Villains! When they’re not busy trying to rule the roost or devising ingenious plans to make people’s lives hell, they’re mincing around on the silver screen acting all villainous and stealing nearly every scene they’re in. We already wrote a list on the most powerful villains, but those characters had a bit of an advantage in that they all some kind of superhuman quality to them.
Take someone like Sauron for example, he may be the scourge of Middle Earth and so mean he can make medicine sick, but he really doesn’t really have to try to be the bad guy who keeps the hobbits awake at night. He’s naturally just powerful and evil. On the other hand, a villain who has a human heart and a human face needs to possess a terrible charisma and a witty way with one-liners if they’re to rise above their diabolical deeds and capture the collective imagination of cinemagoers.
When it comes to the movies, a successful human villain needs to be so much more that just a figment of the imagination or personification of ultimate evil, they also need to possess a little bit of that divine spark, no matter how faded, which makes them human. These viciously villainous rogues strike a special kind of terror into our hearts, because deep down in our gut we know that many people like them are alive, at large and at liberty on this spinning piece of rock we call home. And that’s what makes them truly terrifying.
Here is Screen Rant’s list of the 10 Most Powerful Villains Who Are All Too Human.
Max Cady – Cape Fear (1991)
When he’s on top of his game, no one can give off an air of menace or the casual capacity for immense violence quite like Robert De Niro, and in Cape Fear, the “Raging Bull” himself surpasses even his brutally high standards. Playing the heavily tattooed, cigar chomping, bible quoting homicidal sociopath Max Cady, De Niro is the enemy you just do not want to make. Unfortunately for the hapless lawyer Sam Bowen (Nick Nolte), Cady hates him and his world with a passion bordering on the apocalyptic.
Cady is a self-made psychopath who educated himself and honed his physique after serving a lengthy prison spell for violent rape and battery. He blames his defense attorney Bowen for his incarceration and now he wants revenge. And in Cady’s case it’s not a dish best served cold but in a heated stew of rage.
Like the Terminator, Cady at times is the monster from everyone’s nightmare, who is quite simply unstoppable. He is eventually sent hurtling into that good night, but he does not go gently, he is carried away by a raging tide as he screams furiously in insane tongues, reminding the world of just what sort of elemental evil one man is truly capable of.
Amon Goeth – Schindler’s List (1993)
Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Goeth lights up Spielberg’s Schindler’s List like a firework made out of plutonium. He’s deadly, he’s wrong, causes immense suffering and carnage, but it’s hard to draw your gaze from the untamed beast in the immaculate uniform. Goeth is a strangely hypnotic monster who was a leading light in a regime where humans were treated like insects, psychopaths were assured of their superiority, and genocide was a function of the state. He was a modern monster who killed without remorse or fear of retribution simply because situations have conspired to make it so easy for him to do so.
Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” In such a world Goeth rules the roost. He kills and causes untold grief, not in the name of any diabolical philosophy, but purely because he can. In Nazi Germany, the cold machination of bureaucracy gave creatures such as Goeth the green light to fulfill his darkest desires and enjoy a life of liberty and comfort.
Patrick Bateman – American Psycho (2000)
When any society begins the slow, inevitable slide into the abyss of superficiality and materialism, walking abortions such as Patrick Bateman pop up with alarming regularity. On the face of things, Bateman is a well dressed, good looking, physically fit, healthy and charming capitalist. He also enjoys banal music, synthetic drugs, and hacking people to death with an axe. In American Psycho, Christian Bale is the awkward and coldly remote personification of a generation more obsessed with business cards than one another’s welfare.
Bateman does a lot of evil things, not because he takes any great pleasure in them, but because he his driven by a robotic compulsion to fill up the all engulfing emptiness which sits like a ravenous black hole at the center of his being. Killing for Bateman is as routine as eating and sleeping. It’s just one more thing he does to feel some semblance of life in a society which has consumed and spat out any real value or idea of itself a long time ago.
American Psycho ends with the viewer unsure if Bateman is a complete fantasist, or a man who’s privilege, status and wealth gives him carte blanche to continue his killing spree because the almighty dollar can absolve any deed, no matter how vile.
Captain Vidal – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth may be a dark fairy tale riddled with a giant toad and a child eating monster known only as the Pale Man, but it’s biggest villain is but a mere mortal called Captain Vidal. This officer is, of course, no gentlemen, and when he’s not busy taking extreme delight in torturing prisoners and worshipping at the altar of fascism, he likes to brutally butcher innocent people under the pretext that they are “rebels.”
Vidal is the original stepfather from hell and under his stern and authoritarian watch, the dreamy Ofelia is beaten further into the twilight world the film documents with all the languid poetry of an opium haze. Captain Vidal struts around the place like a sadomasochistic peacock with a penchant for sunglasses, but the harder they come the harder they fall, and Vidal’s reign of terror doesn’t end well.
Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
In the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, we learned that Hannibal Lecter was a product of World War II, namely of a group of battle hardened Lithuanian militiamen who survived a fiercely cold Baltic winter by eating his sister when he was just a small boy. The episode rendered a young Hannibal temporarily mute and a convicted atheist from that point on. However, when movie audiences first encountered the sophisticated creature of rare breeding, great learning, and impeccable manners, who liked nothing more than killing people and eating their vital organs, it was like watching a hypnotic monster who had been hatched fully formed from an egg called evil.
Hannibal’s twisted maxim of only killing and eating those “morally repulsive” types he deems deserves it – “I call them the free-range rude,” combined with his ruthless intellect, complete lack of any identifiable mental illness, and genuine kindness to those he likes, have conspired to create a villain and evil genius whose very presence almost taunts God into making some sort of intervention in the savage chaos of a universe that allowed the likes of Hannibal to happen.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) owns The Silence of the Lambs, like no villain has dominated a movie, before or since. Lecter appears almost inhuman in the alien otherness of his movements, speech patters, and dark appetites, but behind the almost superhuman monster, there lies a frightened and lost little boy, who in his own way, was just as scared as the “screaming of the lambs” as his interrogator, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster).
The Joker – The Dark Knight (2008)
If absolute chaos could be personified, then it would probably look, sound, and act something like The Joker in The Dark Knight. It’s not easy to make Christian Bale’s Batman look boring, predictable, and sort of lame, but as the Dark Knight’s most storied foe, Heath Ledger does exactly that.
The late actor didn’t just bottle lighting in his portrayal of The Joker, he owned it, rode it, and turned the current up to supercharge with extra fries. Actors love playing The Joker (and why not? He’s a riot!), but in hammy hands, Batman’s greatest nemesis can all too often be reduced to a village idiot with a fetish for make-up and funny voices. In Ledger’s hands, The Joker, was free to be what he always was, a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.”
Looking like seven shades of hell, with a voice to match, The Joker has no real reason or design behind his murderous madness, he is simply an architect of anarchy. In the aftermath of his tragic death at age 28 of an accidental prescription drug overdose, much has been made of the damage playing such a character had on Ledger’s psyche. However, shortly before his death Ledger said playing The Joker was, “The most fun I’ve had or probably will ever have.” In hindsight his words proved prophetically true.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – Full Metal Jacket (1987)
If you could condense into one man every bullying teacher, every sadistic coach, and every pushy parent that ever exploited their position to ridicule, undermine, and make the lives of those in ‘their power’ a merry hell, then Gunnery Sergeant Hartman would be your man.
The devil of the drill sets the tone for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with a vicious cruelty that would shame one of Lucifer’s very own lieutenants. This is one nasty dude and prime example of how the horrors of war can brutalize a man and render him completely void of compassion and empathy. Unlike Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jr) in An Officer and a Gentleman, Hartman doesn’t treat the recruits in his care with a back-breaking discipline because he believes it’ll bring out their best qualities, he punishes them severely and with a soul-sapping regularity because he likes watching them suffer, squirm, and crawl lower than a tape worm in a futile bid to appease their maniacal master.
Played with conviction by former U.S. Marine drill instructor R. Lee Ermey, who used his own experiences of the Vietnam War to ad lib much of the dialogue, Hartman’s philosophy of “collective punishment” in a bid to get the young bucks battle-ready backfires spectacularly when a raw recruit (Vincent D’Onofrio) goes insane as a result of all the ferocious bullying and shoots Mr. Shouty deader than dead.
Bill “The Butcher” Cutting – Gangs of New York (2002)
If there’s one quality that Daniel Day Lewis exudes as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, it’s absolute power. Much like a snarling Rottweiler, Bill can be found aggressively strutting around Lower Manhattan’s Five Points, and his default setting is one of an incandescent and artery-busting wrath.
Bill’s a proper villain from way back when. His stove pipe hat, braces, blades of the trade, and above all else, his manly, but terrifying facial hair, mark him out as a proper dodgy geezer. Like all the best psychopaths, Bill takes great delight in conducting his affairs, and living his life, by some sort of deranged code known only to him. Take, for example, Bill’s teary eyed sentimentality and poetic love for Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), who Bill kills violently in the opening scene. Vallon is the man who took Bill’s eye and crippled him, but, by Christ, Bill has a hard love for his noble brother warrior.
Being a butcher, Bill is well versed in the lethal art of street fighting with his trademark meat cleavers, but it’s his staunch principles that make Bill such a formidable foe and powerful villain. This is one guy who refuses to compromise, retreat or surrender. Get into a fight with The Butcher and only one of you is coming out alive.
Don Logan – Sexy Beast (2000)
For years, Ben Kingsley had been defined as an actor by his star turn in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. When Kingsley crashed onto the screen in the shape of Don Logan 18 years later in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, peace, love and harmony were sent hurtling out of the window and an extreme violence and a menacing monstrosity crept in through the back door and caught us napping.
Kingsley had long been considered a talented thespian, but no-one really expected “the man who played Gandhi” to pull of the role of a sociopathic cockney villain with such aplomb. Don Logan may be small, skinny, and at first glance look like an accountant, but this nut job is living proof of the old adage, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
Don is one of those characters who lives on the other side of sanity and makes sporadic visits to our world to remind us that nightmares also exist outside of our head. Kingsley described him as “An abused child who was never held and went on to abuse others.” Whatever the reason, the darkness within Don is immense and no better exemplified than in the scene where he snarls at a visibly cowered, shaken and beaten Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone), saying “I won’t let you be happy, why should I?”
Anton Chigurh – No Country For Old Men (2007)
Although he’s definitely human, or as Friedrich Nietzche would say, all too human, Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men carries something of the supernatural about his person. It may be his unblinking lizard eyes, his stone cold demeanor, his unsettling haircut, his strange but lethal firearm, or his habit of flipping a coin to decide if a person lives or dies, but Anton glides through the desolate bleakness of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece like the darkest of stars.
Anton is as hypnotic as a snake and as unfathomable as a black hole. All the audience knows or will ever knows is he kills for money and he never gives up on a hit, ever. Some have compared Anton as a modern equivalent of Death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. But unlike death, Anton spares the lives of a few individuals who cross his path, simply because he has a twisted and abstract code known only to the solitary creature lurking behind the inscrutable facade,
If evil operated on a budget, Anton would be super economy class. He’s a killer of few words, little action, but maximum effect. Has there every been more of a foreboding line than. “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”
Well that’s quite enough villainy for one list, but if you’ve got any suggestions about other meaner than mean dudes who should have made the grade and joined the most powerful human villains gang, then sound off in the comments below.