Five Scariest Screen Psychos Of All Time

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While writing my crime thriller The Watcher, and forming the make-up of my lead antagonist, I made a study of various infamous psychopaths.  I did this both from real life psychopaths, and from fictional psychopaths depicted in novels and on screen.  What I was attempting to do was to build up a composite, a unique character who possessed his own, individual motivations, but would feel authentic to readers by carrying on the long tradition of the fictional and cinematic psychopath.

The true psychopath is probably one of the most interesting and yet possibly one of the hardest characters to write, as although he (or she) might be superficially charming, the psychopath has absolutely zero good intention once you get down to the bottom line.  No empathy, zilch, none.

Unlike most villains, who might at least have a redeeming feature or two, a psychopath is defined by their distinct lack of empathy.  It’s hard to find redeeming features in someone who lacks this essential quality.

After all, people can be flawed, they can even do bad things, but someone who can’t identify with people’s pain, who might even enjoy causing harm and seeing others suffer is naturally abhorrent to us.

Quite rightly too, for that lack of empathy, that sadistic streak, is what makes them a psychopath after all, and not just someone’s who’s merely antisocial or has behavioural problems or violent tendencies.

With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how psychopaths have been portrayed on the big screen.   I selected five screen psychopaths, who I feel have made the most impact on viewers and on movie depictions of psychopathy in general, each selected for their own particular brand of psychosis.

So here it is, my round up of the five all time scariest screen psychos – ever.  Feel free to comment if you agree, or disagree, and mention your fave screen psychopaths in comments, if they haven’t been included.

Max Cady in Cape Fear (Robert De Niro) 1991 Directed by Martin Scorsese

Cape Fear was one of the first films I remember watching that scared the hell out of me, which was mostly due to Robert De Niro’s sinister portrayal of convicted rapist Max Cady.  Cady is a menacing, violent and revengeful psychopath, who’s determined to seek revenge on the lawyer he sees as having betrayed him.

The Scorsese directed film also stars Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden, the aforementioned lawyer, and  introduced me to one of my favourite actresses ever, Juliette Lewis, who went on to star in another psycho flick, with Oliver Stone’s bloodsoaked Natural Born Killers.

Cady is manipulative, a master at getting his own way, but he’s also predatorial, as evidenced by the way he expertly works his way into Nolte’s family, via his grooming of Lewis.  There are many points during this movie where I felt the suspense grab me by the gut and the end scene is particularly tense; the first time I saw it I was, literally, on the edge of my seat.

This film is important in the hisroty of fictional psychopaths because it emphasises a common trait many who possess the psychopathic personality have and that’s being unable to rest until perceived injustices are righted.  In Cady’s mind, that’s his rape conviction, and in the movie, his mission number one is to cause maximum damage for the person he perceives as responsible for that conviction, Nolte’s Bowden.

Annie Wilkes in Misery (Kathy Bates) 1990 Directed by Rob Reiner

A truly chilling depiction of a screen psychopath, the sinister yet chillingly everyday Annie Wilkes, brilliantly portrayed by Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the Steven King novel.  Annie’s psychopathy unfolds slowly, which only prolongs the intensity and suspense for the viewer, as we all suspect what’s coming for James Caan’s poor writer Paul Sheldon, but we have to wait to have our worst fears confirmed.

When I watched Misery for the first time, it struck me that a claustrophobic domestic setting such as Annie’s cabin can be just as scary, if not more so, than any scenario involving high octane chase or outright kidnap or abduction.

Often it’s the ordinary things, mundane situations carrying a hint of the sinister, that have the power to elicit more creepiness out of us than any amount of over-the-top outright psychotic displays.  What could be more ordinary than the stereotypical middle-America character of Annie Wilkes, at first glance?   Though of course Annie does go on to unleash the full power of her terrifying psychosis in Reiner’s film, at first it’s this subtle undercurrent of menace that grips us and makes us watch on.

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Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (Christian Bale) Adapted from the Bret Easton Ellis Novel

As well as being a brilliant satire on corporate America’s culture of greed, and more, more, more, American Psycho introduces us to one of the most chilling psychos I have ever seen depicted on screen, or in fiction for that matter.

Bateman exudes danger, and unpredictable menace, and what’s more he inflicts the most brutal carnage without showing one shred of remorse.  The film, adapted from the excellent novel by Bret Easton Ellis, is more than just a slasher fest, but is also a fusion of bitingly acerbic social commentary, horror movie, and sly observation on just what happens when a character with no soul like Bateman is enabled by a society committed to some truly selfish mores.

American Psycho features some bizarre and disturbing scenes that perfectly depict the senseless violence of a psychopathic and damaged mind.  More than that though, I think it goes further, and forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror, at our society, and some of the values we currently embrace.

Norman Bates in Psycho (Anthony Perkins) Directed By Alfred Hitchcock 1960

Norman is the classic movie psycho, the gold standard of terrifying madness depicted on the silver screen.  Influenced by his bullying, sadistic mother, Norman goes on to become a psycho of utterly horrifying proportions, butchering seemingly randomly selected hapless guests who’ve had the misfortune to book a stay at the Bates Motel with merciless frenzy.

Norman though, is unlike our other screen psychopaths.  In fact I would argue he is a psychopath made not born, as we the viewers are shown that while indeed he is under the grip of a psychosis of  biblical proportions, his madness is at least in part someone else’s fault aka his mothers.

Hitchcock, of course, was one of the masters of suspense, and in this movie he peaks, with a chilling portrayal of a disturbed and abused mind.  Norman is important in the pantheon of movie psychosis because twisted and depraved as he might be, because of what he has had to endure, viewers can even find some empathy with him.

Hannibal Lector in Silence Of The Lambs (Anthony Hopkins) Directed by Jonathon Demme (Academy Award Winning)

Ah, Hannibal Lector, the menacingly muzzled psychotic, first introduced to us on the silver screen in Jonathon Demme’s dark psychological cinematic foray, The Silence Of The Lambs.  The movie, starring Jodie Foster as FBI agent with a troubled side Clarice Starling, and Anthony Hopkins as the charming but psychotic Hannibal, dares to probe beneath the typical trappings of the big screen psychopath and lets us glimpse at the even more horrifying psyche beneath.

Silence Of The Lambs is particularly scary because Hopkin’s Hannibal knows no bounds.   In his world, everything can be justified, and morality is all relative, held in thrall to a madman’s slanted perspective.  Everything Hannibal does, he can justify, at least in his own mind, and frequently, extremely eloquently to others.

Lector is such an expert manipulator, and so adept at getting under other’s skin, that even Foster’s tough-as-nails FBI Agent Starling starts to unravel. Even in Lector’s most brutal killings there is a chilling restraint and meticulous execution, unlike Bateman, or Bate’s frenzied violence.

Who’s your favourite big screen psycho and why?  Leave a comment below and tell us why you agree or disagree with the top five cinematic psychos featured in this article.

If you enjoy probing the recesses of a psychopathic mind, you’ll love THE WATCHER, a terrifying journey into the twisted mind of a master predator.  The novel is released on June 21st by Crooked Cat Books, and you can pick up a paperback copy at special discount price ahead of the official release, or pre-order your e-copy
GET YOUR COPY OF THE WATCHER AT PRE-ORDER PRICE HERE!

Eli Carros is published by Crooked Cat

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