The 50 Greatest Movie Villains of All Time


The true nature of Star Trek Into Darkness’s villain has become perhaps the Internet’s worst-kept secret (you have to go all the way to, erm, the top of the IMDB cast list to find out what the trailers have painstakingly hidden), but don’t worry — you’ll not have it spoiled here. Suffice it to say that the film’s antagonist is fiercely intelligent, physically brutal, and hellbent on revenge. In other words, this is a great movie villain. But what makes a truly memorable one? Sifting through the scores of iconic movie bad guys and girls reveals that villainy comes in all shapes, sizes, and levels of intensity; ranking them against each other is a tall order, but your Flavorwire was willing to give it a shot.

50. Joan Crawford THE FILM: Mommie Dearest PLAYED BY: Faye Dunaway WHY WE REMEMBER HER: Few bad movie moms were brought to life with as much flamboyance, melodrama, and unintentional (maybe?) camp as movie legend Joan Crawford, played with a to-the-cheap-seats theatricality by Faye Dunaway in this adaptation of Cristina Crawford’s notorious memoir. It’s a performance recalled fondly, to this day, whenever wire hangers are mentioned.

49. Bob Wolferton THE FILM: Freeway PLAYED BY: Kiefer Sutherland WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Matthew Bright’s 1996 cult classic was a scuzzy, trailer-culture riff on “Little Red Riding Hood,” so it required a Big Bad Wolf. We got it in Sutherland’s Bob Wolferton, a serial killer and child porn aficionado whose pursuit of Reese Witherspoon’s Vanessa is utterly squirm-inducing.

48. Gunnery Sgt. Hartman THE FILM: Full Metal Jacket PLAYED BY: R. Lee Ermey WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: The shouty, angry, tough-as-nails drill sergeant is a character type that’s old as the hills, but in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 classic, Marine drill instructor-turned-actor Ermey invested it with an authenticity and fierceness that passed quickly from comic to horror (thanks, in no small part, to the sheer inventiveness of his insults). Gunny Hartman’s abuse and cruelty turn out to be intense enough to drive his recruits, well, crazy.

47. The Truck THE FILM: Duel PLAYED BY: n/a WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Some consider “Bruce,” the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws, to be one of the great movie villains, but at this late date, it’s hard to separate the “character” of the shark from all we know about the technology that brought him to the screen. If you’re going to look at early Spielberg, his most chilling villain was the terrifying assemblage of metal and steam that pursued poor businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) down — and frequently off — a California highway in the gripping 1971 film Duel.

46. Phyllis Dietrichson THE FILM: Double Indemnity PLAYED BY: Barbara Stanwyck WHY WE REMEMBER HER: The femme fatale — the black widow of a woman who catches the horny dope of a protagonist in her web, chews him up, and spits him out — is one of the most durable of all movie villains, and no one played it with more silkiness, sexiness, or pragmatic iciness than the great Barbara Stanwyck, who wraps dumb old Fred MacMurray around her finger in Billy Wildern’s noir classic Double Indemnity.

45. The Evil Queen THE FILM: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs PLAYED BY: Lucille La Verne WHY WE REMEMBER HER: Whether plotting or purring at that mirror, mirror on the wall, the Queen in Walt Disney’s 1937 classic was, for many young viewers, their very first exposure to a truly scary movie villain. Unless their parents first introduced them to…

44. Cruella De Vil THE FILM: 101 Dalmations PLAYED BY: Betty Lou Gerson WHY WE REMEMBER HER: …the evil antagonist of Disney’s 1961 favorite. And why does she rank higher than the Snow White queen? Three words: dog fur coats.

43. Sir Guy of Gisbourne THE FILM: The Adventures of Robin Hood PLAYED BY: Basil Rathbone WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: The sheriff of Nottingham is the presumptive villain of the Robin Hood stories, but in the 1938 Errol Flynn version of the tale, the evil, conniving Gisbourne’s proximity to Prince John makes him far more dangerous. And as played by Rathbone (best remembered these days for playing the hero in Universal’s series of Sherlock Holmes movies), he’s a sneering, dastardly figure that you love to loathe.

42. Virgil THE FILM: True Romance PLAYED BY: James Gandolfini WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: There’s an abundance of great villains in this 1993 effort from screenwriter Quentin Tarantino and director Tony Scott — Gary Oldman’s roughneck pimp, for example, or Christopher Walken’s smooth-talking gangster. But the film’s most chilling figure may well be the rowdy hitman Virgil, played with sinister menace by a young Gandolfini. The force with which he goes at tiny — but fierce — Alabama Worley (Patricia Arquette) is one thing; watch the casualness with which he tells her about the business of killing people, as she lays bleeding and whimpering at his feet. You can tell right away that this guy’s got a future playing very bad men.

41. Diana Christensen THE FILM: Network PLAYED BY: Faye Dunaway WHY WE REMEMBER HER: Few actors have captured the ruthlessness of the modern business class as convincingly as Ms. Dunaway (making her second appearance on the list), whose head of network programming would be even scarier had her vision of rage-filled reality television not basically come true.

40. Patrick THE FILM: Martha Marcy May Marlene PLAYED BY: John Hawkes WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: It’s easy for hulking brutes to play the heavy; what’s trickier is for an actor as slight (and, normally, likable) as John Hawkes to fill an audience with the kind of fear elicited in the 2010 film Winter’s Bone, or the following year in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. As the Manson-esque leader of a rural New York cult, Hawkes’s Patrick never makes a threat and never raises his voice; he knows that, as a true figure of troubling power, he doesn’t need to.

39. Khan Noonien Singh THE FILM: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan PLAYED BY: Ricardo Montalblan WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: A hero is only worth the villain he’s facing, and when the first Star Trek film underwhelmed, the creative types reached into the show’s past to find a great villain for the follow-up. Khan Noonien Singh was first realized by Montablan in the 1967 episode “Space Seed”; his snakelike charm and craftiness made the second film the hit that the first one was meant to be.

38. Mr. Potter THE FILM: It’s a Wonderful Life PLAYED BY: Lionel Barrymore WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: There’s been no shortage of evil movie bankers (from Mrs. Deagle to Gordon Gekko), but the O.G. of the bunch is Barrymore’s Mr. Potter, who rules Bedford Falls with an iron fist and resents the sole holdout to his empire so much that he doesn’t blink at the opportunity to steal thousands from his dotty old uncle. But it’s not just what he does, it’s how he does it; the way Barrymore curdles all of that hateful dialogue and the way he glowers at George Bailey across the giant desk made him an enduring icon of villainy.

37. Baby Jane Hudson THE FILM: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? PLAYED BY: Bette Davis WHY WE REMEMBER HER: Based on what we know about Joan Crawford off-screen (see #50), it would take a real enfant terrible to terrorize her on-screen. But that’s what Bette Davis does as the title character in Baby Jane, turning her aged child star into a grotesque stew of paranoia, anger, and killer inclinations.

36. (tie) Andrew “Pope” Cody/Janine “Smurf” Cody THE FILM: Animal Kingdom PLAYED BY: Ben Mendehlson/Jacki Weaver WHY WE REMEMBER THEM: It’s impossible to decide who’s more horrifying in David Michod’s 2010 crime drama: “Pope,” the hot-tempered armed robber and killer who is at least an out-in-the-open psychopath, or his seemingly kind mother, who will kill you (perhaps literally) with kindness.

35. Bill Maplewood THE FILM: Happiness PLAYED BY: Dylan Baker WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Hannah Arendt’s famous line about the banality of evil seems appropriate when considering Mr. Maplewood, the suburban pedophile who gives in to his horrifying urges in Todd Solondtz’s pitch-black 1998 comedy. What’s perhaps most disturbing about Dylan Baker’s masterful performance is how he doesn’t play him as a monster — he’s a depressingly average soccer dad, totally recognizable and thus all the more repulsive.


33. Leatherface THE FILM: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre PLAYED BY: Gunnar Hansen WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Intellectual intensity and acumen can make a physically slight villain just as scary as a brutish figure, but make no mistake: when the hulking antagonist of the original Chain Saw Massacre smacks Kirk with his hammer, drags him into his lair, and slams that giant metal door behind him, it still packs a visceral punch.

32. Alex DeLarge THE FILM: A Clockwork Orange PLAYED BY: Malcolm McDowell WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Some blokes just can’t be rehabilitated. But it’s not just Alex’s incurable evil that makes him such a memorable antihero — it’s the sheer pleasure he seems to get from his own repugnant behavior, as best seen in the notorious “Singin’ in the Rain” scene.

31. Annie Wilkes THE FILM: Misery PLAYED BY: Kathy Bates WHY WE REMEMBER HER: The antagonist of Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, on the other hand, takes no pleasure in confining her writer hero to his sickbed and breaking out the hobbling hammer — it’s something that, she’s sad to say, just has to be done, rendering the horrifying scene even more disturbing.

30. Keyser Soze THE FILM: The Usual Suspects PLAYED BY: Kevin Spacey WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: For the big reveal, obviously, which is still one of the best twist endings in movie history (even if it wrought a truckload of pale imitations). But don’t forget, much of the impact of that reveal was how carefully it had been prepared throughout the film — with dialogue and dramatizations breathlessly detailing the ruthlessness and power of “the Prince of Darkness” himself.

29. Eleanor Iselin THE FILM: The Manchurian Candidate PLAYED BY: Angela Landsbury WHY WE REMEMBER HER: Another evil mother, yes — but since this one’s a troublesomely Oedipal, power-hungry madwoman who sacrifices her own son to brainwashing as an assassin, maybe your mother’s skeezy episodes of public drunkenness are a little more forgivable?

28. Dr. Christian Szell THE FILM: Marathon Man PLAYED BY: Laurence Olivier WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Because he pretty much ruined every movie-going adult’s trips to the dentist from 1976 forward.

27. Asami Yamazaki THE FILM: Audition PLAYED BY: Eihi Shiina WHY WE REMEMBER HER: “Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!”

26. Hans Gruber THE FILM: Die Hard PLAYED BY: Alan Rickman WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: There’s so much to hold dear about Rickman’s pseudo-intellectual bond thief: the way he responds to Takagi’s insistence that “you’re just going to have to kill me,” his evil laugh before McClane pulls the gun, the wide-eyed desperation of his free fall. But this viewer always seizes on that moment when he introduces himself, as “Clay, Bill Clay” to McClane — exhibiting the quick thinking and adaptability that propels one from the ranks of villain to that of super-villain.

25. Hans Landa THE FILM: Inglourious Basterds PLAYED BY: Christoph Waltz WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: A good villain is never, ever in a hurry — as the “Jew Hunter’s” agonizing introductory scene, full of throat-clearing and busywork with milk and pens, serves to remind us.

24. Jack Torrance THE FILM: The Shining PLAYED BY: Jack Nicholson WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: It’d be hard to forget the guy who chops in a door with an axe while trying to kill his wife and child — even if he hadn’t thrown in the “Here’s Johnny!”

23. Hank Quinlan THE FILM: Touch of Evil PLAYED BY: Orson Welles WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Corrupt cops (á la entry #34, or Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris, who was this close to making the cut) are particularly malevolent figures, since they hold the trust of the public at large, and betray that trust at every opportunity. And thus we have the granddady of all corrupt movie cops: police captain Hank Quinlan, a kidnapper and murder who plants evidence and frames others for his own crimes. Welles (who also directed) creates a truly loathsome antagonist for hero Charlton Heston, and few moments in ‘50s cinema are as satisfying as when he gets his just desserts.

22. Clarence Boddicker THE FILM: Robocop PLAYED BY: Kurtwood Smith WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Some villains are great because of their subtlety, the quiet and unassuming manner with which they engage in their wicked ways. Clarence Boddicker, the underworld boss of the original Robocop, is not one of those villains. Can you fly, Bobby?

21. Lord Voldemort THE FILMS: The Harry Potter series PLAYED BY: Ralph Fiennes WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Well, c’mon. This guy’s so evil, people are afraid to say his name.

20. Chad THE FILM: In the Company of Men PLAYED BY: Aaron Eckhart WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Serial killers, terrorists, Nazis, maniacs: it’s easy to fear and hate characters of such obvious and keenly realized rottenness. But the everyday evil of a guy like Chad, the corporate drone brought to chilling life by Aaron Eckhart in Neil LaBute’s debut film, feels all the more real because it’s the kind of thing we’ve all encountered: a handsome, chiseled dude who wreaks emotional havoc on a young woman just because he can — quite literally for the sport of it.

19. Nurse Ratched THE FILM: One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest PLAYED BY: Louise Fletcher WHY WE REMEMBER HER: Because her name has pretty much become shorthand for every single cruel, domineering, evil medical professional in the 35-plus years since Fletcher won her richly deserved Best Actress Oscar for playing the most hateable nurse in all of moviedom.

18. General Zod THE FILM: Superman II PLAYED BY: Terence Stamp WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: All that kneeling, honestly. Especially once you get to be my age.

17. Freddy Krueger THE FILM: A Nightmare on Elm Street PLAYED BY: Robert Englund WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Though the later films in the series turned him into a pop icon and semi-beloved one-liner dispensary, in Nightmare’s original outing, Krueger was the neighborhood child molester and terrifying nightmare fuel for suburban kids — a real-life boogeyman, in other words. Speaking of which…

16. Michael Myers THE FILM: Halloween PLAYED BY: Nick Castle WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: “It was the boogeyman,” says Laurie Strode, at the end of a night of sheer terror as the target of escaped psychopath Michael Myers — a faceless “Shape” who just keeps on coming. “As a matter of fact, it was,” agrees Dr. Loomis, before glancing over that balcony and discovering the bullet-ridden figure has disappeared, because that’s the thing about the boogeyman: you can’t take your eyes off him for a second.

15. Anton Ciguhr THE FILM: No Country for Old Men PLAYED BY: Javier Bardem WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: The hair. The coin. The gun. “Friend-o.” Few fictional characters have been quite as chilling as Cormac McCarthy’s seemingly indestructible killer for hire.

14. Harry Lime THE FILM: The Third Man PLAYED BY: Orson Welles WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: It’s hard to forget the guy who gets the best entrance in movie history (even if it turns out he’s a vile con artist who’s been stealing penicillin from military hospitals and selling it, diluted, on the black market).

13. Noah Cross THE FILM: Chinatown PLAYED BY: John Huston WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Corrupt land developer, rapist, molester, killer. Noah Cross has a lot to answer for, but any great villain is happy to justify his own villainy, and few justifications are as pure as this: “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.

12. John Doe THE FILM: Seven PLAYED BY: Kevin Spacey WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: First, the kind of intricate planning required to pull off his mortifying “lesson” requires the very definition of evil genius. Second, when even Morgan Freeman admits someone has “the upper hand,” that carries some weight. But most of all, the cleanness and efficiency of his depravity is what sticks — after all, most movies end with the triumph of our noble hero over the dastardly villain.

11. Frank THE FILM: Once Upon a Time in the West PLAYED BY: Henry Fonda WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Few actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age were more beloved than Henry Fonda, so part of the force of his performance as the villain in Sergio Leone’s 1968 Western was the sheer shock of seeing him play so fiercely against type. But that only goes so far — Fonda’s heartless hired gun, a killer of women and children, was terrifying on his own terms as well.

10. Auric Goldfinger THE FILM: Goldfinger PLAYED BY: Gert Frobe WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: The Bond villains are in a class by themselves, so let’s just go with the quintessential Bond baddie: evil madman, bent on world domination, greedy beyond all measure, and mouthing that immortal line, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

9. Norman Bates THE FILM: Psycho PLAYED BY: Anthony Perkins WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Some of our most compelling villains are those that encompass the duality of evil: the normal face that they wear through most of their lives, and the darkness that peeks out and makes a mess of things. No character has personified that split as powerfully as Norman Bates, who first appears to be a sympathetic friend to our protagonist (Janet Leigh’s Marion), then becomes a surrogate protagonist when she is brutally murdered by his mother, only to be revealed as the true madman. Fifty years on, Perkins’s performance continues to amaze: he has such softness and gathers such sympathy in the first and second acts, but that gaze into the camera at the picture’s end remains utterly haunting.

8. Count Dracula THE FILM: Dracula PLAYED BY: Bela Lugosi WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Lugosi didn’t just bring Bram Stoker’s vampire to life: he personified him to such a profound degree that anyone who played the role in the years hence wasn’t just playing Dracula, but playing Bela Lugosi playing Dracula. And yet, for all the homages and parodies (some by Lugosi himself), the performance maintains its power: mysterious, elegant, erotic, and seductive.

7. HAL 9000 THE FILM: 2001: A Space Odyssey PLAYED BY: Douglas Rain WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Even within the most thoroughly, rancidly evil characters, there is still some hope that our protagonist could get through, conquer, and win the day. But that hope hinges on something resembling human feeling or reason; how could such a thing be possible when the villain is a computer with none of those human impulses? That coldly logical realization lays at the heart of the horror in Kubrick’s masterpiece, while the creepiness of the character is aided immeasurably by the unforgettable work of voice actor Douglas Rain.

6. The Joker THE FILM: The Dark Knight PLAYED BY: Heath Ledger WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money,” explains Alfred (Michael Caine), at a key moment in Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. “They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” And thus is explained not only the Joker, but why this suicide-bomber supervillain seems such an of-this-moment threat, and why Nolan’s trilogy seems so much closer to our world than that of the typical comic book fare.

5. Rev. Harry Powell THE FILM: Night of the Hunter PLAYED BY: Robert Mitchum WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Charles Laughton’s unforgettable 1955 Southern gothic thriller continues to pack a wallop because it taps into our unshakable childhood fears: that someone we’re supposed to trust is secretly out to get us, that everything we’ve been told is a lie, that unspeakable danger lurks under our very roof. Mitchum vividly personifies that danger with a performance of pure theatricality, yet terrifyingly real menace.

4. The Wicked Witch of the West THE FILM: The Wizard of Oz PLAYED BY: Margaret Hamilton WHY WE REMEMBER HER: It’s not bad enough that she has horrifying green skin, rides a broomstick, screeches and threatens, and has an army of flying monkeys at her beck and call — she’s also a dog thief. Too far, WWotW. Too far.

3. Darth Vader THE FILM: Star Wars (the original trilogy) PLAYED BY: David Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice) WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: It takes a certain kind of bad guy to wipe out a planet in the blink of an eye. But it’s not just his actions, it’s the persona — what is it that makes Vader such an enduring picture of nefariousness? Some say the jet-black suit, some say the breathing, some say that voice, some say the sheer villainy of waiting to reveal yourself to your own flesh and blood until the midst of a full-on lightsaber battle. But that’s not what got to this viewer: it was the terrifying, feebed-out old guy found under the mask at the end of Jedi. That is some scary shit.

2. Hannibal Lecter THE FILM: The Silence of the Lambs PLAYED BY: Anthony Hopkins WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Sure, the Lecter brand has gotten a little diluted over the years, thanks to too many prequels and sequels and reinventions (though the NBC series is proving the character may have some life left in him after all). But in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 smash The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins’s Lecter is a pure portrait of evil: standing at attention in his cell, just waiting to lure Starling into his web, and finding her a worthy adversary. Even as he takes a liking to her, though, he still seems a coiled snake about to spring; when he finally does, it’s even more horrifying than we’ve feared.

1. Frank Booth THE FILM: Blue Velvet PLAYED BY: Dennis Hopper WHY WE REMEMBER HIM: Villains as disparate as Dracula, Lecter, and Vader all have one thing in common: they’re evil, yes, but they’re also poised, never losing control of either their prey or themselves. Frank Booth, on the other hand, could lose his mind at any fucking second, which makes him both electrifying and scary as hell. The sadomasochistic, gas-inhaling, PBR-endorsing Booth manages to encapsulate both Lynch’s profound strangeness and Hopper’s gonzo persona; there’d never been a film character like him before, and there never will be again, God willing.