Can we necessarily trust the dentist who stands over us with a tiny drill in his hand? Isn’t the guy who’s come round to install our cable television service just a bit too friendly for comfort? And the cop outside in his squad car – isn’t he just a little bit, I don’t know, hairy?
Some of cinema’s darkest, most unpredictable and downright interesting characters often have the most mundane jobs, from teachers to photo developers and taxi drivers to school janitors. It’s characters like these we’re saluting here – some of them villainous, others strangely likeable despite their dark activities, while others are simply misunderstood.
So here’s our pick of the most terrifying public sector workers in horror cinema, inspired by the imminent release of WolfCop – director Lowell Dean’s comedy horror about a cop named Lou who (you guessed it) takes a turn for the furry after a moonlit jaunt into some Canadian woodland…
Officer Pete Davis
Occupation: ordinary beat cop and complete sociopath
As seen in: Unlawful Entry
Most terrifying moment: When well-to-do couple Michael (Kurt Russell) and Karen (Madeleine Stowe) are disturbed by an intruder one night, they do the logical thing and call the police. Unfortunately, Michael and Karen hadn’t reckoned on the attentions of Officer Pete Davis (Ray Liotta), a lawman who turns out to be even crazier than William Lustig’s infamous Maniac Cop.
Liotta turns in a reliably creepy, dead-eyed performance as Davis, who like Jim Carrey’s Cable Guy, starts using his powers as a cop to make Michael and Karen’s lives a living hell.
Most terrifying moment: How about the scene where Liotta, now in full-on stalking mode, turns up in Michael and Karen’s bedroom one night while they’re enjoying a spot of sweet, sweet loving. Understandably, Madelaine Stowe screams – as we would, if Liotta showed up at the foot of our bed one dark and sultry night. Brrr.
Occupation: school janitor turned dream demon
As seen in: A Nightmare On Elm St
Once tasked with the job of keeping the corridors of Springwood High clean and shiny, Fred Krueger secretly led a double life as The Springwood Slasher – a child killer whose reign of terror was only brought to an end after he’d already murdered 20 victims. Somehow evading justice due to a technicality, Krueger was burned to death by a group of enraged parents, and that appeared to be that. But instead, Krueger returned as a hideously-scarred demon, bent on avenging his death by terrorising his killers’ children in their dreams.
Inspired by writer and director Wes Craven’s personal experiences – Craven was bullied by a kid named Fred Krueger at school, for example – A Nightmare On Elm St became one of the longest-running and lucrative horror franchises of the 80s and 90s. Krueger himself became an unexpected cultural icon, and as the comics, TV appearances and rap records rolled out, he became less fearsome and more a wise-cracking figure of fun. It’s important to remember, though, that the gloved, cackling demon started off as a seemingly ordinary janitor, cleaning up school halls while secretly hatching his wicked plans…
Most terrifying moment: Kreuger’s imaginative approach to murder has made him as much an anti-hero as a figure of terror. For a very early example, look no further than his violent yet oddly amusing treatment of a young Johnny Depp in the original Nightmare On Elm St: sucked into his own bed before being barfed up onto the ceiling in a shower of gore…
The Tall Man
Occupation: undertaker and procurer of homunculus slaves for another dimension
As seen in: the Phantasm series
In a quiet, ordinary American town, numerous locals have died under suspicious circumstances. Teenager Mike (Michael Baldwin) is convinced that the deaths have something to do with a mortician named the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Further investigation reveals that not only is the Tall Man responsible for the deaths, but he’s also been turning the bodies into reanimated dwarves and packing them off as slaves through a portal in his mausoleum.
A bizarre and wildly imaginative horror film from writer and director Don Coscarelli, Phantasm spawned a franchise that is still going strong today: Phantasm V is due out this year. In each instalment, the lean, glowering mortician played by Scrimm looms large – an imposing spectre of death, like the Grim Reaper but with gravity-defying metal spheres instead of a scythe.
Most terrifying moment: The Tall Man’s aforementioned collection of killer spheres, which come armed with spikes and tiny drills – ideal for smashing into victims’ heads and drilling into their skulls. They’ve since become the mascot of the entire Phantasm series.
Elliott and Beverly Mantle
Occupation: Gynaecologists with severe separation anxiety
As seen in: Dead Ringers
Twin child prodigies Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) grow up to become respected gynaecologists with their own shiny modern practice in Toronto. Then, their mutual affection for one of their patients, actress Claire (Genevieve Bujold) threatens to upset their delicate equilibrium, and they slide into a nightmare of drug addiction and paranoia.
Never one to shrink from getting under the audience’s skin, director David Cronenberg explores the intimacy patients share with their doctors, how much trust the former puts in the latter, and how disquieting it is when that trust is misplaced. Elliot and Beverly aren’t monsters, as so many of the other characters on this list turn out to be, but that doesn’t make their actions any less squirm-inducing when things start to go wrong.
Most terrifying moment: A drugged-up Beverly’s mid-operation freak-out. “There’s nothing the matter with the instrument, it’s the body. The woman’s body is all wrong!”
Occupation: cable installer and part-time Matthew Broderick stalker
As seen in: The Cable Guy
Newly-single Steven (Broderick) hires a guy who calls himself Chip (Jim Carrey) to install cable television in his flat. Chip initially seems affable enough, but as he repeatedly pops up either on Steven’s doorstep or answering machine, it becomes clear that something more sinister’s going on.
Audiences and critics were somewhat unprepared for the dark tone of The Cable Guy when it appeared in 1996, but it’s since been reassessed as one of Carrey’s better films. A blackly comic riff on the maniac-in-the-house thrillers that were quite common in the 80s and 90s, it provided a modern spin on a primal fear: that the people we let into our homes to do odd jobs for us – whether it’s installing our cable or repairing our washing machine – might not be as benign as they first appear.
Most terrifying moment: The scene where Chip beats up Owen Wilson’s character in a restaurant bathroom. Carrey’s Bugs Bunny-style comedy schtick gradually gives way to something far more violent. The shift in tone was unnerving in 1996, and remains so now.
Occupation: High school gym coach and killer robot
As seen in: The Class Of 1999
What do you do when your school’s in the middle of a warzone and your pupils are all violent and unruly? If you’re Malcolm McDowell’s high school principle, you hire Dr Forest (Stacey Keach) to build an army of powerful robot teachers to keep them all in check.
Most terrifying moment: The scene where gym coach Mr Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick) savagely beats one pupil to a pulp and then breaks the neck of another without so much as breaking a sweat. And we thought our PE teachers were cruel…
Occupation: photo developer in a department store
As seen in: One Hour Photo
Writer and director Mark Romanek’s slow-burning, engrossing thriller sees lonely photo developer Sy (Robin Williams) become fixated with a family whose pictures he regularly processes. Idealising the seemingly idyllic life frozen in their photographs, Sy becomes enraged when he finds out that the family’s father and husband Will (Michael Vartan) has been having an affair…
Most terrifying moment: The entirety of the film’s final third, thanks in no small part to Robin Williams’ stunning performance. No wonder scientists invented digital cameras.
Occupation: psychiatrist turned professional cannibal
As seen in: Manhunter, The Silence Of The Lambs, Red Dragon, Hannibal et al.
Once a respected forensic psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter’s predilection for human flesh led him to be incarcerated and dubbed Hannibal the Cannibal. Becoming an oracle, of sorts, to such people as FBI profiler Will Graham and trainee agent Clarice Starling, who both had serial killers of their own to catch, Lecter has since become one of the most famous screen villains in TV and cinema – and, like Freddie Krueger, one we can’t help liking just a little bit.
Created by author Thomas Harris, Lecter is a troubling yet compelling form of evil: articulate, cultured, yet still connected to the primal, brutal bit of himself that most of us refuse to address. The character was given a fresh start with television’s Hannibal, which began airing in 2012. With Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter, it takes the character back to his erudite roots: here, he’s still a respected psychiatrist, helping Will Graham profile various serial killers while somehow keeping his own culinary activities a closely-guarded secret.
Most terrifying moment: Witness the sheer speed with which he manages to garner FBI guy Will Graham’s home address from the apparent seclusion of his prison cell in the 1986 film, Manhunter. Or if you’re after something more visceral, his brutal escape in 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs. Lecter might be a sociopath, but his wit and cunning make him an eminently watchable character, too.
Occupation: Sadistic dentist
As seen in: Little Shop Of Horrors
In the midst of Frank Oz’s 1986 musical remake of Roger Corman’s Little Shop Of Horrors, there’s Steve Martin’s preening Orin Scrivello. Not only is he the boyfriend of Audrey (Ellen Greene) – the girl who Seymour (Rick Moranis) quietly adores, but he’s also dentist with a Marathon Man-like penchant for inflicting pain on his patients. When the blood-drinking plant Audrey II starts demanding fresh victims, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out who Seymour goes for first.
Most terrifying moment: An easy choice: this entire, wince-inducing and very funny show stopper. “I am your dentist / and I get off on the pain I inflict…”
Occupation: New York taxi driver
As seen in: Taxi Driver
Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle moves like a ghost through the streets of New York, fulfilling the remit of a taxi driver while privately overflowing with depression, loneliness and anger. Everything in the film – Scorsese’s prowling direction, Schrader’s manic writing, Bernard Herrmann’s simmering music – hints at a once ordinary man fit to explode into anger, which of course he ultimately does. Bickle’s resulting act of kamikaze madness has the unforeseen result of turning him into a media hero – the most chilling thing about Scorsese’s movie is that he could just have easily been branded a complete maniac.
Most terrifying moment: Bickle’s concluding act of revenge is horrifying enough, but it’s the shot of his grinning face, bloodied finger held up to his temple like the barrel of a gun, that really stays with us. At the film’s conclusion, Bickle goes back to his humdrum life as a cab driver, his customers blissfully unaware of their driver’s unusual capacity for violence.
Occupation: ordinary small-town cop turned lycanthrope
As seen in: WolfCop
A law enforcer whose interest in actual law enforcing has long since passed, officer Lou Galou spends most of his time in an alcoholic stupor. Everything changes when he bumbles into local woodland one night, and an encounter with some small-town devil-worshippers sees Lou turned into a werewolf.
Unlike some of the other entries on this list, Lou’s brush with evil actually makes him a (slightly) better person. While the heavy drinking continues, Lou’s transition into a hairy, scary monster turns out to be just the kick up the backside he needs: before long, he’s arresting robbers and trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious moonlit cult activity which saw him become a werewolf in the first place.
WolfCop, written and directed by Lowell Dean, is unusual in that it imagines the life of a werewolf to be more a revitalising blessing as a curse. Some of the things Lou gets up to are pretty gruesome, but he’s by no means a villain like some of the other characters on this list – least of all Ray Liotta’s glowering cop from Unlawful Entry. Lou’s just an ordinary guy who’s occasionally consumed by the wolf within, and revelling in the lust for life it provides.
Most terrifying moment: Lou’s first transformation into a werewolf which, true to the film’s tongue-in-cheek tone, takes place in a bar’s restroom. A riot of gore and practical effects, it’s both grotesque and very funny.
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