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10 dastardly movie villains

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

I’m a villain girl.

Yes, I know the history of cinema is filled with do-gooder types who rob from the rich, give to the poor, cuff up the bad guys and try, in their kind-hearted ways, to rid the world of wrongdoing. I even know that these men and women usually end up celebrating with pints while the other guys rot in prison cells or asylums or push up daisies. These characters, the good guys with honorable intentions and clean consciences, they have their shining moments.

But the villains? Well, the villains are way more interesting.

Twisty and edgy and scary, they do it for me. Always have. To be fair, though, who doesn’t love a great villain? There’s something about the vicarious thrill of watching the bad eggs do all the things we don’t have the guts to do. And the really crazy ones — the Norman Bates types, the killers and the maniacs — they fascinate us too. The dark side of human nature, the cobweb-covered hidden parts of the psyche, draw us in. 

So how’s about I initiate a little celebration of villainy (the good guys get enough press, if you ask me) with this list of 10 awesomely mean-spirited, wily and just plain evil villains:

1. Little Bill Daggett, “Unforgiven” — “You have never hated anyone in your entire life as much as you hate Gene Hackman in this movie” insists my friend Jason the Comedian, and damn if he isn’t right. There’s no villain more hateful than the amoral, swaggering, ruthless Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” He is the human embodiment of villainy, evil incarnate, and he eyes everyone he meets the way a lioness sizes up a limping gazelle. Emotions don’t concern him; people mean nothing; murder merits not a second thought. Bill’s stunning lack of humanity solidifies his spot as the meanest bad guy of all-time.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

2. Colonel Hans Landa, “Inglourious Basterds” — In the process of writing, directing and producing one of the best films of 2009, that brainy sicko genius Quentin Tarantino created Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a smooth-talking Jew hunter possessed of probing intellect, unbelievable cunning and lacerating wit. This wily chap, who treats everything as a social experiment, takes such pure delight in seeking out and devouring weakness it’s impossible not to laugh along with him. Just don’t lie to him. Ever.

3. Max Cady, “Cape Fear” — What makes Max Cady (Robert Mitchum in ’62, DeNiro in ’91) such an iconic villain is his pure, unyielding relentlessness. Single-minded to the point of murder, he refuses to stop his mission to rain down a vengeance storm upon the lawyer who put him in prison. His determination — which leads to a most unsettling, nightmare-inducing car trip — makes him practically invincible. And everyone knows that there’s nothing scarier than evil you just can’t kill.

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Disrespect Chigurh's bob at your own peril...

4. Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men” — Before the Coen brothers’ eerily calm, otherworldly assassin Anton Chigurh strolled into our lives, we never had any reason to fear cattle guns, Buster Brown coiffures or coin tosses. Now we can’t pick stray pennies off the ground without shuddering. Writer Cormac McCarthy created this iconic figurehead of evil, but Javier Bardem brings him to wicked, freaky life in Oscar-worthy ways. Chigurh’s the kind of baddie you won’t soon forget.

5. The Joker (Heath Ledger), “The Dark Knight” — If it’s true there’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who refuses to die, it’s also true that nothing inspires a mean case of the wiggins like a villain who has no logical reason for anything he does. In his role as The Joker, the late Ledger went to dank, unsavory depths to create a character so raving mad he lights mountainous heaps of cash on fire and drives pencils in the craniums of hardened goodfellas. The Joker’s beyond reason, and that makes him one seriously terrifying mischief-maker.

6. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” – For some reason, the really frightening movie villains always seem to be male, or non-human, or both. Not so with Kathy Bates’ startling turn as disturbed psycho fan Annie, a character so creepy she probably lurks in the mind of every writer who hits the NY Times best-seller list. Bates makes us feel (figuratively and literally) the hammer blows of Annie’s rage. Then, in a flash, she turns sweet, accomodating and gentle … and that’s when the real chills come calling.

7. Keyser Soze, “The Usual Suspects” — Something tells me Bryan Singer had no idea the mysterious bad guy who wielded immeasurable power in 1995’s film noir hit would become such a pop-culture icon. After all, how can we fear a villain who has no face? It has everything to do with the “things you don’t see are scarier than the things you do” principle. The fact we don’t see him only heightens the anxiety. There’s not much more horrifying than a bad guy who’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. 

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When Hopkins is done with you, you'll never drink Chianti again.

8. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, “The Silence of the Lambs” — No list of iconic evildoers would be complete without the name “Hannibal Lecter” on it, but that’s not why he merits inclusion. Lecter’s scare power, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, comes from his uncanny ability to read people’s darkest secrets and use them to get exactly what he wants (there’s a bit of Lecter in Col. Landa, it seems). That he’s also a cannibalistic serial killer is almost beside the point — he rips into human frailty like a plate of fava beans. How tasty and terrifying.

9. Casanova Frankenstein, “Mystery Men” — Sometimes villains don’t have to be scary to make a big impression on us. Nobody knows that better than Geoffrey Rush, who makes being bad look so effortlessly cool as Casanova Frankenstein, the glib, supersmart supervillain (he invented a cholorform-deploying portable enticement snare!) out for the blood of the dim Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). He’s witty, charming and deliciously mean-spirited. Who needs murder and mayhem, again?

10. Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest” — Moms, according to our collective human consciousness, are supposed to be kind, warm and comforting. So when a movie mom goes off the grid — in the all-noble way Faye Dunaway does in “Mommie Dearest” — it’s the stuff of paralyzing night terrors. Also, there’s a very good reason wire hangers have fallen out of fashion. Watch this movie if you’re screaming to know why.

Honorable mentions: Loren Visser (“Blood Simple”); Norman Bates (“Psycho”); Lester Long (“Clay Pigeons”); Commodus (“Gladiator”)

19 Responses

  1. Robert Ford [Casey Affleck] is so villainous because you never see him coming.

  2. Alex from “A Clockwork Orange.” I guess he’s more of an anti-hero, but the “Singin’ in the Rain” scene more than qualifies him for this list, in my opinion. This is a great list. There are so many good villians to choose from. Definitely more interesting than most good guys.

  3. Hans Gruber…
    “I’ll take it under advisement. HIT IT AGAIN!”

  4. Good list! I’ve got a real weak spot for Annie Wilkes. Kathy Bates rocks, what a freakin’ nutjob.

    • Love Kathy Bates in anything, really, but Annie Wilkes may be my favorite character she’s ever played. I agree with Ebert on the why: She goes from raving lunatic to sweet caretaker in 2 seconds.

  5. As always, nice list – truly iconic villians. Glad you left Darth Vader off…shows your tastes are above that of mere mortal movie goers;) But how about these for Dishonorable Mention?

    1. Stephen Boyd in Ben Hur
    2. Gary Oldman in Leon (The Professional)
    3. Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves
    4. Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma
    5. and for good merit, the “queen alien” from Aliens
    tied for with Hugo Weaving in The Matrix:P

    • Yeah, Darth was never a favorite of mine. All that asthmatic breathing got in the way of his dastardly-ness. I considered throwing in Godzilla, but then I realized he’s only a villain in about 60% of the Godzilla movies.

  6. Fab list, M! I wasn’t sure I want to see ‘Basterds’ but what people have been saying about Waltz’s performance got me curious. I second Marc’s dishonorable mentions, you have to see Ben Hur if you adore a ‘good’ villain. Stephen Boyd’s Mesala is so unapologetic-ally evil despite his history with Judah, which makes the story so compelling and heartbreaking.

    Oldman, Rickman and Crowe are all masters in playing charming bad boys.

    • Someone else suggested Crowe in “3:10 to Yuma.” I’d also add Crowe in “Body of Lies” — he plays villains very well, maybe better than he plays good guys (if that’s possible).

  7. I LOVE that you added Annie Wilkes to your list.

    The inner battle she faced between her unhealthy adoration of Paul and the fictional Misery with her own strange moral code regarding politeness and etiquette, and the conflict with the necessity of keeping Paul there to “help” him was how she kept a balance. The paradox of who she was and her ultimate reaction to Paul’s rejection makes her one of the most memorable characters ever devised and executed. I love her, no matter how wicked she is.

    • She stands out as one of the few great FEMALE villains in movie history, but Kathy Bates also (and I still haven’t figured out how) makes Annie a weirdly sympathetic character. Leave it to KB to accomplish the impossible!

  8. Nice list! You could have easily padded it out to 20 or 50 without breathing too hard. One I didn’t see (not in the comments either) is Auric Goldfinger, who has the best villain line ever “You expect me to talk?” “NOOOOO, I expect you to DIEEEE Mr. Bond!” Classic.

    • I am sad to report that I have not seen many Bond films. My Netflix is all clogged with classics, so I’ll have to work through the Bond movies on the next go-round.

      But that is a KILLER line, and it might have spawned an idea for a future list: Great Villainous Lines.

  9. [...] Keyser Soze, “The Usual Suspects” – Something tells me Bryan Singer had no idea the mysterious bad guy who wielded immeasurable power in 1995’s film noir hit would become such a pop-culture icon. After all, how can we fear a villain who …More [...]

  10. [...] that he’s hardly a beacon of morality. (Hackman, in fact, makes him a despicable villain for the ages.) Munny claims to have reformed but reverts to his old ways easily — only, he says, to [...]

  11. I’ve realized what all of my favorite villains have in common…they’re all so smooth. Hans Landa, Michael Myers, Anton Chigurh, Keyser Sose, and especially Hannibal Lecter. They hardly lose their cool and they’re such badasses.

    Gringo
    he shot cyrus

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