Sometimes you’re watching a horror whodunit and you just know a character is bad. Maybe they did something to immediately mark them as a Bad Guy. Maybe they’re too good; suspiciously good. Or maybe they just have the aura of a killer. But despite your gut feeling — plot twist! they turn out to be a red herring. These characters may not have been the Big Bad, but if they had been, it wouldn’t have felt like a rip-off.
Given that we’re talking about red herrings and plot twists, there will be spoilers.
10. Delilah Profitt – The Faculty (1998)
Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty draws heavy inspiration from sources like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and like its predecessor, anyone could be the enemy. When the staff and students at Herrington High start being taken over by water-guzzling, caffeine-phobic slug creatures, a small group of students bands together to expose the cause. It’s goth sci-fi nerd Stokely (Clea DuVall) who suggests that the alien parasites must have a queen, and as time goes on, it becomes clear that queen might be any one of the six teens in their group.
Delilah (Jordana Brewster) is infected, but she’s not the queen. It’s almost too bad because there would have been so much to gain by taking Delilah‘s form as a disguise. She’s popular and she’s the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, so it wouldn’t be weird for her to access different parts of the school or mingle with different groups of students and infect them with alien parasites. The real Delilah can also be aloof and dismissive, traits which would let her evade conversations without looking suspicious. She’s organized and deadline-driven and probably would have been way more efficient about taking over the school and then the entire town.
Honourable mention to Coach Willis (Robert Patrick), who from the first scene is channeling so much Bad Guy Energy — if the queen were actually one of the faculty and not hiding among the student body, I would happily have it be him.
9. John Edward “Teddy” Gammell – Memento (2000)
Lenny Shelby (Guy Pearce) just wants to avenge his wife’s murder and find some peace of mind. Having anterograde amnesia makes it tough for Lenny to piece clues together and hold them in his mind, but he knows that murderer’s name is John G. Otherwise, Lenny has had to rely on a system of notes, photos, tattoos, and the guidance of Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) — a man who calls himself a friend. But the notes, photos, and tattoos lead him right back to Teddy.
It takes a bit of unraveling to interpret Memento (and there are a few ways you can interpret it), but Teddy didn’t murder Lenny’s wife. Sure, he’s not a great guy — he’s a dirty cop who’s been essentially manipulating Lenny into working as a hit man whose slate gets wiped clean after every hit. It’s ironic that he ends up falsely labelled among Lenny’s catalog of clues, but it would have been interesting if he were the killer. It takes a certain amount of guts to murder a woman and assault her husband so badly that he can no longer form new memories, and then stick around to use him to kill other people for you.
8. Bishop – Aliens (1986)
We can’t really blame Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) for immediately distrusting Bishop (Lance Henriksen) when she realizes that he’s an android. After all, she wouldn’t have had to fight for her life in Alien (1979) if the Nostromo’s android science officer Ash (Ian Holm) hadn’t broken quarantine protocol and let an infected crew member onto the ship. It would have been all too easy to repeat the beats of the first movie and have Bishop be another sleeper agent just following orders, but Bishop is one of the good guys, willing to sacrifice himself for his crew, and unfairly discriminated against for being an android.
7. John Tombs – Happy Death Day (2017)
Tree (Jessica Rothe) would like nothing more than to get through her Birthday and move on with her life. Instead, she’s stuck in Groundhog Day-like hell where she relives her Birthday over and over again, only to be murdered repeatedly by a figure in a baby mask. Happy Death Day plants the seeds for John Tombs (Rob Mello) as a suspect early. We see news reports of a serial killer being held at the campus hospital — he’s nearby. We know that he manages to escape his bonds at the hospital. He’s killed before — maybe Tree is his latest target. When Tree concludes that Tombs must be her killer and goes to warn hospital staff of his escape, he almost does kill her. But he doesn’t. And killing him doesn’t solve any of Tree‘s problems either.
John Tombs is a killer. He’s just not Tree‘s killer.
6. Katrina von Tassel – Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Katrina von Tassel (Christina Ricci) stands to gain the most from the murders plaguing her village. She was the only heir of a rich businessman, at least until the appearance of a new will threatens her inheritance. Katrina burns this evidence, which only makes her look suspicious to the investigating Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp). What’s more, there are clear indications that witchcraft may be involved in the murders, and Katrina practices spiritualism and is shown marking protection spells in chalk.
Despite Crane‘s suspicions, Katrina is innocent, but it would have been fascinating to reveal that she wasn’t the pretty and one-dimensional daughter she seemed to be, but actually a powerful witch capable of summoning the Horseman and controlling him. Katrina lives in 1799 after all, and despite her status is in many ways powerless to control aspects of her life. Being a killer isn’t necessarily an option that should be condoned, but it’s an option that would have afforded her some power.
5. Ricky Thomas – Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Camp Arawak isn’t the friendliest place if you’re an awkward and introverted teenager. When Angela (Felissa Rose) arrives at camp with her cousin, she almost immediately finds herself being mocked, harassed and worse. Soon, people at the camp start having terrible accidents and deaths, and the victims tend to be people who weren’t kind to Angela.
Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) is trying his best to look out for his shy cousin, Angela. Not only is he witness to a lot of Angela‘s bullying, but he’s always ready to fight back and defend her. Also, this isn’t Ricky‘s first summer at Camp Arawak. He knows the ins and outs of the place and is in a better position to exact revenge against the camp counsellors and his fellow campers. Ricky totally could have been a killer with good intentions, but he’s just a pretty good kid.
4. Jason Voorhees – Friday the 13th (1980)
To be fair, we all know that Jason Voorhees is a killer. No one is denying that. But in the first Friday the 13th film he is pretty much blameless and hanging out at the bottom of Crystal Lake.
3. Peter Smythe – Black Christmas (1974)
One of the scariest things about Black Christmas is that we don’t find out who the killer is or why he’s hiding out in the attic of a sorority house and killing its residents. We don’t even get to see his full face. It’s uncomfortable to think about a motive-less killer (this is one of the reasons why Michael Myers was so scary in the first Halloween movie before so much of his mythology was revealed — he was just a killing machine).
So, if we had to pick a killer with a motive for Black Christmas, Peter (Keir Dullea) would be the most obvious choice. As Jess (Olivia Hussey)’s boyfriend, he is the only one who knows about her pregnancy and plan for an abortion — details that the killer repeats to Jess over the phone. He is angry and intimidating and emotional, maybe enough so to lose control and harm people. It’s not a strong motive, but it’s the only real motive in the whole movie.
2. Professor Wexler – Urban Legends (1998)
When someone on campus is taking inspiration from urban legends to kill people, it only makes sense to look toward the psych professor who knows a heck of a lot about urban legends. Professor Wexler (Robert Englund) even goes so far as to challenge a student to try pop rocks and soda in class as part of his lecture (an act echoed later when someone is killed with pop rocks and plumbing chemicals). The college campus turns out to be a site of its own local legend, known as the Stanley Hall Massacre, but when Paul (Jared Leto) does some digging into the tale, he finds out that the massacre was in fact a real event and that there was only one survivor. That survivor? Professor Wexler.
As a viewer, it’s almost too easy to decide that Professor Wexler is the killer strictly based on the fact that he’s portrayed by Robert Englund. As far as the character goes, being into urban legends and surviving a massacre doesn’t a murderer make, but it does raise some interesting possibilities. Wexler could have been the only survivor 25 years ago because he was in fact the killer. Wexler could be the killer now as a reaction to the anniversary of the massacre (either as a celebration or a coping mechanism). Or he could just an unlucky guy.
1. Julie McKenna – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Julie (Tracy Middendorf) is Heather (Heather Langenkamp)’s friend, a kind college student and babysitter to Heather‘s son Dylan (Miko Hughes). She even goes to great lengths to protect Dylan. So, why does she seem so guilty? So…suspicious?
On the commentary track for New Nightmare, Wes Craven describes how he wanted Julie and another character (a chauffeur who only has a brief scene toward the beginning of the film) to subtly hint at being possible villains in disguise. In fact, in earlier drafts of the film, Julie was a villain in league with Freddy (Robert Englund), responsible for stalking and harassing Heather on Freddy‘s behalf. Her villainy was ultimately dropped, but the direction to keep Julie acting like a guilty party stuck around.