20. Max Cady – ‘Cape Fear’
Whether you prefer Robert Mitchum or Robert DeNiro – and really, can you go wrong either way? – Max Cady is one of the most fascinating movie bad guys of them all, a charismatic Southerner hell-bent on revenge, convinced that his is the path of the righteous. He’s colorful, seductive and, oh yeah, also completely unhinged. If you’re a pro wrestling fan, you probably know him as Bray Wyatt. That’s how unforgettable the character is. People are still trying to recreate it all these years later.
19. Col. Hans Landa – ‘Inglourious Basterds’
A wildly over the top caricature of a Nazi, Hans Landa truly scored because beneath all the flair, all the eccentricity, was a genuine sense of menace. It’s this refusal to ever forget that Nazis were actually real, and not just cartoonish bad guys, that grounds the character and makes him that much more terrifying. Only an actor like Christoph Waltz could find the balance between caricature and genuine malice and turn it into something unforgettable, and thankfully, he did.
18. Amon Goeth – ‘Schindler’s List’
Nazis have always been popular movie villains, but no movie Nazi cut to the terrifying heart of horror of Nazi Germany like Amon Goeth. This was no cartoon, no supervillain to be dispatched by Indiana Jones or Captain America. This was pure human evil, a terrifying look at the darkest side of humanity, of what we’re capable of, what we allow ourselves to be twisted into one step and one day at a time, and a reminder – stark and horrible – that this wasn’t fiction, that this was a real person, and he and thousands of men just like him made the world a very, very dark place. And still do.
17. Gordon Gekko – ‘Wall Street’
“Greed is good.” And with that, a legend was born, and an entire era was defined. Gordon Gekko is the ultimate manifestation of the greed that sits like a parasite at the heart of our society, eating it from the inside, and as more time passes, the more powerful a symbol Michael Douglas’ sleazy, morally bankrupt character becomes. He’s unforgettable because we hate him, and we hate him because, deep down, we know that he is what we have allowed the American Dream to be twisted into. He’s every banker we hate, every corrupt businessman, and even more than that, he’s richer than God, and we’re all just a little bit jealous.
16. Daniel Plainview – ‘There Will Be Blood’
Daniel Plainview is the spiritual cousin or Gordon Gekko, only instead of being a symptom of a disease like Gekko, Daniel Plainview is the disease. He’s America’s frontier, capitalist spirit twisted by an insatiable hunger for more, more, more. Daniel Plainview would devour the whole world and still be left unsatisfied. He’ll drink all of your milkshakes, and it still won’t be enough. This is the darkness we all desperately try to ignore, the steaming engine of America that feeds on, well, that feeds on our blood. The fact that he’s brought to life in such over the top fashion by Daniel Day Lewis makes it all the better.
15. The Wicked Witch – ‘The Wizard of Oz’
Like the Queen in Snow White, there is an endless need for people to reinvent the Wicked Witch, to see things from her point of view, to try to understand. But to hell with all that, she’s just plain nasty. She spends all her time terrorizing a teenage girl and her tiny little dog just for fun. She sets straw men on fire just because she can. And she does it all surrounded by a legion of flying monkey slaves. This is not a woman you want to screw with.
14. Freddy Krueger – ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’
The dude literally haunts your dreams, has knives coming out of his hands like the world’s most deranged version of Wolverine, drives you insane and then murders you all while dropping one liners. Now that’s multitasking. Freddy is Freddy. He’s the star of the show, and the best slasher film bad guy of them all.
13. Loki – ‘Thor’/’The Avengers’
Who doesn’t love Loki? It doesn’t matter if he’s supposed to be the Big Bad because he’s just so damn likable. Sure, he’s kind of a dick, but he’s smart as Einstein, as smooth as Marvin Gaye, and… okay, so maybe I have a little man-crush on Loki, but that’s okay, that’s the point. Everyone does. But what makes Loki really click is that he’s a character with genuine pathos. There is depth here that you don’t often get to see in a villain, especially in a so-called comic book villain. He’s the quintessential movie villain you end up cheering for because you want him to be good so very badly, but you also love that he’s so bad.
12. Annie Wilkes – ‘Misery’
This is why any celebrity’s sphincter probably tightens up whenever anyone tells them that they’re their biggest fan. Annie Wilkes was completely devoted – and completely nuts, and the terror she inflicted on poor James Caan worked so well precisely because she wasn’t just some raving psychopath. She was just a weird lady with a screw loose who tapped into a really, really dark place. You never see her coming, and that’s what makes her so scary, and Kathy Bates completely nailed it.
11. Keyser Soze – ‘The Usual Suspects’
Keyser Soze is a weird case because you never really see him until the very end of the movie. Then again (spoiler alert!) you really end up seeing him the entire movie, you just don’t know it. That’s what makes him so cool. His name is whispered like he’s the devil himself, only he’s been sitting there in the police station the whole time, disguised as a lowly cripple. The mystery, the fear, the genius, the effortless transformation from pathetic gimp to arrogant cool by Kevin Spacey – it all adds up to one of the best movie villains ever, even if no one still quite knows anything about him.
10. Nurse Ratched – ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
She’s the face of cold cruelty, of indifference where all that’s needed is a dose of compassion. But she also represents the cold indifference of society to mental illness, the barely disguised contempt, the judgmental disgust. She is The System personified, and once she has you, no one can hear you, no one can save you. And Louise Fletcher absolutely nails all of that with her performance, and gave us a character that became the cultural template for all nightmare caregivers and autocratic bureaucrats to come.
9. Hal 9000 – ’2001: A Space Odyssey’
Never has a villain been so calm, so self-assured, so… inhuman. And that’s the terror that lies at the heart of Hal, that amoral calm that doesn’t think twice about exterminating an entire crew in the middle of space simply because it judges it to be the best course of action. This is the true face of malevolence because there is nothing human to appeal to, no feelings to touch. Hal is smarter than you, and therefore superior to you. I’m sorry, Dave.
8. Hans Gruber – ‘Die Hard’
He’s the urbane terrorist who makes John McClane’s life a living hell, and no one could have played him except Alan Rickman. The almost insouciant arrogance, the bored sneer, all disguising a rapacious hunger and greed. The movie doesn’t work nearly as well without him, as proven by the countless sequels. He’s Hans Gruber. He’s smarter than you, he’s more stylish than you, and you? You’re just in his way. It’s just business.
7. Norman Bates – ‘Psycho’
His very name is a buzzword. You don’t get that without being one of the best characters of all time. You get a perfect mental picture whenever you hear the name, don’t you? You see the deranged momma’s boy, completely unhinged. You see the knife flashing in the shower, you hear the soundtrack screech. You see Norman Bates and everything that has come to represent.
6. The Terminator – ‘The Terminator’
What really needs to be said here? It’s Arnold in probably his most famous role, the badass killing machine who speaks one or two short words at a time, shows no emotion and never stops coming. It’s the goddamn Terminator!
5. Pazuzu – ‘The Exorcist’
Pazuzu is the name of the demon that possesses poor Regan in The Exorcist, and this is not a dude you want to step to. Pazuzu absolutely scared the shit out of audiences when the movie first hit theaters, and although people have become more jaded over time, the idea of a demon possessing a little girl and forcing her to say and do the most outrageous, vile shit is still pretty powerful. Most horror movie bad guys are servants of evil, or manifestations of it. Pazuzu is evil itself.
4. Anton Chigurh – ‘No Country for Old Men’
Those eyes, man. Those cold, dead eyes. That flat voice. That… well, everything really. Javier Bardem brings Anton Chigurh to life in perfectly realized soulless detail, and turns him into not just a bad guy, but an avatar for everything soulless and evil about our world. He decides men’s fates on the flip of a coin. He is indifferent, inhuman. Only this isn’t a robot or a computer or a creation of science fiction, but a flesh and blood man, and nothing is more terrifying than that.
3. The Joker – ‘The Dark Knight’
Heath Ledger’s last stand is also his most magnificent, as he turns The Joker into a symbol of anarchy, a man who, well, just wants to watch the world burn. It’s a stunning performance, one of the most magnetic and charismatic in movie history, and you can’t take your eyes off of him. It’s especially stunning because it’s all too easy to get lost in a world of camp with this character, but Ledger grounds him in an all too human sort of madness. No one knows who he is, or where he came from, or why he’s doing what he’s doing. You can’t reason with a man without a motive. You can’t find his weak spot, and that’s maybe the real genius of the character. It lets him be whoever you need him to be, and in The Dark Knight, he’s exactly the sort of villain we fear most in these strange and terrible times.
2. Dr. Hannibal Lecter – ‘The Silence of the Lambs’
He’s maybe the smartest man alive and, oh yeah, he eats people. That, uh, that kind of makes him a bad guy even if he’s technically helping Jodie Foster catch another serial killer from inside his cell. You know a character has transcended the medium when people start using him as a reference point in real life. Just think of all the times you’ve seen or heard people joke about some crazy freak being hauled around in that infamous straightjacket and mask. But it only worked because Anthony Hopkins completely crushed the part. This is his golden moment. He manages to capture that brilliance, the arrogance, the complete sense of control, and the ever-present menace of Lecter, and the result is one of the best movie characters of all time.
1. Darth Vader – ‘Star Wars’
His very name is a synonym for “bad guy” in our culture. It’s that simple. When someone truly heinous enters the world stage, what do people do? They immediately compare him to Darth Vader and make jokes about the imperial theme playing whenever he enters a room. He’s menace personified, he’s power in a black mask and cloak, and underneath it all, he’s tragic in a way that’s almost Shakespearean. He’s the perfect movie villain.