*Our yearly tradition that cites the “Greatest ___ of All-Time” begins once again with a look at the baddest guys and gals of the silver screen. Each writer will deliver their own set of ten, likely with all different interpretations of “the villain” and what they mean. If you miss one, click on the tag “10 Greatest Villains of All-Time“*
My short-list for this series was extensive, with characters spanning as far back as the pre-Code 1930s and as recently as 2014. I predominately started with characters that resonated with me. Characters who, no matter how long its been since I’ve watched the film, I still remember their evil deeds. Several were staples of my childhood, nightmares that segued into appreciation for their ability to terrify me so. Others are recent acquisitions. Similarly, some characters’ deeds are unforgivable; one of the key proponents of making it on this list being that their crimes are some of the worst of the worst. However, a few characters were sympathetic enough that, for all their horrible actions, I understood and sympathized with them. I also avoided several choices I knew my fellow AC writers would do. I guess you could say, I had no clear-cut criteria short of extreme memorability and the ability to keep me thinking of them decades later.
With that, here are a few who almost made the list, but didn’t: Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955), The Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Veda Pierce in Mildred Pierce (1945), Crystal Connors in Showgirls (1995), and Paul Snider in Star 80 (1980).
10. Heather Chandler (Heathers)
Let’s start things off with a character who inspired a legion of Mean Girls. Heather Chandler is the embodiment of our high school nightmares. A girl who commands the power and vitriol to spread rumors and force her best friend to put out at a college party. Heathers itself is a bleak examination of adolescence, and not even Heather Chandler gets out unscathed – being forced to give a blowjob as a means of maintaining her popularity. You feel bad for her desire to conform, but she profits off it too much. By the time she takes an unfortunate swig of Drano, you aren’t feeling too broken up, but she still torments Veronica (Winona Ryder) all the way into the afterlife. And, let’s be honest, she’s a villain for her devotion to scrunchies and croquet!
9. Scar (The Lion King)
Scar is the first of two Disney villains I placed on this list, and compared to other villains who have deeper psychological connections to me, more complex motivations, and better kills, he doesn’t rank too high. Scar’s definitely a horrid character, of that there’s no question. He ruthlessly kills his brother and brainwashes a small child into believing he actually murdered his dad. Talk about the therapy bills! Scar’s also a great example of performance blending with villainy. Who else could have voiced Scar as villainously as Jeremy Irons (taking a cue from George Sanders in The Jungle Book)? You hear that voice and your skin develops goosebumps.
8. The Operative (Serenity)
The scariest villains are ones transcending the confines of the film screen, who inhabit our world today. With all the fears post-9/11 and into our continued issues with the Middle East and ISIS, it’s rather frightening watching Joss Whedon’s Serenity and realizing The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofer) would probably identify. This is a character who, much like The Terminator, has one mission: to kill River Tam (Summer Glau), no matter what. In fact, one character calls him a “true believer,” a man who believes in the cause that killing River is a necessary and good thing. And the scariest moments see him enact his brand of religious cleansing, paralyzing his victims and helping them commit hiri-kiri. As they take their final breaths, he tells them this is a “good death.” Even though he’s killing them, it’s as painless and near-religious as it can be. Ejiofer’s cool and placid performance on top of things makes his character terrifying…because he exists in reality.
7. Ellen Berent (Leave Her to Heaven)
Film noir femme fatales know they’re beautiful and their dangerous beauty is used to their advantage. In Leave Her to Heaven, Gene Tierney’s Ellen Berent simply wants to settle down with her husband (Cornell Wilde marrying way out of his league). Unfortunately, said husband is a bit of a moron, inviting his younger brother to live with the newlyweds, going so far as to let him take the room next door! Hard to spend time…if you know what I mean…with a 14-year-old boy knocking on your wall, right? You fall for Ellen’s blind desire to have everything perfect, representing every woman who, post-WWII, was hoping for their husband to come home, and said husbands deserved the best. Of course, Ellen takes that perfection a bit too far. Brother being a bit of a nuisance? Take him swimming in the lake where hopefully he’ll cramp up and drown! Fear that your baby might sully your relationship with your man? Throw yourself down a flight of stairs! Ellen is both sympathetic and malicious. All her murders come from a logical place but they’re means of dooming a relationship. And if her husband strays, who’s to blame? She takes it to the extreme, but you can’t say Tierney didn’t make evil look good!
6. Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Considering The Little Mermaid is my favorite Disney movie of all time, I wanted to place Ursula higher. (And no need to tell me how hypocritical the above statement makes me. The Little Mermaid has a terrible message for girls.) Regardless, Ursula is the expert of mind manipulation. She’s charismatic, showy, and can rock a sweet pompadour. Her curves imply a woman able to embrace her inner beauty…and yet she uses that to lure young Ariel into giving up her voice for a pair of legs. That right there makes Ursula the worst of the worst, right? Talk about working to destroy feminism! Ursula, much like Scar, is power-hungry and she uses everything at her disposal. When she turns into her human counterpart, Vanessa, she takes Ariel’s fragile, 16-year-old psyche, and shatters every bit of self-confidence she has. Wow, I never realized Ursula represents a lot of women I know today. Either way, Pat Carroll’s voice and Ursula’s end game make her the best villain you love to hate.
5. Jack Torrance (The Shining)
What can be said about Jack Torrance that hasn’t been said previously? He’s another character who exists in reality, that of the emotionally abusive husband. Jack’s a character driven by ambition and perfectionism, he’s a writer, after all, but that turns into lunacy when he’s cooped up in a hotel that’s bosom buddies with Hell. Nicholson’s performance doesn’t give you any succor, from the minute you see him you’re waiting for him to snap. Jack’s not just a character intent on murdering, he likes to play with his food, as in the scene where he goads wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) while she holds a baseball bat. Torrance isn’t the most original villain, and he loses a fair bit of emotional pull from book to screen, but he’s one of the legends.
4. Baby Jane Hudson (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane)
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is the grand Guignol of camp horror and Baby Jane Hudson is the ringleader. A precocious and annoying child actress turned washed-up drunk, Baby Jane suffers from a serious case of arrested development (just imagine if Rosalind Russell’s Mama Rose got a hold of her!). Remaining devoted to her pin curls and baby dresses, Baby Jane is a villainess who believes the future still holds glory for her. From the minute we hear her sing her trademark song, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” daddy being dead, you know you’re dealing with someone seriously unhinged. And unlike murderers who slaughter innocent people, Baby Jane is worse, openly torturing her physically handicapped sister Blanche (Joan Crawford). Masterfully manipulative, Jane vacillates between starving her sister and trying to feed her rats and Blanche’s pet bird! Dinner was never more terrifying. The fact she is played by Davis, who already hated her co-star, is just icing on the cake. After watching this, you’ll understand why Davis’ daughter wrote that expose on her!
3. Max Cady (Cape Fear)
Sorry Scorsese fans, I’m talking about the RIGHT version of Cape Fear! As a fan of classic films, it’s hard to shock me. The Production Code generally kept 99% of brutal violence off the screen, but Cape Fear conveys violence through unheard suggestion. Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) sets out to harass the family of a man (Gregory Peck) who helped put him in jail, and Robert Mitchum, though easy on the eyes, is nothing short of horrifying. He starts out with the basic tenets of villainy, like poisoning the family dog, but that’s nothing compared to the lines Cady delivers. He’s the first villain I knew who openly took pleasure in threatening rape on someone! He calls Peck’s wife, played by Polly Bergen, and tells her a story that probably involves copious amounts of X-rated dialogue. You don’t need to hear what Cady says, simply look at the increasing terror on Bergen’s face. Later on, he details how he “borrowed” his ex-wife for a few days, with the implication of rape and degradation striking fear into our hearts. For Cady, the pleasure isn’t in killing, it’s the violation of the person themselves. He’s predominately fixated on the family’s young daughter, knowing the horror of having to recount the experience at trial would all but cement the family not pressing charges. The film’s climax sees a sweaty, shirtless Mitchum bearing down on the wife and daughter on a houseboat, the most terrifying poster for rape I’ve ever seen.
2. Baby Firefly (The Devil’s Rejects)
Is there a character more vile than Baby Firefly? Rob Zombie’s double feature of House of 1,000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects are vile in and of themselves, but Baby Firefly’s sadistic blend of little girl and lethal killing machine keep you in fear for your life. She comes complete with cackle! I prefer her performance in Devil’s Rejects, as she’s more than just the honey pot. Baby doesn’t back down in the face of the law – who become more villainous than the actual murderers – yet has no compunction with killing and maiming whoever stands in her way, racking up quite the body count. Watch her toy with hostages Gloria (Priscilla Barnes) and Wendy (Kate Norby). She starts off by making them turn against each other, punching each other so Wendy can use the bathroom in a moment that almost seems to comment on how women tear each other apart for favor. She then uses her presumed less than malicious demeanor to gain Gloria’s trust, for a brief moment, before throwing a knife into her chest with near bull’s-eye precision. Her name may be Baby, but she’s a character you can never take your eyes off of; who knows that “mind power” can keep people under her thumb.
1. The Grand High Witch (The Witches)
This is the villain who haunted my dreams as a child. To this day, I’m still not convinced Anjelica Huston ISN’T the character, that’s how much she terrified me and has become synonymous with this character. Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches gave all early-90’s kids nightmares due to Jim Henson’s brilliant puppetry, but it would be nothing without the embodiment of evil herself, The Grand High Witch. The witches’ actual end game is a taste ridiculous – turning children into mice instead of exterminating them outright, but who would say no to the embodiment of terror, the ultimate representative of witchcraft? From the moment The Grand High Witch strides in, she’s a woman not to be trifled with, and her thick German accent brings up uncomfortable Nazi comparisons. But it’s once the doors are locked, and the witches are able to let themselves “hang out,” so to speak, that The Grand High Witch plays her trump card. She starts taking off her wig, her gloves, and finally, her face! This is a character as ugly as can be, creating a ghastly character whom, underneath that beautiful Huston exterior, pierces your soul. Once the Grand High Witch realizes Luke (Jasen Fisher) has found her out, she starts screwing with the kid, threatening his elderly grandmother before turning him into a mouse. If that’s not bad enough, she smiles lovingly before waving goodbye to a baby whose carriage she pushes off a cliff! Just thinking about these moments gives me the shivers!