15 Greatest Movie Villains of All Time

©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

There is nothing that makes a hero or antihero seem greater than a quality villain. In the relatively short history of movies, there have been some incredible villains on the sliver screen. There are villains who entire horror and thriller franchises are built around (Jason Voorhees)… but you won’t find them on this list. They would take up every spot. This list is dedicated to some of the creepiest of the creepers and individuals who were put in positions of authority only to abuse it. Here are 15 of the greatest movie villains of all time.

15. Douglas Rain as HAL 9000

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.” Piggybacking the warnings from some of the brightest scientific minds that have every graced the earth, it’s appropriate to focus on a computer and artificial intelligence as our first villain. HAL 9000. Voiced by the incredible Douglas Rain, HAL was the computer that was responsible for the manned space mission in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It took several years for this film to be appreciated at it should be, and HAL was one of the reasons for the cult following, and eventual appreciation. HAL has been spoofed on The Simpsons, as well as several other popular shows and comedy sketches, and his singular line of legendary status will garner cheers every time 2001: A Space Odyssey is shown in public. “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

14. Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher

Want to put a little terror into the life of a child? Looking back at Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there was some messed up stuff going on. The film leads you down one road, then offers a detour down a dark alley. Robert Helpmann was given a terrifying prosthetic nose to play the villain known as The Child Catcher. Sure, it’s musical comedy, if you want to classify the film as such, but The Child Catcher was one of the creepiest villains in film history. It hits too close to home… his luring young children with candy and ice cream, then tossing them in the back of a wagon? Not to mention he has the look of a pedophile and the vocal stylings that are reminiscent of a young Herbert from Family Guy. Wanna freak some people out? Halloween costume as The Child Catcher.

13. Bob Gunton as Warden Samuel Norton

Is there a more disgusting human being than Warden Samuel Norton in The Shawshank Redemption? A man hiding behind a false faith, preaching the “good news” to his inmates, while only interested in profiteering and suppressing innocent parties. The warden is a perfect example of power leading to corruption. That said, Bob Gunton is likely one of the nicest people to have ever lived, because he’s generally playing some crusty villain type on screen. Isn’t the way it works? None of his characters have been worse than his turn as Warden Norton in Shawshank, and everything he did evoked an emotional response from the audience. Gunton did his job perfectly. Viewers actually hope the worst for the guy, and rejoice when he eventually gets what is coming to him.

12. Henry Fonda as Frank

What happens when you take a movie hero, and turn him into a villain? You get one of the most iconic westerns of all time. Another of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Once Upon a Time In The West, features a race for the railroad, and a complex threading of heroes, villains and those lost in the shuffle. Henry Fonda had made a career of playing the hero in American westerns. It was shocking to his fans, and to film audiences to see the good guy become the bad. And even more shocking? He was so good at being so bad. This film has easily survived the test of time, and will be found on every Top 200 list compiled. Most likely, it’ll register within the Top 50. Frank is another one of those villains who wreaks such havoc in his world that an audience aches for his demise.

11. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes

Misery was a truly miserable experience. The film couldn’t end fast enough. It was terrifying. Somehow, the book is even worse. Annie Wilkes is simply one of the greatest villains of all time. Completely delusional with a short fuse temper and no fear of repercussions when pursuing her “truth.” The film Misery was based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, and like so many of the film adaptations of his books, he wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the final product. Still, there was no arguing the box office success, or the super stardom that it offered Kathy Bates, who was nominated for everything, and won the Oscar for Best Actress. How good do you have to be to win awards as a villain? Watch it. The film holds up, and no matter how many times you watch it, you can’t prepare yourself for that “one” scene.

10. Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris

Speaking of Oscar winners in villainous roles, how about Denzel Washington scoring Best Actor in Training Day? This was a tough one regarding the awards, because Denzel stole a lot of thunder from his co-star, Ethan Hawke, who was up for Best Supporting Actor in the same film. Regardless, both dudes were awesome, and both were worth of golden statues. Denzel was utter disgusting, and too “real life” regarding the corruption that roots and weeds in big city police departments. The character of Alonzo Harris was definitively villainous, because he was capable of painting things in black and white/right and wrong, but he opted to gray-wash everything in an effort to profit off anyone at anytime. He completely abuses his new partner, Hawke, then rumbles with him before it’s all said and done. For those who haven’t seen Training Day, it’s a must.

9. Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman

Fair warning to Christian Bale fans. If you’ve only seen the British actor in films such as the Batman triology, or romantic dramas like Laurel Canyon, be very prepared to sit down and take him in as Patrick Bateman. This is the type of role that makes you question who an actor really is. Bale’s turn as Bateman is as perfect self-absorbed as could be imagined. For those who are curious as to what a clinically diagnosed sociopath is, simply check out this film. Christian was raved about for his performance in American Psycho, but it is literally so dark, there was nothing he could be nominated for. Still, his fellow Brits tossed him some love through the Critics Circle Award. When it comes to one of the most underrated villains of all-time, Patrick Bateman is man.

8. Gary Oldman as Norman Stansfield

Leon: The Professional. When your hero is a hit man, and a little girl that he’s training to employ the same skill set, you better have one utterly disgusting human being as the vile, villainous force. Enter dirty law enforcement officer, Norman Stansfield. Gary Oldman lights up every scene with crazy in Leon: The Professional. His blood lust is only equaled by his desire to always be doing some kind of drug. He’s greasy. He’s sweaty. He wears cheap suits. He will kill anyone in his path that serves as an obstacle to his corruption. From the moment he first appears on screen, you want him to die. And you know it’s coming. But how it comes…? It doesn’t get much better. The film is now a whopping 21-years-old, and is as good, and entertaining as it was in the movie theaters in 1994.

7. Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting

Moving into the realm of acting master classes, Daniel Day-Lewis offers the goods each and every time he embarks on a project. There’s a reason he does very few projects, and that’s because he pours himself so completely into his roles. When recalling Gangs of New York, the immediate image associated with the film isn’t likely Leonardo DiCaprio, or New York’s Five Points, it is the face of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. Why “The Butcher,” because that’s what he was… in addition to running rings of organized crime and quietly intimidating anyone and everyone through fear of what he could and would do to them. Like so many of his roles, Daniel Day-Lewis is lost in this character. He ceases to exist. Of course, he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but when is he not? Bill The Butcher is straight nasty.

6. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge

More love for Stanley Kubrick. If anyone was capable of directing iconic villains, it was Kubrick. His way ahead of its time foray into good, evil, influence and humanity, A Clockwork Orange, featured one of the vilest, yet comedic villains of all time, Alex DeLarge. Its impossible to pinpoint what went wrong with this guy. There’s no mistaking the young Malcolm McDowell as Alex, with his bowler hat, lined eye, fake eyelash and devilish grin. Very creepy. The character is still creepy to this day… maybe even more so considering the 40-plus years of psychology that has been studied between its 1971 release and now. The fact that Kubrick suggests a future western world that possesses a devious, justified obsession with sex makes this little jaunt into “the old ultraviolence” even creepier. And seeing the pleasure that Alex DeLarge takes in beating and raping… ummm.

5. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh

When a character is so ice cold that they flip a coin to decide whether or not a bystander will live or die, you know you’re dealing with pure evil. The Joel and Ethan Coen crafted a cinematic masterpiece with No Country For Old Men, and within it, they opted for a very strange look for Javier Bardem. It’s not as if Bardem hasn’t played strong, intimidating characters in the past, but his turn as Anto Chigurh was a definitive tour de force. It is always enjoyable to cheer for an antihero like Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), and it helps to overlook such rough edges when the villain seems like the physical manifestation of the devil himself. How good was Javier Bardem as Chigurh? He won the 2008 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. No Country… will serve as an example of masterful filmmaking for the next 100 years.

4. Heath Ledger as The Joker

Has it ever been so heartbreaking to see someone win an Oscar? Posthumous awards pretty much suck. At best, they’re bittersweet. As it stood when Heath Ledger was honored for his performance in The Dark Knight, it was downright sorrowful. Heath Ledger was just coming into his own as an actor when a combination of illness, and prescription drugs served to his detriment. He was unable to enjoy the spoils of success stemming from The Dark Knight, and the film was shrouded with the darkness of his untimely demise. Regarding his legacy, it works, but we miss him something terrible. It’s worth stating: the notoriety of Heath’s performance wasn’t based in his tragic death… it was that awesome. His Joker is the iconic villain of the Millennial generation. It would have been interesting to see if he’d made it into the mix of The Dark Knight Rises.

3. Margaret Hamilton as Wicked Witch of The West

When it comes to iconic villains, few can touch the “green witch” from The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton, who played the most famous witch of all time, The Wicked Witch of The West, is one of very few females who’ve been given the opportunity to play a really disgusting villain. Hamilton was also villainous before Dorothy ended up in Oz. Her character, Almira Gulch, was no sweetheart, and was the obvious subconscious recall that allowed Dorothy to turn her into a mean old witch. Margaret Hamilton was the second choice of MGM, after Gale Sondergaard bailed from the cast because the creative team decided they wanted to make the witch ugly. And yes, it is true, in playing one of the most iconic villains of all time, Margaret Hamilton was injured during the scene in Munchkinland, when she was burned during a pyrotechnic stunt gone wrong.

2. Kevin Spacey as John Doe

Kevin Spacey in Seven, aka SE7EN, was barely seen, but completely haunting in the time that he was on screen. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s worth a viewing, and then another viewing. In so many ways, this film proved that David Fincher was a master filmmaker, Brad Pitt was a star and Morgan Freeman was a living legend. For Kevin Spacey, it came before the American Beauty fame, so he was predominately known as a guy who played villains. Whether The Usual Suspects or Swimming With Sharks, Kevin Spacey was a villain, and then an antihero, before getting his shot to play the legitimate leading man. Regardless, his cold, calculating, psychopathic character of John Doe is one of the most terrifying of all time. Another personification of sheer evil.

1. James Earl Jones/David Prowse as Darth Vader

You didn’t even need to scroll down to know who this would be. Sure, there could be about 25 honorable mentions on this list, or discussions about others who could/should be in a Top 15. Subjectivity aside, there is no villain greater than an example on-the-nose darkness, the Sith Lord, Darth Vader. One of the reasons fans continued to watch the unacceptably bad Star Wars Episodes I-III was to see Darth Vader come into power. The story alone was enough for everyone to imagine would could have been, and in some strange way, it was still satisfying. Why? In this villain there lies supreme paradox: the worst of the worst, is actually the best of the best. As was prophesied, Anakin Skywalker was to bring balance to the force… and after crushing several dudes with his fingers, he did.


James Sheldon