Every good story needs a villain – Jesus had Satan, Sherlock had Moriarty, real life has the Kardashians – but movie villains are in a class all their own.
Some of them are so cool or so badass that we end up guiltily rooting for them over the heroes, while some are unforgettable because the sheer scope of their evil gives us chills whenever we think of them. Still others are just so creepy that they seem like our nightmares made real, and some are simply brought to life so magnificently by awesome acting that we find ourselves in awe. But even though there are many different ways to make an unforgettable, great villain, in the end, none are better than the following, the 50 best movie villains of them all.
Loki image: YouTube
Villains 50 through 46
50. Biff Tannen – ‘Back to the Future’
Biff was a jackass, but he was a jackass in that quintessential high school bully way that everyone knows and loathes. It’s a tough thing to capture an archetype and make it feel real, but Biff managed to tap into something primal in all of us, and by the time he got punched out by George McFly, everyone watching felt the satisfaction that came with it. He’s the ultimate dick, and who hasn’t dreamed of punching out that dude?
49. Jame Gumb – ‘The Silence of the Lambs’
He doesn’t possess the dimensions of Hannibal Lecter, but it’s hard to find anyone creepier than Jame Gumb. Just say it with me, since I already know it’s running through your head – it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.
48. General Zod – ‘Superman II’
We’ll go with the OG Zod over the newer Man of Steel version, if only because Terrence Stamp managed to tap into Zod’s unearthly mixture of arrogance and power in a way that made it feel like he was a dude who could actually slap Superman around and get away with it. It’s almost impossible to find worthy villains for Superman because, well, he’s Superman, but Stamp’s Zod is the closest anyone’s ever come, and the reason why the various Superman stories keep going back to that well. Kneel before Zod, indeed.
47. Warden Norton – ‘The Shawshank Redemption’
Warden Norton represented every corrupt, inflexible bureaucrat who’s ever lived. He’s a sniveling shithead who clings to whatever meager power he has and uses it to ruin lives just because he can. That’s something that makes anyone shiver. He’s the man of our most realistic nightmares.
46. Barnes – ‘Platoon’
Barnes was the perfect avatar for the madness of war, for power and violence that exists for its own sake. He was the devil on Charlie Sheen’s shoulder in Platoon, luring him down a path of utter darkness, into a jungle of madness, and it’s impossible not to see that as a metaphor for Vietnam, war, and America’s involvement. He is the dark heart of the American nightmare.
Villains 45 through 41
45. Magua – ‘The Last of the Mohicans’
Magua was so nasty that even his own allies were all “Uh, bro, you’re messed up,” by the end of the movie. Brought to life by Wes Studi, he was basically a sociopath, cold, brutal, and utterly without mercy. A poor girl threw herself off a cliff rather than be with him. Now that’s a bad guy.
44. Khan – ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’
We’ll go with the original again, and although Ricardo Montalban doesn’t exactly instill the same sort of cold menace as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan, he’s still the one that brought Khan to life and made him Kirk and company’s deadliest enemy. In the entire Star Trek universe, one villainous name stands above all others, and that’s Khan. Sure, the Borg are more apocalyptic, Q a bigger pain in the ass, but nobody made Kirk’s sphincter shrink up like Khan, and that counts for a whole hell of a lot.
43. Pinhead – ‘Hellraiser’
It’s not easy to make a dude whose head is a literal pincushion the ultimate avatar of hellish terror, but that’s exactly what Pinhead managed to be. He wasn’t just a bad guy, he was a messed up S&M demon who would literally tear your soul apart. He was hell made real.
42. Gollum – ‘The Lord of the Rings’
To be honest, Gollum was kind of pathetic. He was basically just a sad, old junkie. But anyone who’s dealt with sad, old junkies knows that they can be some of the most dangerous villains of all. They’ll cut your throat without thinking just for a taste of their precious. There was nothing cool about Gollum, but thanks to Andy Serkis, he’s a bad guy no one will ever forget.
41. Johnny Lawrence – ‘The Karate Kid’
Johnny Lawrence, brought to life by the sublime William Zabka, is the ultimate psycho jock bully. That movie doesn’t work if Johnny and his goons don’t spend all their time terrorizing some poor new kid just because he’s, well, the poor new kid. He had the perfect asshole personality and the perfect asshole face, and that all combined to make the perfect 80s movie asshole.
Villains 40 through 36
40. J.D. – ‘Heathers’
This is Christian Slater’s crowning moment. He’s cooler than cool as J.D., and even though he’s a murderous psychopath, you still kind of want to root him on as he brings anarchy to the vapid world dominated by the Heathers. Still, he’s straight up murdering people, and he’s not about to let even his girlfriend stand in his way. That’s a bad guy, even if he is so damn cool.
39. Walter Peck – ‘Ghostbusters’
Oh God, Walter Peck, the man everyone loves to hate. He’s the embodiment of smarmy bureaucracy, just a tremendous dick who ruins things for everyone. He is the apex of William Atherton’s remarkable run of smarmy 80’s bad guy douchebags.
38. Dean Wormer – ‘Animal House’
He is the prototype for every asshole college dean, the original face of a character type that has been used to the point of cliché. And it’s been made into a cliché because Dean Wormer was just that great as a bad guy, the ultimate establishment prick, a humorless jerk who served as the perfect foil for the degenerate revolution started by the slobs of Animal House. There have been many imitators, but none have been as great as the original.
37. John Doe – ‘Se7en’
Just start with the name. He’s a phantom, a ghost, he could be anywhere and anybody. And as the movie goes on, you’re shocked time and time again by both the horrible murders he commits and his twisted ingenuity. And by the time heads start ending up in boxes and Kevin Spacey’s face gets linked to the serial killer with no name, a legendary movie bad guy is fully born. Who is he? We’ll never really know, and that’s what makes him so terrifying.
36. Bill – ‘Kill Bill’
Bill would probably rank a little higher if he had more screen time, but David Carradine managed to work wonders with what he had. Nobody’s cooler than Bill, and even after spending two entire movies trying to kill Uma Thurman just because she left him, when she finally does kill Bill – spoiler alert! – he goes out like a total boss. He’s an asshole and he knows it, irredeemable and completely glorious.
Villains 35 through 31
35. Frank – ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’
Most bad guys are flashy, but Frank was different. Frank just seemed sort of like an ordinary dude, except he didn’t really have a soul. He was cold, indifferent, and utterly untouchable, and that’s what made him such an unforgettable villain. There was nothing there to appeal to, no mercy to be had, and that’s scarier than the wildest psychopath. The fact that Frank was portrayed by Henry Fonda of all people made him that much creepier.
34. Alonzo Harris – ‘Training Day’
This is Denzel at his swaggering, menacing best. And that’s because he is police corruption at its heinous worst and a man who can shout “King Kong ain’t get shit on me!” and make it utterly believable. He is evil hiding behind a badge, and that’s something that strikes a chord with everyone, especially these days when everybody fears what really lies behind our society’s symbols of power and authority.
33. Eve Harrington – ‘All About Eve’
Eve was the OG psycho stalker best friend. She was so unforgettable that she eventually became a cliché, parodied in movies and sitcoms over and over again. But never forget, clichés always start with a moment – or a character – of pure genius, and Anne Baxter’s Eve was, well, the Eve of the unhinged stalker game.
32. Mr. Potter – ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
Greedy businessmen are a staple of film villainy. They represent the dark heart of the American Dream, and Mr. Potter is one of the earliest – and best – examples of that. He ruins lives, destroys families, takes over whole towns, just because he can. He is Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Burns all rolled up into one despicable package. In short, he’s a magnificent asshole.
31. Count Rugen – ‘The Princess Bride’
He’s the six fingered man. He killed Inigo Montoya’s father! If those mean anything to you, then you know damn well why he’s on here.
Villains 30 through 26
30. T-1000 – ‘Terminator 2’
It’s hard to find a bad guy who can stand up to Arnold’s OG Terminator, but Robert Patrick’s ice cold, liquid metal Terminator managed to come along and carve out its own place in the pantheon of villainy. Robert Patrick was so good – and so unforgettable – that he’ll always be the T-1000. He could pop up in a Disney movie and everyone would immediately think “Oh, hey, it’s the liquid metal Terminator.”
29. Agent Smith – ‘The Matrix’
Speaking of homicidal robots – robots, computers, same thing – The Matrix wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable if Agent Smith and his distinct cadence wasn’t hanging around making life – or virtual life – hell for poor Neo and the gang. He gave a face and a voice to a faceless and voiceless foe, and in the process became one of those bad guys that no one will ever forget. Admit it, you heard him drawling “Mr. Anderson…” as soon as you saw his name.
28. Michael Myers – ‘Halloween’
That mask. That slow, inexorable stalking. Michael Myers is iconic, and if there was a Mt. Rushmore of horror villains, he’d be on it.
27. Steven – ‘Django Unchained’
As cartoonishly villainous as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candy is, the real bad guy in Django Unchained is the power behind the Candy Land throne, the self-loathing, institutionalized Steven, played with simmering menace by Samuel L. Jackson. His heart is rotten, his soul mortgaged, and he’ll do anything to maintain the system and the life that’s done it to him. He’s twisted, cruel, and just a tad sympathetic because beneath it all, he’s also a victim, and that combo makes for some of the very best movie bad guys.
26. Jason Voorhees – ‘Friday the 13th’
If you close your eyes and imagine the perfect horror monster, it won’t be long before you see Jason stalking a victim, that ever present hockey mask on his face, machete in hand. He’s horror movie royalty, and that’s because, like Michael Myers, he never stops coming, and the perpetually frozen mask renders him even more inhuman than if he had tentacles and fangs hanging out of his face.
Villains 25 through 21
25. The Alien – ‘Alien’
This is the most terrifying movie alien ever, and if we’re being honest, it’s the real star of the franchise. Just a glimpse is all it takes to make your eyes go wide, your heart start beating a little faster, and your fingernails to dig into the palms of your hands. There is nothing redeemable about the Alien, nothing complicated. It is just a straight up killing machine that will wreck your world, and that’s that.
24. Leatherface – ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’
It’s a chainsaw wielding redneck psycho who wears the skin of his victims. Uh, just read that again. He’s probably the first great modern slasher movie monster. He upped the ante for everyone that followed, and very, very few – if any – have managed to outdo him.
23. Alex DeLarge – ‘A Clockwork Orange’
Villain? Antihero? Victim of society? It doesn’t really matter what you label him because in the end he’s a psychopath raping ladies while singing show tunes. He’s maybe the most transgressive movie bad guy ever, somehow both complex and sickeningly simple, and he’s arguably Malcolm McDowell’s finest creation.
22. The Queen – ‘Snow White’
Jealous, vain, mad with power, the Queen in Snow White will always be the archetype for the, well, for the evil queen so omnipresent in our culture. The world will twist and shape the debate based on changing cultural mores, excuses will be made, gender studies will commission one million words on why she’s misunderstood, but all that really matters is that she’s going around poisoning girls with apples because a mirror told her she isn’t the hottest piece of ass in town anymore. She’s both endlessly fascinating from a cultural point of view, and endlessly villainous.
21. Frank Booth – ‘Blue Velvet’
Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth is a gas huffing, sadomasochistic psychopath, a rapist and a murderer. Go big or go home I guess. It’s that complete dedication to the dark insanity of Frank Booth by Hopper that makes him so unforgettable. He’s bizarre, fascinating and completely and utterly evil.
Villains 20 through 16
20. Max Cady – ‘Cape Fear’
Whether you prefer Robert Mitchum or Robert DeNiro – and really, can you go wrong either way? – Max Cady is one of the most fascinating movie bad guys of them all, a charismatic Southerner hell-bent on revenge, convinced that his is the path of the righteous. He’s colorful, seductive and, oh yeah, also completely unhinged. If you’re a pro wrestling fan, you probably know him as Bray Wyatt. That’s how unforgettable the character is. People are still trying to recreate it all these years later.
19. Col. Hans Landa – ‘Inglourious Basterds’
A wildly over the top caricature of a Nazi, Hans Landa truly scored because beneath all the flair, all the eccentricity, was a genuine sense of menace. It’s this refusal to ever forget that Nazis were actually real, and not just cartoonish bad guys, that grounds the character and makes him that much more terrifying. Only an actor like Christoph Waltz could find the balance between caricature and genuine malice and turn it into something unforgettable, and thankfully, he did.
18. Amon Goeth – ‘Schindler’s List’
Nazis have always been popular movie villains, but no movie Nazi cut to the terrifying heart of horror of Nazi Germany like Amon Goeth. This was no cartoon, no supervillain to be dispatched by Indiana Jones or Captain America. This was pure human evil, a terrifying look at the darkest side of humanity, of what we’re capable of, what we allow ourselves to be twisted into one step and one day at a time, and a reminder – stark and horrible – that this wasn’t fiction, that this was a real person, and he and thousands of men just like him made the world a very, very dark place. And still do.
17. Gordon Gekko – ‘Wall Street’
“Greed is good.” And with that, a legend was born, and an entire era was defined. Gordon Gekko is the ultimate manifestation of the greed that sits like a parasite at the heart of our society, eating it from the inside, and as more time passes, the more powerful a symbol Michael Douglas’ sleazy, morally bankrupt character becomes. He’s unforgettable because we hate him, and we hate him because, deep down, we know that he is what we have allowed the American Dream to be twisted into. He’s every banker we hate, every corrupt businessman, and even more than that, he’s richer than God, and we’re all just a little bit jealous.
16. Daniel Plainview – ‘There Will Be Blood’
Daniel Plainview is the spiritual cousin or Gordon Gekko, only instead of being a symptom of a disease like Gekko, Daniel Plainview is the disease. He’s America’s frontier, capitalist spirit twisted by an insatiable hunger for more, more, more. Daniel Plainview would devour the whole world and still be left unsatisfied. He’ll drink all of your milkshakes, and it still won’t be enough. This is the darkness we all desperately try to ignore, the steaming engine of America that feeds on, well, that feeds on our blood. The fact that he’s brought to life in such over the top fashion by Daniel Day Lewis makes it all the better.
Villains 15 through 11
15. The Wicked Witch – ‘The Wizard of Oz’
Like the Queen in Snow White, there is an endless need for people to reinvent the Wicked Witch, to see things from her point of view, to try to understand. But to hell with all that, she’s just plain nasty. She spends all her time terrorizing a teenage girl and her tiny little dog just for fun. She sets straw men on fire just because she can. And she does it all surrounded by a legion of flying monkey slaves. This is not a woman you want to screw with.
14. Freddy Krueger – ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’
The dude literally haunts your dreams, has knives coming out of his hands like the world’s most deranged version of Wolverine, drives you insane and then murders you all while dropping one liners. Now that’s multitasking. Freddy is Freddy. He’s the star of the show, and the best slasher film bad guy of them all.
13. Loki – ‘Thor’/’The Avengers’
Who doesn’t love Loki? It doesn’t matter if he’s supposed to be the Big Bad because he’s just so damn likable. Sure, he’s kind of a dick, but he’s smart as Einstein, as smooth as Marvin Gaye, and… okay, so maybe I have a little man-crush on Loki, but that’s okay, that’s the point. Everyone does. But what makes Loki really click is that he’s a character with genuine pathos. There is depth here that you don’t often get to see in a villain, especially in a so-called comic book villain. He’s the quintessential movie villain you end up cheering for because you want him to be good so very badly, but you also love that he’s so bad.
12. Annie Wilkes – ‘Misery’
This is why any celebrity’s sphincter probably tightens up whenever anyone tells them that they’re their biggest fan. Annie Wilkes was completely devoted – and completely nuts, and the terror she inflicted on poor James Caan worked so well precisely because she wasn’t just some raving psychopath. She was just a weird lady with a screw loose who tapped into a really, really dark place. You never see her coming, and that’s what makes her so scary, and Kathy Bates completely nailed it.
11. Keyser Soze – ‘The Usual Suspects’
Keyser Soze is a weird case because you never really see him until the very end of the movie. Then again (spoiler alert!) you really end up seeing him the entire movie, you just don’t know it. That’s what makes him so cool. His name is whispered like he’s the devil himself, only he’s been sitting there in the police station the whole time, disguised as a lowly cripple. The mystery, the fear, the genius, the effortless transformation from pathetic gimp to arrogant cool by Kevin Spacey – it all adds up to one of the best movie villains ever, even if no one still quite knows anything about him.
Villains 10 through 6
10. Nurse Ratched – ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
She’s the face of cold cruelty, of indifference where all that’s needed is a dose of compassion. But she also represents the cold indifference of society to mental illness, the barely disguised contempt, the judgmental disgust. She is The System personified, and once she has you, no one can hear you, no one can save you. And Louise Fletcher absolutely nails all of that with her performance, and gave us a character that became the cultural template for all nightmare caregivers and autocratic bureaucrats to come.
9. Hal 9000 – ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’
Never has a villain been so calm, so self-assured, so… inhuman. And that’s the terror that lies at the heart of Hal, that amoral calm that doesn’t think twice about exterminating an entire crew in the middle of space simply because it judges it to be the best course of action. This is the true face of malevolence because there is nothing human to appeal to, no feelings to touch. Hal is smarter than you, and therefore superior to you. I’m sorry, Dave.
8. Hans Gruber – ‘Die Hard’
He’s the urbane terrorist who makes John McClane’s life a living hell, and no one could have played him except Alan Rickman. The almost insouciant arrogance, the bored sneer, all disguising a rapacious hunger and greed. The movie doesn’t work nearly as well without him, as proven by the countless sequels. He’s Hans Gruber. He’s smarter than you, he’s more stylish than you, and you? You’re just in his way. It’s just business.
7. Norman Bates – ‘Psycho’
His very name is a buzzword. You don’t get that without being one of the best characters of all time. You get a perfect mental picture whenever you hear the name, don’t you? You see the deranged momma’s boy, completely unhinged. You see the knife flashing in the shower, you hear the soundtrack screech. You see Norman Bates and everything that has come to represent.
6. The Terminator – ‘The Terminator’
What really needs to be said here? It’s Arnold in probably his most famous role, the badass killing machine who speaks one or two short words at a time, shows no emotion and never stops coming. It’s the goddamn Terminator!
Villains 5 through 1
5. Pazuzu – ‘The Exorcist’
Pazuzu is the name of the demon that possesses poor Regan in The Exorcist, and this is not a dude you want to step to. Pazuzu absolutely scared the shit out of audiences when the movie first hit theaters, and although people have become more jaded over time, the idea of a demon possessing a little girl and forcing her to say and do the most outrageous, vile shit is still pretty powerful. Most horror movie bad guys are servants of evil, or manifestations of it. Pazuzu is evil itself.
4. Anton Chigurh – ‘No Country for Old Men’
Those eyes, man. Those cold, dead eyes. That flat voice. That… well, everything really. Javier Bardem brings Anton Chigurh to life in perfectly realized soulless detail, and turns him into not just a bad guy, but an avatar for everything soulless and evil about our world. He decides men’s fates on the flip of a coin. He is indifferent, inhuman. Only this isn’t a robot or a computer or a creation of science fiction, but a flesh and blood man, and nothing is more terrifying than that.
3. The Joker – ‘The Dark Knight’
Heath Ledger’s last stand is also his most magnificent, as he turns The Joker into a symbol of anarchy, a man who, well, just wants to watch the world burn. It’s a stunning performance, one of the most magnetic and charismatic in movie history, and you can’t take your eyes off of him. It’s especially stunning because it’s all too easy to get lost in a world of camp with this character, but Ledger grounds him in an all too human sort of madness. No one knows who he is, or where he came from, or why he’s doing what he’s doing. You can’t reason with a man without a motive. You can’t find his weak spot, and that’s maybe the real genius of the character. It lets him be whoever you need him to be, and in The Dark Knight, he’s exactly the sort of villain we fear most in these strange and terrible times.
2. Dr. Hannibal Lecter – ‘The Silence of the Lambs’
He’s maybe the smartest man alive and, oh yeah, he eats people. That, uh, that kind of makes him a bad guy even if he’s technically helping Jodie Foster catch another serial killer from inside his cell. You know a character has transcended the medium when people start using him as a reference point in real life. Just think of all the times you’ve seen or heard people joke about some crazy freak being hauled around in that infamous straightjacket and mask. But it only worked because Anthony Hopkins completely crushed the part. This is his golden moment. He manages to capture that brilliance, the arrogance, the complete sense of control, and the ever-present menace of Lecter, and the result is one of the best movie characters of all time.
1. Darth Vader – ‘Star Wars’
His very name is a synonym for “bad guy” in our culture. It’s that simple. When someone truly heinous enters the world stage, what do people do? They immediately compare him to Darth Vader and make jokes about the imperial theme playing whenever he enters a room. He’s menace personified, he’s power in a black mask and cloak, and underneath it all, he’s tragic in a way that’s almost Shakespearean. He’s the perfect movie villain.
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