While the real world seems to have enough villains to keep us more than occupied, it’s time to celebrate the bad men and women of cinema. We imagine a lot of people will get very angry in the comments section because we missed out their favourite evildoer, which is an odd sentiment when you think about it. With that in mind, let’s first celebrate that selection of fine, twisted individuals who just fell outside our Top 10. From the sociopathic horrors of Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Paul and Peter (Funny Games) and Annie Wilkes (Misery), to the cold-blooded murderers like Hans Beckert (M) and the T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), they all performed horrifically but didn’t make the cut. In fact, this doesn’t even begin to cover the malicious, blackhearted characters like Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), Gordon Gekko (Wall Street), Captain Vidal (Pan’s Labyrinth), Don Logan (Sexy Beast), Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas), Alonzo Harris (Training Day), and Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange). With the recognition of that band of villains in the bag, it’s time to list the top 10 most chilling individuals.
10. The Child Catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968)
Considering the quality of villainy from those who did not make the cut, one could raise an eyebrow to the inclusion of the balletic Child Catcher. Yet the reason for his inclusion is to highlight how harrowing villainy is not limited to grownups. His cartoonish features and movements disguise an ugly, callous hatred of youngsters. With a net, a hook and a nose of gargantuan length, the Child Catcher’s image is likely seared into the nightmares of every child who viewed the 1968 musical. His frightening demeanour is coupled with his sole purpose for existence. The Child Catcher’s job is to remove children from everyday life. So when you boil him down, he is a creepy man who rides around, luring children into a moving cage with lollipops, cleansing them from the world. All in all, that’s pretty evil.
9. Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007)
The immediate choice from the Harry Potter franchise should be Voldemort: the master of all evil, who is relentless in his pursuit of power, and his eventual desire to rule us all. Yet the true villain of the wizarding world is someone who all us Muggles are too familiar with. We have all suffered a Professor Umbridge. She is a representation of the evil we see every day. Her totalitarian regime of power is absolute, where no good deed can receive oxygen, and Umbridge revels in the joy of evil. For she is evil for the sake of being evil. Also canonically speaking, Voldemort himself couldn’t cast a Patronus, even with a Horcrux, while Umbridge could. How? JK Rowling explained: “Because she [Umbridge] is a very nasty piece of work. She has an affinity for this horrible object, which would help rather than hinder her”.
8. HAL-9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)
Acts of villainy need no bombast to be evil. The removal of emotion or empathy in a person, or thing, is a quality that can shock and numb the viewer. HAL is a realistic possibility for the future, built by humans to aid our pursuits. Yet unlike our average computer, HAL is a sentient being who cares little for extraneous factors or human emotion. It has one goal. It has one purpose. It will fulfil that purpose, with a pure, cold, heartless logic that leads to some of cinema’s most heartstopping moments. “Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.” HAL does not negotiate with emotion. A human is either on the team or part of the problem, and HAL will decide which side you fall on.
7. Darth Vader (Star Wars, 1977)
By Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader’s realised the errors of his way. It’s a great emotional end to the trilogy, but can we really let him off for his past crimes? In short, no. The former Anakin Skywalker is a sinister, vindictive and soulless leader of a galactic force. In the prequels, he murdered all the “younglings” in the Jedi temple, which isn’t a great start. After that, his introduction to our world in Star Wars involves strangling someone to death, murdering numerous Imperial officers and allowing the deaths of who-knows-how-many individuals when he allows Alderaan and the Death Star to be destroyed without mentioning the impending doom to either set of people. These are not the actions of someone who is any way a good person. Neither is torturing Han and his own daughter just to get Luke’s attention. A good fan theory proposes that Darth Vader’s motives throughout the trilogy were against the Emperor, but even these are the self serving actions of a Sith apprentice trying to kill his master before the master kills and replaces him. Luke never says Vader is good – he says he can sense that there is still some good in him, which is a huge difference. Darth Vader is a villain through and through.
6. Frank Booth (Blue Velvet, 1986)
Perhaps Freud’s single most enduring and important idea was that the human psyche has more than one aspect. Our personalities are split into id, ego and superego. As you likely already know, the id is the impulsive and unconscious part of our psyche, which responds directly and immediately to the instincts. It must be controlled and constrained when we view our deepest, darkest impulses. That is why Frank Booth is so villainous; he is pure unfettered, twisted id. A sadomasochist who’s constantly high on gas, Booth is sexually abusive and unrelentingly violent; a nightmarish human being spat back out from Hell. He’s a spine-chillingly awful car wreck that reflects our worst potential whom you can’t look away from.
5. The Joker (The Dark Knight, 2008)
What’s worse than a villain with a plan? A villain with no plan. The Joker has no purpose and no end goal; he is the ultimate foil to law and order. How can we rationalise this madness in our everyday lives? We can’t. The Joker is an honest-to-God psychopath who thrills in death, violence and chaos. The iconic moment in which he makes a pencil “disappear” still turns the stomach. The man is a relentless and depraved engine that delivers acts of tremendous moral turpitude, with a smile and a wave. There is no elegance and theatricality here, of the sort Cesar Romero brought to the character. Instead this is terror in the modern age – with no end and no limits.
4. Hans Gruber (Die Hard, 1988)
The most ‘traditional’ villain on our list, Hans Gruber is a sophisticated, likable, apparently all-knowing terrorist who has one simple objective. And if it weren’t for John McClane, Gruber would have succeeded. Gruber understands the game of ‘terrorism’, and he’s far from the cookie-cutter baddie that so many feature films suffer. The man wears thousand-dollar suits, and can quote Alexander the Great verbatim, yet he can also callously blow an innocent man’s brains out with no remorse or reaction. Hans Gruber need not be the deadliest, the coldest or the craziest villain, as it is his humanity that allows him to excel. At every stage, Gruber is always one step ahead of our hero. He is always better than McClane, and up until the very last moments of the film, he has it in the bag. Gruber’s excellence is marked by the fact that you (almost) root for him to succeed.
3. Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men, 2007)
From a charming European to a remorseless assassin, Anton Chigurh was always going to rank highly in this list. While the Joker may be borderline charming as a psychopath, Chigurh is dead behind the eyes, with little care for even his own humanity. He makes decisions based on the simple toss of a coin. The idea or concept of an action being “wrong” has long deserted him, or maybe it never existed within his thought process. His ruthless efficiency makes for a unforgettable villain, seared within the mind. Chigurh’s villainy is so ripe, he belongs in a horror movie as a monster dressed in human skin. A black hole of reason, humour and mercy.
2. Amon Göth (Schindler’s List, 1993)
A prisoner in Płaszów was lucky if he survived more than four weeks. The synonyms relating to cruel and villainy serve no justice to describe Amon Göth’s sickening existence. The true horrors of the real-life Göth, infamously known as ‘The Nazi Butcher’, are highlighted through a stunning performance by Ralph Fiennes, and there’s little anyone can do to ignore this odious being. Echoing unbelievably true stories from prisoners within the camp at Płaszów, Göth passed his mornings by using his high-powered, scoped rifle to shoot at children playing in the camp. While other characters in this list are defined by a lack of empathy or emotion, there’s something altogether more sinister and sickening in witnessing the real acts carried out by a real monster.
1. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975)
Nurse Ratched is the ultimate cinematic villain. She’s reserved and calm, moving through the halls of her Oregon mental institution in an inelegant, ordinary white uniform. Her power does not come from the supernatural, or through financial or military advantages; it’s all within the confines of this one institution. Like a Roman emperor, the fate of her patients’ lives is within her hands. She can send her patients to excruciating electroconvulsive shock treatments, administer powerful drugs. She can even have parts of their brain removed. What’s worse still is that at the moments in which she feigns empathy, it’s clear that there is nothing there. Her control is absolute, and it is everything. The fire of humanity is extinguished, with no hope of reignition or potential available as long as Nurse Ratched is in charge.