Hitchcock's Five Creepiest killers
Alfred Hitchcock made more than 50 movies in his career. Not all of them deal with the macabre -- there are stories about spies and conspiracies, there are romantic comedies, and there is even a 19th-century costume drama.
But some of his movie villains are worthy of these pages. So let's meet Hitchcock's 5 creepiest killers. Spoilers ahead!
1. Norman Bates in Psycho is such a cultural meme that he's almost lost his connection to the character in the movie. He's not a knife-wielding stab-happy killer, but if you dropped his name as a metaphor for "crazy and violent," you'd be well understood. But the real Norman Bates as played by Tony Perkins is quieter and sadder than that. Naturally introverted, he nevertheless tries to make small talk with his new customer Lila Crane ("I don't really know anything about birds; my hobby is stuffing things"). He feeds her. He likes her. But Miss Crane is too liberated; she comes on too strong for poor Norman, and his guilt at feeling turned on brings the attention of his mother. Mother -- long dead, yet indelibly imprinted on Norman's childish mind -- makes him come to Miss Crane's cabin to... get rid of her. As the movie's coda explains, Norman isn't really present at the murder he commits. He does, however, have to come in afterwards and clean up the mess.
2. Brandon (John Dall) in Rope is a modern-day Raskolnikov. Like Dostoyevsky's protagonist, Brandon is a sociopath who sees murder as a matter of intellect and class. If a man is superior to his fellow in smarts and breeding, and if he has sufficient skill to pull off the perfect murder, then it's just the natural order of things and no crime at all. Brandon convinces his friend Philip to help commit a murder for the sheer experience of it. They dare themselves further by inviting the deceased's friends and family to come dine over the corpse, hidden in a chest. Professor Caldwell (Jimmy Stewart) gets suspicious, which doesn't worry Brandon a whit, because he actually believes the professor will be impressed with their accomplishment. When Jimmy Stewart finds out what happened and spits "Brandon!" with utter contempt, their intellectual walls come tumbling down.
3. Two Strangers on a Train, Bruno and Guy, get to talking. Guy is a minor celebrity, a tennis pro. His evil wife has dragged their failing marriage into the tabloids. Bruno, socially inept, tends to prattle. Guy tries to be polite but is happy to cut the conversation off as expediently as possible -- say, by not disagreeing with Bruno's crazy theories on trading favors. The next time Guy sees Bruno, it's late at night in another city near Guy's girlfriend's house. Bruno comes out of the shadows to announce that he has just killed Guy's horrible wife and now expects Guy to return the favor by murdering his father. Bruno is attached to Guy like a leech, with a tight and damning alibi that prevents Guy from getting help above the law.
4. The London Strangler is 1972's answer to Jack the Ripper. He gets his victim alone, strangles her with his necktie, and then leaves her body to be found. The killer isn't revealed immediately, but Frenzy is not a whodunit (none of Hitchcock's movies are -- he's the master of suspense, not the master of surprise). We know it's not Jon Finch's character because he's the falsely-accused protagonist; it turns out to be the one man who believes him: the dapper-dressed fruit seller (Barry Foster), whose concern for Finch's character seems genuine. Hitchcock was able to be more graphic in his later films, and he didn't abuse the privilege. We actually see the murder in Frenzy, and that's the point. It's not the villain's M.O. that puts him in the Macabre 5, but rather the satisfaction he gets from a good strangling. Hitchcock and Foster show us the killer's transition from wound-up and tense before and during the murder, to post-coitally relaxed and fulfilled when he's done.
5. The birds in The Birds make the list because their behavior is so completely, plausibly unexplained. Not all birds flock, but for brief spells over the course of a weekend, a hive mind seems to take over the sparrows, gulls, crows, and ravens of Bodega Bay. They not only flock, they swarm like locusts. There is apparent purpose and malice to the swarms, yet there is no possible explanation. When a swarming crow gets caught in your hair, it doesn't matter whether the bird is attacking you personally, or whether it's just part of the repulsive chaos. Like Godzilla and its cinematic descendants, The Birds injects a dose of humility into man's apparent understanding of nature. But unlike Godzilla, The Birds is not a cautionary tale; there is no comforting message to be learned. The birds fail to kill our protagonists, but the sheer randomness of their swarming wreaks havoc on their souls.