinching look on his face when he strangles a police officer to death at the beginning of the film and a scene at a gas station where he converses with the elderly owner displays the utter lack of humanity in the character. The calm way in which Chigurh discusses the fate of the man’s life is unnerving; the pair could be discussing baseball. Even more disturbing is the way in which he makes the man call the coin toss that will ultimately decide whether he lives or dies. While some villains are terrifying for the amount of emotion their acts of violence articulate, Anton Chigurh is even more terrifying for the complete lack of emotion he conveys. He is like the abyss perpetually staring back at you.
1. Mademoiselle – Martyrs
One of the most disturbing films of the past decade, the French horror film Martyrs is as extreme as it gets. At times brutally violent and gory, as with most new wave French horror films, Martyrs, despite the horrifying imagery, never eschews plot for the sake of shock (though there is plenty) and has a far deeper, at times spiritual and at other times nihilistic, subtext than most horror films. And that’s precisely what makes Mademoiselle and the secret society she commands the most terrifying villains of the past decade.
Their agenda is believable and their pursuit one in which every human being would like to be a part of, albeit via different methods, perhaps. A group dedicated to learning the secrets of the afterlife, the society led by Mademoiselle kidnaps and systematically tortures young women in graphic and barbaric fashion in an attempt to make them ‘martyrs’; vessels that, before the moment of physical death can see beyond this world and into the afterlife in order to communicate their visions to Mademoiselle. Needless to say, there are plenty of victims and no ‘martyrs’ until young Anna tragically stumbles upon them. Though the entire film is a visceral experience, the final scene with Mademoiselle is as harrowing as any in cinema history, making her as terrifying a villain as any filmmaker can possibly conjure.
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