Villains are hugely important in cinema. The strength of the hero is often measured by the strength of their antagonist, and a good villain can be a movie highlight. There are interestingly however a lot of different kinds of movie villains out there – some actual characters with motivations, some more thematic representations, and some which are just plain fun to watch. After my Top 10 Scariest Movie Moments, it seemed fitting to have a look at my favourite movie villains and analyse what makes them work within their respective movies. The list proved fairly difficult to narrow down and I’ve tried to include a wide variety of different kinds of villains, to serve as a broader look at the role of the antagonist in general.
Certain well known faces won’t be appearing – Hannibal Lecter is a fantastic and chilling character, excellently played by Anthony Hopkins, but he’s not the bad guy in The Silence of the Lambs – the film is about Clarice’s journey and Buffalo Bill is the antagonist; Lecter in narrative terms, is the catalyst for Clarice’s journey to stop him. The Wicked Witch of the West, from The Wizard of Oz, is iconic but a little bit broad these days. I’ve read Rebecca but not seen it, so can’t comment on Mrs Danvers. Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West just missed out, as did Blade Runner’s Roy Batty, Seven‘s John Doe, and the T1000. I’ve tried to avoid villains without human consciousness too – Michael Myers, the shark in Jaws, and the xenomorph in Alien won’t be showing up. But the list below is by no means definitive, so feel free to argue against me in the comments.
10. Colonel Hans Landa – Inglourious Basterds (2009)Tarantino is good at creating great villains, and he’s made some great villains over the years – Mr Blonde, Elle Driver, Bill, Calvin Candie – but it’s his Jew-hunting Nazi colonel, Hans Landa, who stands out. Landa works via contradiction; he’s at times charming, funny and charismatic but can switch in a second into a cruel and cunning monster, the best example of this being Basterds‘ opening farm scene. There’s a sense of bubbling evil beneath the character’s cheerful façade and Waltz is mesmerizing in the role; it’s fitting he won an Oscar for this performance. Landa’s contradictions mean it can be difficult for other characters, and the audience, to get a grasp on him. For example, late in the film, he mentions his ‘Jew Hunter’ nickname with disdain, when earlier we’ve heard him boast proudly about it. He also seems to revel in Nazi idealogy but rejects his side at the end, leading it difficult to understand his motives. Waltz has said that Landa is ‘realistic to the point of being inhuman’ – the evil in Landa comes from his pragmatism, which explains the contradiction in his character – it’s likely he doesn’t believe in the Swastika at all, but rather sees the Nazis as a means of furthering himself. Political ideals are not important to Landa which makes his Nazi roots all the more frightening; he does what he does for himself, not his country, and that’s even more frightening.
9. Hans Gruber – Die Hard (1988)The second Hans to appear on this list, Die Hard‘s villain is the best bad guy action movies have to offer. Rickman is utterly fantastic in this role – brilliant, smart and charming, with a mocking disdain of those he deems stupider than himself – this is Rickman’s best villain and he’s played some great ones. Essentially, Gruber’s only interested in money, but covers his motives with some wonderful, theatrical terrorism. It’s a screen-stealing performance, and Rickman gets all the movie’s best lines. Whereas nowadays, some of Bruce Willis’s ‘now I know what a TV dinner feels like’ humour comes across as corny and dated, Rickman’s dry wit holds up fantastically – for example, after killing Takagi:
‘I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way… so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.’
The delivery on this line is spot-on, completely deadpan, and would have faltered coming from a lesser actor. Essentially, Gruber works as the polar opposite to John McClane – Willis’s hero is all-American, crude and resourceful, whilst Gruber is European charming and genius. The two make a great on screen pair and have fantastic good guy/bad guy chemistry. Gruber remains a wonderful character played wonderfully in probably the best action movie of all time.
8. Auric Goldfinger – Goldfinger (1964)There had to be one Bond villain on this list and it was extremely difficult choosing which one. There’s been so many greats over the 50 years – Red Grant, Jaws, Oddjob, Rosa Klebb – and whilst I was tempted to go against the grain and put Famke Janssen’s perversely insane Xenia Onatopp on here, I decided to try and pick the villain who best represented what a Bond antagonist should be. Donald Pleasence’s icy, lizard-like Blofeld came close, but Goldfinger is probably the best bad guy Bond’s had to face. He’s at times childlike, prone to anger, but with a great sense of intelligence and insanity, played with glee by Gert Fröbe (though like a lot of Bond villains at the time, his voice was dubbed over). The character gets some of Bond’s most infamous scenes – painting a girl gold, the crotch-laser – and of course gets the best and most oft-quoted line in the entire series – ‘No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!’ There’s something of the used-car salesman in Goldfinger, a sleaziness which helps make him memorable, and his Operation Grand Slam remains one of the Bond’s series’ most crafty schemes. And he has a brilliant silly death scene.
7. The Joker – The Dark Knight (2008)The Joker has appeared on screen numerous times, and whilst a lot of credit has to be given to Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance in the 1989 Burton movie, it’s Heath Ledger’s Joker which stands as the best cinematic portrayal. Ledger is the second actor on this list to win and Oscar for his villainous role (sadly, a post-humerus one after his sudden drug-related death) and his performance is incredible, the best part of Nolan’s already brilliant The Dark Knight. The character is given a grimy, Francis Bacon-style makeover and comes across as completely and utterly insane – an agent of chaos, with no sense of rhyme or reason; he is driven by a need to shake the world and doesn’t really have motives; he just does things. Ledger gives a wonderfully insane role – borrowing from numerous different sources – Nicholson’s Joker, Sid Vicious, Alex DeLarge – but operates in a random, schizophrenic manner which is impossible pin down, possessing no real backstory. He serves as the perfect foil to the rigid order of Batman, and the two have a great dynamic together, almost symbiotic, with Batman driven by the Joker and the vice versa. Ledger is hilarious in the role but also really really frightening, with a shallow view of morality and human nature and some really nasty bomb-focused schemes, which get increasingly intense as the movie progresses. His laugh is exceptional too and very creepy; this is an electrifying performance.
6. Darth Vader – Star Wars (1977)
I considered leaving Vader off the list but it seemed a crime to do so – Darth Vader is a hugely iconic character and a staple of pop-culture, but has become something of a joke in modern consciousness, after years and years of parodies. However, I caught the entire original trilogy recently and it reminded me just how good Darth Vader is – the character is hugely threatening and imposing, wafting into rooms towering above other characters, and has a great screen presence; even though the character says little we’re always aware of him being there. The look of the character, combined with the breathing and James Earl Jones’s hypnotising voice, add up to a great iconic figure, a throw-back to serial space villains of the 30s but one given gradual depth as the series continues. The father twist in Empire gives Vader a sense of humanity and his ultimate redemption in Jedi serves as the thematic closure to the whole series. The prequels are frankly terrible and I have little interest in how Vader became Vader, especially the way it was told in Episodes I-III, but taken from the original trilogy, Vader is brilliant.
5. Frank Booth – Blue Velvet (1986)David Lynch knows what scares you, and knows how to create haunting, disturbed characters. Booth is probably Lynch’s most threatening monster. The Blue Velvet villain, played with frightening intensity by screen-legend Dennis Hopper, is different to describe – loud, heavily sexualised and abusive, not to mention violent, Booth is a maniac, and one of the best ever put on screen, impossible to predict and prone to extreme and scary outbursts, with an iconic dependence on a mysterious, gas-based drug. The brutal scene in which Kyle MacLachan hides in the cupboard whilst Booth tortures Isabella Rossellini is one of Lynch’s best and most disturbing scenes. Blue Velvet works as a look into wholesome Americana and its duality- the bleak horrors behind the white picket fences, and Booth represents the dark, poisonous underbelly of America – the drugs, the murders, and what goes on behind closed doors. He’s a monster, and a genuinely threatening one, serving as the darkest corner of America’s psyche.
4. Maleficent – Sleeping Beauty (1959)As with Bond, I needed to include a Disney villain on here, and there were a lot of greats to choose from – Scar, Ursula, Gaston – but it’s Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent who stands out as the studio’s best bad guy, and the first woman on our list. The animators dismissed the traditional witches garb in designing the character – opting instead for elegance, unstated grace – and in doing so created a lean, semi-Satanic villain. There’s nothing human in her design and Maleficent’s animation is eerie with an otherworldly green glow, the best work Disney had done at this point (Fantasia aside), and the character’s unique look is matched by her wicked personality. This is a villain who threatens to murder a baby because she wasn’t invited to a party – few other Disney villains are this cruel and crucially, few others function with so little motivation. Most Disney villains are after power and driven by greed – Maleficent just seems, well stubbornly evil, and this highlights her as the nastiest and least human Disney antagonist. The icing on the character comes from the terrific voice acting from Disney veteran Eleanor Audley; this is a cold, calculated and hoarse performance, almost hypnotising to listen to and very dark. She also turns into a dragon. Which is cool. And the climax and Maleficent’s subsequent death scene stand as one of Disney’s most intense ever.
3. HAL 9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)Another hugely iconic villain, HAL 9000 has been parodied and referenced in pop culture for years, so much so that even people who aren’t familiar with Kubrick’s movie will recognise the character. The idea of an artificial intelligence unit which malfunctions and begins murdering humans seems rather cliché now, but it’s a cliché invented by HAL 9000, and HAL is a fantastic character, tying into the movie’s theme of intelligence and what it means to be human. HAL can’t malfunction but does, and Kubrick remains vague when explaining why. Some say that the contradictions in HAL’s programming – he’s told to lie to the crew about the Jupiter mission, but also told to be honest with them – causes a paradox within him which causes discrepancies – with the crew dead, he wouldn’t need to lie to them – and its chilling when this impossible machine makes its first ever mistake. It can also be argued that the mistake it not important and that HAL only begins killing the crew when he realises they want to shut him down, an act of human self-defence lead by fear, an emotion he’s developed via his vast intelligence. Kubrick himself said that HAL basically ‘had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility,’ Either way, he makes for a fascinating look into what it means to be human, and as a villain, is very iconic in terms of look, voice, and dialogue, with some of cinema’s most often quoted lines. A great character and when he turns, a brilliant antagonist.
2. Nurse Ratched – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)The third Oscar winning performance on this list, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched is a brilliant representation of evil. She’s an almost robotic character, seemingly lacking emotion but with a need for control and power, representing what Ken Kesey would deem ‘the man,’ – essentially representing everything the Beat Generation were against; order, senseless rules, and authority. She’s a metaphor for the corrupting influence of power and the nonsensical red-tape of bureaucracy and a great villain to hate. Everyone in their lives will have met some form of Nurse Ratched. The character material comes straight from Kesey’s novel but Louise Fletcher completely understands the role and gives a frighteningly rigid, armoured performance, with a few little subtle slips when she doesn’t get her own way. The levels of evil and lack of human empathy displayed by Nurse Ratched reach their conclusions in the chilling climax and though not defeated (this isn’t a happy film) she does lose her voice, and in turn her power. It’s a chilling performance and a great character, more of a thematic representation than a human being, Nurse Ratched is by far the greatest female villain in cinema.
1. Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men (2007)Another character who works more as a representation of evil than an actual figure and the fourth Oscar winner on our list, there’s so much that can be said about Chigurh, a lot of which I’ve already covered in my No Country for Old Men review. Chigurh represents evil as an entity, death, and random chance – a complete unstoppable killing machine driven by a set of morals which isolate him from the rest of the world. He breaks the world down into its most basic elements – chance, a coin flip – and is terrifying for it. Like Hans Landa, Chigurh posses an extremely pragmatic, frighteningly simple view of the world, a view which takes action out of his hands, which essentially means that he is unaccountable for all the violence and mayhem he causes. He is the inevitability of fate – as he explains, his victims have been waiting their whole lives to meet him, everything they’ve ever done has lead to this. Paradoxically however he sees people as responsible for their own fate but utterly powerless to alter it. There are some who see the entire movie as a metaphor for retirement, which fits, with Chigurh representing the shadow of retirement itself, looking to put down the men around him. Javier Bardem is absolutely amazing in this role – inhuman, threatening, but also possessing a very funny dark sense of humour. One of the most perfect examples of novelist, actor and director combining to great a perfect screen villain.
So there’s the list and I hope you enjoyed it.
Feel free to comment on what you agree with, and shout at me if there’s anyone important I left out.