Kiss Me Deadly
25 great screen villians
By Daniel Kraus

In considering 100 years of cinema—and a cast of characters that includes Nosferatu, Godzilla, Hannibal Lector, and Jabba the Hutt–choosing 25 subjects to exemplify "the best" (or should it be "the worst"?) in on-screen villainy is no easy task. It is, unavoidably, a highly subjective one that begs the question, "What is a villain?" Is it one who commits a great sin or one who merely opposes our protagonist in any minor or major way? Or can the "villain" of a film simply be the worst of many different levels of evil characters?

Perhaps the most important question to ask is what elevates a villain into something more, something that represents not just a piece of a particular story line but an essencetranscending the art world to exist as something as vague and therefore as terrifying as Fear itself. Such an entity has to be somebody (or some-thing) that either feeds off of our culture’s fears or in some way soothes them, saying, "It’s okay, these sorts of people always get it in the end."

Here is a collection of classic antagonists who have latched onto our cultural consciousness. And as much as we might want to, we can’t shake them off.

#1) Peter Lorre as Hans Becker, M (1931)

Lorre’s pudgy, wide-eyed baby-face made the child killer Becker unbearably terrifying, for he himself looked much like a child. A psychology student before becoming an actor, Lorre infused his anguished psychopath with a sad depth–Becker loathes himself but is powerless to stop the inner voices that lead him to kill, only realizing he committed such acts after he reads the morning papers. Although deplorable, Becker is the most tragic and morally confusing of character–the merciless killer and the innocent victim all rolled into one.

#2) Fredric March as Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Masterful director Rouben Mamoulian–unknown to everyone save cinema scholars and film students–reached his peak with this unnerving version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. March’s dual performance is so sexually charged that it still shocks today. Whether March’s overtly simian Hyde is fondling the lovely harlot Ivy or just cavorting through the rain, grinning widely and loving life, March makes each scene a revelation of the monster mind. In some scenes, Hyde hunches like Igor; in others, he towers like Count Dracula. Mamoulian’s startling use of point-of-view camera, diagonal wipes, and an amazing transformation scene done in one continuous shot without any edits complement March’s well-deserved Oscar performance.

#3) Robert Mitchum as Rev. Harry Powell, Night of the Hunter (1955)

With his imposing stature, patient smile, and booming, God-fearing voice, Powell was the ultimate false prophet, preaching hellfire and brimstone to all sinners, then using God’s word to commit his own lies, theft, and murder. On his left hand was tattooed the word "HATE"; on the right, "LOVE." Even as he chased two small children across the Midwest, Powell would pause at strangers’ doorways to illustrate the battle of Love and Hate, even turning some people into Bible-thumping zombies. Powell was a nefarious cult leader, using our beliefs and traditions to dupe us into worshipping him. It’s never explained why Powell is so evil, although the Depression-era horrors greeting him at every turn might offer some clue to the starved origin of his diseased logic.

#4) Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Psycho (1960)

Perkins is the original sympathetic villain. With a title like "Psycho" and a director like Alfred Hitchcock, we are positioned at the outset to distrust Perkins’ edgy loner. Then his "mother" kills Janet Leigh and we dislike him even more. Then–in that classic moment–when Norman pushes Leigh’s car into the lake and it suddenly stops sinking, we find ourselves worried about poor Norman! The seminal "scarred by childhood" murderer, Norman almost single-handedly spawned four decades of unstoppable screen slashers.

#5) Bette Davis as Jane Hudson, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

In a splashy performance that gnashed the scenery and spit it out like bullets, Davis was the sibling from hell, torturing her wheelchair-bound sister by keeping her locked up, serving her rats for dinner, and slowly taking over her life. It was the ultimate apocalyptic catfight that followed that deranged, jealous logic of a soap opera actress who starts believing her own story lines. Heavy white makeup gave Davis the dead features of an undead corpse or a living doll; etched deeply into the pasty skin was a face that seemed to encapsulate the pain many women go through losing their physical attributes. It was a mournful, manic face, furious over the loss of good looks, talent, and attention.

#6) HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s prediction of a future of Man vs. Technology becomes more visionary by the year. The greatest evil is that created by man: an all-knowing computer system named HAL that controls an experimental spacecraft and speaks in a maddening, gentle monotone. Deadened by years of complex, passionless technological rhetoric, the two zombie-like human astronauts, Dave and Frank, are almost less human than HAL, and it takes a life-and-death battle to revive any mortal spark within them. Stripped to his last thought, HAL’s base component is revealed to be a childlike song, and the tenderness with which it is sung is harrowing. What is even scarier is our sympathy for the dying computer.

#7) Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer as Minnie and Roman Castevet, Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

There is ample pleasure in indulging the fantasy that the chattering, incessantly cheery old couple who live down the way from you, poking their heads into everyone’s business, are actually minions of Satan. The genius of this film is how real this fantasy becomes. By the time the chilling finale rolls around, we aren’t sure if Rosemary is insane or not, and we share her point of view, tottering on the edge of certainty and utter disbelief. Director Roman Polanski is able to pull off this hat trick by employing the Castevets so brilliantly–the Castevets are so scary that there’s no way they could be Satanists–that’d be too easy! But like some deliciously simple Twilight Zone episode, the creepy old couple is exactly that–creepy.

#8) Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange (1971)

In some ways, Kubrick’s ultraviolent tale of a teen who is "cured" of antisocial behavior is an update on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The "good" and "bad" parts of a man are isolated in an attempt to control them. What this presupposes, of course, is that we have the right to make such a distinction. Pitted against a system that squashes individual moral choice, Alex, with his infectious grin and zest for mayhem, is all the more irresistible even as he rapes and murders. We become best friends with him, which makes him unforgettable no matter what atrocities he commits.

#9) Klaus Kinski as Don Lope de Aguirre, Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

The boiling, frenetic relationship between renegade director Werner Herzog and actor Kinski is legendary–Kinski flies into fits of irrational, destructive rage; Herzog threatens Kinski with a gun; and so forth. But never were Kinski’s crazed, impulsive (but always watchable) shenanigans put to better use than in this story of a band of men splintered from Pizarro’s South American expedition in search of the Seven Cities of Gold. They are led by a slavering madman, Aguirre, whose wide, nervous eyes and unpredictable physicality become one with the Amazon jungles where Herzog dragged his cast and crew. Even more so than Brando’s in Apocalypse Now, Kinski’s performance feels like a truly authentic descent into madness.

#10) Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil/The Devil, The Exorcist (1973)

The scares of The Exorcist are of the "fuck you" brand: overt, smeared in your face. Few things in motion picture history can compare to Blair’s dreamy, pudgy, unaffected face being taken over by crusty white skin, glowing yellow eyes, and jagged red scars. Of course, everyone remembers the projectile vomit and the spinning heads. And last year’s re-release reminded us of the excruciating medical tests young Regan is put through, including encephalograms that look like some sort of mad torture. But no amount of FX are as powerful as the simple image of a little girl lashed to her bed, writhing in pain, with her mom off to the side, unable to help. It is an ageless picture that could represent all brands of inter-generational rebellion, suffering and inability to communicate.

#11) Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

In Ken Kesey’s novel, Nurse Ratched was fat and ugly. For the movie, director Milos Forman cast the knock-out Fletcher in the role of the infamous mental house caretaker, and in doing so even increased the sense of sick domination. Ratched’s prim, immaculately groomed, self-satisfied personality alerted us to the very possible abuse of power by institutional leaders. Ratched was the ultimate "establishment," and her evil was borne of an inability to comprehend shades of gray–you were either "right" or "wrong." And if you were wrong, you had to be made right.

#12) Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christian Zell, Marathon Man (1976)

"Is it safe?" This chilling question is posed over and over to a bound Dustin Hoffman, as the Nazi Dr. Zell arranges an array of terrifying dental equipment. This scene alone cemented Olivier’s place in villainy history. With his delicate accent, his old man glasses, and his balding head of white hair, Zell is the quintessential "don’t judge a book by its cover" evildoer; his innocuous physicality belied a festering brain. Not only that, but Zell was capable of forgetting the atrocities he had committed, content to live out his life as any ordinary person would. Do we all have that propensity for forgiving ourselves for anything?

#13) David Prowse/James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi (1977, 1980, 1983)

To be sure, Prowse’s towering height and stiff physicality were key in emphasizing Vader’s impenetrable menace, but it is Jones’ cavernous voice that became legend. Each new film uncovered another dimension to Vader, and his glacial inflection seemed all at once the voice of a father and a lover, the voice of an emotionless robot as well as a confused cry for help. If the Star Wars saga is the popular myth of the twentieth century, then Vader is the archetypal antagonist–all-knowing and all-powerful, but with a classic Achilles’ heel that is exploited by our hero. The removal of Vader’s mask in Jedi stands as one of the most breathtaking moments in movie history–for the unmasking of The Villain, once done, can never be reversed.

#14) Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, Apocalypse Now (1979)

The process is legendary–director Francis Coppola, mentally battered after 238 days of disaster-filled production in the hot, wet Philippines, was given five weeks with Brando. The entire fate of Coppola’s Vietnam epic rested on what happened next as Coppola and Brando entirely improvised the character. What resulted was a bloodthirsty but fittingly enigmatic philosopher: shaved bald, mumbling, and shrouded in darkness, Brando represented what was most horrible about both Willard’s quest and Vietnam in general–that the brains behind it all were incoherent and mad and had no perspective on their friends and foes.

#15) Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800, The Terminator (1984)

Simply put, this is a raw, relentless movie featuring the perfect villain. James Cameron’s muscular direction and Schwarzenegger’s disposition combined to make an unstoppable monster truck of a horror film–the T-800 mowed through anything and anyone, brutal and efficient. As its name implied, The Terminator represented our worst fears of unavoidable termination, whether by car crash, cancer, or old age. The Terminator warned us that the end was near; it was indeed awful, and we were powerless to prevent it.

#16) Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, A Nightmare on Elm Street I-VI (1986-1991)

Of the dozens of slasher villains–Michael, Jason, Leatherface, Chucky–none embodied the 1980’s wasteland of excess like Freddy. A true rock-and-roll antihero, this knife-fingered creep did away with pretty teens in endlessly noisy and flashy ways–tugging their veins like puppet strings, inserting them into video games, turning them into cockroaches, and so on. All the while, he cracked sick jokes, letting us know that he wasn’t punishing teens, he was one of them, disrespecting authority and being as uncouth and annoying as he wanted to be. Each sequel was a co-ed party that ridiculed strict morality, with Freddy as the ever-popular host.

#17) Michael Rooker as Henry, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Loosely based on murderer Henry Lee Lucas, this low-budget picture bucked the ‘80s blood-and-guts trend for a patient, gritty realism. Using the bleak apartments and low-lit tunnels of urban Chicago as a backdrop, Rooker’s psychopath often seemed the most sane person in the city. Unmerciful but still undeniably sympathetic, his serial killing presented itself as a sickness as real as alcoholism, or cancer, or AIDS. In a world offering no help to anyone, Henry needed help but received nothing. And so he lashed out.

#18) R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Full Metal Jacket (1987)

By the time Stanley Kubrick made his penultimate picture, we had seen many different visions of the horror of war. But Kubrick’s drill sergeant drove home the dehumanization of war stronger than any battle film by dehumanizing us. For 40 minutes, all we see and hear is Sergeant Hartman–his orders, his songs, his screams, his insults. The fresh-faced lads from the opening musical sequence are eliminated. Human voices are silenced. Human emotions are squashed. Perhaps the most disturbing question is whether or not Hartman is a villain at all or merely a necessary and valuable cog in the machine of war.

#19) Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde, Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino’s bloody, bad-mouthed epic of almost mythic machismo practically brimmed with bad dudes. The first half of the film is filled with pain (Mr. Orange’s continual screaming as he bleeds to death) and intensity (Mr. White and Mr. Pink pulling their guns on each other). Then we get to the scene. Mr. Blonde’s scene. Mr. Blonde was the epitome of the cool movie gangster–we loved his James Dean slouch and fearless Brando drawl. Then all of a sudden he turned on the song "Stuck in the Middle of You" and lopped off an innocent man’s ear. Tarantino’s genius was to give us likeable character clichés and then turn them on us, leaving us shocked, breathless, betrayed. After, we knew we couldn’t trust anyone ever again.

#20) Sharon Stone as Catherine Trammell, Basic Instinct (1992)

Stone took the tired, B-movie temptress stereotype and injected it with a vampire sexuality so potent even stuffy cineastes had to take note. Not since Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire had a thespian’s naked body been so wholly instrumental in vividly constructing a character–from the shots of a naked Stone pouring herself into a tight white dress, to her grinding against another woman in a dance club, to the famous panty-less interrogation scene. Stone WAS sex, and every part of her being represented the dangerous yet familiar sides of sexuality, from her weepy, vulnerable eyes to her sharp, hidden knives.

#21) Larenz Tate as O-Dog, Menace II Society (1993)

As the protagonist Caine says in this powerful gangsta drama, his friend O-Dog was "America’s Nightmare–young, black, and didn’t give a fuck." Because O-Dog came from a society that had forgotten how to teach boys to become men, he had only a child’s sense of right and wrong. Between swigging 40’s and smoking joints, O-Dog shot people who disagreed with him or made him feel like anything less than a superstar–livin’ large beneath the umbrella of a twisted American dream. What was most shocking about this film was our protagonist Caine, who was one neuron away from being just like O-Dog and who would have been the villain in any other movie. Both boys’ fates rested on the balance of one question: "Do you care if you live or die?" O-Dog did not.

#22) Ben Kingsley as Dr. Roberto Miranda, Death and the Maiden (1994)

The entire movie rests on the balance of one question: Is Miranda the wartime doctor who tortured Sigourney Weaver’s character decades earlier? By the time the revelation comes that Miranda indeed is that man, it is almost too late–we already feel great sympathy for Miranda, who is not only articulate and gentle, but scared and rightfully indignant as well. Miranda regrets his abuse of power long ago but obviously cannot change it. We are thrust into the position of Weaver–to exact revenge or let him go? It is this position that is the dilemma of the ages, and Kingsley’s honest, true portrayal of a naked villain at our mercy makes crystal-clear just how hard a decision it is. At what point of "justice" do we ourselves become villains?

#23) The Ensemble cast of KIDS (1995)

Although technically actors, the preteen children in Larry Clark’s improvisational docudrama were obviously slipping into their usual routines in front of the camera–routines that involved drugs, booze, and sex. In KIDS, it is mostly the young boys who are painted as the nihilistic evildoers, too drunk on malt liquor and hormones to give a shit about anything or anybody–in particular, a boy named Telly, who goes on a rampage deflowering virgins, unaware that he is carrying the HIV virus. One of the biggest wake-up calls to the world ever, KIDS exposed a society of boys who have lost any sense of what it means to be a part of a functioning society.

#24) Dwight Yoakam as Doyle Hargraves, Sling Blade (1996)

In a movie filled with powerhouse performances, Yoakam’s hit the hardest. He was playing somebody we all knew–the schoolhouse bully reborn as an overweight, shifty, apathetic adult. Lazy and filled with a restless, angry bravado that betrayed his total lack of self-esteem, Doyle would never be a threat to the world, so he focused his frustrated violence on those smaller than him and near to him–namely, his girlfriend and her child. Chilling in his offhand transitions between aggression and cowardice, Doyle represented the most common–and insidious–of daily domestic depravity.

#25) Aaron Eckhart as Chad, In the Company of Men (1997)

The churning resentments and angry sexual politics of the modern-day workplace come into painful focus in Neil LaBute’s aggressive debut film. Chad’s "fun" plan to romantically woo a deaf woman for five weeks before telling her that the joke’s on her results in what is easily one of the most horrific series of events in movie history. Chad brought the power of the good-looking and the powerful into chilling focus; the terror Chad wreaks is intensely personal and, perhaps most frightening, easy to execute. Worst of all, his off-color jokes made in private remind us of ourselves at our very worst. Like a nasty virus, Chad is a character that can take days to flush out of your system.