When we first decided to do a top 10 post on movie villains, we were fairly sure we’d struggle to come up with a definitive 10. Great movie villains are in abundance, taking many different forms and resonating differently with each of us. When it came to it though, our initial list was only 30 villains. A quick poll, and a couple of tie breakers to work out, and we had our top 10!
As always, let us know your thoughts on this list and any that you feel we should have included!
10. Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz)
Lee: There are a couple of villains on this list from children’s movies, that have been around a while, and would therefore have scared you as a child, sticking in your mind ever since. The Wicked Witch of the West, portrayed by Margaret Hamilton, is one such villain – epitomising wickedness and even threatening to get poor little Toto the dog! It’s a character that still crops up to this day in various forms – Mila Kunis transformed into her, managing to both upset and terrify my young daughter, in prequel movie Oz: The Great and the Powerful and Rebecca Mader did a great job of playing her in Once Upon a Time, where she became an important and recurring character. Of course, she still can be seen (hopefully, once restrictions ease) in hit musical Wicked. She’s an iconic villain, one that’s endured more than 80 years. It’s just such a shame that she can be killed so easily with a bit of water…
Mary: I’ve recently read The Wizard of Oz and was shocked at how little the Wicked Witch appears in the book. The filmmakers were wise to extend the role for the film, Margaret Hamilton was not originally cast in the part but what she created became etched in time. She is one of the most iconic characters in movie history, someone who scares us when we are small and amuses us as we age hitting us with nostalgia. The Wizard of Oz is one of my favourite films and every scene in it makes me beam, thanks in no small part to The Wicked Witch.
9. Jack Torrance (The Shining)
Clare: I was a bit unsure if Jack deserved to be on this list, as to me he’s not the villain in The Shining, he’s a victim. However, I can’t disagree that he’s truly villainous in the final act and a performance as good as Nicholson’s can’t be ignored, so Jack earned his place on this list. His torment of wife Wendy is again embedded in almost every film fans mind when we talk about truly terrifying characters and aside form Patrick Bateman, no-one uses an axe like he does.
Mary: When ranking my villains I decided the highest would be based on how evil the character was. Therefore Jack Torrance ranked low on the list, his is a very complex character, he is a failing writer with a drinking problem and not a very good husband or father. So he has his issues and perhaps his demons, but it is the evil power in the hotel that seeps into Jack and turns him against his family and away from sanity. Yes he does some terrible things but I think it is hard to call him truly evil as he is heavily influenced. That said Jack Nicholson was born to play this part and boy is he great playing this psychotic caretaker.
Matt: I don’t know, it seems to me that being in the hotel only helped bring to the surface what was inside Jack Torrance all along… it was only the trigger for his inevitable breakdown. He seemed perfectly willing and capable of the acts he committed. I personally didn’t see any struggle – his hand was never forced, and maybe he was even enjoyed himself! And that’s what makes him so terrifying. It’s also the genius of The Shining: no interpretation is the ‘right’ one.
8. Hans Gruber (Die Hard)
Lee: Last year, I very nearly bought a Christmas jumper featuring the shot of Hans Gruber plummeting to his death, with the phrase “It’s not Christmas until I see Hans Gruber fall from Nakatomi Plaza”. It’s such an iconic character, but unbelievable to think Die Hard was actually the very first cinematic role for Alan Rickman. Up until then, Rickman had regularly appeared in modern and classical theatre productions, and was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The immaculately groomed German terrorist, with a nervous, menacing grin is everything a good villain should be – mostly calm, mostly polite, but unpredictable and ready to inflict terror at the drop of a hat. Rickman once said about Gruber “I’m not playing the villain, I’m just playing somebody who wants certain things in life, has made certain choices, and goes after them.”.
7. Scar (The Lion King)
Clare: I found it really difficult to limit myself to just one Disney villain for this list as I would have liked to see Ursula and Jafar up here too. The reason I chose Scar above every one else is because he elevated the level of evil within the villains. Is Mufasa’s death the first time we see murder in a Disney film? Not only is his plot beyond sinister, his villain song is brilliant and he’s utterly charismatic. Despite all his evil-ness I still kind of like him, and I think that’s the hallmark of a truly great villain.
Mary: Well I mean of course he is on the list, he killed his brother (traumatised me as a child as a result) then ordered his nephew killed and blamed the murder on him. Then on top of that you add to the mix the delicious tones of Jeremy Irons and voila you have an epic unforgettable villain. The Lion King was my favourite Disney film for many years growing up, every part of it is perfect and its villain is no exception. How is it Disney can create such fantastic bad guys? Scar is up there with the best.
6. Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs)
Matt: Hannibal Lecter is the perfect example of a villain that people love, not hate. Speaking purely about The Silence of the Lambs (as it is the only Hannibal film I have seen), Anthony Hopkins’ hypnotic performance of the imprisoned cannibal serial killer and former psychiatrist – probably his most iconic role to date – oozes a certain charm and courteousness that means we enjoy his presence even when he is at his most sinister. What is great about the film is that for the most part we only hear about what Lecter is capable of – his reputation very much precedes him, and our imagination does the rest of the work! That is, until we witness him masterfully escaping his cage, by biting and beating the guards to a pulp (all of it to one his favourite classical arias) before slipping away under everyone’s noses in an ambulance wearing one of their faces. Even better: Hannibal Lecter isn’t even the primary villain in the film! With only 16 minutes of screen time in total, the impact Hopkins had in this role cannot be understated, and he fully deserved the Best Actor Oscar for that year.
5. Miss Trunchbull (Matilda)
Lee: Not only does she enjoy hurling children over great distances, she also likes locking them up in a medieval torture device called the Chokey! And on top of that, she torments and abuses the sweet, innocent Miss Honey, whose father was also murdered by Trunchbull! So, you can keep your Hannibal Lecters and your Voldermorts, this is what a real villain looks like!
Mary: You couldn’t miss out this one, Miss Trunchbull is such a fantastic antagonist, you just love to hate her, yet she is endlessly entertaining. Pam Ferris is obviously having a ball hamming it up in every scene she is in. Roald Dahl sure knew how to write his villains, and they are just so absurd, I mean hurling children out of windows and locking children in a box with massive nails sticking out! Watching the film now is hilarious because you just shout at the TV; how are the teachers not reporting her!!!!
Matt: Of all of the choices on this list, this is the entry I am most glad to see! Definitely one of cinema’s most underrated villains, and a sensationally convincing performance from the lovely Pam Ferris. I watched Matilda endlessly as a child (in fact it was probably one of the first films that counted as an obsession) and Miss Trunchbull became very much part of the furniture – absolutely iconic.
4. Col. Hans Landa (Inglourious Basterds)
Clare: When someone mentions Inglorious Basterds only 3 things come to mind. Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, the cinema burning scene and the time at university that we tried to re-enact the cinema burning scene with Wotsits… I digress. Waltz was almost unheard of before this film and yet somehow managed to steal the show from one of the biggest and best casts Tarintino has ever had at his disposable. It’s a performance that deserves every award it won. He’s vile but captivating, witty but horrific.
Matt: Putting aside the fact that he is a Nazi ‘Jew Hunter’ for a moment – bear with me – what fundamentally makes Hans Landa so terrifying is that behind the smiles, the charming façade and nonchalant demeanour is a highly cruel, calculating and manipulative man, who uses his position of power to conduct cerebral exploitations of others to get what he wants. Even amidst seemingly the politest of handshakes, if you look closely Landa is checking the pulses of his targets, and through his eye contact he is reading their thoughts. His aptitude for deception and adapting to situations so that he can break them is truly nightmarish. Oh, and if things couldn’t be any worse, did I mention he’s a Nazi ‘Jew Hunter’ too?
3. Darth Vader (Star Wars)
Lee: Seeing Darth Vader on the big screen as a 5 year old was enough to firmly implant him in my mind as the ultimate villain. The power he held, and the terror felt by both those that work for him, and all those living throughout the galaxy, made him the ultimate villain in my eyes, although that level of villainy may have become somewhat softened over the years, with the portrayal of his earlier years in episodes 1-3. Rogue One was very much a movie of two halves – completely dull in the first, exhilarating and action packed in the second. However, those final moments, and the appearance of Darth Vader, literally sent chills down my back and gave me goose bumps!
Clare: When you hear movie villain, you’re lying if Darth Vader doesn’t flash through your mind. No matter what prequels, sequels, remastering goes on, Vader will always be an iconic character and one of the most iconic villains of all time.
Mary: As an Anakin Skywalker fan through and through I really find it hard to see Darth Vader as a true villain, he had weaknesses and they were abused by Palpatine (really he should be on this list instead). He initially became what he was from a passionate love and a fear of losing what he had, as with all tragic characters it was these fears that led him down a dark path, all the while encouraged and misled by an older supposedly wiser mentor. BUT, in the end his true colours shone through and he redeemed himself in the end, no character who redeems their actions in my eyes can truly be a villain.
2. Voldemort (Harry Potter)
Mary: This was a perfect and seamless adaption from page to screen, Voldemort is the ultimate villain, he is a psychopath and lets face it a serial killer. Reading him in the books really does give you a chill, he is pure evil and Ralph Fiennes brought him to life perfectly. He was exactly as I imagined him in the books, he brings to the part this power and stillness which is terrifying, like a snake waiting to strike. He glides through the scenes with an ominous air and you just don’t know what he will do next. A brilliant performance that has many many fans and brought to life one of literature’s greatest baddies.
Matt: I don’t think many recognise J.K Rowling’s deliberate parallels between Voldemort and Adolf Hitler – both dictator figures hell-bent on enslaving who they perceive to be the ‘inferior race’ – in the case of the wizarding world this is the Muggles and Muggle-born. As the films get darker in tone and Voldemort’s cause gathers momentum, the parallels with the Holocaust become more and more apparent – snatching, torturing, imprisonment, terrorism, murder, genocide, and an ideology summed up in one image: hundreds of Muggles crushed under the weight of a marble column declaring ‘MAGIC IS MIGHT’ that dominates the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic. Amongst many other things, I’d say Voldemort is a pretty nasty guy!
1. The Joker (The Dark Knight)
Lee: I’d say that the ultimate villain is the smart psychopath, the kind of unpredictable madman that you could so easily have the misfortune of meeting in real life. And the Joker personifies that perfectly. I’ve personally loved every on-screen depiction of the Joker, but it’s this version in The Dark Knight by Heath Ledger that stands out for many. As always, there was uproar when Ledger was initially announced for the role, but he put in the work and managed to change everyone’s mind, earning an Oscar in the process (which he sadly was unable to accept due to his untimely death). He isolated himself for over a month to prepare, did his own makeup and threw himself heavily into the character. It’s an extreme effort that ultimately took its toll on the young actor, but left us with one of the most memorable movie villains ever.
Matt: Heath Ledger will go down in history for his portrayal of The Joker, who, concealed behind his clown-like exterior, is an ‘Agent of Chaos’ – wreaking havoc on Gotham City because he can, and because it’s fun. But this is all part of his expertly executed grand plan, beneath the surface make-up, to cleanse society of corrupt politicians and organised crime. (In some ways, you could say The Joker is the hero…!) Heath Ledger commands the screen and every character he collides with – with his shifting loyalties, alternating back-stories, red herrings, enigmas and bluffs – combined with a hauntingly psychotic voice and a laugh that sends chills throughout your entire body. A (more than) worthy winner for this list in my opinion.
Mary: I really enjoyed putting this together and seeing what everybody considered the greatest villains. In reality the greatest villain is an entirely personal thing, as different characteristics and actions will have entirely different effects on us as individuals. But I do truly think this is a list of iconic movie characters. I wish you could see who didn’t make the list.
Matt: There’s something about villains that has always amused me… We always love them! Or at least love to hate them. I think that’s because we can never ignore the genius of A) their conception, and B) their execution on the screen. Behind each of these villains are fantastic actors and incredible source material, which together create perfect cinema and pop culture icons! (By the way, Mrs. Carmody from The Mist deserves to be here too…)