When you leave the cinema after a superhero movie, you talk about the likes of Captain America and Iron Man. When you watch a classic 1980s action picture, the characters that stick in the mind are the heroic figures played by the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. Regardless of the prominence of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, it’s still the good guys who have the name of their group in big, bold type on the poster.
This is absolutely not true in the horror genre. This is a world that’s all about the villains. If you take the three most iconic slasher movie franchises as a starting point and look at the titles, this becomes abundantly clear. Freddy Krueger’s name is on the poster for three of his films, Michael Myers also got three spots in his movies’ titles and Jason Voorhees is in five titles, despite not appearing until the final scene of the first film in the Friday the 13th franchise. In horror, bad guys are big business.
Almost all of the most memorable characters in horror are villains, from the ‘Big Three’ aforementioned serial killers to Jack Torrance in The Shining and Victor Crowley in the Hatchet franchise. It’s the bad guys who recur across multiple films, long after their victims have been hacked, slashed and disposed of. Death is something these guys can just shake off for the sequels, remaining alive to terrorise a whole other collection of anonymous, faceless teenagers with loose sexual morals.
But why does horror have so little interest in heroes?
The primary purpose of a horror movie is to get under the skin of its audience and terrify them. The best way to do that is by crafting a genuinely memorable beastie, whether it’s Freddy Krueger and his razor gloves or the demons of the Further in the Insidious series. A horror movie lives and dies on whether its threat is believable, evil and ultimately scary, so this is where much of the effort is placed.
In comparison to the villains, the heroes in horror films tend to be quite bland from a character point of view. The trailers for the new Halloween reboot seem to suggest that Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode is going to be a more complex protagonist than the basic ‘Final Girl’ archetype she came to embody after John Carpenter’s 1978 original film, but it’s tough for the average movie viewer to identify the character played by Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street or name the ‘Final Girl’ portrayed by Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Quite simply, these characters aren’t well-developed enough to be as memorable as the idiosyncratic killers against whom they’re pitted.
And this phenomenon did not begin with the slashers of the 1970s and 1980s. As far back as 1920 silent classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and the subsequent wave of monster movies released by Universal, it was the baddies of horror that defined the film. Many of the creatures on the Universal slate, from Frankenstein’s Monster to Dracula and The Mummy, were spun off into lucrative franchises that introduced brides, cross-over battles and Abbott & Costello into the mix.
Horror caters to the darker side of movie audiences – audiences that don’t care much for knights in shining armour or good cops exercising proper police work. When someone walks into a horror film, they’re embracing something dark, something uncomfortable and something that will hopefully prevent them from sleeping for the next week or so. That’s not something that Laurie Strode can pull off. You need Michael Myers a whole lot more.
This is perhaps, in hindsight, why the third Halloween movie proved to be such a disappointment. Eschewing the slasher formula to tell a standalone story without Michael Myers, Season of the Witch is a decent enough chiller in hindsight, but isn’t all that memorable. Certainly, for fans expecting another hacking and slashing outing for Michael, it was always going to fall short. Horror stories without a strong evil presence can work for one-off tales and individual tales of dread but, in order to launch a franchise, an iconic villain or two is the way to go. The only reason The Conjuring is now a blockbuster universe is because of James Wan’s ability to create monster after monster, from creepy dolls to significantly less terrifying nuns. Sorry, Corin Hardy.
It helps that these horror bad guys are seldom played by actors that are well-known outside of their terrifying roles. In many ways, these characters are indistinguishable from the actors who play them, in stark contrast to the recognisable movie stars who play superheroes or action men. There’s always a part of an audience that’s seeing Tom Cruise rather than Ethan Hunt or Robert Downey Jr instead of Tony Stark. However, Robert Englund will always be Freddy Krueger first, Gunnar Hansen was Leatherface through and through and Kane Hodder’s most famous role outside of the Friday the 13th franchise is that of another horror icon – Victor Crowley. These guys are scary movie villains above all else.
This focus on villains is just one of the many things that makes the horror genre unique and brilliant. These aren’t movies that love perfect, elegant heroes and simply pit a series of disposable bad guys against them, but films that prize the weird and the obscure. They present their villainous icons as unstoppable, malevolent forces who can often only be bested by the most imperfect of heroes. It doesn’t take a pretty boy with a six-pack and an enhanced skeleton to beat a horror foe; it could be you, or the guy next door that comes out on top in a scrap with the ultimate evil.
And that’s a pretty positive message all round.
Photos courtesy of New Line Cinema, Warner Bros and Universal Pictures.