Everyone knows the titans of horror, but let’s take a look at some less-heralded horror icons who deserve more fear fanfare.
When you think of horror, I am sure a few names immediately come to mind: Freddy, Jason, Michael, Ghostface, Chucky… just to name a few. And while these characters are certainly iconic, they overshadow some other amazing horror characters that are just as worthy of serious fandom. Though they may not sell as much merch, these characters are no less memorable, scene-stealing, and worthy of icon status.
In no particular order, let’s take a look at some of my favorite, underrated horror icons.
1. Esther, Orphan (2009)
This movie is about a young girl, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian orphan that is adopted by Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard). Kate becomes more and more suspicious of Esther’s behavior, as she seems to speak and act much differently than an average 9-year-old would. After committing several horrible acts in the film, and attempting to seduce her adopted father (yikes), we get a shocking reveal.
Talk about a plot twist! I remember watching this film for the first time when I was 12 and feeling my jaw drop when Esther’s secret was revealed.
This film does not get the love that it deserves; however, with a sequel (technically a prequel) in the works, perhaps more people will see just how awesome (and terrifying) Esther is!
WHERE TO WATCH: Orphan is available to stream on Hoopla or you can rent on most VOD platforms.
2. Group of Strangers, The Strangers (2008)
After a young couple, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) stay at a vacation home, they are greeted by unexpected guests. But these aren’t ordinary visitors. These guests, known as the strangers, hide their faces with masks and have malicious intentions for the young couple.
This terrifying film is based on true events, and it’s especially unsettling because of just how realistic it is.
It’s not hard to imagine yourself in the horrific scenario experienced by Kristen and James. I will never get over the response from one of the strangers, “Dollface” (Gemma Ward), when Kirsten asks why this nightmare is happening to her and her husband. Dollface simply responds, “Because you were home.” Absolutely chilling!
In 2018, we got a sequel to this film (The Strangers: Prey at Night). Despite that, I don’t hear enough people talking about how great the original film is.
WHERE TO WATCH: The Strangers is available to rent on most VOD platforms.
3. Jerry Dandrige, Fright Night (1985)
Horror fan, Charley (William Ragsdale) discovers that his next door neighbor, Jerry (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire. Not only is he a vampire, he is responsible for the disappearance and murder of several people. To help him take down Jerry, Charley enlists the help of his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), best friend Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and former vampire hunter, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall).
As a kid, this film really creeped me out, yet I still found myself practically obsessed with it. There is just something about vampires being scary rather than sexy (looking at you, Twilight) that has always drawn me in (though Sarandon manages to give audiences a bit of both).
There was a sequel released in 2011 that polarized audiences. Though many enjoyed the updated take, it’s pretty hard to beat the original — an undeniable horror classic.
WHERE TO WATCH: Fright Night is available to rent on most VOD platforms.
4. Annie Wilkes, Misery (1990)
When famous author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is involved in a horrible accident, he is taken in and cared for by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Paul realizes that Annie is not just a good samaritan; she is actually an obsessed fan of his work and will do anything to keep him with her — and in helping him craft her version of the perfect ending for his famous series.
When you think of great Stephen King adaptations, there are certainly many contenders for most iconic characters. However, I personally feel Annie is such an underrated character in King’s twisted world. This is helped considerably by how well the amazingly talented Kathy Bates plays her in the film. She embodies the character so well that it’s hard to believe she’s playing a fictional character.
As good as the film is, the novel version of Misery is so much more gruesome So, watch the film. Then, if you can stomach it, definitely read the book!
WHERE TO WATCH: Misery is available to stream on HBO Max, Showtime, Cinemax, and Directv (or rent it on VOD).
5. Cecilia, The Invisible Man (2020)
You didn’t think this list would just be horror villains, did you? Villains do tend to get the best parts and make the biggest impact on horror fans. But a great hero or heroine cannot be overlooked.
After successfully escaping an abusive relationship, Cecelia (Elizabeth Moss) begins to feel as though she is being stalked by her ex-boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She experiences unexplainable events in her life, resulting in the people around her believing that she is crazy. With a good amount of plotting and planning, Cecelia dedicates herself to finally exacting her revenge.
This movie has one of the most satisfying endings to a horror movie I have ever seen.
I was skeptical of this film, but Moss is such a phenomenal actress. I truly believed that she was Cecelia. The character is also really well written and helps show that, even when you are stuck in an unhealthy relationship, you can find a way out of it.
WHERE TO WATCH: The Invisible Man is available to stream on Cinemax Go, or you can rent it on VOD.
6. Amanda Young, Saw Franchise
In the first three Saw films, Amanda Young (played by Shawnee Smith) worked alongside Jigsaw/John Kramer (played by Tobin Bell) after surviving one of his infamous traps and believing John “saved” her.
I have seen so many other Saw characters get plenty of love from the fandom, including (of course) John Kramer aka Jigsaw and several of the protagonists like Dr. Gordon. However, I rarely see Amanda get that same love. Some fans may not like her because of how emotionally attached she was to John Kramer, but I thought she brought a lot of complexity and pathos to the franchise. And she deserves to be celebrated.
WHERE TO WATCH: The original Saw film is available to stream on Starz and Directv, or you can rent it on VOD.
7. May, May (2002)
In this indie horror film about a young misfit, May (Angela Bettis) has always been different. She feels lonely, given that her only friend is a handmade doll. She desperately tries to fit in and find companionship with people around her. But it never seems to work out.
After a tragic accident occurs, resulting in her doll, Suzie, breaking, she decides if she cannot find a friend, she will make one.
May is a film I did not hear much about until fairly recently. Spending years as a mostly hidden gem, it’s finally starting to gain traction as a cult hit. I think it’s crazy this film still flies so far under the radar, considering May is such a unique, creepy, and tragic character. And Bettis is exceptional in the unforgettable role.
WHERE TO WATCH: You can stream May for free on Tubi and Pluto TV.
8. Cherry Darling, Planet Terror (2007)
This film takes place in a dystopian future in which zombie-like creatures are spawned after a biochemical outbreak. Cherry Darling is a go-go dancer that is caught in the crossfires of the zombies. She loses her leg after she is involved in a crash with her ex, El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). Initially, she is given a wooden table as a “prosthetic leg,” but it is later replaced with a machine gun (which can be seen on the iconic cover of the film).
Now, listen, I know this film is very much out there and has its problems, but you simply cannot deny how awesome it is that Cherry is walking around with a machine gun for a leg! I always thought she was such a badass character for that move alone. Of course, she also ends up leading a community of apocalypse survivors, so she’s more than just a unique action hero
Cherry is also played by genre icon and indie darling Rose McGowan in one of her most memorable roles.
WHERE TO WATCH: You can rent Planet Terror on most VOD platforms.
9. Stitches the Clown, Stitches (2012)
This film revolves around a birthday clown named Stitches (Ross Noble). Things go wrong for Stitches during Tommy (Tommy Knight)’s birthday party. Tommy and his friends pull a prank on stitches, which results in Stitches slipping and falling on a knife face first. Stitches then makes his return on Tommy’s 16th birthday, vowing to get his revenge.
I wrote about Stitches when I wrote an article about the top 10 killer clown films.
This film is absolutely not talked about enough, and it has some pretty gory kills in it. If you are a fan of killer clowns and don’t want to just watch Pennywise or Art the Clown, definitely check this one out!
WHERE TO WATCH: Watch Stitches for free on Prime or Shudder, among several other platforms.
10. Mary Shaw, Dead Silence (2007)
To finish off the list, let’s take a look at the film that inspired this entire list.
Dead Silence follows Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) as he tries to find out who mysteriously killed his wife on the night that he received a ventriloquist doll. He discovers that the doll belonged to Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts).
Mary Shaw was a woman that was publicly humiliated during a ventriloquist performance by a young boy (within the Ashen family) claiming to see her moving her mouth. When the young boy went missing, Mary was lynched and was forced to scream and have her tongue cut out.
The legend is that if you see Mary Shaw, you cannot scream, otherwise she will rip your tongue out.
This film does not get the love that it deserves. More importantly, MARY SHAW does not get the love that she deserves! Everyone always talks about how creepy Billy the puppet is. I’m sorry, have y’all seen Mary Shaw? She literally gave me nightmares as a kid, and I was even scared of dolls for the longest time as a result of this movie.
WHERE TO WATCH: Rent Dead Silence on most VOD platforms.