Horror films typically follow the stories of innocent people trying to escape deadly threats, whether they are human, natural, or paranormal. However, there is also a fascinating yet niche trend within the horror genre that centers on the antagonists and follows their points of view rather than that of their victims.
Challenging audiences to understand or even empathize with a horror villain is no easy feat but can be terrifying and fascinating when well-executed. Whether the protagonists are unrepentant serial killers or damaged individuals on the brink of total psychological collapse, horror films presented from the villains’ perspectives can make for compelling explorations of humanity’s dark side.
10 ‘Raw’ (2016)
Raw, a 2016 coming-of-age horror film from French writer-director Julia Ducournau, tells the story of a young woman who eats meat for the first time and develops an insatiable hunger for human flesh. The protagonist Justine (Garance Marillier) finds herself unfortunately out of control of her actions, driven primarily by her new bloodlust, to the detriment of the people closest to her.
With its focus on Justine’s animal instincts, in the tradition of other cannibal horror movies, Raw explores questions of human nature. By telling the story from Justine’s perspective, the film challenges its audience to have empathy for her struggles and to question how they would behave in her situation.
9 ‘Spree’ (2020)
Starring Joe Keery as Kurt Kunkle, a man obsessed with the idea of achieving viral fame, Spree tells the story of a ride-share driver who livestreams a murder spree from a car filled with webcams. The film portrays a darkly satirical view of the lengths people will go to in order to become internet famous, with Kurt representing the very worst-case scenario of a wannabe influencer.
Spree‘s representation of online culture is disturbingly accurate, showing just how detached audiences can become when viewing and engaging in harmful behavior from behind a computer screen. Keery is fantastic in the lead role, bringing his despicable character to life by perfectly emulating the attention-seeking and socially awkward behaviors of obnoxious aspiring online celebrities.
8 ‘High Tension’ (2003)
French slasher/home invasion horror High Tension, directed by Alexandre Aja, is a brutal and tense story about obsession and identity. What initially appears to be a conventional plot about two women being tormented by a mysterious killer is later revealed to be a much darker and much more personal story.
The film explores its protagonist’s fragile grip on reality by telling its story through a highly subjective lens, rarely leaving her perspective. Although the film’s twist is considered controversial, High Tension is an important entry into the New French Extremity canon and established Aja as one of the decade’s most promising horror filmmakers.
7 ‘Maniac’ (2012)
One of the most literal portrayals of a horror villain’s perspective, the 2012 film Maniac, based on the 1980 movie of the same name, is shot primarily from the first-person view of its protagonist, serial killer Frank (Elijah Wood). The film follows Frank’s blossoming relationship with Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a woman he sincerely loves, as he attempts to suppress his violent urges.
Although Wood’s face is not visible for the majority of the runtime, his chilling performance remains a stand-out. The film’s first-person cinematography is incredibly effective in making its audience feel complicit in Frank’s actions, situating viewers literally inside his head.
6 ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ (1986)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an uncompromisingly bleak portrayal of the day-to-day life of a serial killer, from his interpersonal relationships to his crimes. Featuring a complex and menacing lead performance from Michael Rooker as the titular character, the film is a frightening look at a realistic monster.
Henry is the point-of-view character, with the film exploring his motives and damaged psyche as well as the viciousness of his murders. With its simultaneous brutality and mundanity, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a truly unforgettable horror film focused on the villain’s perspective.
5 ‘Pearl’ (2022)
Ti West‘s historical horror-drama Pearl, the prequel to popular slasher X, tells the story of aspiring dancer-turned-serial killer Pearl (Mia Goth) as she attempts to follow her dream of performing onstage. Pearl is a highly disturbed character, oppressed by her life on her parents’ farm and driven by her uncontrollable violent fits of rage.
With a powerhouse performance from Goth, Pearl is a compelling character study about a woman with a fragile grip on reality. Pearl may be a monster, but the film makes it hard for the audience to not have at least a modicum of sympathy for her by the time its iconic credits sequence rolls.
4 ‘May’ (2002)
May, directed by Lucky McKee, tells the story of a lonely woman (played by Angela Bettis) determined to make a new friend… from body parts. Featuring strong supporting performances from Anna Faris and Jeremy Sisto, May explores its title character’s severe difficulty in connecting with other adults no matter how hard she tries, after a childhood of ostracization.
The body horror in May, caused by the protagonist’s quest to create a physically perfect companion is wonderfully twisted. The film is sad, grotesque and strangely beautiful, just like May’s creation itself.
3 ‘Under the Skin’ (2013)
Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and distributed by A24 as their first horror film, stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who prowls Scotland in search of men to kill for mysterious purposes. The film centers the protagonist’s relationships with humanity and her own identity as she progresses from an unrepentant extraterrestrial killer to something more identifiably human.
As she is an alien, the protagonist’s true motive for her killing spree is largely unknowable to the audience, leaving her emotional journey as the main focus of the story. Exploring themes of gender, empathy and humanity, Under the Skin is a visually stunning film with a remarkable and otherworldly score.
2 ‘Excision’ (2012)
Simply reducing Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) from Richard Bates Jr‘s body horror Excision to the descriptor of ‘villain’ feels reductive, although that is precisely what she is to those around her. Excision focuses on Pauline, a troubled teenager who aspires to be a surgeon and has graphic dreams about mutilation, as she deals with her school life, her family and her disturbing sexual fantasies.
The film is visually captivating, wickedly comedic and features supporting performances from cinema legends like John Waters and Malcolm McDowell. Excision is of the horror genre’s most empathetic portrayals of a villain, encouraging its audience to truly come to understand Pauline and the motives behind her shockingly gruesome actions.
1 ‘American Psycho’ (2000)
Based on the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel, Mary Harron‘s black comedy horror American Psycho follows investment Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) as he attempts to balance his daily routine with his nightly serial killings. The film is darkly hilarious, featuring frequent voiceover monologues from Patrick about topics ranging from his tortured psyche to his skincare regime.
The film, like the original novel, is an excellent satire of the shallowness of New York yuppie culture epitomized by its protagonist. While Patrick Bateman would make terrible company in real life, spending time with him through the comfort of a screen is a joy.
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