Every story about a great hero needs one thing: a great villain to obstruct him and his destiny. After all, how can a hero prove his greatness without a great villain to oppose? In movies, great actors help create great villains, often giving powerful performances which can run the gamut from pure evil to sympathetic. Actors often remark that the villains are far more fun to play than the heroes, since a villain can do just about anything and get away with it.
A great villain can even pop up in a bad movie from time to time, often again played by great actors toiling under terrible working conditions, inept directors or lame scripts. Even those detriments to a film can’t keep an actor from having a good time, and creating a great villain in the process. Said great villains can often help fuel a cult following for a mediocre or bad movie, thanks to the energy their roles introduce to the productions. Still, there’s something lamentable about seeing a great villain in a bad film—don’t they deserve better?!
The villains outlined herein all have fallen prisoner to middling to bad to godawful fare, but that didn’t stop them from being great fun to watch! If only they’d been in a good movie! Then they might not be 15 Great Villains Trapped in Bad Movies.
15. Bavmorda – Willow
George Lucas tried to double down on the mythological-archetype storytelling that helped make the Star Wars films so successful with this 1988 film. Ron Howard directed with a cast which included Val Kilmer, Jean Marsh, Joanne Whaley and Lucasfilm staple Warwick Davis. Willow transplanted the ideas of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” theory to a medieval setting, making it more akin to Lord of the Rings than Star Wars.
Lucas had hoped that Willow would kick off a new trilogy, and though the film featured some cutting edge special effects, it proved to be a box office disappointment and is generally regarded as mediocre at best. The movie does however have one great thing going for it: Jean Marsh as the evil sorceress Queen Bavmorda. Marsh plays the part with total abandon, screaming to the heavens with wicked conviction. Her performance in the film’s climax goes so far it borders on ridiculous, which is just what the role calls for. If the movie would have used Marsh to better effect, it could have become a latter-day classic.
14. Mystery Man – Lost Highway
David Lynch movies often defy explanation—usually by design. The filmmaker beginning the 1990s on a high, winning the Palm D’Or at Cannes for his film Wild at Heart and running a hit TV series with Twin Peaks. By 1997, though, Lynch’s fortunes had reversed. Twin Peaks, along with several other TV projects, got cancelled, and his 1992 film Fire Walk With Me was booed of the screen at Cannes!
Lynch rebounded with Lost Highway, a surreal horror film set in Los Angeles. Critics reviled it on release, and even some of Lynch’s biggest die-hard fans found the movie perplexing and convoluted. Like all of Lynch’s work though, it does have a few gems, including a terrifying performance from Robert Blake. Billed only as “Mystery Man,” Blake’s character, dressed in only Kabuki make up with shorn eyebrows, videotapes characters while they sleep. He also appears to be able to be in two places at once.
Had Lynch spent more time exploring the Mystery Man, Lost Highway might have actually worked as a movie. In its final form, the Mystery Man has the best scenes in the movie, and becomes the film’s most intriguing element. Incidentally, the Mystery Man marks Blake’s last performance in a film, before becoming a terrifying character in his own right.
13. Darkness – Legend
1985 saw sci-fi master Ridley Scott try his hand at fantasy. The experiment had mixed results at best. Uneven, unfocused and at times downright goofy, Legend continues to have a cult following today, though upon release, the movie flopped critically and commercially.
Legend starred Tom Cruise and Tim Curry, and featured a lavish production filmed on English soundstages. The movie integrated just about every fantasy trope possible: elves, fairies, goblins, magic spells, a princess and of course, an evil sorcerer. Looking like Satan himself and calling himself Darkness, the evil warlock plots to kill the last two unicorns on Earth, condemning the world to eternal night.
Curry plays said villain with operatic relish. Caked in thick make up and standing on stilts, the actor becomes unrecognizable in his pathos. His character Darkness resembles a satyr more than a man, and one of the miracles of Curry’s work is that he’s able to perform at all under the circumstances. But perform he does, delivering one of his best big screen performances and creating an unforgettable villain in the process (also rumored to be the inspiration for Gannon in the Legend of Zelda game series). Curry can’t quite save Legend from boring the audience, but he tries his damndest.
12. Sheriff of Nottingham – Robin Hood Prince of Thieves
First things first: the Kevin Costner blockbuster, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is not a very good movie. A failed experiment to provide a modern take on the Robin Hood legend, Prince of Thieves tried to supplement the well-known tale of Robin Hood and his Merry Men with medieval realism and violence. Costner can’t do a British accent to save his life, and his Robin Hood doesn’t come off as merry so much as he does constipated. The production goes way overboard with the violence—which includes characters getting eyes gouged out, rape, torture and a crazy high body count—which only makes the movie more appalling, given that it had a tie-in toy line aimed at children.
Yet amid this mess of a movie, one actor stands out: the late Alan Rickman, who plays Robin Hood’s longtime nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Critics at the time of the movie’s release in 1991 noted that Rickman seemed like he belonged in a different film—a better one. He plays the Sherriff with his own trademark droll wit and sarcasm, rolling his eyes when his rape of Maid Marian gets interrupted, and hissing out orders at his men. For a movie that promises a good deal of fun, only Rickman seems to have any himself.
11. Skeletor – Masters of the Universe
B-movie factory Cannon Films tried to compete with the biggest of Hollywood studios with their 1987 sci-fi schlockfest Masters of the Universe. In a way, Cannon’s attempt was actually way ahead of its time: movie studios today love to adapt toys into movies!
In 1987 though, the industry looked down on Cannon for even trying. With a $22 million budget and then-hot action star Dolph Lundgren in the title role, director Gary Goddard went about trying to make Masters of the Universe the ’80s’ answer to Star Wars. Cheap, silly, and reeking of a tight budget, the finished movie died in theaters before becoming a cult classic, thanks to a generation that grew up with He-Man in their toy boxes.
For all its flaws though, Masters of the Universe does have a great villain: Skeletor. As played by Oscar nominee and stage legend Frank Langella, Skeletor transcends his campy villain roots, becoming a cauldron of greed and evil. Gifted with Shakespearian dialogue, Langella bellows hate and resentment like few screen villains ever have. Quite simply, it’s a brilliant performance, especially given the circumstances. Langella’s Skeletor ranks alongside Darth Vader, Khan, Emperor Palpatine and Sauron as one of the greatest sci-fi and fantasy villains ever.
10. Baron Harkonnen – Dune
David Lynch has struck again, this time with one of the most abysmally bad movies ever to curse moviegoers. Dune, the Lynch-directed megaproduction based on the popular sci-fi nove,l stands out as one of the ugliest, dullest, most incomprehensible films of all time. It ended any hopes Lynch had of becoming a mainstream Hollywood director, and likely scared Tinseltown away from ever trying to adapt the book to the big screen again (which may be this film’s greatest sin).
Don’t even get us started on the repulsive misogyny or homophobia that coats the film, beginning with the villain of the piece, the Baron Harkonnen, played by theater great Kenneth McMillan. The latent hate of women and gays aside, McMillan manages to create a spectacular villain. That comes, in part, from the actor’s own courage in accepting the character, syphilitic sores and all. McMillan blusters and cackles his way through the role, possibly because he knows exactly how bad the movie is. Disgusting as the character is, McMillan doesn’t hold back, unafraid of the Baron’s loathsomeness. If only he had a good move to play in.
9. Leland Gaunt – Needful Things
Stephen King’s novels don’t have the greatest track record when it comes to cinematic adaptations. For every The Green Mile, there’s a Pet Sematary, Maximum Overdrive, or Lawnmower Man.
Or a Needful Things. While not the worst of King’s on-screen disasters, the movie (in its chopped up theatrical edit, anyway) never quite takes flight thanks to a disjointed narrative and a few silly plot twists. Several of the performers help steady the film, keeping it from sinking into a total loss: Ed Harris as the heroic lead, Amanda Plummer as an abused woman, and most of all, the great Max Von Sydow as Leland Gaunt, the devil incarnate.
Yes, the literal devil. Satan masquerades as an antique dealer and opens up shop in, where else, a small town in Maine. Gaunt proceeds to inflict pain and havoc on the residents of the coastal village, all the while chuckling to himself over his misdeeds. Von Sydow, however, plays the role with devilish glee…excuse the phrase. He brings Leland Gaunt to life with a seductive charm and tongue-in-cheek naughtiness, making his scenes a good deal of fun to watch. As he escapes the town in the film’s final scenes, striding triumphantly through the burning wreckage of the city, Von Sydow is almost good enough to make the viewer think they’ve actually seen a good movie. Almost.
8. General Thade – Burton’s Planet of the Apes
It seemed like a safe bet: hire the director of Batman and Sleepy Hollow to direct a long-in-Development-Hell sci-fi staple: the Planet of the Apes remake. James Cameron had worked on the film for years before bowing out. Burton stepped in and attracted a number of high-profile actors to the project. Go figure that the movie, then, would prove visually arresting but ultimately lifeless.
The failure of Planet of the Apes lays with Burton and likely, Fox executives stewarding the movie, not with any of the performers. Most of the actors try their best, though only one rises above the mess of a plot: Tim Roth.
As the chimpanzee General Thade, Roth embodies everything scary about animals and humans. Thade lusts for power and revels in torturing those around him, while still exhibiting the unbridled aggression of a mad ape. Observe Roth’s eyes and posture as he yanks a human about by the jaw, snarling mockery at humans for not having souls. Roth notoriously passed on the role of Snape in the Harry Potter series to play Thade, which probably wasn’t the best career movie. On the other hand, Roth’s role in Planet of the Apes afforded him the chance to create a fantastic villain in search of a better movie, for what it’s worth.
7. The Tall Man – Phantasm
Ok, Phantasm fans, don’t hurl your silver embalming balls yet! Phantasm is an important film, in part because of its roots in early independent cinema, and in part because of its somewhat accidental surrealistic style. Still, the shoddy production values and amateurish craftsmanship on the movie show. It might have interesting elements, but it’s not a good movie.
Phantasm does, however, feature a great villain. Known only as The Tall Man, the villain of Phantasm strides through the film with slow malevolence, torturing and murdering for fun. Indeed, within the dreamlike context of the Phantasm film, The Tall Man seems to represent pure evil manifested within the cultural id. Not only does he murder, he defiles bodies to use as slaves. Death becomes his weapon, inflicting a far worse punishment on his victims than oblivion. It helps too that actor Angus Scrimm plays The Tall Man as absolute as possible. Taking advantage of his own height and gaunt physique, Scrimm underplays his character, becoming more frightening with a simple look than scores of movie villains with more elaborate dialogue and backstories. There’s a reason Phantasm gained a cult following: it produced a fantastic villain in The Tall Man, enough to anchor the series through three sequels, with a long-awaited fifth franchise entry on the way.
6. Catherine Tramell – Basic Instinct
Basic Instinct might have become a box office smash in 1992, but that doesn’t make it a good movie. In fact, the film–a crime thriller about a cop enthralled with a woman who might be a killer, and who also might be his ex-girlfriend’s lesbian lover, and who also might be in love with the cop himself–impressed audiences more with its acrobatic, gratuitous sex scenes and violence than with its storytelling. Whatever virtues come from the movie generate from the performances of the two lead actors, Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone (particularly the latter).
Stone’s performance as Catherine Tramell, the bisexual vixen/murder suspect, has to be considered the principal reason behind the film’s success. Stone isn’t afraid to say some of the absolute filthiest lines ever written for the screen, to show off her naked body, or to play her character as a coy vamp. Like so many other of the villains profiled here, Catherine Tramell becomes a fantastic character because Stone shows no hesitation in indulging the character’s darker qualities. She alone makes Tramell into a great villain, even if the film in which the character exists isn’t nearly as compelling.
5. Akasha – Queen of the Damned
Fans of Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire film adaptation cried out for a sequel after the first film hit theaters in 1994. Unfortunately, by the time the follow-up, Queen of the Damned, hit screens in 2002, none of the original cast remained on board, and the film posed only a passing resemblance to its predecessor or the books that inspired it. Even more tragic, the singer-actress Aaliyah died while the film was in post-production, an event rendered all the more tragic by the fact that she gives a fine performance in the film.
Indeed, one of the few elements to transcend the pitfalls of the adaptation is the character of Akasha, the ancient vampire queen. That the character still manages to hold a good deal of her literary allure testifies to the late Aaliyah’s burgeoning abilities as an actress. The young star writhes and whispers through the role, invoking the quality of a sleek, poisonous serpent with her performance. Though Queen of the Damned collapsed at the box office and effectively ended the would-be Vampire Chronicles film franchise on a second, sour note, it does feature a fine performance as a great villainess…enough to keep up hopes for the supposedly upcoming Vampire Chronicles reboot.
4. Profion – Dungeons & Dragons
Few actors have the reputation for great performances like Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, and fewer still have the reputation for showing up in bad movies (Michael Caine, Halle Berry, we’re looking at you). Irons, for all his dubious career choices, seldom disappoints. Even in a lackluster mess, Irons can rise above mediocre dialogue and preposterous plot twists to give an outstanding performance.
In Dungeons & Dragons, he does just that. Irons plays Profion, an evil wizard plotting to conquer the world with a magical scepter that will allow him to control dragons. Burdened with a ridiculous plot, hideous dialogue and surrounded by gorgeously junky scenery, Irons has a ball with his role. Like any great villain, Irons gets to snarl and fume threats and orders during the movie’s climax, and he still manages to come off credible amidst the chaos. Few actors could withstand dreadful lines like “it’s your time to die!” while shooting CGI lightning at Thora Birch. Even fewer could make it so much fun!
3. Lucifer – Constantine
Constantine polarized critics and audiences when it hit theatres in 2005. Fans of the comic derided the casting of Keanu Reeves in the title role, as well as the film’s key deviations from the source material. Critics derided the production design, perceived plot holes and morose tone. At the same time, the film earned admirers for the unusual premise, production values and vibrant characters. The movie featured an eclectic group of actors as well, adding to its fascinating, if bizarre, mystique.
In Constantine, the titlular paranormal detective investigates the appearance of demons on Earth—a violation of cosmic law. He comes to fear that an invasion of the Earth from Hell itself is at hand, and he must work with his occult associates to prevent it. Naturally then, that puts John Constantine into conflict with the devil himself.
If a movie decides to invoke Lucifer as an antagonist, it needs to deliver on the fronts of spooky and wicked. Constantine casts Peter Stormare in the role. The actor approaches the part as a cross between a pedophile, a psychopath and a mob boss. Stormare makes the character totally inconsistent, which only adds to the creepy factor. His Lucifer is like no other ever presented on the screen: sexual, schizoid and totally unpredictable.
2. Carl Stargher – The Cell
The Cell won praise for an intriguing premise and incredible production design—but what else should anyone expect from a director like Tarsem Singh? The film follows the work of scientist Catherine Deane (played by Jennifer Lopez) who uses virtual reality equipment to make contact with comatose patients. Meanwhile, the police have managed to track down a serial killer who falls into a coma before they can interrogate him about the whereabouts of a woman he’s imprisoned. Deane must use her equipment to make contact with the mind of the killer and locate the kidnapped woman.
Love her or hate her, Jennifer Lopez has some chops, and she gives a fine performance in The Cell. The movie, though, belongs to Vincent D’Onofrio as the serial killer Carl Stargher. The movie requires him to act as a wounded child at times, and a maniacal emperor at others, and D’Onofrio plays each note to perfection. As a film, The Cell relies more on visual splendor than traditional drama, but that allows Stargher almost unlimited range as a character, and D’Onofrio delivers the goods. Call him Buffalo Bill on LSD; Stargher is a remarkable character.
1. Dr. Moreau – The Island of Dr. Moreau
Is Dr. Moreau a villain, or is he an eccentric man using unusual methods to solve the world of its ills? That question becomes one of the central ethical problems in The Island of Dr. Moreau, John Frankenheimer’s updated version of the H.G. Wells story. One issue beyond question, though: the movie is kind of godawful.
Frankenheimer’s film updates Wells’ story to the modern era, and reimagines the title role as a master geneticist. Marlon Brando, once regarded as the greatest actor alive, makes one of his final film appearances in the part of Moreau, and gives one of the most bonkers performances ever. At times, he appears clad all in white cheesecloth and clown white make-up wearing a fruit basket on his head. Others, he wears a strange hat made from an ice bucket, and has his on-screen daughter Fairuza Balk pour ice water into it! Most notably, of course, Moreau keeps a miniature copy of himself on hand—always in identical dress—to keep him company, assist him, and join him in piano duets. It’s that kind of movie.
Did Brando go too far in tailoring the strange qualities of his character, or did he actually create one of the most compelling villains ever? Either way, his Moreau is totally, utterly unforgettable behaving as a god among animals and wearing clothes that would make Bozo look like a runway model. Though Brando’s performance might go way over the top, he does manage to modulate his work to match the berserk tone of the rest of the movie…thereby becoming the most intriguing and wild thing about it.
Did we leave out your favorite villain in a bad movie? Tell us in the comments!