While the heroes get all the glory, it’s often the bad guys that are the more charismatic and compelling characters. After the release of Star Wars in 1977 George Lucas was gobsmacked to discover that it wasn’t his many heroes who were the most popular characters, but the ominous-looking bad guy, Darth Vader, instead. Even before that, and many times since, the hero of the movie is overlooked in favour of the evil geniuses, violent criminals, cunning killers that make up cinema’s rogues gallery.
While they may have us booing at the screen, and cheering when they get their just desserts, they are often the character that we find ourselves loving the most. To celebrate, or further vilify, the worst of the worst, we’ve taken a look at The 20 Greatest Villains in Movie History and ranked them based on body count, charisma, evil intentions, and downright bad-assery.
20. The Terminator – Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Terminator
“Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!” Kyle Reese’s words in the original The Terminator pretty much sums up the killer cyborg from the future. While he served the unseen uber-computer known as Skynet, The Terminator from the 1984 classic is still the villain of the piece.
What makes the T-800 so great is that he’s not really a he; he’s just a machine performing his program. He doesn’t care one way or the other about his target, Sarah Connor, he’s just fulfilling his primary function as he was supposed to. There’s no evil intent as such, but a cold, calculating approach which is what makes him so scary. He can’t be made to feel sorry for you and re-think his actions, he’s not doing it for money, so can’t be bribed. He’s simply a weapon.
Close to unstoppable, the T-800 killed dozens of people, including cops and the first Sarah Connors in the phone book, and got agonizingly close to fulfilling his mission to kill the mother of the future saviour of humanity. Only a hero’s sacrifice, and a plucky waitress who found an ingenious use for a steel press ended his mission prematurely.
19. Tommy DeVito – Joe Pesci – Goodfellas
While you wouldn’t ever want to cross a movie gangster, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) is probably the scariest and most dangerous of the lot. As likely to kill a friend as he is an enemy, Tommy has no real moral code. He just likes the violence of his world. As with many movie bad guys, Tommy DeVito was based on real-life mobster Tommy ‘Two Guns’ DeSimone a man known for his brutal and unflinching nature.
Unlike the majority of the gangsters seen in Goodfellas, Tommy is less interested in the wealth generated by their criminal enterprises, although he does enjoy the status his life gives him, having come from poverty as a child.
What makes Tommy such a great bad guy, is that he’s utterly unreadable. The slightest word can drive him into a murderous rage, or he can stay calm and collected. There’s no way to know what he’s going to do next, because Tommy himself doesn’t know. He’s not a man with a plan; besides his desire to be a “made man” one day, he just lives from one day to the next, revelling in his life.
18. Alexandra “Alex” Forrest – Glenn Close – Fatal Attraction
Hell, hath no fury like a woman scorned! When it comes to living up to that saying, none do so quite so much as Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), the subject of a fling with a married man (Michael Douglas), Alex finds it impossible to let go after their weekend-long tryst and begins to insert herself into his life. When he forcefully demands she leave him alone, she ups the ante and begins to terrorize him and his family, driven further into madness by his seemingly content home life. His daughter’s pet rabbit meets an especially grizzly end, being boiled alive on a stove.
Eventually, Alex’s obsession becomes truly Fatal as she is shot and killed by the wife of the man she cheated with after breaking into their country home armed with a knife.
The original “bunny-boiler”, Alex’s character inspired a plethora of imitators throughout the early ‘90s. The idea of a powerful woman scorned resonated heavily and made men across the world think twice before cheating on their partners.
17. Anton Chigurh – Javier Bardem – No Country For Old Men
Anton Chigurh is like a human version of The Terminator. Throughout No Country For Old Men he ruthlessly and relentlessly tracks down a satchel of stolen money which he intends to return to his employers. A consummate professional, Chigurh feels no pity for those he kills, they are simply obstacles which need to be overcome. Even pain is merely an occupational hazard and he’s well used to it as seen when he binds a compound fracture with a discarded shirt.
While Chigurh kills without remorse, he isn’t a man who kills for enjoyment. He has morals, as twisted as they may be, and sees himself as merely the hand of fate who delivers judgement. He, at times, gives his victims choices, or gives them the chance to decide their fate via the toss of a coin. One potential victim correctly wins the coin toss and his life is therefore spared.
16. Wicked Witch of the West – Margaret Hamilton – The Wizard Of Oz
Despite regularly ranking among the greatest movies ever made, The Wizard Of Oz was a commercial disappointment on its initial release in 1939 and only turned a profit after re-releases and home media profits came in many years later. However, the movie has gone on to become a beloved classic, and preserved in the library of congress. One of its most enduring characters, and the one that gave generations of kid’s nightmares was, of course, The Wicked Witch of The West.
Thanks largely to Margaret Hamilton’s note-perfect blend of villainy and over-the-top delivery, the character has become the archetype for witches in pop-culture from that point onwards. Hamilton’s portrayal of the character introduced many of the mannerisms, and indeed the green skin, that have been used in most adaptations since including the stage play Wicked, the 2013 film Oz the Great and Powerful, and the television series Once Upon a Time and Emerald City.
Initially seeking revenge for Dorothy’s accidental slaying of her sister, all thoughts of vengeance are dispelled once she discovers that Dorothy is in possession of the Ruby Slippers, the one thing she needs to rule all of Oz. after several failed attempts to defeat Dorothy and her friends, The Wicked Witch of The West is finally defeated when her vulnerability to water is discovered. Although dead, she continued to haunt our dreams for generations.
15. The Great White Shark – ‘Bruce’ – Jaws
While ‘Bruce’ the shark from Jaws (nicknamed that on-set after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer) may be animatronic, he’s easily one of the scariest villains on the list. Unlike an actual shark, that kills for food, Bruce seems to actively be hunting humans as its preferred prey for deeper reasons, excuse the pun.
While Bruce is a fish, he’s also so much more. He shows a degree of tactical thinking that outwits the veteran shark-hunter Quint, forcing Quint to adapt his methods. Also, his sheer size and power mean that the crew of the Orca are quickly outmatched.
Estimated as being over 25 feet in the movie, Bruce is larger than any Great White Shark on record which means that he could be classed as a movie-monster as opposed to a realistic representation of an actual creature. While Bruce’s behaviour in the movie is largely due to the fact that Sharks were largely misunderstood in the 1970s, his impact on both cinema and the real-world is undeniable. While creature-features were nothing new, they soared to new heights after the release of Jaws and shark movies remain popular to this day. In the real-world, people are still afraid of public beaches thanks to the lasting impact of the movie.
14. Gordon Gekko – Michael Douglas – Wall Street
A shark of a different kind is Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. A true corporate shark, Gekko targets his prey and strikes fast then waits for them to financially bleed out before finishing them off. All for maximum profit of course.
Over the course of the movie, Gekko takes on an apprentice in the form of wet-behind-the-ears Bud White a young stock broker. Gekko teaches Bud how to obtain illegal information and how to use that information to make money. He also uses Bud’s familial connections to obtain a controlling interest in Bud’s father’s company Blue Star Airlines, which he promises to save, only to change his mind and ruthlessly lay off the staff for maximum profit.
His often misquoted “Greed is Good” mantra typified the money-centric 1980s, and while he was the “bad guy” of the movie which was supposed to serve as a cautionary tale about the trappings of wealth, greed, and excess, applications to become stock brokers went through the roof after Wall Street’s release. Go figure!
13. Nurse Rached – Louise Fletcher – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
A cold and heartless tyrant, Nurse Rached rules the psychiatric facility featured in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with an iron hand. That is of course, until Randle McMurphy comes to be one of her patients. Unlike the other men on the ward, McMurphy is sane and merely faked mental illness to avoid a jail term, feeling that his time in hospital would be relatively tranquil.
Due to McMurphy’s blatant disregard for her rules, Nurse Rached becomes even more cruel to her patients and whereas before she was content to merely punish bad behaviour with revoking privileges such as toilet paper and food, she begins to make it her mission to restore order and break McMurphy through any means necessary.
After McMurphy goes too far and smuggles in a prostitute to take the virginity of a fellow patient, Rached psychologically tortures the young man and he takes his own life. McMurphy lashes out at Rached, and gives her all the excuse she needs to have him lobotomised, finally restoring order.
But, whereas before Nurse Rached was feared, she is now merely hated. Despite being a shadow of the man he once was, McMurphy has the final word as Rached, once a thunderous voice amongst the men, is merely a whisper to them.
12. Alex DeLarge – Malcolm McDowell – A Clockwork Orange
Alex, the anti-hero protagonist of A Clockwork Orange is a true villain of the first order. While he acknowledges that his behaviour is morally wrong, he feels there is a place for it within society and is puzzled by other people’s attempts to reform his ultra-violent, rapacious, tendencies as he doesn’t interfere with other’s desire to good. In his own words, he merely “goes to the other shop”.
Alex’s gang speak an unusual teenage slang which borrows from English, Russian, and Cockney Rhyming Slang. They dress in a ridiculous manner, which opposes their sadistic tendencies. His beverage of choice is a pint of milk, which he spikes with drugs to enhance aggression before finding victims to attack.
His reign of terror is ended when he is subjected to psychological conditioning which causes him intense pain when he even thinks about a violent act. After being taken in by a former victim’s husband, Alex’s conditioning wears off and becomes ultra-violent once again. The movie ends with Alex once more a dangerous psychopath but his future acts are left for the viewer to decide.
11. Michael Myers – Various Actors – Halloween Series
In the beginning of Halloween, the six-year-old Michael Myers kills his teenage sister Judith. Fifteen years later, Michael escapes the institution in which he has lived for many years and returns to his hometown where he stalks and murders several people. He is shot several times at the climax of the movie, but his body is nowhere to be found. In Halloween II, it is revealed that the main target of his obsession, teenage babysitter Laurie Strode, is in fact his sister explaining, in part, why he is intent on her murder. Two timelines diverge during the series thanks to Halloween H2O ignoring the three previous entries in the series. Michael having near-supernatural powers in one timeline thanks to him being manipulated by a cult, and in another he has merely been in a coma for two decades and once he awakens he goes on another rampage to kill his sister.
In Rob Zombie’s rebooted Halloween series, Michael Myers is once again a childhood psychopath who is sent to an institution following two murders. After returning to his hometown, he again begins a murder spree.
While numerous psychological explanations for Michael Myers exist, both in-universe, and in the real-world, Michael is merely considered to be pure-evil by the film-makers, and as such is akin to an ethereal menace as opposed to a purely mortal one.
10. Annie Wilkes – Kathy Bates – Misery
There are several female entries on this list, but Misery‘s Annie Wilkes beats them all. As one of the most-iconic villains of all time, Kathy Bate’s Oscar-Winning performance cemented the stereotype of the sadistic nurse as a torturer.
Wilkes rescues romance novelist Paul Sheldon after a car accident breaks both his legs, and she takes him to her remote home to convalesce. As she fawns over him and professes to be his number one fan, Sheldon begins to suspect that Annie is mentally unstable. When Annie discovers that Sheldon has killed off her favourite character “Misery” in his latest novel, she makes a veiled threat upon his life and makes it clear that she has not contacted a hospital or anyone else to inform them as to his whereabouts and that she is now holding him captive. She forces him to burn the only copy of his book, and tortures him to write a version which pleases her, in-which “Misery” survives.
After several brutal acts, including the infamous scene where Annie breaks Sheldon’s ankles with a sledgehammer, Sheldon eventually manages to overpower Annie at last and she dies.
Described by forensic psychologist Reid Meloy as a virtual catalogue of mental illness, Annie Wilkes likely suffers from numerous disorders, but she sees herself as perfectly sane and merely reacting to the world in ways that she sees as perfectly normal.
9. Freddy Kruger – Robert Englund – A Nightmare on Elm Street
Besides being the handsomest (!!!) villain on this list, ok maybe not, Freddy Krueger is one of the easiest to recognise thanks to his iconic striped sweater, fedora hat, razor-glove, and grotesque burns.
Freddy is a nightmare-demon who is all but invulnerable in the dream world, where he kills his victims in their dreams which also kills them in the real world. However, if he can be lured into the real world, Freddy has all the normal human vulnerabilities.
A child-killer, and later implied to be a child molester also, Freddy is one of cinema’s most despicable bad-guys. He escaped justice for several child-killings due to a technicality but was hunted down and burned alive by vengeful parents. It is then that his spirit is given the chance to survive as an agent of the Dream Demons. Having cheated death by living on as an evil spirit, he is essentially immortal which makes him truly terrifying as there is literally no escape from him.
8. Agent Smith – Hugo Weaving – The Matrix
Smith began as an agent, an AI program, of the virtual world of The Matrix, but later went on to become a greater threat than the machine forces that were the initial primary antagonists of the series. Initially programmed with keeping order in the simulated reality, Smith grows to hate humanity, unlike his fellow agents who are merely pragmatically following instructions. Smith is desperate to complete his mission of finding Morpheus so he can end the human resistance and finally be free of both humanity, who he sees as a virus, and the Matrix itself which he feels is as much a prison to him as the enslaved human inhabitants.
When he is seemingly defeated in The Matrix, Smith manages to become Neo’s opposite. While Neo serves as “The One” Smith becomes “The Many” and develops the ability to replicate himself, eventually taking over the entire virtual world of The Matrix. He becomes a virus-like program, ironically the thing he most despised about humanity to begin with.
Eventually, Neo defeats Smith as they both balance each other out and the only way to defeat one was to defeat both. If the rumours are true and The Matrix is due to be rebooted, we may yet see more of Smith as he is a key function in the artificial world.
7. Norman Bates – Anthony Perkins – Psycho
Ever notice how so many characters on this list have troubled childhoods to thank for their later villainy? Well, Psycho‘s Norman Bates must hold the record for the biggest mommy-issues of the lot!
Raised by his emotionally abusive single-mother, Norma, Norman was raised to believe that sexual intercourse was sinful and that all women besides her were sinful and impure. After Norman’s father dies, he and his mother live together, isolated from the world. When Norman’s mother meets a man, and plans to marry him, Norman is driven into a rage and kills his mother and her new partner. He frames his mother for a murder suicide and develops a dissociative identity disorder, with his “Mother” forming a dominant aspect of his psyche.
6. Hans Gruber – Alan Rickman – Die Hard
Hans Gruber is the first, and best, villain of the Die Hard series. He is cold, unpredictable, and utterly heartless when it comes to who he kills. After he and his henchmen overtake Nakatomi Plaza and imprison the office workers who were celebrating there, Hans begins his plot to steal bearer bonds but is thwarted by cop John McClaine who was there coincidentally on the same evening.
Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Hans Gruber was met with much acclaim as it ushered in a new kind of villain. Unlike many of the muscle-bound heroes and villains of the ‘80s, Hans was stylish, impeccably dressed, highly educated, and the very epitome of a modern man of the era. He was a thinking man who put his mission above petty impulses of rage or vengeance. His sophistication is not enough to save him from the down-to-earth John McClaine’s unique brand of counter-terrorism, borne out of a desire to save his wife Holly, one of Gruber’s hostages.
5. Amon Goeth – Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List
Nothing quite sums up evil and villainy quite as much as the word Nazi. History’s worst villains were responsible for so many atrocities that there have been countless films which have explored their truly horrific nature. Few cinematic villains can match Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of real-life monster Amon Goeth in 1993’s Schindler’s List.
While Schindler’s List focuses on Oskar Schindler’s efforts to save as many Jewish lives as he can from the Holocaust, in particular trying to spare them from Auschwitz, he does so under the shadow of Second Lieutenant Amon Goth who has utter disdain for the Jewish people. Goth is seen casually standing on the balcony of his villa, shooting people at random. The people of the ghetto he stands over live in constant fear of their lives.
Ralph Fiennes exudes what director Steven Spielberg called an “Evil Sexuality” in his performance. Goeth isn’t a soldier, or a fighter, he’s simply a monster who picks off the weak for his own twisted amusement. In his final scene, he pats his hair into place and utters “Heil Hitler” before being hanged for his crimes. His utter lack of remorse is chilling.
4. Keyser Söze – Kevin Spacey – The Usual Suspects
Keyser Soze is the unseen mastermind behind the conspiracy in The Usual Suspects, except he’s right there in front of you the whole time. His greatest trick, like the Devil himself, is that he makes you believe he isn’t real.
Kevin Spacey’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Verbal Kint, the low-level criminal telling the story of heists gone bad, draws you in to his tale. It is not until the final scene that you realize, all too late, that Verbal’s tale has been taken from subtle clues laid out on the notice board in front of him. Not only is his tale fabricated, but HE is the mysterious Keyser Soze, the man who brought such havoc upon his enemies as to be considered a myth and legend among the criminal fraternity.
3. The Joker – Jack Nicholson/Heath Ledger – Batman movies
When it comes to comic book villains, there are bad guys and then there’s The Joker. He stands above the rest as the most evil of the bunch and portrayals of him on-screen have been met with mutual levels of wonder and fear. But when it comes to choosing the BEST version of The Joker, it’s hard to determine a single performance, hence this being a joint entry between Jack Nicholson’s in Batman and Heath Ledger’s (Oscar Winning) performance in The Dark Knight. Each bring a different aspect to The Joker’s insanity.
Nicholson’s joker draws much inspiration from the 1960s camp TV show, but adds a far deeper homicidal aspect to the character. Not content to merely pull elaborate criminal heists and pranks, this Joker laughs manically while brutally killing people.
As for Ledger’s Joker, his origins are a mystery. He simply exists, and has multiple explanations for his motives. He’s less of a person, and more of a force of nature that has come to Gotham to balance out the acts of “the Batman.” He doesn’t truly care about money or power, he merely uses these to “watch the world burn”.
2. Darth Vader – David Prowse/James Earl Jones – Star Wars
Darth Vader isn’t truly the primary antagonist of the original Star Wars trilogy, or the prequels. He’s serving Emperor Palpatine, his Sith master. But that doesn’t stop Vader taking his place near the top of the list due to his truly iconic status.
Visually striking, from his first appearance on board the Tantive IV Vader is immediately the man you know you don’t want to mess with. He lifts a grown man off the ground and chokes him to death while interrogating him. Then he tortures the beautiful Princess Leia and forces her to watch as her home is destroyed. The recent Rogue One even has a scene showing Vader’s combat prowess and utter lack of remorse as he wades through rebel soldiers, killing anyone who stands in his way. And let’s not forget his acts in Revenge Of The Sith where he slaughters the Jedi Younglings and causes his wife to die. Yes, he’s a tragic figure who is seduced by evil after witnessing the horrors of war, and yes, he redeems himself to a point by killing Palpatine, but he’s one seriously bad guy. But let’s face it, we’ve all done impressions of his voice when nobody’s around.
1. Hannibal Lector – Anthony Hopkins – The Silence of the Lambs
It’s easy to forget that Hannibal Lector isn’t the protagonist, or primary antagonist, of The Silence Of The Lambs. His role is more of a twisted mentor who aids FBI agent Clarice Starling as she hunts down serial killer Buffalo Bill. He tests Clarice’s skills and intelligence as he gives her complex clues as to the identity of the man she seeks, all the while probing her for personal information as his razor-sharp mind has been denied input for so long during his incarceration.
Not only can Lector get inside the most fiercely guarded mind, he also devours the body of his prey; earning him the nickname “Hannibal the Cannibal”. Descended from European nobility, Hannibal oozes charm and charisma and is impeccably cultured. It’s easy to forget that he’s killed, and devoured, numerous victims.
Hopkins’ portrayal is so mesmerizing that he simply has to be our choice for the number one movie villain. He has the Joker’s insanity, Vader’s ferocity, Norman Bates’ painful childhood, and even Bruce the shark’s love of human flesh!