The driving force of any plot is conflict. And great villains, being the very embodiment of conflict, are that little magic ingredient that never fails to make a movie delicious. The nature of evil is taboo, complex, and difficult to grasp. This might be why we are often psychologically intrigued by villains. They deviate from social norms and bring a contrarian worldview to the table. Some villains serve the purpose of critiquing certain socio-political systems. Just like heroes, villains too are variegated and have distinct motives and personalities. Some have tragic backstories, some mental afflictions, others are simply evil incarnate.
But all of them have this in common: We love them on screen, we’d hate to meet them in real life, and they stay with us long after the end credits roll. Encompassing all of this, here are the 20 greatest movie villains of all time:
20. HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)
This eerily calm and bone-chilling supercomputer, voiced by Douglas Rain, is perhaps the most memorable Artificial Intelligence character in the history of cinema. HAL starts out as an unerring and reassuring presence, but soon, it turns into a frightening killing machine that will go to any lengths to fulfil its mission. Its motives can be interpreted variously, making it an endlessly interesting character. HAL is a groundbreaking, complex villain whose ultra-rationality and cold-blooded sense of superiority is counterbalanced against its “human” emotions. HAL is unbelievably manipulative and has a human-like sense of self-preservation. It’s all-seeing red eye and its haunting rendition of “Daisy Bell” encapsulate its unforgettable ambivalence perfectly.
19. Baby Jane Hudson (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962)
Baby Jane represents the worst case scenario of what comes after fifteen minutes of fame. Her great mission in life is to become famous exactly like she used to be — as a child star. She is a deranged villain, played to creepy perfection by Bette Davis, who wants to revive her child star act while being a middle-aged lady at present. Till she achieves her dream, her greatest hobby is viciously abusing her paraplegic sister, Blanche (Crawford). The abuse ranges from taunts and beatings to killing her pets and serving them to her for lunch. Baby Jane’s grotesque make-up, violent capriciousness, and utterly unhinged behaviour make her the stuff of nightmares.
18. Gollum (The Lord of the Rings franchise, 2001–2012)
While he is not viewed as the primary villain of the franchise, Gollum is certainly the most remarkable one. Once a relatively ordinary Hobbit, his mind and body became twisted beyond recognition through centuries of the One Ring’s influence. He succumbs to its power as soon as he lays eyes on it, and becomes the face of corruption and selfishness. Brought to life by Andy Serkins, there are various layers to this fish-eating, riddle-talking villain, which make it difficult to pin him down. It is easy to pity him and respect his survival skills, but trust him at your own peril. And never try to separate him from his “precious.”
17. The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
This green and mean witch with her pointy features, evil eyes, and black robes has been inspiring fear within the hearts of children for decades. Margaret Hamilton’s blistering performance made The Wicked Witch an iconic villain. Her shrill voice and cackling laughter sear into our brains, making her sinister dialogues sound even edgier. She is out to get Dorothy and her dog, Toto, and also acquire the powerful Ruby Slippers. She can cast spells, and she has a crystal ball, a flying broomstick, and winged monkeys at her command. She’s also ruthless and revels in her wickedness, which makes her frightening.
16. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975)
The stone-cold cruelty of Nurse Midred Ratched was perfectly portrayed in this brilliant adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel by Louise Fletcher. She is the nurse in charge of the psychiatric ward, but her methods of nursing are rather twisted. A sadistic, power-hungry control freak with a spine-chilling demeanour and a calculating mind, she will find your greatest weakness and use it to torment you mercilessly. She enjoys imposing strict order and repression on her helpless patients. She snuffs out any rebellion through cutting remarks or terrifying punishments. Nurse Ratched is such a great tyrant that she makes a criminal feigning insanity look like the good guy.
15. Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange, 1971)
In this creative adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel, Malcolm McDowell plays the dark and sinister Alex with gleeful malevolence. With his distinctive “droog” outfit and asymmetrical eye make-up, Alex is psychopathic destruction and apathy personified. For all the unethical and horrifying injustice he is subjected to, his disgustingly sadistic and remorseless nature lays bare the monstrosity of his soul. His greatest hobbies are beating people to near-death, manipulation, and rape. And listening to classical music, of course. This unsympathetic character serves the movie well, as we can look at him objectively. He is both magnetic and revolting, and is always “ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.”
14. Voldemort (Harry Potter series, 2001–2011)
This legendary villain doesn’t even have to appear on screen to inspire terror. We can sense his presence in every moment of darkness, whether the brilliant Ralph Fiennes brings him to life in the flesh or not. A psychology of fear is generated around Voldemort as no one dares to say his name. And when he does appear, he certainly lives up to his reputation. The master of the Dark Arts is easily recognisable by his ashen skin and serpentine nose. All he cares about is absolute power and immortality. He is cruel and remorseless. He is also a shrewd politician who knows how to keep his followers under his thumb. And he is such a powerful magician that he doesn’t even need a broomstick to fly!
13. Hans Gruber (Die Hard, 1988)
Hans Gruber is truly a delight to watch. There are many villains who can shock you with their evil deeds, but few can turn villainy into art. The sheer audacity of faking a terroristic takeover to cover up a big fat heist is laudable. Gruber is incredibly organized, devious, and his dark humour is strong. He has some memorable dialogues, which have been delivered perfectly by Alan Rickman. Rickman’s performance elevates this criminal mastermind’s appeal in no small way. Gruber is highly intelligent and quick on his feet, always improvising and staying ahead of his opponents. He is also charming, sophisticated and utterly likable as a character.
12. Mr. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946)
Mr. Potter, portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, is one of those obnoxious villains whom we absolutely love to hate. The only sacred thing in his life is money. He chases more and more wealth with every fibre of his being, and stops at nothing in order to acquire everything. He knows that money is power, and he uses his position (and mean-spirited devilry) to abuse the less privileged. A shrewd businessman, he can present exploitative schemes in the garb of charitable ones. He is out to ruin Christmas and also the Bailey family business. His duplicity, greed, and cold apathy make him a dangerous antagonist.
11. Annie Wilkes (Misery, 1990)
Here’s another villain who loves to prey on the weak and helpless, but in a far, far more gruesome and psychopathic way. She is a former nurse, a psychotic serial killer, and novelist Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) number one fan. Her style of nursing Paul made his horrendous accident look like a piece of cake. Annie plays the saviour at first. But when she finds out that Paul has killed off her favourite fictional character, Misery, she breaks her own character of a good nurse. And eventually she breaks Paul’s ankles too — with a sledgehammer. Kathy Bates’ performance as the deranged “Dragon Lady” makes the prospects of hospital visits more terrifying than they already are.
10. Amon Goeth (Schindler’s List, 1993)
Goeth is one of the greatest, most revolting villains ever seen on screen. The truly frightening thing is that he was a real person. While some view the depiction of this Nazi war criminal as exaggerated to the point of caricature, it is actually historically spot-on. Every idea in Goeth’s mind is informed by an extremist and sadistic version of Nazism. He tortures and kills Jews for sport. Goeth was the commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp. He ordered the liquidation of the Płaszów ghetto, and was responsible for the death of thousands of Jews. Ralph Fiennes brings this twisted, tyrannical, and brutal flag-bearer of Hitler to life.
9. Amy Dunne (Gone Girl, 2014)
Neither the “Cool Girl” nor the “Amazing Amy” she was asked to be, Amy is one of the most disturbing and psychopathic villains in the history of cinema. Rarely does a villain take us on such an emotional roller-coaster. We go from buying into her act and sympathising with her to being flabbergasted that such deviousness can exist. She is a brilliant criminal mastermind who concocts and executes plans with jaw-dropping subtlety and ruthlessness. She is meticulous, calculating, manipulative, and highly intelligent. Rosamund Pike turned Amy into a blood-soaked icon in popular culture with her unforgettable performance. Amy gave us a villain and a tale of revenge like no other.
8. Reverend Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter, 1955)
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a self-declared preacher, a con artist, and a serial killer. He’s actually a fanatic believer of the Bible — but of his very own twisted interpretation of it. He lures people through sermons about good and evil, using his “LOVE” and “HATE” knuckle tattoos for demonstration. He marries widows, kills them later, and steals their money. A misogynist murderer, he believes he is doing God’s work. He thinks that God hates women too and that He can’t possibly “mind the killings,” because His “book is full of” them. This reverend offers us a good reason to be sceptical about the church.
7. Norman Bates (Psycho, 1960)
The “Mother” of all psychopaths, Anthony Perkins terrified us as this creep, dangerous villain, whom nobody would suspect at first glance. With his sweet and subdued personality, Norman seems like an ordinary guy. Except of course, during his bouts of sexual-repression-fuelled, cross-dressed homicide. Norman suffers from psychosis, dissociative identity disorder, and a serious case of mommy issues. He adopts a second personality as the murderous mother, killing the women he is attracted to. He is also the killer of his own mother, whose corpse he keeps in his basement. This deeply disturbed and disturbing psycho is the villain behind the iconic shower murder scene.
6. Hans Landa (Inglourious Basterds, 2009)
Inglourious Basterds‘ iconic SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is a “Jew Hunter” unlike any other typical Nazi. He tracks down and kills Jews not because he truly subscribes to the Nazi ideology, but simply because he is good at it. He’s like a warped version of a great detective. He uses his skills for doing loathsome and horrifying things and only caters to his self-interest. He can side with the Nazis or sell them out, depending on where his personal advantage lies. He’s cruel, ruthless, and opportunistic. But what makes him even more unnerving is that he is charming, sophisticated, intelligent, humorous, and rational. You never know what to expect from this sociopath.
5. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)
No matter how many precautions you take or how many restraints you put on him, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter will always be several steps ahead of you. This bloodthirsty psychiatrist, portrayed brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins, is a manipulative evil genius. He can pierce through toughened glass to infiltrate right inside your head. His stillness and staring are as unsettling as his acts of violence. His backstory is horrifying. A cultured and civilised cannibal, he has a precise and somewhat understandable method of choosing his targets. He is an enigmatic blend of animalistic and anti-animalistic, whose tongue is as sharp as his teeth.
4. Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men, 2007)
He’s neither a supervillain nor a supercomputer, but it is also difficult to believe that Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a human being. Any sense of morality and backstory go for a (coin) toss as he seems like the personification of fate rather than a real person. He is a contractual killer with highly unusual methods. He is obsessed with determinism, and tends to rely on a coin toss to determine the fate of his victims. Not to mention, those who turn out to be ill-fated, meet their end through a bolt pistol — a weapon typically used to slaughter cattle. Chigurh creates a sense of dread in us because we know nothing about him.
3. Michael Corleone (The Godfather trilogy, 1972–1990)
If he weren’t so cold, ruthless, and hell-bent on wiping — not everyone — but “just” his enemies out, Michael would fit the archetype of the tragic hero quite well. One of Al Pacino’s most iconic roles, Michael starts out as a good guy who wants to steer clear of his family’s criminal legacy. But once circumstances trap him into their world, he traverses a dark downward spiral, making his character’s journey one of the greatest and most tragic in the history of cinema. His soul becomes corrupted and his actions morally dubious at best. He is cunning, decisive, and can think clearly in critical situations, outsmarting those around him.
2. Darth Vader (Star Wars trilogy, 1977–1983)
This masked menace is widely considered to be the face of the immensely popular Star Wars franchise. His covered face, heavy breathing, and the intimidating stature of David Prowse combined with the frightening voice of James Earl Jones make him terrifying. He is a complex character who is never able to completely sever his familial ties. This aspect also makes him a tragic figure. This Jedi Knight turned Sith Lord has his moments in the Light Side of the Force. But he left an unforgettable impact as the ruthless killer and tormentor of countless beings who displeased him, and is more famed for his Dark deeds.
1. The Joker (The Dark Knight, 2008)
The Clown Prince of Crime is the Crowned Prince of Crime on this list and arguably, every other ‘greatest villains’ list. This laughing maniac of grotesque beauty is equal parts super and villain, you can’t help but love him. Many have done a commendable job portraying the world’s favourite psychopath. But Heath Ledger’s headlong delve into the heart of madness can perhaps be considered the zenith. The Joker is so unpredictable, psychologically complex, and darkly perceptive that he steals every scene he is in. Ledger’s Joker is no normative villain. He attacks all that is conventional and just wants “to watch the world burn.” Batman may be your role model, but it’s The Joker who makes you think.
Villains are compelling to watch when we can understand them, and even more compelling when we can’t. You might think they are the worst kind of monsters on the planet, but they will probably disagree. After all, nobody is a villain in their own mind. This list is a reflection of how an interesting villain becomes the dynamic catalyst that elevates a film from good to great. After all, Alfred Hitchcock rightly said:
The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.