I'm not sure what ritual sacrifice happened to gift us with such a phenomenal year of horror films, but scary movie fans feasted on some delicious frights throughout 2022. From the madcap twists in "Orphan: First Kill" to the moving cannibalistic romance in "Bones and All," horror fans were treated to a gore-filled buffet of murder, monsters, and bloody motivations. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe got into the spooky season, releasing their fantastic Halloween special and loving ode to Universal Horror films, "Werewolf By Night."
But I'm not here to rank the year's best horror films: I'm here to see who is the baddest b***h in 2022. To make my list, the villain in question has to have more than brute strength, a mask, and a knife. (Sorry, Michael, but your evil reign held no candle to the meat-grinder of "Halloween Ends.") Catchphrases are cute, but what these villains need to possess (and represent) is an enduringly terrifying idea. What's harrowing on-screen must creep off-screen, seeding two haunting words into the audience's mind: "What if…" The threat must feel real or not altogether implausible to happen. What does it take for a character to be so frightening that you walk home just a little faster at night? How disturbed, or desperate, do they need to be? How resourceful? Let's play a game and find out — if you dare.
Occulonimbus Edoequus In Nope
For Jordan Peele's "Nope," the creative team consulted Ph.D. candidate and fish researcher Kelsi Rutledge to give their alien — the Occulonimbus edoequus — a unique design with realistic bodily functions. Ever curious why the alien's limbs billow on-screen? That effect mirrors how cuttlefish balloon into gorgeous and trance-inducing states to attract prey. Curious why the creature, at times, feels cloaked in invisibility? As Rutledge pointed out to Nerdist, cephalopods have the "amazing ability to camouflage against any surface" thanks to their "color-changing pigment cells." Peele borrowed elements of underwater life to gift audiences with a spectacular creature that feels familiar and otherworldly simultaneously.
Is it terrifying? Absolutely! However, outside of its unique physique and ravenous hunger, there isn't much else to scare us. The extraterrestrial is the space equivalent of walking into the woods and stumbling upon a grizzly bear. The only way to beat it is to never end up in its territory. Metaphorically, though, Peele's UFO — and "Nope" in general — carries a lot of meaty questions to ask about land ownership, colonizing, and capitalism's all-consuming hunger for spectacle. But as a monster, it seems fairly content to live apart from meddling humans obsessed with stealing its image for their financial gain. While it gave us the gorgeous setpiece of a house dripping in blood, I think it's fair to let this creature — who only attacked when poked — get some snacks and rest, as no larger scheme is at play.
Pinhead In 2022's Hellraiser
Directed by David Bruckner, 2022's "Hellraiser" vastly expanded the mythos behind its Lament Configuration box and crafted compelling cenobite designs. Unlike Doug Bradley's stark and militant demeanor, Jamie Clayton's exquisite Pinhead depicts a calculating and restrained villain. As Bruckner stated best, "She seems very, very intrigued by the inner workings of her subjects … given what she has [to] offer, her engagement is rather terrifying." Her timing as the Priest is methodical, making each gesture and word feel like it has weight. Her patience knows no limit: Clayton makes you believe the lead cenobite has all the time in the world to torture you and is waiting to discover the best option.
However, there's a reason she's ranked low on this list: Unlike previous iterations of Pinhead, this one doesn't mind making a deal. "Hellraiser" explored the idea of free will because the film focused on telling a (disjointed) narrative on addiction and recovery. Whether or not you'd like the outcome, there's still a chance you could bargain with the Priest and survive. Sadly, this limits her terrifying potential. If she was more unhinged with which rules she obeys (or breaks), that'd dial up her villainous potential. Despite Riley (Odessa A'zion) ripping apart her workmates, she doesn't show a lick of vengeance — just a delicious taste for morbid curiosity with a hint of boredness at how basic humans are. Also, she's incredibly easy to avoid; don't touch the dang box at all!
If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Chrissy In Deadstream
Similar to the UFO in "Nope" and Pinhead in 2022's "Hellraiser," Chrissy (Melanie Stone) is another example of an avoidable evil. Never want to end up eternally stuck in a haunted cabin in the woods? Great! Do not enter the creepy, decaying shack! Of course, Shawn (Joseph Winter) is not the type of washed-up YouTube personality to consider safety over clickable content. What follows next is a charming found footage horror comedy film, critiquing the lengths people travel to find online popularity and a good "hook."
What sets Chrissy's vengeful spirit apart from the two prior entries on this list is her commitment to her sinister gambit. She tricks Shawn into cursing himself and plays with his (very low) self-esteem, pretending to be a fan of his channel so that she can gain his trust. She's relishing this bait-and-switch act, making her more conniving and dangerous than a summoned entity or creature attack. She's the paranormal embodiment of a cat playing with its dead food, and there's no way to outwit her on her terrain — as Shawn painfully learns. Stone is fantastic in this insidious role and nails the script's sharp and comedic turns.
Sully In Bones And All
Now our list is turning toward humanity's evil acts. The first of many unhinged humans to follow is Mark Rylance's Sully from director Luca Guadagnino's "Bones and All." Unlike prior entries on this list, the villain here didn't wait to be discovered or summoned — Sully hunts for what he wants. By the film's end, it's unclear if Sully intended to eat Maren (Taylor Russell), raise her as a quasi-feeder-daughter, or have a romantic relationship with her. The fact that it feels like he could want a taste of any/all of the above is equally harrowing. The man is so lonely, he follows her scent across the country!
But nothing beats the first time Sully appears on-screen. After Maren begins life on the road, we see the braided hair man in his signature top hat watching her. With each moment, he drifts closer, stalking Maren. After they share one meal — feeding on an elderly woman — his connection to her intensifies. Soon his obsession with her becomes his sole motivation. In his mind, he's owed her. However, he never shows remorse or shame at going to such extreme lengths to find her, like killing her boyfriend's sister Kayla (Anna Cobb) to gain her attention. There's a deluded innocence to Sully, acting like a hurt boy while he invades everyone's boundaries. He's a predator who delusionally believes he's the prey, making his disconnect from reality all the scarier.
Bruce In A Wounded Fawn
Speaking of delusional men, let's talk about Bruce (Josh Ruben) in "A Wounded Fawn." Whereas I don't think Sully has a firm enough grip on reality to realize how demented he is, I believe that Bruce does but chooses to ignore that fact. In Travis Stevens' third directorial feature film, Bruce is a serial killer with a taste for the finer things in life. He entraps art curator Meredith (Sarah Lind) based on the guise of a romantic weekend at a cabin in the woods. (A huge red flag, as all horror fans know nothing good happens at a cabin.)
What happens next is a surrealist-fueled nightmare. After Bruce "kills" Meredith, he faces the wrath of furries, condemning him for being a "murderer, liar, and thief." They ask him to confess his sins, but he's incapable of doing it. Instead, he blames another entity for his crimes, even though we've seen him murder with full possession of his mind. At the film's end, he'd rather impale himself than admit he kills women because he enjoys it.
Bruce ranks higher than Sully due to his self-awareness, which only disperses when he's caught concealing his murderous intent. His doe-eyed denial is a ruse to manipulate others so he can take control, power, life, and beauty away from women. Swipe left, ladies!
The Grabber In The Black Phone
The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) is infinitely more terrifying than Bruce due to how strategic and time-consuming his kill plans are. While Bruce also has a routine for targeting and killing his victims, his methods are much quicker than The Grabber. With a van full of black balloons, The Grabber takes his time to tease, feed, and abuse the young boys he captures. He has made up a set of rules, and if young boys don't follow them, they'll die. However, as "The Black Phone" shows us, breaking the rules is another way to say: looking to survive.
In "The Black Phone," The Grabber takes delight in robbing hope from his victims, pushing them to "disobey" him. He'll leave his cellar door open, waiting for the young boys to think they can escape. However, The Grabber waits upstairs to punish them with a belt beating. He knows who he is and hides it from his dim-witted brother, Max (James Ransone).
A disturbing question to consider is how was he able to kill a slew of young boys before capturing Finney (Mason Thames)? Directed by Scott Derrickson, "The Black Phone" shows the dangers of suburbia in the late '70s when latchkey kids (pre-internet or cell phones) were left to figure out the world for themselves with minimal adult supervision. Fittingly, only Finney and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) can defeat The Grabber.
If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.
David Moore In Resurrection
Just thinking about Tim Roth's David Moore sends shivers down my spine. While most of the entries on this list display physical acts of violence towards their prey, none so far are as psychologically disturbing as David. Directed and written by Andrew Semans, "Resurrection" follows Margaret (Rebecca Hall) running into her mentally abusive ex, David. Even the way he debuts on-screen is ominous. He begins showing up in places she frequents but doesn't introduce himself — slightly hiding just out of view, so Margaret isn't quite sure if it's him. Of course, it is, but he disappears before anyone — including her suffocated daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) — can see him. Abbie soon resents Margaret for her paranoia.
His mission is simple: He wants to destroy Margaret's independence. What follows is a diabolical free for all and one of the best on-screen depictions of PTSD shown in cinema. Moore becomes the living embodiment of gaslighting. Is it a bit outlandish? Sure! (He convinces Margaret, whether or not it's true, that he ate their baby Ben and he can hear him cry inside him.) But the story here takes a backseat to Hall's impressive turn as a woman trying to maintain a grip on sanity, overcome her abuser, and keep her fractured family together.
If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.
Cecilia In Sissy
Written and directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes, "Sissy" is a delightful horror comedy about influencer culture and how we use social media to reinvent ourselves — even if it means glossing over our harmful past. After a decade, Cecilia (Aisha Dee), aka Sissy, runs into her childhood best friend Emma (Hannah Barlow). Emma invites Cecilia to her weekend getaway in a cabin in the woods. At first, Emma's new friends are skeptical over this seemingly "random" person showing up to their party. However, once they learn she's a "guru-like" influencer on social media, they decide to give her a chance.
But it doesn't take long for the group of friends to ask why Cecilia and Emma drifted, especially when Cecilia's high school bully is there, passive-aggressively antagonizing her. As Cecilia faces more scrutiny, she breaks down and abandons her "light and love" point of view for some good ol' fashion slasher vengeance. What earns her a spot on this list is how the unhinged Cecilia justifies every murderous action and spins it into a self-discovery and believe-in-yourself narrative on Instagram. Moments after seeing someone dies, she shares a self-affirmation post! After the disastrous events unfold, she convinces herself she's still in the right, using a murderous night to boost her follower account even more. "Sissy" ends on a hilarious upbeat note, showing how the feedback loop of social media praise can distort reality and our perception of ourselves.
Chef Julian In The Menu
No one is as unhinged so far on this list as Chef Julian (Ralph Fiennes). In "The Menu," Chef Julian has decided to take out his resentment around his career on his elite guests. How? By developing a multi-course dinner that psychologically destroys them, physically abuses them, and turns them into a s'mores dessert course in an explosive final act.
Unlike David Moore or Sissy, Chef Julian shows more restraint in his murderous schemes. At one point in the film, he admits to his guests that he's been planning his experience — aka killing himself, his entire crew, and his guests — for months. Director Mark Mylod spares no punches in showing how quietly disturbed Chef Julian is. But what's chilling about him is how he managed to have his staff jump on board his killer scheme. Yes, there's a militant-like dogma in fine cuisine kitchen, thanks to the French Brigade de Cuisine system. Still, people are autonomous beings, so how else Julian convinced them to play along? (Despite her 200,000+ followers, I'm skeptical if Sissy could convince people to murder on her behalf.)
We don't see that process on-screen. But we see it only takes a whisper from Chef to Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) for the latter to take his own life. His methods of manipulation and persuasion put him a cut above the rest in this class-conscious satire about consumers, art, and what we hunger for in life.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Esther In Orphan: First Kill
While she's not at the top of this list, I can't overstate how much of a deranged Queen Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) is. Debuting more than a decade after "Orphan," I admit I was dubious about how "Orphan: First Kill" would work. The first film relied on the delightful surprise that the murderous Esther is a 30-something Estonian dwarf. How would the second film top that?
Oh, I was so wrong! Director William Brent Bell and writer David Coggeshall deliver a delicious cat-and-cat game that's campy, fun, and brutal. In this film, Esther's secret becomes revealed in the first act to her adopted mother, Tricia (Julia Stiles). But due to Tricia's family secret, she tells Esther to keep her identity under wraps and pretend to be their missing daughter. "Orphan: First Kill" becomes a battle of wit and brawn between Tricia and Esther, but what gives Esther a leg up is her child-like identity. No one expects a child to be capable of murder, and Esther uses that to her advantage again throughout this film. When no one is looking, no one can stab faster than Esther and scurry away like her.
Pearl In X And Pearl
However, if there was a soul that could defeat Esther, my money is on Pearl (Mia Goth). Like Esther, Pearl touts an overblown sense of self-worth, believing that she deserves all she wants in life no matter the cost. Kill her mom? Sure. Euthanize her father? No problem. She'll even kill her sister-in-law if it means that she has the chance to dance on a stage.
Her desire to be "a star" is so strong that it overwrites any other logic. That's alarming for a lot of reasons but mostly for how unpredictable that makes Pearl. You wouldn't know (until it's too late), if you were standing in the way of her goals, leaving her no choice but to murder you. Of all the human forces on this list, she's the most powerful one due to her dogged nature and commitment. When her rage becomes triggered, she's an unstoppable force — even in her elder years in "X." Challenge her, and you'll be fed to her loyal gators.
Art The Clown In Terrifier 2
Now we enter our unavoidable paranormal forces section of the list. Kicking us off is none other than Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton). This is the kind of villain you never want to meet. The second you open your door to Art the Clown trick-or-treating, you're done for — he doesn't mind turning your head into a bowl for candy. Technically, he can die, but that doesn't mean he'll stay dead, as we see with his mysterious resurrection in "Terrifier 2."
Like Chrissy in "Deadstream," Art shows malicious joy in brutalizing his victims, toying with their sense of reality and flaying their skin. However, he's an entity that appears when you least expect him to show. You can't avoid what you don't know is coming, making this killer clown entity a whimsically sinister force. Unlike prior entries on this list, he doesn't have a reason or rhyme for killing; he enjoys murder and surprising others with how demented his kills can be. Unless you have a magical sword like Sienna (Lauren LaVera), you're doomed.
Wolf-Eateress In You Won't Be Alone
Written and directed by Goran Stolevski, "You Will Not Be Alone" is a harrowing tale about our need for community and acceptance. The film explores these ideas through Maria (Anamaria Marinca), aka the Wolf-Eateress, a scorned witch who searches for a companion. At the film's start, Maria finds the young Nevena (Leontina Bainović). To save her life, Nevena's mother promises to give her child to Maria once she turns 16. The Wolf-Eateress agrees, but not before stealing her voice. She transforms Nevena into a witch so she can shape-shift like her. All of this is done in hopes for Nevena to be a quasi-child for Maria.
But where it gets harrowing is how the witch powers work. To shape-shift, you have to kill (or find a dead body) and push their entrails into your chest, taking on their essence for as long as the entrails are inside you. Once an older Nevena (Noomi Rapace) learns how to do this, she abandons Maria — causing the witch to haunt her and kill off anyone she loves.
What's most haunting here is that you'll never know who Maria is unless she wants you to know. She could transform into anyone you trust — after killing them — if it meant she received your attention. The film is a testament to how isolation and loneliness can drive others into madness, a theme that hits harder amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mother Buddha & Li Ronan In Incantation
Oh, "Incantation." This is one of those found footage films where even typing about it makes you wonder if you're helping to spread its curse. I might be! For that, I'm sorry but likely not more sorry than Li Ronan (Hsuan-yen Tsai) was. Throughout the Taiwanese horror film, we're told that we're helping Ronan to cure her daughter, Duoduo (Huang Hsin-Ting), from an evil entity's grasp — the Mother Buddha. But as the film's runtime continues, we learn that Li Ronan is not at all innocent in the matter. Years prior, she and her "Ghostbusters"-like crew broke into a shrine in Yunnan that they were explicitly warned not to go near. They knock over artifacts, crash mirrors, and enter a cave where the Mother Buddha had successfully been kept at bay from spreading her chaotic reign of evil. The more you know of her, the more you'll suffer.
Like "Ringu," the terror comes from why people spread the curse. In fear for her life, Li Ronan recites the incantation that appeases her — thinking it'll weaken the curse over time — coaching her daughter to do it, too. All she does is kill anyone who learns about Mother Buddha. What's worse? When the film breaks the fourth wall, we learn the "blessing" she's been telling the viewer to recite throughout the film is a cursed incantation, damning us as well! A sentence like this is inescapable, and no one on this list could survive the vengeful and chaotic goddess.
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