(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for some of the films mentioned. You’ve been warned)
Slasher films remain one of the most endearing and popular genres in horror, with simple, streamlined plots, quick and dirty shoots, and a low budget aesthetic that makes them hard not to love. Like any genre in horror, one of the main selling points to a slasher is a good villain. Horror is, after all, supposed to scare you, and that’s not going to happen if you have Andy Griffith chasing you down.
We all know of iconic madmen like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, but they are just the few that made it into the mainstream. There are many more unrecognized and under-appreciated villains in the genre who can be fun, intriguing, or terrifying. In no particular order, here’s a list of 10 masked baddies you may want to consider checking out. Don’t stay here too long though, because you’ll need to run fast from these guys.
10: Prom Night – Disco Killer
Prom Night was one of the first and most successful slashers to be released in the wake of Halloween. It tells of four children who accidentally kill a classmate and vow never to tell. Unbeknownst to them, someone saw their deed and wants to finish the game. On the night of the school’s disco-themed prom, with the students dancing and the soundtrack blaring, a mysterious figure wearing a ski mask comes to crash the party, one body at a time.
Prom Night owes a lot not only to Halloween in its casting of Jamie Lee Curtis as the lead but also has ties to Carrie in its use of the high school setting. It even features a similar plot to humiliate the heroes at the prom, but here the bullies quite literally get the axe. While it isn’t a great movie, and the disco theme may date it, it gives Prom Night its own unique charm. Where else can you see teens fight an axe-wielding maniac on the disco floor from Saturday Night Fever?
Unlike most slasher villains, the killer has an understandable, even sympathetic motive. They want to avenge the death of an innocent child. The film is actually better on a second viewing after learning the killer’s identity and realizing just how mad with grief the killer must have been before finally snapping. In spite of a lame appearance, that motivation sets the disco killer of Prom Night above the competition and earns them a spot on this list.
9: Just Before Dawn – Mountain Twins
Just Before Dawn is one of the most overlooked in the genre. A group of friends go on a camping trip in a serene national park, only to find themselves stalked by a pair of psychopathic twins living in the underbrush. They have no motive. They just seem to enjoy it. Now, trapped in the wilderness with no way out, the surviving teens prepare for one final desperate confrontation with the deadly duo, hoping they can survive to see the dawn.
Based more on survival thrillers such as Deliverance, Just Before Dawn features gorgeous shooting locations. Though beautiful, it gives our villains creative opportunities to dispatch of the cast, including a suspenseful scene where one character is trapped on a rope bridge, with the twins on either end slowly cutting it loose. It also has an awesome score by future Terminator composer, Brad Fiedel, lending this flick a moody atmosphere.
Like Prom Night, the killers may not look like much, but they are very frighteningly portrayed. The pair never utter a single line apart from their wheezing laughter and take souvenirs from their victims such as shirts, hats, glasses and even a camera. Each little trinket reminds us of characters lost and what the heroes are up against. Just Before Dawn is a competent thriller, and its villains remain one of the highlights of this oft-overlooked spookfest.
8: The Prowler – Rosemary’s Killer
The Prowler is a tale of heartache turned to bloodlust. In the closing days of World War II, a soldier receives a letter from his fiancee — a girl named Rosemary — informing him she wants to move on. Returning home, the soldier brutally butchers Rosemary and her lover with a pitchfork. 30 years later, on the anniversary of Rosemary’s death, the unknown soldier returns to kill again, and again, and again.
The Prowler was directed by Joseph Zito, who would later go on to direct Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Here, he delivers the goods that ’80s horror fans love to see. The Prowler is more centred around the search for the killer’s identity, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t heap on the red stuff. The makeup here is done by Tom Savini, whose grisly numbers on the cast include a gruesome pitchfork death in the shower and a man getting stabbed in the head with a bayonet that comes out his lower jaw!
The killer in The Prowler is a jilted lover gone mad. He leaves a unique calling card at the scene of his crimes, placing a single red rose on the bloody corpses he leaves in his wake. That, along with creepy army fatigues and vicious methods of murder make Rosemary’s killer is one of the most terrifying characters featured on this list.
7: The Burning – Cropsy
In the ’80s, it seemed you couldn’t go to summer camp without running into a psycho, and that’s just what happens in The Burning. A camp caretaker named Cropsy is subject to a prank by campers that results in him being severely burned. After his release from the hospital, the horribly disfigured madman returns to the camp with his garden shears in hand, intent on punishing those that turned him into a monster.
The Burning is the first film produced by Miramax, launching the career of the now infamous Harvey Weinstein. It also features early appearances by Jason Alexander as one of the leads, along with future Oscar winners Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter. This is decorated with an amazing score by rock legend Rick Wakeman that was later sampled in one of the Pokemon movies. Like The Prowler, it features amazing makeup by Tom Savini, making this one of the bloodiest of the bunch.
Cropsy is a fantastic killer with his trench coat and burned visage. His weapon of choice — a pair of lethal garden shears are — also very iconic and later served as the inspiration for Scissorman in the Clock Tower game series. A great look and frightening mean streak make Cropsy one of the genre’s signature villains and one you don’t want to miss. If you do, you may be his next victim.
6: The House On Sorority Row – Cane Killer
The House On Sorority Row is another prank-gone-wrong story where housemother Miss Slater is accidentally shot and killed by members of her sorority. The girls try to dispose of the body, but it seems someone knows of their guilt. On the night of their graduation party, someone starts picking them off one by one with the housemother’s metal-tipped cane.
The House on Sorority Row remains forever tense. Even apart from the more violent moments, the film sports a very Hitchcock-like story. The body of Miss Slater is always close to being discovered by guests in the sorority house, so these girls already have plenty on their minds. They are so focused on escaping their crime that they do not notice the killer in their midst.
The unseen killer is a very effective villain and the shocking brutality in which he kills his victims really illustrates the rage he feels. His weapon of choice, the late Slater’s cane with a lethal metal bird on the end, is one of the most unique methods of murder seen in the genre. Though not shown for the majority of the film, the killer dons a spooky clown costume in the film’s final act. If you dislike clowns like Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland, this movie is sure to deliver you some nightmare fuel.
5: Terror Train – The Magician
Noticing a theme here? Terror Train is a tale of another prank that leads to lots of dead bodies. After being cruelly tricked into getting in bed with a cadaver, an aspiring magician sneaks on board a train hosting a costume party for the graduating class and kills off his tormentors one by one. His final target is Alana, played by scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, an unwitting pawn in the prank whom he blames for his humiliation.
Terror Train is largely inspired by the works of Agatha Christie, most notably Murder On The Orient Express. Featuring slick production values and a great setting, Terror Train rises above many of the other countless nameless slashers of the time. Many of its deaths take place offscreen, focusing less on gore and more on building suspense and helplessness as the killer picks off his victims largely unnoticed. This is because of how the Magician does his dirty work.
The Magician is the killer of many faces. As he moves from victim to victim, he switches his costumes, allowing him to move about the themed party without detection. This makes him seem more like a phantom who does his deadly deeds before slipping away unseen. Sporting not one look but many, this makes the Magician another standout in the annals of mad axemen. You never know which mask in the crowd he could be hiding behind.
4: Black Christmas – The Caller
Black Christmas is the oldest film on this list, pre-dating Halloween by four years. In spite of that, it has one of the best villains in the genre. Before leaving for Christmas break, a group of sorority girls are unaware a madman has snuck into their attic. After receiving threatening phone calls from their mysterious visitor, the caller proceeds to kill them off one by one.
Black Christmas features an amazing cast, including Olivia Hussey of Romeo And Juliet, Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey, John Saxon of Nightmare On Elm Street, and Margot Kidder of Superman. It was also directed by Bob Clark, who brought us another holiday classic, A Christmas Story. Here, he works a darker kind of holiday magic.
The Caller will forever be an unknown. His identity is never revealed and his face is never seen. We can only piece together a few pieces of his backstory from his mad ramblings over the phone, and the only part of him we see is that single mad eye glaring out from the shadows. The Caller has no motive. He’s simply insane. That he will forever be a mystery keeps the original Black Christmas one of the scariest entries in the slasher genre and one that you better check out once you’re sure the attic is clear.
3: Silent Night, Deadly Night – Psycho Santa
On this list we have not one but two amazing yuletide bloodbaths. Silent Night, Deadly Night tells of little Billy Chapman. After witnessing his parents’ brutal murders at the hands of a maniac in a Santa suit, Billy believes his parents were murdered by the real Santa Clause as punishment for being naughty. He grows up hating Christmas and eventually gets a job at a toy store. When Billy is forced to dress as Santa for his job, however, the strain proves too much for him and he snaps. Billy goes out to do what he thinks Santa does: Punish the naughty.
Silent Night, Deadly Night systematically inverts everything that makes Christmas jolly, making for an incredibly dark and often disturbing ride. It features incredibly gruesome death scenes including garroting by Christmas lights and an impalement on deer antlers. Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered much controversy with its release due to its killer being dressed as Santa, in spite of the fact there had already been two killer Santa movies, neither as effective as this one.
This movie forces us to watch Billy’s slow descent into madness. He was just a child who saw something horrible happen to his family, and it left him scarred for life. Worse yet, he is abused by the head of the orphanage where he grows up and is not given the psychological help he needed. Billy was not born a killer but made one through tragedy and abuse, and it’s really sad to see a character we root for finally go off the deep end. Check out Billy’s Christmas story this holiday season. You won’t be disappointed.
2: My Bloody Valentine – The Miner
The killer in My Bloody Valentine is after your heart, and he plans to use a pickaxe to get it. On Valentines Day, some negligent managers leave a mine early, resulting in an accident that kills several workers and traps one of them in the rubble. After escaping, the miner kills his negligent bosses as revenge, resulting in the Valentine’s Day celebration being banned in the town. Years later, when the Valentine’s Day celebration is renewed, the bodies start showing up again, with their hearts torn from their chests.
My Bloody Valentine may be the most mean-spirited movie on this list. The deaths include a gruesome face scalding, an impalement on a shower fixture, death by nail gun, and even an elderly woman getting tumble dried to death! This holiday-themed horror flick takes no prisoners. That it centres around a day based on romance makes the irony even sweeter. Setting the film in a mine was also a stroke of genius. The dark tunnels do a lot to build a sense of impending doom as the killer closes in. It’s no wonder that Quentin Tarantino called this his favourite slasher movie ever.
The heart-stealing Miner from My Bloody Valentine is probably the most well-known killer showcased here, and for good reason. The theme of the killer in My Bloody Valentine is one of the finest in the genre. The insect-like miner’s suit is a terrifying, almost alien visage, and the weapons at his disposal, from pickaxes to nail guns to high-powered drills, make sure that things get messy. That’s exactly what a slasher movie should be: scary and messy. Fitting this took place on the day of hearts because there’s a lot of blood flowing in My Bloody Valentine.
1: The Fan – Douglas
The Fan is one of the most star-studded films in the slasher genre, and you can’t help but feel you’re in more a more highbrow thriller than most. You’d be right because while The Fan is a slasher film at heart, it does try to put a touch of class on the table. Ageing Broadway star Sally Ross begins receiving letters from a devoted fan named Douglas Breen, a down-on-his-luck record salesman. While it starts off as harmless, Douglas’s obsession with the actress grows until he picks up a straight razor and proceeds to stalk her, killing anyone who gets between him and his idol.
The Fan features remarkable performances from talent like Lauren Bacall and James Garner, but the real star is Michael Biehn as the killer. You all may recognize him from such classics as Aliens, The Terminator, Tombstone, and The Abyss, and his budding skills in this thriller are easily the highlight. The Fan garnered much controversy upon its release, since it came out shortly after John Lennon’s death, and many felt it was in poor taste to make a film of an obsessed fan so shortly after the tragic shooting.
This is unfortunate, as The Fan features a pretty great villain. Douglas, more than anyone else on this list, is pitiful. He’s a sad, lonely man who desires attention so much, he eventually tries to kill for it. In pursuing his idol, he only drives her further away, isolating him even more, which drives him more desperate and insane. Biehn’s performance as the pitiful Douglas is one of the best acting jobs in the slasher genre, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
Keep Your Lights On
The slasher genre never wanted to be highbrow art. Its only modest goal was to thrill and chill. Out of the hundreds of slasher films released in the early ’80s, most couldn’t accomplish that and would sooner put you to sleep than on the edge of your seat. But these 10 are quite literally a “cut” above the rest. They have great casts, some nice atmosphere, and most importantly, amazing villains that will either intrigue you or send you running to turn the lights back on.
Like this article? Check out these other horror-themed pieces by some of our top contributors!