For every Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers, there are countless cinematic bugbears who remain frustratingly overlooked by mainstream audiences. As horror fans know, this has nothing to do with their quality or ability to scare – simply with the failure of each of their respective films to catch fire at the box-office (or even receive a theatrical release to begin with). In a couple of cases, the spooks in question were far better than the films that contained them. Whatever the cause, all deserve far more recognition than they currently receive.
Check out my list of ten below, then sound off with your own picks in the comments!
Cropsy – The Burning (1981)
Despite being released in the thick of the ’80s slasher boom, The Burning failed to make a dent with audiences during its theatrical run. Which is a shame, as the film features one of the most memorable bogeymen of the period – Cropsy, a disfigured former summer camp caretaker whose ghastly appearance results from a teenage prank gone horribly wrong (fun fact: the character was named after a real urban legend that originated on Staten Island, which became the subject of the 2009 documentary Cropsey). With superb makeup effects by Tom Savini (who allegedly was given only three days to design the killer’s “burn-victim” makeup), an appropriately tortured back-story and a bitchin’ signature weapon (a nasty pair of garden shears), Cropsy should’ve joined the ranks of Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers as one of the era’s most prolific cinematic butchers. Sadly, his name recognition remains dismal with everyone but the die-hard horror set.
Bubba Ritter/The Scarecrow – Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
This largely-forgotten made-for-TV horror flick luckily got a DVD release back in 2010, giving modern-day viewers a chance to discover one of the greatest unheralded horror movies of the 1980s. Central to the film is Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), a mentally-challenged small-town man who is scapegoated for the near-mauling death of a young girl he has befriended. When a gang of local rednecks guns down the innocent giant in an act of ignorance-fueled anger, Bubba returns from beyond the grave to hunt the killers down one by one. Clad in the eerie scarecrow costume he was wearing when he died, Bubba’s vengeful spirit is an appropriately spooky presence in the film, which – while mostly gore-free due to its network TV origins – stands as one of the best, subtlest, most thematically-substantial slasher flicks of the decade.
Mary Shaw – Dead Silence (2007)
Not a misunderstood classic by any means, James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Dead Silence is still an underrated recent horror film that suffered from poor marketing and a rather unfair critical beating. The film’s main strength is its long-tongued central villain Mary Shaw (excellently embodied by Judith Roberts), a lonely elderly ventriloquist who was murdered by a mob after being blamed (correctly) for a young boy’s disappearance. The creepy legend surrounding Shaw works because it’s easy to sum up but also comes packaged with a host of intriguing details (i.e. she cuts out the tongues of her victims as revenge for having suffered the same fate), all of which work in tandem to make her more than just a cut-rate bogeywoman. The addition of Shaw’s creepy, ever-present ventriloquist dummy Billy completes the package nicely, making it a shame the film wasn’t embraced by audiences the way Wan and Whannell’s tiresome Saw franchise was. The film’s obvious flaws aside, Shaw is one of the most unfairly overlooked movie ghouls of recent horror cinema.
Gunther – The Funhouse (1981)
It’s no wonder that Tobe Hooper helmed this lesser-known early ’80s slasher – the film’s main killer, a deformed carny named Gunther, is cut from the same mold as the cannibalistic Leatherface from the director’s 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hidden by a Frankenstein mask for nearly 2/3 of the film’s running time, Gunther’s gruesome visage – glowing red eyes, vampiric fangs, forehead cleaved in two – was designed by makeup f/x guru Rick Baker, in one of the most ghastly movie-monster creations of the decade. Adding to the horror, the deranged man-beast is prone to fits of violent rage, expressed via a series of feral grunts and flailing limbs. Despite being one of the out-and-out most frightening slasher villains of the ’80s, the poor beast has been sadly undervalued in comparison with many of his contemporaries.
Valek – John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)
I’ll be the first to admit that Vampires is a deeply flawed film. But as played by Thomas Ian Griffith, “master vampire” Valek is one of the coolest cinematic bloodsuckers of the ’90s. A sort of desert Dracula with pale skin and long, dark hair, the unrepentant butcher is a particularly nasty brand of vampire who never hesitates to slice and dice anyone unlucky enough to get in his path. What’s particularly great about the bloodthirsty maniac is that he’s alternately a seductive Bela Lugosi-type vampire and a merciless killer, literally ripping through his victims (the film is so gory that Carpenter was forced to cut several seconds to get an “R” rating) as he pursues the ancient Black Cross of Berziers. The scenes that depict him rising from beneath the desert sand as dusk falls are incredibly cool – it’s just too bad the film as a whole wasn’t better realized.
Mothman – The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
I watched The Mothman Prophecies during its theatrical run, and it was one of the most unsettling moviegoing experiences I’d had in a long time. Unfortunately, this underrated little chiller never found much of an audience despite boasting one of the most hair-raising specters in recent memory. Using the real-life legends surrounding the titular winged creature – spotted by multiple individuals between 1966 and 1967 in and around Point Pleasant, West Virgina – as its jumping-off point, the film works up an atmosphere of oppressive dread from the get-go and admirably maintains it (nearly) throughout. What makes it work is director Mark Pellington’s (Arlington Road) insistence on keeping the Mothman mostly out of sight, instead presenting him via a combination of ominous sketches, spine-tingling phone calls (“Hello, John Klein…my name is Indrid Cold”) and nightmarish flashbacks – all set to tomandandy’s terrifically bone-chilling score.
Rev. Henry Kane – Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)
Though far inferior to its predecessor overall, Poltergeist II is also scarier thanks to one key ingredient – Julian Beck’s Rev. Henry Kane. An insane former cult leader whose sadistic Jim Jones-style methods resulted in the deaths of his loyal followers, the Reverend (who I’ll admit is probably better-known than the rest of the evildoers on this list, albeit one who receives less attention than he deserves due to the poor quality of the film that contains him) now haunts the Freeling family in the form of the Beast, a demonic presence intent on claiming young Carol Anne. With his skeletal features, penchant for breaking into creepy religious hymns at a moment’s notice (“God is in his Holy temple…”) and soft, lilting speech patterns, Kane is one of the greatest horror villains of the 1980s (the fact that Beck, suffering from colon cancer at the time of shooting, died during production only adds to the creep-factor). Though the character was reprised by actor Nathan Davis in Poltergeist III two years later, his interpretation just can’t live up to Beck’s brilliant original portrayal. It’s too bad he left us when he did.
The Collector – Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995)
I’ve highlighted Demon Knight on B-D before, and a big part of my adoration for the film comes from Billy Zane’s madcap performance as The Collector, a wisecracking force of evil whose own spilled blood is capable of birthing a small army of demonic minions. Though designed as a stand-alone film in a series of Tales from the Crypt-branded features (a short-lived proposition that was effectively ended by the awful Dennis Miller-starring follow-up Bordello of Blood), I could easily envision a franchise built around the enthusiastic evildoer, with each subsequent film establishing a new set of victims and an entirely different scenario – perhaps even with a new form of monster backing him up each time. Unfortunately, Demon Knight didn’t perform well enough to justify such an endeavor.
Mr. Slausen – Tourist Trap (1979)
This horror oddity from the late ’70s gets by mostly on the strength of its inspired central killer – a roadside museum-owner who turns his unfortunate victims into creepy mannequins, which he then controls using his telekinetic powers. The sadistic serial murderer is memorably played by the late Chuck Connors (best known for starring in the 1960s TV series The Rifleman), who has a lot of fun in the role of the unhinged country bumpkin who enjoys wearing a creepy mannequin mask while smothering nubile travelers with plaster in his basement. (SPOILER ALERT!) Sure, Slausen is dispatched in the final reel by the film’s Final Girl, but had Tourist Trap proven successful I’m sure the producers would’ve found a way to bring him back for a sequel. That axe wound didn’t look so bad, after all.
Sam – Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
This pint-sized trick-or-treater – the common thread among all the segments of Michael Dougherty’s acclaimed anthology film – appears to be nothing more than a harbinger of doom early on – until, that is, we get a taste of his true potential during a nasty showdown with former bus driver Kreeg (Brian Cox) near the end. In short (no pun intended), Sam proves to be a far more formidable adversary than meets the eye (sharpened lollipop as a weapon? yes, please), not to mention a freakier one – when unmasked, his face is revealed as a bitchin’ cross between a pumpkin and a human skull. While the character certainly boasts a loyal cult fanbase among horror aficionados, he’s not so well known to the public at large, a result of Trick ‘r Treat‘s straight-to-DVD release a full two years after Warner Bros. decided to nix plans for a theatrical run. As a result, Sam remains one of the coolest undead movie psychos – and certainly the most diminutive one – never to get a shot at mainstream recognition.