Michael Madsen as the sadistic Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs
I have to say up front that there will be some folks disappointed that Freddie Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street series) or Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th series) do not appear on this list, but I am deliberately excluding these cartoonish evildoers. There is no subtlety involved in running around with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, or slashing people with razor claws, and - despite the popularity of these two horror franchises - there is little in the way of acting talent that is necessary to play these one-dimensional monsters.
Instead, I am listing who I consider to be the most frightful villains, realistic characters so disturbing because of the actors who portrayed them. This is a category that owes as much to the efforts of actors to get inside the minds of brutal killers and sadistic fiends: on-screen psychos that make you cringe weeks after watching the film in which they appeared.
Here, then is my Top Ten ranking; be sure to weigh in with your own favorites, or to bash my selection of particular villains.
1. Mr. Blonde, Michael Madsen: Reservoir Dogs. One of the all-time creepiest scenes in movie history occurs when Mr. Blonde does his little dance to the 1970s tune "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealer's Wheel. At least 45 seconds goes by before anything happens, time that seems like an eternity: you know something really wicked is about to happen, you don't know what, and director Quentin Tarrantino leaves most of the initial gore to the imagination.
2. Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper: Blue Velvet - As if torture, rape, and murder weren't enough, Hopper's Frank Booth is also a gas-huffing maniac whose "Don't you f**king look at me!" is a pop culture moment unto itself. Creepy, creepy, creepy.
3. Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem: No Country for Old Men - Just because Chigurh leaves his decisions on violence to a coin toss does not mean that this is any less creepy of a villain. What is especially disturbing is Bardem's portrayal of the wounded Chigurh performing surgery on himself to remove shotgun pellets from his leg, as effortless as if he were applying an acne treatment.
4. The Joker, Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight - I must admit I was skeptical of the hype behind Ledger's portrayal, and I thought there might be some post-mortem sympathy involved in the effusive praise he garnered. However, this Joker was the worst sort of psychopath: one who worshipped violent chaos. You never knew when he was going to commit a horrifying act of sadistic violence, or when he might act in a rational fashion. I left the film with an unsettling feeling about the seeming inability of good to triumph over evil.
5. Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson: The Shining - Nicholson's "Here's Johnny!" line might have lost some cultural significance after the retirement of a certain late night host, but Torrance's descent into madness still sends chills from the apex of my odontoid down to my coccyx almost three decades later.
6. Dr. Christian Szell, Sir Laurence Olivier: Marathon Man: The idea of an ex-Nazi drilling into my teeth is frightening enough, but the fact that Szell does so without anesthetic puts this villain into the list.
7. Samara Morgan, Daveigh Chase: The Ring - Sure, this flick is not much more than a B-movie, but when Samara did that video-morphing thing at the end of the film, I about jumped out of my seat, and I looked over my shoulder the whole way home from the theater. Yikes!
8. Tom Ripley, Matt Damon: The Talented Mr. Ripley - Damon's preppy, Ivy League character keeps hidden the lurking murderer within, and I was both fascinated and repelled by this split personality.
9. Max Cady, Robert DeNiro: Cape Fear (1991 remake) DeNiro's portrayal of the psychotic, revenge-minded Cady took the character to new depths of depravity, even more sadistic than Robert Mitchum's work in the 1962 original.
10. Tommy DeVito, Joe Pesci: Goodfellas - The psychopathic, short-fused DeVito was equally funny and frightening, and one of the best scenes in the film was Pesci's "I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?" scene. This was improvised by Pesci and Ray Liotta, and viewers never really know if Tommy Devito is about to fly into a rage or if he's kidding with the other mobsters.
Honorable mentions: Annie Wilkes as played by Kathy Bates in Misery, and Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho.