Dec 16, 2008

Top Ten Creepiest Villains in Film

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.


Jill said...

This might be a list I'm glad there are no women on! :)

Though Kathy Bates is a good honorable mention there.

I totally agree with you on several of these, and I am completely squeamish about violence and torture BUT will accept it when not gratuitous. To this day, I can't believe I still say it, but I do believe Reservoir Dogs was one of the best movies I've ever seen - even with all its violence. I actually thought that the follow up, Pulp Fiction, had more gratuitous violence in it than Reservoir Dogs, which I actually think had almost none and again, I am really really tough on this issue.

The only other thing I'd add is that, for example, there are other kinds of torture that make movies hard for me to watch and make people villians - did you ever see that movie - I forget the name - oh, wait - The Terminal - with Tom Hanks and he's stuck in an airport because of immigration issues - they can't send him back but he can't be allowed into the US? I thought the Tim Curry character - or whoever played the airport overseer person, was absolutely relentless cruel to Hanks' character and I actually could not watch it - he was being mean just to be mean, because he could have found a solution if he wanted to. So - anytime someone is mean to be mean, I really hate that.

Neat post - thanks.

I think you should write one about political villains. :)

microdot said...

I just saw "No Country For Old Men"
brilliant film and I agree that Anton Chirguth was right up there.
Jack Nicholson in The Shining...yes he was brilliant and Nicholsons classic over the top campiness really sealed the deal.

I have a very personal connection with Cape Fear. I was the fake tattoo designer...I did a lot of the original sketches in the Mayflower Coffee shop during a lunch with DeNiros make up person.
He lived in the next block from the little make up place I worked at and I would ride my bike across town and show up in the morning to unlock the front door and DeNiro would be in an old Chevy Station Wagon waiting with sheaves of sketches and quotations to be turned into tattoos for Cady.
I swear, the first time he did this, I thought he was a crazy person attacking was before 9 am and I hadn't had my coffee...
This guy gets out of an old car screaming at me, "The halo on the Jesus! It's wrong, all wrong!!"

Mad Jack said...

1. Mr. Blonde, Michael Madsen: Reservoir Dogs. I don't agree. Sure he's villainous, but he really doesn't hold a candle to some of these others.

2. Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper: Blue Velvet - Now here we have a real villain. One of my favorite lines is in Ben's house when Frank proposes a toast.

Ben: To your health.
Frank Booth: Ah, shit, let's drink to something else. Let's drink to fucking. Yeah, say, "Here's to your fuck, Frank."
Ben, completely unruffled: If you like, Frank. Here's to your fuck.

This scene earns Ben (Dean Stockwell) honorable mention for his own bravado and general villainy for his suave association with the violent psychotic, Frank.

3. Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem: No Country for Old Men - The weapon of choice is new and innovative.

4. The Joker, Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight - Watch me make this pencil disappear! Yes, this is a good choice here.

5. Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson: The Shining - The thing with Jack is that you suspected he was slowly slipping around the bend, but it wasn't until all those typewritten pages were revealed that you fully understood that Jack hadn't just gone around the bend. Jack owned a brand new condo and was a member at the local Elks lodge. If not for that, Jack was just your average insane killer. Still, he's a good choice.

6. Dr. Christian Szell, Sir Laurence Olivier: Marathon Man: You're phobic about dentistry.

7. Samara Morgan, Daveigh Chase: The Ring - Ok, she's good. I'd have picked Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest.

8. Tom Ripley, Matt Damon: The Talented Mr. Ripley - One thing just kind of led to another with this villain.

9. Max Cady, Robert DeNiro: Cape Fear (1991 remake) - Max is a truly great villain. Sadistic, vengeful without being over the top, resourceful, cunning… you almost want him to win because he works so hard at his villainy.

10. Tommy DeVito, Joe Pesci: Goodfellas - More of an anti-hero than a villain. I liked the pen scene at the bar to set the stage for future actions.

Honorable mentions: Annie Wilkes as played by Kathy Bates in Misery, and Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho.

Jack Noseworthy as Jason Lobdel in Judging Amy. Amy and family are being stalked by a teenage boy and they install a horridly complex security system. When the family comes home one rainy evening Maxine asks Amy the security code, which Amy shouts to her from the car parked in the driveway. In the bushes nearby, we see Jason 'writing' the code on his arm with a switchblade knife. Now that's a tough villain. Unfortunately, the show must have received too much hate mail as the writers unceremoniously killed the poor fellow off than ostracized his executioner in thirty seconds of badly written TV in the very next episode. My regrets for what could have been.

Anthony Perkins deserves more than honorable mention. Perkins was the first effective self-effacing, understated psychotic killer and did a lot to pave the way for other psychotics.

ProfessorSeal said...

Um, how about Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter? Hands down #1 in my book.

historymike said...


I'll take your advice on the political villains post some day.

historymike said...


Thanks for the amazing fake tattoo story about DeNiro. It is interesting in our brief encounters with celebrities just how weird, petty, mean, humble, and...well... human they can be.

historymike said...


I'll have to check out Judging Amy as soon as the ice melts and I run back the five videos I rented yesterday to ride out the storm.

historymike said...

Professor Seal:

Good choice about Hannibal Lecter. I think I skipped him only because the character has been parodied so much - when the film first came out it scared the bejeesus out of me. He belongs in the top five.

microdot said...

DeNiro is a good guy....literally
I worked with him on 4 films and I was always impressed with his depth of commitment to the role and how much respect he had for every one else involved.
Sean Penn, also...

Village Green said...

Olivier as Richard III.

ollie said...

Me: I don't know the actor's name, but the main villain in the orignal Dirty Harry was excellent.