Tom Hanks is one of the most celebrated and beloved actors of his generation, a two-time Oscar winner whose latest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, finds him starring as Fred Rogers, the host of the inspirational children’s television series Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
But as you’re watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, getting weepy at all the loveliness, it would behoove you to remember that Tom Hanks has a dark side. A creepy side. A history of nightmares that audiences are all too quick to forget, because they just like him so danged much.
Let’s take a look at the horrifying history of Tom Hanks, and all the times this otherwise family-friendly actor dabbled in the scary movie genre!
He Knows You’re Alone (1980)
Like a lot of actors, Tom Hanks got his start in a low budget horror movie. He Knows You’re Alone stars Caitlin O’Heaney (Late Phases) as a young woman who’s being stalked by a serial killer in the days before her wedding. In many respects He Knows You’re Alone is a conventional slasher, which closely follows the formula established by Halloween just few years earlier, and sometimes even follows Carpenter’s shot list. Watch the two films back-to-back and the similarities will be glaring.
But there are two things that separate He Knows You’re Alone from the early slasher movie entries, and Tom Hanks is one of them. Hanks appears late in the film as a romantic interest for one of the supporting characters, and only has about two scenes. But he steals those scenes completely with his confident performance and easygoing charm. He’s so damned likable that, allegedly, the filmmakers didn’t even bother to film the scene in the script where his character was murdered. They couldn’t bring themselves to kill him!
The other element of He Knows You’re Alone that stands out all these years later is the film’s impressive streak of self-awareness. At a time when slasher movies were largely straightforward affairs, Armand Mastroianni’s film begins with a fourth-wall breaking introduction at a movie theater, which leads to a murder that clearly inspired the opening of Scream 2. Later on, the majority of Hanks’s dialogue is a thoughtful treatise on the appeal of the horror genre, with commentary about how our familiarity with horror tropes affects our real-life behavior, like being afraid of the shower after watching Psycho. Which, of course, also lays the groundwork for the Scream franchise decades later.
He Knows You’re Alone is a jumble of ideas, some highly derivative and some ahead of their time, but Hanks is excellent in it and there are certainly enough memorable kills and meta-gags to keep horror fans engaged.
Tom Hanks received his first Oscar-nomination for his performance in Big, as a young boy named Josh who makes a wish on a magic carnival machine and turns into an older version of himself. At the time it was hailed as a delightful comedy about an innocent child suddenly thrust into the world of jaded adults, but as you get older you realize that it’s only a lighthearted comedy if you watch it from Josh’s perspective.
If you form any association whatsoever with Hanks’ mother, Mrs. Baskin, played by future Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl, Big is an unspeakable nightmare. She plays a woman whose son disappears, seemingly kidnapped by a strange man who looks like Bosom Buddies actor Tom Hanks. And it gets worse from there.
Months go by while her son lives the high life working as a bigwig at a toy company, while every night Mrs. Baskin cries herself to sleep and wonders what torture her little boy is enduring at the hands of the weird creepy monster who stole him. Meanwhile, Josh sends her letters with no information to go on, only platitudes about how well he’s being treated by these unknown kidnappers, which no mother would ever take at face value.
Finally, after god knows how long, her son Josh returns to her, wearing clothes that are twice his size. We don’t know if Josh tried to tell her the truth, but either Mrs. Baskin is bound to think that her son has been disturbingly brainwashed into thinking he was an older man this whole time, or she’ll live her whole life wondering what happened to him while her son refuses to confide in her and ease the daily psychological torture of never, ever knowing.
Until the fateful day, a decade or more later, when Mrs. Baskin finally sees Josh’s kidnapper again. But that’s only because her son has, horrifyingly, transformed into the very villain who has haunted Mrs. Baskin’s nightmares for years. And he did it just by growing up.
It’s a cute coming of age story for a kid. But for that kid’s mother, Big is a horror story of the highest order.
The ‘Burbs (1989)
Tom Hanks made another classic horror comedy – on purpose this time – in The ‘Burbs, an energetic and inspired cult film about paranoia run wild in suburban America. The ‘Burbs stars Hanks as an everyday dad who decides to spend his vacation from work puttering around the house, and finds himself trying to solve a neighborhood mystery about why his neighbor has gone missing, and whether his newest and eeriest neighbors had anything to do with it.
The ‘Burbs plays a lot like The Munsters or The Addams Family, but told from the perspective of the milquetoast neighbors. The oddball family lives in a run down house that looks like it’s haunted, is full of bees, and has a backyard where they mysteriously dig deep holes at night. But is the Klopek family actually a bunch of murderers, or are they harmless eccentrics who are being victimized by a bunch of xenophobic busybody neighbors who assume anything that doesn’t fit their cozy conservative suburban lifestyle is evil?
Hanks’s everyman persona is smartly subverted in The ‘Burbs as he evolves from the straight man in a cast full of comic relief sidekicks into the craziest person in the whole film. Joe Dante films the hell out of The ‘Burbs, and Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant score evolves from moment to moment to match the warped imaginations of the characters. It’s not just one of the best horror comedies of the 1980s. It’s probably Tom Hanks’s best live-action comedy of them all.
Tales from the Crypt (1992)
Most people think Tom Hanks made his directorial debut with the musical comedy That Thing You Do!, but that was just his first feature. Just like Hanks made his acting debut in the horror genre, he first stepped behind the camera for an episode of HBO’s all-star horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt, in an installment that playfully subverts his wholesome persona.
The episode, “None But the Lonely Heart,” is all about a guy who appears to be wholesome and nice but it’s only an act, and he’s hiding a malevolent murderous streak. Treat Williams stars as a Bluebeard killer, who marries nice old ladies and murders them after he gains control of their money, and he’s been at it for a while. Hanks co-stars as the head of the video dating service where he finds all of his wealthy marks, and he’s just one of the people Williams brutally murders over the course of the episode as he tries to keep his secrets.
“None But the Lonely Heart” ends in typical Tales from the Crypt fashion, with the wicked protagonist getting their ironic and supernatural comeuppance from the decomposing corpses of all the women he seduced. The makeup effects are impressively gross but the creepiest part of the show is Williams, who appears to be mimicking Hanks’s charming style whenever he’s “on,” and becomes a slithering monster whenever his audience isn’t looking. It’s not a brilliant episode but it’s a promising start to his directing career, and the perfect opportunity to play outside his wheelhouse.
Saturday Night Live (2016)
Tom Hanks spent the next few decades making family films and Oscar contenders, and pretty much avoiding the horror genre altogether. And then, all of a sudden, he became an instant Halloween icon with the Saturday Night Live sketch “Haunted Elevator,” wherein he plays the hilariously inexplicable “David S. Pumpkins.”
The sketch starts simply, in a scary amusement part ride in which the patrons enter an elevator, and every time the doors open there’s something scary on the other side. A couple of murders and ghosts and severed heads later, the doors open and it’s Tom Hanks in a pumpkin-speckled suit, with two b-boy skeletons. He announces that he’s David Pumpkins and that he’s going to scare the hell out of you, and then the skeletons dance. Just before the doors close he asks, “Any questions?”
Yes. Yes, there are many questions. As the patrons ask a series of pertinent queries about who David S. Pumpkins is, whether they are supposed to be familiar with him, and why he’s supposed to be scary, David S. Pumpkins and his skeletons begin to show up with greater frequency, gradually taking over the whole ride as a state of amusingly terrifying uncertainty washes over the protagonists. They have so many questions. They will never, ever have answers. Is that not the greatest horror of all?
Bizarre in its execution but simple in its construction, the “Haunted Elevator” sketch is already considered an all-time Saturday Night Live classic, and with good cause.
The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special (2017)
David S. Pumpkins took on a life of his own, and the very next year he starred in a half-hour animated Halloween special called, fittingly enough, The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special. Tom Hanks reprised his role in a very short bookend sequence, and like the title character and the original sketch, the special relies on subverted expectations and absolute confusion to get a laugh out of the audience.
The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special is narrated by Peter Dinklage, who through a series of rhymes recalls a magical Halloween night from his childhood, when he was too old for trick or treating but had to take his little sister out anyway. His little sister picks the grossest pumpkin from the pumpkin patch, and that unleashes David S. Pumpkins and his b-boy skeletons, who sing a song about how they were born and then stuff happened. They then help them go trick or treating and turn the tables on local bullies, who were impersonating a creepy local urban legend to steal candy from unsuspecting kids.
Short and strange, The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special was met with a mixed response when it came out, but it’s so confident in its subversion of basic comedy norms that it’s bound to find an appreciative audience over time. The climactic scene in which Pumpkins and his skeletons scare the hell out of the villains by not singing a song, but doing all the stuff they’d do in a musical number anyway, is one of the most weirdly subversive comedy set pieces in recent memory.
Tom Hanks is sure to have a long career ahead of him, and may return to the horror genre again someday. But for now this wholesome actor and director can rest assured knowing that, when hardly anyone was looking, or in projects that mainstream audiences weren’t eager to label as part of the genre, he was building up a rather impressive horror resumé.