Movies need to have the good guy: the one you root for no matter what. But to root for someone, you got to have some sort of conflict. That often appears in the form of The Villain. This is the bad-guy (of bad-girl) who makes life miserable for the Hero. Many movies have a Villain, but there are some actors and actresses who simply exploded out of the role. They made the character their own, and in some cases, took over the film.
For this, we looked for the Villains who are extremely memorable, demonstrated an impressive ability to act, and who had an impact on audiences. Some of these characters have been around for a long time. In some cases, the movie struggles to hold up because the world has simply moved on. But, the important part is that the Villain held up. When we go back and watch the older films on the list, we can still see how the Villain was played to the hilt.
We are not talking about the 2016 HBO version here. The 1973 version is incredibly dated, but it was the first movie to use a computer virus as a plot point. In it, the robots at a “theme park” run wild and begin killing the guests. The Man in Black is played by Yul Brynner. He gives a chilling performance as an emotionless android. That lack of emotion is what gets Brynner on this list: he manages to radiate evil and be terrifying without using a wide range of emotion. His terrifying lines where he simply repeats, “Draw” to one of the guest cowboys are absolutely chilling.
“Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients of a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”
Gene Hackman played Lex Luther in the 1970’s/1980’s Superman movies. Part of the success of the original movie was that it was played with an interesting mix of comedy, nostalgia, and drama. Lex Luther proudly shouts that he is, “the greatest criminal mind of our time!” several times in the film. But his really chilling moment comes after he tells Superman that he has launched two missiles: one bound for California, and one bound for New Jersey. Superman can only stop one. Luther’s mistress, Ms. Teschmacher tearfully tells Luther that her mother is in Hackinsack. Luther simply looks at his watch and shakes his head.
“I didn’t go to five years of evil medical school to be called Mr.”
Mike Myers played both Austin Powers and Dr. Evil in the comedy series, but in many ways, Dr. Evil is the one people remember. Myers plays both roles far over the top, but it works. I’m not sure anyone can actually say the word laser, without mimicking Dr. Evil’s quotation marks with their fingers.
“When they land we blow up the roof. They spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they work out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach earning twenty percent.”
Yes, it is a Christmas movie! Well, if you are a guy, it is not Christmas until you see Hans Gruber fall from the top of Nakatomi Plaza. The movie is a prime example of the late 80’s action films, where the hero always has a funny line at the right time. Alan Rickman is bad-guy Hans Gruber, but it is like someone forgot to tell him that he was not in a light action movie. He plays Gruber deep, and real. You actually believe that he is willing to kill people without evening thinking about it.
“I thought you were good Paul… but you’re not good. You’re just another lying ol’ dirty birdy.”
Kathy Bates got her big break in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Annie is a sad soul, who clings to a childlike innocence. She is a sad-sack character who saved the life of her favorite author. But Annie is also suffering from a serious mental illness, and when it kicks up, that sweet lady from the farm becomes pure evil. Bates pulled this off because she is extremely believable as the quirky, sad Annie. So much so that when she goes absolute psychopath, it is completely jarring.
“I should have known you’d know where to find the boys and the booze.”
Faye Dunaway as actress Joan Crawford in a movie based on Crawford’s daughters tell-all book. This is a movie that is largely forgotten, and younger generations may never even have heard of it. But it is camp horror all the way. There is also a delightful feeling that comes from watching celebrities have terrible personal lives. I’m not talking about the terrible things she does to her children, but the fact that we are seeing an actress who can never actually be happy. Why is she on the list? Because Dunaway throws herself into the role. So much so that if you actually watching something with Joan Crawford after, she doesn’t actually look right. Dunaway stands out so much that she becomes your memory of Crawford.
“I jumped, O my brothers, and I fell hard but I did not snuff it, oh no. If I had snuffed it, I would not be here to tell what I have told.”
Malcolm McDowell takes the lead in director Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of well, it’s Kubrick, so it isn’t always clear what it is. It is a brilliant version of a dystopian future where young Alex is a violent, psychopathic criminal. The early scenes in the film are incredibly violent, showing just how horrible Alex is. The true horror comes later, after Alex is captured. I won’t spoil this one, but McDowell gives an insanely wonderful performance.
A variety of actors have played Michael in the Halloween series. The one I want to focus on? Will Sandin who appears in only one shot as a 6-year-old Michael, who has just stabbed his sister to death. The scene itself is done through Michael’s eyes. It shocked audiences at the time when the reveal came that it was a small child. Sandin gives a terrifying brief performance as a freaked out looking Michael. He manages to convey a sense of confusion and shock, while at the same time showing no regret. The character went on to kill dozens of people from behind his mask, but I will always remember that scary little boy.
“Harry Potter, the boy who lived, come to die.”
“He Who Must Not Be Named” appears only briefly in the first Harry Potter film, as a creepy face on the back of someone’s head. He doesn’t fully get his body back until 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Ralph Fiennes takes the role on. Fiennes does a great job playing a quirky, terrifying “You Know Who” for the remaining films. But honestly, the Harry Potter phenomenon is simply so huge that Fiennes could have done a terrible job, and the character would still appear on this list. Voldemort (I said it, but I don’t like it) is such a powerful figure in the minds of an entire generation that he easily earns a spot here.
Jason only appears briefly in the first movie in this series, but he is the big bad guy in the rest of the series. Stephen King once said that he considered writing a book called, “I, Jason,” in which the story would be told through Jason’s eyes. Someone who is trapped in a living Hell, killing, and being killed repeatedly. Let’s be honest: most of these movies are not very good, but they made the movies over a span of 29 years. That is a significant feat and puts the series on a small list of franchises that have lasted that long.
Simba: “You’re so weird.”
Scar: “You have no idea.”
Jeremy Irons voiced this villain in the animated version of the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor took the role for the 2019 digital version. But Irons really chewed up the scenery in the original.
That is actually pretty creepy, because we know it’s true. Scar, of course, goes on to tell a child that he was responsible for his father’s death. That is very messed up, and makes Scar one of the worst Disney villains.
“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”
The ultimate version of a Dracula movie because it was really the first (there had been a stage play based on the novel, but this was the first sound film where the vampire was identified as Count Dracula). Bela Lugosi played the Count, and while the film does not hold up to today’s standards, it was a big deal for the time. More importantly, the Count has appeared in hundreds of forms over the years: from a spot on Scooby Doo, to Sesame Street, to Penny Dreadful. They all throw back to Lugosi’s version of the character.
“I killed Sirius Black!”
What? Bellatrix beats out Lord V. on the list? You bet she does, and there are two major reasons. First, she gets more screen time than her boss. She kills her cousin, Sirus Black in front of Harry, and then taunts him about it later. Second, Helena Bonham Carter plays the role with such over-the-top insanity that she takes over every scene she is in. While The Dark Lord is menacing, you are absolutely concerned for Hermione’s life when Bellatrix has hold of her. And, well… she is very fun to watch.
Scarlett Witch: “You took everything from me.”
Thanos: “I don’t even know you.”
Thanos, played by a digitally altered Josh Brolin, is the mad Titan who has been operating behind the scenes for multiple MCU films. He doesn’t appear until 2012’s “The Avengers,” but really gets moving in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” As with Harry Potter, this series is just so huge, and so influential that Thanos absolutely must be one of the big villains. Brolin does such a good job though that he is higher on the list. When he talks about his reasoning for getting rid of half of all life in the universe, you believe that he believes his reasons. Brolin almost makes you think Thanos might not be completely wrong. That is pretty evil.
“Mother! Oh, God, Mother! Blood! Blood!”
Another legendary horror movie that, in many ways, still holds up. If you watch the movie for the first time, you see that Hitchcock knew what he was doing as a director. This is not a horror movie; it is a Film (capital F intended). Anthony Perkins plays the boy-next-door who turns totally terrifying. Never mind the scenes with him wearing a wig: he is creepy any time he is on camera. He acts a lot through his eyes, and he is utterly terrifying.
“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Douglas Rain provides the voice of the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece in space. Today, the pacing in the film seems to drag, but at the time, people were so impressed with the effects that they did not necessarily notice. Rain deliver’s Hal’s line, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” in an absolutely chilling manner. This is a computer; its voice is largely flat and unreal. But Rain is able to put a little twist in that makes you actually afraid of the computer. Plus there is something about that red eye. Watch the scene where Dave and Frank try to talk without Hal overhearing, and you realize (with horror) that Hal can read lips.
Robert Englund plays the burned child-molester in the series of Elm Street films. But it is his work in the first film that gets him on the list. Yes, he is one of the Big Three in slasher movies (along with Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees), but the first Elm Street movie is the one that is truly scary. There is humor, but England plays Freddy Krueger in a much more terrifying manner here. He is just plain scary because you see that he enjoys slashing people.
“I’ll be back.”
The T-1000 gets all the love as the villain in this series. And Robert Patrick does an impressive job in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But before he became the robot hero in most of the movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the bad guy. Someone once said that Arnold was put in this role because he couldn’t act. He just had to stand there and shoot, or fight. Well, no. As with Yul Brenner as the Man in Black in Westworld, if you are going to play an emotionless robot, you need to be able to show us something. Arnold does this, through little movements, and with the dialog he does have. “I’ll be back” became a catchphrase for the franchise, but the first time we hear it, you know the poor cop behind the window is doomed.
“Did your parents have any children that lived?”
OK, Gny. Sgt. Hartman is not really a villain. He is a Marine Corps Drill Instructor who is doing his job preparing men to go to war. But he also strikes fear into the hearts of his recruits. Anyone who was ever in the military also feels that little knot of dread in their stomach when Hartman starts yelling. R. Lee Ermey does a fantastic job keeping Hartman just on the edge of over-the-top. His final scene in the film is brilliant: you can literally see the decision as to how to handle the situation move across his face.
“But you are, Blanche. You are in that chair.”
Bette Davis takes this character over-the-top and beyond. The film spawned a series of what they called “Hagsplotation” movies: where an older actress played a crazy character. Bette Davis is a little before my time, but this has always been one of my favorite films. Anyone who has ever been tormented by a sibling can related to Joan Crawford’s problems here. Davis is just full on crazy, and she gets worse throughout the film. Only a talented actress like Davis can actually pull this off. The film could have been stupid, but Davis and Crawford’s real-life hatred of each other spills all over the screen.
“I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog too.”
No one plays a witch like Margaret Hamilton. She is the ultimate, and the one that many thousands of little girls have dressed as for Halloween. She is so terrifying; I have one friend (now in his 50’s) who has still never seen the end of the movie. He has always turned it off when the camera zoomed in on Hamilton’s maniacal laughing face in the crystal ball. She is also pretty frightening as Miss Gulch, a much more realistic character. The cultural impact of this movie continues to this day, as we continue to see books, TV shows, and film references to it.
“Wendy? Darling? Light of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I said, I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in.”
Jack Nicholson takes the psycho dad role from Stephen King’s scary novel. This is the four of Stanley Kubrick’s films to make the list, and his role as director needs to be addressed. The fact that he has directed some of the best bad-guys ever simply cannot be understated. He was a notoriously picky director, sometimes shooting scenes hundreds of times. Here, Jack Nicholson comes across as a little nutty from the start. You just know things are going to go bad from the first time you see him. But it works, because you can easily see the emotionally fragile Shelley Duval (playing Wendy) actually marrying someone like this. The dynamic between the couple is all too real, and Nicholson ends up being more scary than any of the ghosts who appear in the haunted Overlook Hotel.
“Problem solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”
Anthony Hopkins is one of the best actors out there, and he is at his best here, playing Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Jodie Foster does a decent job as Lecter’s “protégée.” Yes, that is sort of what she becomes, and the way Hopkins lures Foster in phenomenal. He is the ultimate terrifying bad-guy because not only is he crazy, he is probably the smartest guy you have ever met. Hopkins takes the character and uses him to turn what could have been a so-so movie into one of the best.
“Your mother’s in here with us Karras.”
The film that is frequently cited as the scariest movie of all time features a young Linda Blair as the possessed girl Regan. She shares the role with Mercedes McCambridge who does the voice of the demon. Together they make that “creature” laying on the bed freaky, terrifying, and unforgettable. McCambridge says that she prepared for the part by giving up her sobriety and drinking again. She also gargled raw eggs and chain-smoked. The end result was a voice that sounded like it had just come from Hell. For her part, Blair is incredible. She acts the part of the demon in such a way that it really looks like she is no longer a child. In some ways, the film is showing its age, and younger audiences sometimes laugh at it. But at the time, the entire country went on an Exorcist spree, and there were lines around the block at theaters.
“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
There is no doubt that Star Wars has had a tremendous impact on multiple generations of fans. It has been around for 40+ years and is resurging with hits like “The Mandolorian.” Vader has been at the heart of most of it. He was never really scary, and he never really played as completely evil. But Episodes 4 – 6 (the original series) firmly placed him as an important character in cinema. David Prowse did the body work, but James Earl Jones did the voice. And it is a voice that is recognized worldwide. Interestingly, Jones was cast because his voice was not recognizable. We see Vader’s story through the Episodes 1 – 3. Although many fans complain about them, we do get to see how Annikan Skywalker went down the path to becoming Vader. And, as much as the prequels “failed,” on paper it deepens the understanding of the character and makes him much more than a standard villain.