From the earliest horror films, physical disabilities have plagued characters. It’s the inherent vulnerability that makes the topic such a draw for the genre, but some films – like these five – defy your expectations.
5. Planet Terror
Losing a leg – in most horror movies, this would spell doom for a character. Not in Robert Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse, though. Indeed, for Rose McGowan’s Cherry Baby, an amputated limb turns her to the film’s most daring badass.
A machine gun for a leg! How awesome is that?! McGowan strikes the right blend of hard knock and vulnerability to keep the character interesting – beyond the whole leg of death thing. I mean, you’d hardly call her boring.
The entire film is a whole lot of throw-back fun – gory, fun, lewd, funny, gross (so, so gross). It’s so much fun that even a lengthy Tarantino cameo doesn’t spoil things. And it makes the point that people who’ve been struck by physical disabilities can still be total badasses – not to mention hot as F.
4. Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates had been knocking around Hollywood for decades, but no one really knew who she was until she landed Misery. Her sadistic nurturer Annie Wilkes – rabid romance novel fan, part time nurse, full time wacko – ranks among the most memorable crazy ladies of modern cinema.
James Caan plays novelist Paul Sheldon, who kills off popular character Misery Chastain, then celebrates with a road trip that goes awry when he crashes his car, only to be saved by his brawniest and most fervent fan, Annie. Well, she’s more a fan of Misery Chastain’s than she is Paul Sheldon’s, and once she realizes what he’s done, she refuses to allow him out of her house until she brings Misery back to literary life.
Caan seethes, and you know there’s an ass kicking somewhere deep in his mangled body just waiting to get out. The film’s tension is generated by way of his utter helplessness as he’s trapped in that bed – on the road to recovery until…. Well, we assume you know the scene.
There is so much to be said for the sharp writing, the outstanding performances, and the way the film subverts your expectations of villains, women, men, and disability.
3. Don’t Breathe (2016)
Young thugs systematically robbing the few remaining upscale Detroit homeowners follow their alpha into a surefire hit: a blind man (Stephen Lang) sitting on $300k.
Unfortunately for our trio – Rocky (Evil Dead’s Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) – this blind man is not the easy mark they’d predicted.
The always effective Lang cuts an impressive figure as the blind veteran with mad skills and crazy secrets. Wisely, director Fede Alvarez sidesteps easy categories. Though you may think you recognize each character as they first appear, no one is as easy to pigeonhole as you may think.
There are surprises enough to confound and amaze. You may think you have the old man’s secret figured out, but so do our hapless felons. Things get a little nuts as the tale rolls on, but thanks to the film’s breakneck pace and relentless tension, you’ll barely have time to breathe, let alone think.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
With this horror masterpiece, director Tobe Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming.
Hooper also cast aside any concerns for dignity or fair play, a theme best personified by wheelchair-bound Franklin. Franklin is supremely unlikeable – whiney and selfish – ending horror’s long history of using personal vulnerability to make a character more sympathetic. Films such as Wait Until Dark and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Rear Window – excellent films, all – ratcheted up tension through the sympathy they could generate toward the helpless character. These films’ anxiety and payoff both owe everything to watching the vulnerable protagonist in danger, and waiting for them to overcome the odds.
But Hooper is after an entirely different kind of tension. He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.
But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.
1. Freaks (1932)
Short and sweet, like most of its performers, Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks is one of those movies you will never forget. Populated almost entirely by unusual actors – midgets, amputees, the physically deformed, and an honest to god set of conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) – Freaks makes you wonder whether you should be watching it at all.
This, of course, is an underlying tension in most horror films, but with Freaks, it’s right up front. Is what Browning does with the film empathetic or exploitative, or both? And, of course, am I a bad person for watching this film?
Well, that’s not for us to say. We suspect you may be a bad person, perhaps even a serial killer. Or maybe that’s us. What we can tell you for sure is that the film is unsettling, and the final, rainy act of vengeance is truly creepy to watch.