The horror genre is often considered one for younger viewers, where a knife-wielding maniac hunts down a group of teens. That isn’t the whole truth, though. The horror genre has a long history of featuring seniors who save the day. With Halloween right around the corner, we’re honoring our favorite Medicare-eligible heroes who save us from the things that go bump in the night!
Note: Spoilers haunt these words. If you haven’t seen one of these movies, consider yourself warned.
5. Dr. Sam Loomis – Halloween (1978)
Portrayed by Donald Pleasence
Dr. Sam Loomis is a man haunted. Not by ghosts, but because he looked into the eyes of pure evil. When death comes to the little town of Haddonfield, IL, Dr. Loomis follows it, warning anyone who’ll listen. But, what’s Loomis’s connection with the masked murderer from the Halloween movies?
The psychologist met Myers when he was only a six-year-old kid, having murdered his sister. Dr. Loomis spent eight years trying to help the child, but when that failed, he tried to keep him locked away. It didn’t work. Once Myers escapes, Dr. Loomis takes it on himself to try and save whoever will listen. Ultimately, his determination (and handgun) saves the film’s heroine, Laurie Strode, as Myers attacks her.
A large part of Dr. Loomis’s appeal is his portrayal by actor Donald Pleasence, who delivers an authoritative and committed performance of a man on a mission. Over the course of its many sequels, Dr. Loomis evolved into a nemesis of Myers, appearing in all but three Halloween movies.
4. Tangina Barrons – Poltergeist (1982)
Portrayed by Zelda Rubinstein
When Dr. Martha Lesh ran out of ways to help the Freeling family, she called on medium Tangina Barrons. Good thing she did. The moment actress Zelda Rubinstein walks on screen, she owns it. Despite her diminutive size and elfish voice, she is a giant every minute she’s on screen.
Mocked at first by Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson), she soon gains their trust and respect. Ultimately, she proves instrumental in returning Carol Anne Freeling to the world of the living. Not only is she able to identify the negative spirit she calls “The Beast,” Barrons discovers how to rescue the trapped girl. This frees spirits trapped in the house, all except for The Beast.
Barrons doesn’t have a lot of screen time in Poltergeist, but she’s easily the most memorable character. Her monologue is haunting with her breathless tone, giving it an otherworldly feel only matched by the spirits in the house.
3. Peter Vincent – Fright Night (1985)
Portrayed by Roddy McDowall
Peter Vincent may not be the star of 1985’s Fright Night, but he is the best character in the film. He has the greatest personal journey of anyone in the movie. Roddy McDowall portrays a man defeated, a former horror star living off his past glories. When Charley Brewster begs Vincent to help with his vampire neighbor, he initially turns the teen away. The pretend-vampire hunter didn’t believe in real-life vampires. As he investigates Brewster’s claims, he begins to believe.
Starting the movie as a cynical local TV host, Vincent regains his courage, his swagger, and his belief. This growth makes him the most interesting character in the film. He’s also a man critically out of his depth, but fights his fears to save the day. Not too bad for a washed-up star.
What’s incredible is that for a horror movie, McDowall brings so much depth to the character. There’s arrogance, doubt, fear, and, ultimately, heroic courage. That’s a lot to pack into a schlocky 1980s vampire flick.
2. Father Lankester Merrin – The Exorcist (1973)
Portrayed by Max von Sydow
When it comes to exorcists, there are few better than Father Lankester Merrin. The priest called upon to save the soul of young Regan MacNeil from the demon Pazuzu, Father Merrin’s legend looms large over the film. While his previous exorcisms are only hinted at, you get the feeling that this exorcism is only one of many to him. His Reichenbach Falls, in a sense.
A quiet, devoted man, Father Merrin makes each of his relatively few lines count. Despite of the terror surrounding him, Father Merrin is a beacon of faith and stability to his partner, Father Damien Karras. Even when Father Karras flees the exorcism, Father Merrin remains, alone, to finish the job. Even though it ends in his death, he faced down the demon, and inspired Father Karras to defeat Pazuzu.
Max von Sydow’s performance as Father Merrin was so gripping that the character is the focus of all but one of the sequels. He’s even the protagonist of Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion, which center on a young Father Merrin (played by Stellan Skarsgard).
1. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing – Dracula
Portrayed by Edward Van Sloan in Dracula (1931) and Peter Cushing in Dracula (1958)
(There are many adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For ease, we’ll use the 1931 film names and events)
To be fair to the other entries on this list, the top spot was never going to anyone else. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing is the quintessential monster hunter. In the 1931 film, Van Helsing is first seen studying the disturbed Renfield, Dracula’s slave. As the heroes begin to discover what Dracula is, Van Helsing is established as the group’s leader. He’s also the only human in the 1931 film to resist Dracula’s hypnosis. Suffice to say, Van Helsing quickly becomes Dracula’s adversary, a role he plays in every version of the story.
What’s so fascinating about the character of Dr. Van Helsing is his expertise. He is a mix of modern science and ancient mysticism, an expert of both psychology, medicine, and the paranormal. In a sense, he is much like Dracula, able to navigate the modern world while married to the old. Perhaps this is why Van Helsing is perfect as a foil for the ancient bloodsucker.
In fact, it’s safe to say that he set the mold of the cinematic monster hunter. Nearly everyone who follows in his footsteps is influenced by the character in some way. For example, the character of Dr. Loomis knows the “monster’s” true danger and takes it upon himself to stop it. Father Merrin uses ancient knowledge to guide his partner to defeat evil. Tangina Barrons is called upon to use her knowledge of the paranormal to save the day when all hope is lost. Unlike the others, Peter Vincent flips the archetype by making the vampire hunter a cynical coward. He takes our expectations of a brave hero and inverts them.
Van Helsing has been portrayed by many great actors, each bringing something different to the character. Edward Van Sloan (1931’s Van Helsing) brought a determination and old-world authority to the Dutch doctor. Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, on the other hand, was more heroic, with an English gentleman’s charm.
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Did we miss anyone? We know there are plenty of other examples out there, and that doesn’t even include the older horror villains (Dracula and Hannibal Lecter come to mind)! It all goes to show that horror isn’t only a genre for teenagers. When you dig a little, you start to discover grey-haired heroes who own their stories.
Do you have any ghost stories? How about some great Halloween memories? We’d love to hear them! If you’d like to share with us, send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. We may even share a few of the best! Happy Halloween!