Less is More: Screen Time for Horror Villains
It is interesting to consider that some of the most memorable and effective horror villains in our favourite films from the genre actually have very little in the way of screen time. Perhaps the fact we only get glimpses of them encourages us to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, after all we fear the unknown above all else.
There is certainly a relationship between how much we see of a character on screen and how scary they are to the audience. A brief appearance often just whets the appetite and fans frequently go to sequels in the hope of seeing more of their favourite baddies. Typically in sequels the villain will tend to feature more prominently and become less feared as a consequence.
The villains who featured in the classic horrors of yesteryear have completely lost their impact through over-exposure. Dracula is no longer seen as a frightening character, a parodied version of him appears as the Count on Sesame Street indicating his absorption into popular culture is complete. Frankenstein's monster is often portrayed as a sympathetic character nowadays and certainly doesn't scare audiences anymore. Even the wolf man has become a joke, take films like Teen Wolf where far from being a scary monster he is an ordinary teen and his lycanthropic transformation has become a thinly veiled allegory for puberty.
More recent horror films and the characters they spawned have undergone the same process. Take Clive Barker's 1987 film Hellraiser for example, a film which is largely remembered for Pinhead, who features prominently on the cover. The character actually has less than 10 minutes of screen time in total. Naturally in the endless slew of sequels Pinhead has been given more and more screen time and his ability to scare has decreased proportionately.
Freddy Krueger is another good example, he is a serious character in A Nightmare on Elm Street who lurks in the shadows and appears only fleetingly throughout the film. In the sequels, as original creator Wes Craven complained, the character appears on screen far more often and begins to spout comedy one-liners. He is transformed from a child murdering nightmare man into a lovable rogue.
In Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien the creature never appears fully on screen, we only get glimpses of it and quick flashes as it stalks and kills the crew of the ill fated Nostromo. However despite the fact the aliens get a lot more screen time in the sequel they do remain powerfully scary, maybe because the original artistic design by Giger is so good.
Perhaps the best example of a recent horror character who gained instant fame despite less than 20 minutes of screen time is Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The performance from Anthony Hopkins was extremely memorable and in fact remains the shortest performance in a film ever to win a best actor Oscar. There is no doubt with more screen time in the sequels and appearances in parodies Hannibal's fear factor has been diluted over the years.
So when it comes to scaring an audience with a memorable villain less is definitely more.
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