Many psycho killers in film and television are imposing, scary creeps that no one in their right mind would ever get into a car with, or even sit next to on public transit. But a psychopath of the more cunning variety will take you out to dinner and the opera before revealing his or her true motive and subsequently stabbing, strangling, bludgeoning, or carving you to death... and the funny thing is that you won’t even know what hit you. This rarer breed of maniac is all the more terrifying because there are often precious few warning signs... if any. They've learned to assimilate with modern society and blend into a crowd, or at the very least, avoid standing out. The following list represents some classic examples of this craftier brand of crazy.
[Note: Big-time spoilers ahead]
Norman Bates (Psycho, 1960)
Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is such a nice boy. He'll make you a sandwich before he hits you over the head; he'll spy on you in the shower from a safe distance before he mercilessly stabs you to death. Norman’s tendencies as an adult can certainly be attributed to being reared by a tyrant of a mother who scarred the poor boy for life and left him with some serious mommy issues. However, you won’t discover that until it’s too late.
Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I would instantly trust Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), as he's rather condescending and has a slight maniacal quality about him. But he doesn’t let anyone see his true colors until they are squarely within his crosshairs. He's one of the few silver screen psychopaths that take the time to exfoliate and apply a moisturizing facemask before bludgeoning their victims to death, or chasing them with a chainsaw.
Frank (Maniac, 2012)
Wow. What a transformation of the character from the 1980 original to the remake. Elijah Wood seems so gentle and so disarming as Frank, whereas Joe Spinell was greasy, abrasive, off-putting, and certainly not the type of person you'd approach on the street. It’s worth mentioning, however, that both actors did a phenomenal job of telling Frank’s story; they just came from completely opposite ends of the spectrum, and Wood played Frank as someone you'd be comfortable getting to know.
Mick Taylor (Wolf Creek)
Mick (John Jarratt) seems like the kind of fun-loving guy that would make an inappropriate sex joke in mixed company, or use his salad fork for his entrée, but he certainly does not strike me as the type of person that would take you to his shack in the Australian outback and torture you until you were knocking on death’s door, then laugh as you faded into the afterlife. But that's just the kind of man he is... which is what makes him even more dangerous than a more overtly psychotic killer.
Brenda Bates (Urban Legend)
Could the curly-haired girl from the Noxzema commercials possibly be capable of committing heinous urban legend-inspired crimes? Certainly not! That’s what the majority of audiences assumed, anyway, when they took in this 1998 giallo-esque slasher. But apparently Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart) was harboring some serious-ass resentment and had quite an axe to grind; she also had some puppies to microwave, some frat boys to hang, a goth chick (Danielle Harris) to murder, and more... and she did all of this right under our noses.
Earl Brooks (Mr. Brooks)
The crux of Mr. Brooks (Kevin Costner) is that he's so disarming, a pillar in the community who donates to charity. There was no way he could be a killer. But of course, all the while he's cruising the streets of Portland, Oregon, slaughtering innocent victims to satisfy his own primal urges. He just happened to be doing it under the guise of being way less of a creep.
Dexter Morgan (Dexter)
Michael C. Hall was an ingenious casting choice for the role of Dexter Morgan. Hall had just come off of a turn on HBO’s Six Feet Under, playing a character the polar opposite of Dexter, and his public persona is anything but threatening. (I've seen the man speak at Comic-Con, and it seems he wouldn’t hurt a fly.) Dexter has a tendency to put his victims at ease right up to the point at which he drugs them and wraps them in plastic wrap in a kill room, where they can ponder pictures of their own victims before meeting a grisly fate.
Dr. Robert Ledgard (The Skin I Live In)
Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live in is a haunting and thought-provoking tale, and Antonio Banderas is brilliant as Dr. Ledgard – who is certainly a psychopath. Banderas brings a soothing quality to Robert and puts the viewer at ease, although his actions soon bring the viewer closer to feeing unhinged. Since this film has mostly flown under the mainstream radar, we'll avoid giving away any more information, since to do so would be a major disservice to any potential viewers of this cinematic triumph.
Leslie Vernon (Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon)
Leslie Vernon is the subject of one of the funniest and most effective slasher parodies of all time; the film brings much of the wit that films like Student Bodies and Scream did before it. The character of Leslie, played to perfection by Nathan Baesel, comes across as so congenial that it’s almost shocking to see him running around killing people. You almost expect him to be working in a soup kitchen instead of committing mass murder.
Rhoda Penmark (The Bad Seed, 1956)
Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a little brat, and I hated her almost instantly after beginning to watch The Bad Seed for the first time... but despite her obnoxious ways, one wouldn’t necessarily peg her as a killer. If I saw her walking around irritating everyone she came into contact with, I would simply conclude she was a little creep, but certainly not a murder. However, looks can be deceiving. In fact, Rhoda killed one of her classmates over a penmanship award. What a little terror she is!
Honorable mention goes to Henry Evans (played by Macaulay Culkin) in The Good Son.