Film critic Roger Ebert famously observed that no film is better than its villain. Over the years, we had some fine cinematic bad guys: there’s Nazis and Skeletors, Hans Grubers and Darth Vaders. But what about female villains?
We don’t get to see all that many actresses chew the scenery and cackle with glee as they execute their henchmen for minor infractions. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some pretty great female villains in the history of cinema.
We already covered the witches, but there’s still plenty of great villainy in the Screen Rant’s list of the 15 Best Female Movie Villains Of All Time.
15. Maleficent – Sleeping Beauty (1959)
There’s plenty of great villains in Disney’s rogues gallery but of late, one of them has gained more attention than her rivals – the evil sorceress Maleficent from the 1959 Disney animated film Sleeping Beauty. A 2014 live-action film tries to portray her as a misunderstood protagonist with a tragic past, but a hero with devil’s horns is a hard sell, even when played by Angelina Jolie.
In the 1959 version, Maleficent (voiced by and modeled on actress Eleanor Audley) is unabashedly evil. Building on a witch image established by MGM’s Wizard of Oz, Disney’s animators designed Maleficent as a unnaturally pale woman with a sharp nose dressed entirely in black. But where Evil Witch of the West is cackling menace, Maleficent is regal and vindictive. Oh, and she can turn into a gigantic black dragon! How cool is that?
Oddly, Sleeping Beauty received mixed reviews and failed at the box office at the time of its release, turning the Disney studio away from the fairy tale adaptations for thirty years. But in those three decades, Sleeping Beauty became recognized as one of the best animated films ever made.
14. Ma-Ma – Dredd (2012)
Based on a comic strip published in the British cult magazine 2000 AD, Dredd takes place in a grim post-apocalyptic future in which North America is an irradiated wasteland. Almost billion people live in poverty behind the walls of Mega-City One, where crime is so rampant that the order has to be maintained by “Judges,” police officers given the power to freely judge and execute the criminals on the spot.
Madeline Madrigal, alias Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), is a product of this diseased society. A former prostitute, she’s a psychotic drug lord ruling over a criminal feifdom set within a gigantic 200-storey slum tower. Ma-Ma’s preferred method of execution is both cruel and creative: she exposes her victims to a drug called Slo-Mo that drastically slows down their perception. Then, she gets them thrown from the top of the building, giving them plenty of relative time to contemplate their upcoming death. Now, that’s just sadistic!
13. Cruella de Vil – 101 Dalmatians (1961)
Walt Disney sure knew how to give kids nightmares. 101 Dalmatians was based on a novel by the British writer Dodie Smith in which villanous Cruella de Vil (voiced in the film by Betty Lou Gerson) plans to skin puppies for a new fur coat. That in itself is bad, but what makes it worse is that, in the world of 101 Dalmatians, animals talk and think as humans do, so Cruella actually plans to skin something with a personality! That’s pretty intense for a Disney animated film from 1961.
Cruella de Vil is a monster, pure and simple. And she even looks like a monster, with an unhealthy pallor, emaciated body draped in an oversized fur coat and a skeletal face that becomes positively demonic when she’s angry. Cruella might just possibly be the closest thing to the Grim Reaper we ever saw in a Disney animated film.
12. Mallory Knox – Natural Born Killers (1994)
Co-written by Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone’s satirical crime film Natural Born Killers follows Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), a pair of psychopathic lovers, as they murder people all over USA. Throughout their killing spree, they’re hunted by the sadistic police detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) and glorified by sensationalist journalists like Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr).
While Mickey is absurdly competent cold-hearted killer, Mallory is downright scary in her anger. When not firing guns into dead bodies, she’s physically over-powering her opponents through the sheer power of crazy. Oliver Stone set out to make a provocative movie and he succeeded beyond all expectations: not only is Natural Born Killers often cited today as one of the most controversial movies ever made, but it has also allegedly inspired a whole series of real-life killings since the mid-1990s.
11. Amy Dunne – Gone Girl (2014)
The genius of the central plot twist in David Fincher’s Gone Girl is that it not only changes the story of the film, but its genre as well. Based on a best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), Gone Girl follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) as he searches for his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), even as the police begin to suspect he might have killed her. For about half of its running time, the movie mostly plays out as a better version of a TV movie “based on a true story”.
But then, mid-way through, we learn what really happened to Amy and realize we’re actually watching one of those trashy erotic thrillers that were so popular in the 1990s. The plot of Gone Girl turns preposterous, but it works, thanks to Fincher’s direction and Flynn’s screenplay, but also due to Rosamund Pike’s remarkable performance as Amy. Pike manages to take an over-the-top vengeful sociopath and turn her into something that’s actually somewhat believable. By the end of Gone Girl, both the viewers and Nick Dunne learn there are far worse things in life than a missing wife.
10. Catherine Tramell – Basic Instinct (1992)
Speaking of trashy erotic thrillers, they don’t get much trashier than Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. In it, troubled police detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) investigates a murder of a rock star which may have been committed by the smart, sexy, sociopathic and – get ready to clutch your pearls, ladies! – bisexual novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). Despite all the corpses piling up around Catherine, Curran begins a steamy affair with her… with deadly consequences.
After appearing in such movies as Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol and King Solomon’s Mines, Sharon Stone got her big break by uncrossing her legs during the scene of police investigation. Thanks to her performance and Verhoeven’s direction, this lurid sex thriller is an experience so visceral, it almost makes the viewers suspend their disbelief in the film’s over-the-top plotline. Hailed by some as a great neo-noir film and booed by the gay community for its representation of a bisexual female character as a psychotic killer, Basic Instinct made millions at the box office.
9. Mystique – X-Men (2000)
Mystique is like a ninja, only naked. Portrayed by Rebecca Romijn in first three X-Men films, she works at Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) side as his main enforcer and killer. Mystique is a mutant with an ability to change her appearance at will, allowing her to confuse and trick her opponents. But Mystique isn’t just a super-powered burglar. She’s also a deadly martial artist who kills her enemies with supernatural speed and agility.
In these early movies, Mystique is something of a cipher. We never learn where did she gained her lethal skills and the willingness to use them. Even her devotion to Magneto’s cause remains unexplained. After all, with her powers and ruthlessness, Mystique could easily live without ever being recognized as a mutant. It’s only in the last two movies – X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of the Future Past – that we learn something about Mystique’s origins. Unfortunately, sometimes the mystery is more intriguing than the answers.
8. Catwoman – Batman Returns (1992)
An awkward introduction of many a teenager to a world of fetish and BDSM, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman caused a sensation and no small amount of controversy when Tim Burton’s Batman Returns premiered in 1992. While the audience expected another superhero movie, Burton gave them disturbingly dark gothic fairy tale that caused some amount of unease among the viewers.
The same can be said about Catwoman. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Selina Kyle, a frumpy (yet gorgeous) personal assistant of the ruthless tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). After she learns about his latest illegal venture, Shreck tries to kill Selina by throwing her from the building. But Selina miraculously survives and vows revenge. Armed with a whip and dressed in self-made black vinyl catsuit, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman walks the line between alluring and disturbing. And when she falls in love with the mysterious billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), it’s hard to say which of them seems more broken inside.
7. Joan Crawford – Mommie Dearest (1981)
Scandal may be the only thing Hollywood loves almost as much as money. In 1978, Christina Crawford published Mommie Dearest, a scandalous memoir about her childhood as an adopted daughter of the Academy Award-winning actress Joan Crawford. According to the book, Joan Crawford behaved like the fairy-tale step-mothers: she was abusive, controlling and prone to fits of rage. Mommie Dearest caused some controversy among the friends and colleagues of Crawford, as some of them vehemently denied Christina’s claims while others supported her story.
Naturally, Hollywood jumped on an opportunity to adapt such a juicy narrative into a film. Paramount Pictures found its Joan Crawford in Faye Dunaway, another Academy Award-winning actress. In Mommie Dearest, Dunaway utterly commits to a role of a monstrously egotistical movie star that’s quite possibly insane. Released in 1981, the movie was met with mixed reviews due to its sordid nature. Since then, its over-the-top villainess has turned Mommie Dearest into something of a cult film.
6. Dolores Umbridge – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
It isn’t the cartoonish villainy of Voldemort that’s truly scary, it’s the evil of the faceless paper-pushers like Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) who turn his plans into an official policy. Umbridge is a government bureaucrat who has taken over the Defense Against the Dark Arts courses in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. But soon enough, she’s taking over Hogwarts as well, accusing Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) for needlessly endangering his students. And the hell of it is, she’s right.
But Umbridge then goes on to impose increasingly harsher regulation upon the students she dislikes, while simultaneously encouraging her favorites to spy and bully others. She’s a power-hungry villain hiding her lack of compassion behind the rules. There’s nothing alluring or cool about Umbridge’s evil. She’s a petty, selfish person clinging to a fake self-righteousness while abusing power for her own satisfaction. It may not be sexy or cool, but this is how evil works in real life.
5. Norma Desmond – Sunset Boulevard (1950)
“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”
There are plenty of close-ups of Gloria Swanson’s face in Sunset Boulevard, many of them unsettling. Swanson’s performance is eerie and hyper-stylized – all bulging eyes and claw-like fingers. Swanson’s acting is at least partially informed by the silent movie era from which she became famous. Director Billy Wilder set out to make a noir drama about a faded Hollywood star, so he hired himself a faded Hollywood star.
In Sunset Boulevard, Swanson plays Norma Desmond, forgotten star of the silent films. Desmond spends her days dreaming about her great return to the big screen. She hires cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) to fix a screenplay for her great come-back epic Salome. It’s through his eyes that we witness all of Desmond’s bitterness, sadness, anger and, eventually, insanity. At the end, her madness makes her both pathetic and awesome and we believe Desmond when she claims that she’s still big and it’s the movies that got small.
4. O-Ren Ishii – Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) used to be one of Deadly Viper Assassination Squad – a group of contract killers employed by the mysterious criminal known only as Bill (David Carradine). Over the years, some of Deadly Vipers lost themselves to alcoholism like Budd (Michael Madsen) while others withdrew into a quiet domestic life like Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). But O-Ren had other plans.
Since her days as an assassin, O-Ren has carved – literally – her place in the traditionally male-dominated world of Japanese Yakuza. We only get to see couple of scenes from her past in Kill Bill: Volume 1, but even that is enough to make us wish for an entire movie about O-Ren’s rise to power. From all the villains targeted by The Bride (Uma Thurman), she’s by far the most dangerous. After the epic showdown between and The Bride and O-Ren Ishii, it’s no wonder that Kill Bill: Volume 2 can feel like something of a letdown.
3. The Wicked Witch of the West – Wizard of Oz (1939)
Clichés are clichés for a reason. Ask anyone to tell you how a witch looks like and there’s a good chance they’ll describe you Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz: black clothes, pointy hat, huge nose and a flying broom. Hamilton is great as a shrill-voiced spinster Almira Gulch, who wants to get Dorothy Gale’s (Judy Garland) dog Toto destroyed for biting her finger. But when the story moves to Oz, Hamilton gets to play an even juicier villain.
The Wicked Witch of the West ostensibly wants to avenge the death of her sister. But what she really wants are her sister’s ruby red slippers, now worn by Dorothy. After trying to intimidate Dorothy and then sabotaging her quest to reach the Wizard of Oz, Wicked Witch sends out an army of nightmarish flying monkeys to capture them. Don’t let the revisionists fool you with Wicked and Oz, the Great and Powerful – the Wicked Witch of the West is rightfully recognized as one of the most iconic villains in movie history!
2. Annie Wilkes – Misery (1990)
The bad news for successful novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is that he just had a traffic accident in the middle of wilderness. The good news is that he’s been saved by a trained nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who just happens to be a great fan of Sheldon’s romance novels about a Regency-era heroine named Misery. Now, some additional bad news for Paul is that Annie is crazy and gets even crazier after she learns of Sheldon’s plans to kill off Misery in his next novel. So Paul will write Annie a whole new novel and heaven help him if she isn’t pleased with it.
Published in 1987, the psychological horror novel Misery was fueled by Stephen King’s struggle with addiction and doubts in his own work. The novel was a success and, three years later, director Rob Reiner helmed a movie adaptation. Reiner creates a claustrophobic horror utterly dominated by Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes who is, in turns, both ridiculously quaint and scarily sadistic. This powerful performance by Bates rightfully won her an Academy Award for Best Actress.
1. Nurse Ratched – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Sentenced to a prison, small-time criminal Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) manages to get himself sent to an insane asylum instead, hoping to avoid hard labor. Soon enough, his reckless behavior makes him popular among patients, particularly young Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif). However, all of them live in fear of the sadistic Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
With her bland appearance and calm demeanor, there’s seemingly nothing villainous about Nurse Ratched. However, in a true-to-life manner of bureaucratic bullies everywhere, Ratched uses hospital rules to intimidate the patients and punish any sign of their disobedience. She meets her nemesis in chaotic McMurphy, but Nurse Ratched has an entire hospital system at her side. Directed by Miloš Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was based on a novel by the American writer and the counter culture icon Ken Kesey. The movie won four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Louise Fletcher’s performance as Nurse Ratched.
Can you think of any other femmes fatales who should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!