Before we begin, pairing any top list down to just 10 is difficult, and even stretching it out to 50 isn’t easy. There are more than a few qualified villains that could’ve made the top 50, but ended up getting excluded from the pack, so here are 10 honorable mentions.
- Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) – Christian Bale
- “Little” Bill Daggett (Unforgiven) – Gene Hackman
- Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca) – Judith Anderson
- Cruella De Vil (One Hundred and One Dalmatians) – voiced by Betty Lou Gerson
- Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas) – Joe Pesci
- John Doe (Seven) – Kevin Spacey
- Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (The Manchurian Candidate) – Angela Lansbury
- Cody Jarrett (White Heat) – James Cagney
- Don Logan (Sexy Beast) – Ben Kingsley
- Dean Vernon Wormer (Animal House) – John Vernon
So, for the final time, let’s begin this countdown, starting with…
10) SS-Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Schindler’s List) – Ralph Fiennes
1993 – Though Tommy Lee Jones gave a great performance in The Fugitive, Ralph Fiennes should’ve won Best Supporting Actor in 1994 for his sadistic turn as the Nazi Lieutenant Amon Goeth. From the moment you see Goeth nonchalantly shooting the Jews in his camp for target practice, like it’s a daily breakfast routine, you get the complete picture of just how evil he is. No remorse. No hesitation. Killing his victims is like a walk in the park for him. Yet just when you think he’s nothing more than a one-note caricature of a historical WWII figure, Embeth Davidtz’s Helen Hirsch enters as his Jewish internee maid, bringing out of him feelings he wouldn’t normally dare think of any other lowly Jewess. They’re rare moments of complexity found within a blackened soul whose deliberate mindset to exterminate innocent lives was anything but subtle.
9) Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) – Robert Englund
1984 – Michael Myers and Leatherface may have been the first to popularize slasher villains, and for good reason, but it’s Robert Englund’s perfect turn as the creepy child murderer Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street that’s the greatest of them all. Having once murdered up to 20 children and then released on a technicality, Freddy was burned alive by the town’s parents. Years later, Freddy gets his revenge from beyond the dead by tormenting and killing the teens within their dreams. Englund is truly terrifying, but also displays just the right amount of dark, twisted humor to blend in with the terror. His wickedly entertaining performance, combined with his striking image – burned flesh, fedora cap, razor-sharp shears and the Christmas sweater from hell – will forever be the primary reason your kids sleep with at least one eye open.
8) Reverend Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter) – Robert Mitchum
1955 – Just like Eleanor Audley, Robert Mitchum is the second actor to appear twice in this list, and the only one to have both his characters listed in the top 20. Branded with the tattoo “LOVE” on his right knuckles and “HATE” on his left, Harry Powell’s a man of God who woos the pants off the townspeople with his pious and righteous spirit. It’s all a wolf in sheep’s clothing show as he’s really a money-hungry serial killer bent on recovering some loot from the widow he marries. And she’s far from the first one to fall prey to his devilish charm. It’s a truly haunting performance from Mitchum, and no one could take a comforting hymn such as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and twist into something memorably unsettling like he could.
7) Pazuzu (The Exorcist) – Linda Blair/voiced by Mercedes McCambridge
1973 – One of the most controversial films of its time, we never technically see the demon Pazuzu in the act, but we certainly see the horror it unleashes on one family. Once it possesses Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) we see the slow, gradual physical hell (much like the physical hell McCambridge unleashed on her voice to acheive the guttural voice) it places on the once innocent girl, making her do and say things we’d never expect from her. The demon doesn’t just focus on physical manipulation, but psychological as well which is no better shown than when it disguises its voice as Father Karras’s recently passed mother during the climactic exorcism, pushing and testing his faith like it’s never been tested before. Like Nosferatu, this isn’t a “scary” film by today’s standards, but I challenge anyone to find a movie just as unnerving as this film. It’s the loss of innocence forced upon Regan that makes Pazuzu such a truly terrifying villain.
6) Michael Corleone (The Godfather Part II) – Al Pacino
1974 – Though starting out as the protagonist, Michael Corleone’s fall from grace began the moment he took over the family business at the tail end of Part I. It’s far too ironic that at the beginning of Part I, Michael, unlike his brothers Sonny and Fredo, wanted nothing to do with the family business. “That’s my family, Kay… That’s not me.” Come Part II, he’s as cold and unforgiving as they come, going as far as having his weak-willed and naive older brother Fredo killed while he stands by and watches it all go down. Though utterly ruthless in his dealings, he’s just as much if not more so a tragic villain in that he could’ve chosen to do things differently when given the chance. Instead, he was enticed by the business and the power it offered, a power that would ultimately corrupt a once honorable man.
5) Dr. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon) – Anthony Hopkins
1991, 2001, 2002 – Anthony Hopkins won the Academy Award for his portrayal of America’s most beloved psychiatrist, the infamously iconic cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. To be fair, he does assist FBI Agent-in-training Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in catching “Buffalo Bill” serial killer. But he also eats people and only needed a couple of minutes to become every census taker’s greatest fear. Very few in his business can quote dialogue with such panache like Hopkins can, and it’s the diabolical gravitas he gives to the brilliant, high-class Lecter that’s able to make him so frightening even when he appears so calm.
4) Miss Almira Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz) – Margaret Hamilton
1939 – Not just any witch. The Witch. Straight out of one of the greatest films of all-time, The Wicked Witch of the West was the stuff of nightmares for children who saw this classic since it was first released. The voice. The cackling laugh. The look. Her theme song. The fact that this cold-hearted bitch not only wanted Dorothy, but her little dog too. Everything about the wicked witch is perfectly chilling, and Margaret Hamilton gives a performance that’s just as entertaining as it is monstrous. It’s a shame that typecasting naturally followed Hamilton for the rest of her career, but her fantastic turn as Dorothy’s formidable foe will live on forever.
3) Darth Vader (Star Wars: Episodes III-VI) – David Prowse/Hayden Christensen/voiced by James Earl Jones
2005, 1977, 1980, 1983 – Like Michael Corleone, Darth Vader once started out as the protagonist Anakin Skywalker, a promising young Jedi many believed to be the one to bring balance to the Force. But the lies and temptation from the Emperor proved to be too much as he would be seduced to the dark side, becoming the Empire’s most feared asset while tragically losing those most dear to him. Although physically portrayed by two different actors throughout the entire saga, Vader wouldn’t be who he is if not for the deep, menacing voice provided by James Earl Jones (with all due respect to Prowse, his voice combined with the suit, which they were originally gonna use, would’ve been laughable). I guess that means we all owe Obi-Wan a thank you for de-limbing the hell out of him on Mustafar. Despite being one of the most intimidating adversaries in film, the artist formerly known as Anakin is a rarity amongst the rest of these 50 in that he fully redeems himself at the end of the saga, saving his son Luke’s life and destroying the Emperor.
2) Norman Bates (Psycho) – Anthony Perkins
1960 – The title says it all. Norman Bates is the poster child for a disturbed momma’s boy, and Anthony Perkins’s pitch-perfect performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece would forever immortalize him as the original slasher villain. Though he seems shy and innocent when Marion Crane first meets him, Bates begins to reveal more of his cracked psychosis as the film progresses, arguing constantly with his overbearing mother before the squirrels in his head drop the knives they’re juggling and we witness the greatest death ever committed in movie history. Oh, and when you finally meet his mother, you’ll understand just how bat-shit crazy he really is. Then again, you can’t blame him. After all, he wouldn’t even hurt a fly. Plus, we all go a little mad sometimes… Haven’t you?
And now for the number one villain ever. We’ve finally reached it after five weeks. And the winner is… Nuclear Man in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace… Okay, one more time.
1) HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey) – voiced by Douglas Rain
1968 – Wait a minute. Over Darth Vader? Norman Bates? Hannibal Lecter? Yes, yes, and yes. HAL 9000 isn’t flashy or charismatic like a number of the villains mentioned in all of the five segments. Hell, it’s not even human, or even personified for that matter (the Terminators were still humanoid and the spirit Pazuzu manifested itself through a body). That’s what makes HAL such a terrifying villain and the greatest of them all. It’s nothing more than a soft-spoken, monotone box. One that’s capable of disconnecting your life support system while out in the vast emptiness of space. When Stanley Kubrick’s classic first premiered in the late ’60s, computers were still a new idea, so the thought of seeing one in a film turn sentient justifiably scared moviegoers shitless. It’s not thrilling. It’s not gruesome. It’s not psychotic. HAL is simply an emotionless computer chip on a mission to complete its programmed directives. When you’re up against something so inhuman and inanimate that feels nothing – no love, happiness, sadness, empathy, remorse, hate, anger, rage – your chances of convincing it to spare your life begin and end at zero.
There you have it, readers. It’s been a great five weeks counting through these 50 villains. Glad all of you took the time to be a part of it. Some of you may be upset that Terl from Battlefield Earth didn’t make the list. All hate mail and (or) death threats can be sent via email provided in the contact section.