Child Catcher Blues: The Scariest Non-Horror Movie Villains

Freddy Krueger has nothing on the Child Catcher.

Freddy Krueger has nothing on the Child Catcher.

By Stacey Harrison, Karl J. Paloucek

Today marks the cinematic return of one of the screen’s best boogeymen: Freddy Krueger. The charred-visage villian — whose murderous bon mots were as sharp as his razor claws — terrified a generation of teen moviegoers throughout the 1980s and early ’90s through seven Nightmare on Elm Street flicks (Let’s not discuss 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, shall we?) that flourished with the genuinely terrifying conceit of a killer stalking you in your dreams. He’s back with a remake that promises to take the character back to his darker days of the 1984 original, and play down the wisecracking prankster from the later sequels.

That’s all fine and good, and they couldn’t have picked a better replacement for Robert Englund than Jackie Earle Haley. Here’s hoping it’s a success. But a villain doesn’t have to terrorize teenagers or be an undead monster to be scary. If you look outside the horror genre, you can find oodles of frightening villains, characters who make you say, “God, I HATE that guy!” every five minutes.

We picked out some of our favorites, trying to focus on baddies that don’t get mentioned all that often. That’s why you won’t see Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter (who is from a horror movie, IMHO) or the Joker. Then there were some like Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, who certainly qualify as scary, but we’re kinda trying to keep it light here. If you know a way to crack wise about the Holocaust, let us know. (Actually, keep it to yourself. Jerk.)

The Child Catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)

Yeah, yeah — so it’s a children’s film. It’s been 42 years since he first crept onscreen and decades since he first haunted this writer’s twilight hours, but Robert Helpmann’s fury-filled eyes, duplicitous demeanor and protruding proboscis were enough to menace any kid aged 4 to 40. The fact that he wore what looked like women’s thigh-high Victorian boots with heels didn’t help matters, and his ultra-weird line, “I smell cheeeldren!” put the nail in the baby coffin. At the same time, he was so freaky that when those two little wee ones of Dick Van Dyke’s were tempted out of their hiding place with “lollipops all freeee todayyyy,” we didn’t have all that much sympathy for them. If they couldn’t see that a guy this nefarious had ulterior motives, we’re not sure they would have lasted too long in the real world, anyway. — KJP

Clarence Boddicker (RoboCop)

boddicker1When you watch reruns of That ’70s Show, maybe you see Red Foreman as a lovable but gruff father to his wayward son. I see a maniac, fighting with all his power to keep the murderous demons inside him from coming out and unleashing hell. That’s not a commentary on Midwestern patriarchy, mind you, but a bow of respect to Kurtwood Smith’s truly menacing turn as a crime boss in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 ultraviolent futuristic satire. His balding head and beady glasses made you think of a mad scientist, one who favored fast drugs and big guns to deadly potions. You always knew RoboCop could beat him, but the wily Boddicker kept finding ways to get the upper hand. Like many great villains, if he had applied his charisma and intelligence toward doing good things, he might have ended up being sainted. Instead, RoboCop runs a large knuckle spike through his aorta. Crime doesn’t pay, kids. — SH

Col. William Tavington (The Patriot)

Bastard!

Bastard!

I’m not going to defend the movie as a bastion of historical accuracy, but the Mel Gibson-centered Revolutionary War actioner featured one of the most loathsome, despicable villains ever to sully the screen. In his quest to quash the uppity Colonists and climb the ladder in the British Army, Col. Tavington will stop at nothing. That includes locking an entire town — women and children first — into a church and then burning it to the ground. He also murders the hero’s son, played by Heath Ledger in his breakout role. It isn’t Gibson’s final revenge on Tavington we remember, but Jason Isaacs sneering through the role and instilling every moment his character is onscreen with genuine dread. He’s so convincing that there are more than a few fleeting moments when you wonder whether the bad guy will actually win. No doubt the Harry Potter producers had this performance in mind when they were casting the duplicitous Lucius Malfoy, but truth be told, Draco’s dad is a piker compared to this guy. — SH

Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter)

It’s not enough that it’s one of the most stunningly shot black-and-white films of its era or any other — The Night of the Hunter has to feature one of the most shudderingly creepy villains ever delivered to the screen: the not-so-right Reverend Harry Powell, the preacher with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed across his knuckles and an avaricious streak as wide as his murderous streak is long. That’s not the kind of guy you want to see stalking you, coming over every hill that you’ve just passed over as you try to run … especially if you’ve seen how he parked Shelley Winters’ convertible in the river — with her in it. — KJP

night-of-the-hunter

Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas) Nicky Santoro (Casino)

Remember when you could say, “You think I’m funny?” without associating it with a murderous psychopath? Through two films with director Martin Scorsese and costar Robert De Niro, Pesci changed all that, forging an archetypal villain that forever altered the mob movie. He won the Oscar for the first, Goodfellas, playing a hair-triggered mob enforcer who didn’t didn’t care if you were a made man. Hell, he might even crack jokes while exhuming your corpse. You simply had to watch his Tommy DeVito, because any minute he was onscreen, something truly awful (and awesome) could happen. The audience was like poor Spider, who kept coming back no matter how brutal Tommy got. Despite it all, when Tommy’s violent ways finally caught up with him, Scorsese staged the hit in such a way that you almost had to feel bad for the guy. No doubt Casino was overshadowed by arriving just a few years after Goodfellas, but I’d argue that Pesci was allowed to do better work as Nicky Santoro, who had Tommy’s temper but was a more well-rounded character. — SH

Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)

You tell him his haircut is stupid.

Go ahead. Tell him his haircut is stupid.

Turns out broken English and a Prince Valiant haircut are a horribly frightening combination. Javier Bardem was nothing short of evil on two legs in the Coen brothers’ masterful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. He doesn’t kill for the joy of it, or out of hatred, but out of a twisted sense of fate, which dictates that he must strangle sheriff’s deputies, blow holes in the heads of unsuspecting motorists, and flip a coin to determine if he should kill the innocent wife of a guy who took some drug money he was hired to recover. Chigurh takes nothing personally, because there is hardly a person there, merely a clockwork orange dialed to the most soulless setting. Get out of my nightmares, friendo. — SH

Sheriff Will Teasle (First Blood)

So we have an overly zealous small-town sheriff to thank for the Rambo phenomenon. For some cinematic purists, that alone could make him public enemy No. 1. But what makes this character memorable is Brian Dennehy, who plays bad better than just about anybody. Think if they had gotten an inferior actor to play the backwoods sheriff who doesn’t care for long-haired drifters? First Blood might not have been much more than a mediocre Walking Tall in reverse, with Stallone’s portrayal coming off less like an artistic choice to play the character robotically than what it probably was — a limited actor displaying his limits. Teasle pushes his grudge against Rambo to ridiculous lengths, calling in hunting dogs, helicopters and eventually the National Guard — all because he didn’t like the cut of the man’s jib. It was wholly unreasonable, but with Dennehy at the helm, you did more than just go along with it; you wondered how the man got to that point. — SH

"What say we just forget this ever happened and not set cinema back 20 years?"

"What say we just forget this ever happened and not set cinema back 20 years?"

Scut Farkus (A Christmas Story)

“Come on! A Christmas Story??” you say? Most of us know that terror is rooted in the everyday and that much of it stems from childhood. Many of us also can remember having a bully in our neighborhoods who preyed on those fears — someone like Scut Farkus. Freckle-faced and with yellow eyes (“So help me, God — yellow eyes!“), Farkus remains a potent amalgam of all of those guys on the playground or down the block who seemed to take joy in extorting us for our milk money and leaving us feeling discouraged and helpless. In adult life, we call that particular bogeyman the IRS, and our reaction is just the same. — KJP

Photos: RoboCop: © Deana Newcomb The Patriot: © 2000 Columbia Tristar International Television No Country for Old Men: © Miramax Films. Credit: Richard Foreman

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One Response to Child Catcher Blues: The Scariest Non-Horror Movie Villains

  1. Joe V. says:

    Nice list. Love that “Night of the Hunter” was included. I miss actors like Mitchum, James Coburn and Lee Marvin.

    Oh, and SH, will your love for “Casino” ever die?

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