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.“
So, like every other Top 10 list, this one proved incredibly difficult. Defining what a villain is is very challenging and as we noted on the podcast, can very from person to person. I chose to define a villain as someone who does evil deeds to the protagonists of the picture. This helped me narrow down my list to about 50 characters. Seriously, the sheer volume of names to consider is daunting, when you consider that almost every film has an antagonist that could be classified as a villain, and some even have protagonists that can be classified that way. Finally, I decided to not include things that couldn’t be seen or emotions (so no Fate from Final Destination or earthquakes in 2012). So without further ado, here’s my list.
Honorable Mention: Fate in Final Destination, Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, the killers in The Strangers
- The Seven Evil Exes, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Yes, I am aware I am cheating with this one (and you will deal) but each of the members is a small part of a big experience, and since they’re a league I’m giving them classification as one. United in their purpose to destroy Scott Pilgrim, they each present a fundamentally unique challenge for the main character and do so with amazing flair.
- Noah Cross, Chinatown
He’s probably the most despicable person on this list, give or take my #4. If you heard me talk about the script giving people more acclaim than their performance warrants, Cross is the perfect example of how acting and the script come together to create a wonderful villain. The end being so bleak and Cross’ dealings with his family and Gities prove his worth amongst the top 10 villains.
- Wicked Witch of the West, Wizard of Oz
Like many of you, the Wicked Witch was one of my first introductions to villainy. Instantly recognizable from her skin to the incredible laugh, she presents an incredibly memorable figure. Her machinations to recover the shoes from Dorothy range from the small (threats) to the grandiose (a field of poppies that put you to sleep) to the super scary (flying monkeys!). Margaret Hamilton manages to chew all of the scenery without feeling over the top, which is a tough balance to maintain.
- Hal 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Normally I find villains are so much more interesting when there is humanity at the center. So how then does a computer manage to make my 10? Well, when you combine the amazing monotone of Douglas Rain and Kubrick’s sure direction/writing, its easy. The movie treats Hal as if it is a regular character that we get to know, which makes it all the more chilling when he starts turning on his team. The final strains of his voice are some of the most chilling moments in film.
- Audrey 2, Little Shop of Horrors
So magnetic, so alluring, so vocally talented. The only villain on this list to convince the hero of the piece to commit murder, Audrey 2 is a mean green mother from outer space and one of the most charismatic villains put on screen. The animatronics used in this film are rivaled only by my #2 choice and Levi Stubbs’ voice combined with the crazy visuals make for a memorable experience. Though the released version cuts down on his impact, one need only look at the restored original ending to experience the full awesomeness.
- Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca
This one kept rising in my estimation as I compiled this list and I knew she had to be included. Hitchcock has many villains that could make a list like this but there’s something about Mrs. Danvers slavish devotion to the former lady of the house, that’s not entirely founded on stable ground, and how her machinations almost end the life of another. I love characters who play psychological mind games with others and hers was a long con, although it ultimately didn’t work. Her disturbing end still resonates.
- Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men
The second most despicable human on this list, Anton Chigurh gets such a high placement because of his brash tactics and Terminator like resistance. The character is set up by scenes of horrific violence (choking someone out and then using that air gun) that right from the gate we know what we’re in for. But it’s the quiet moments like his conversation with Llewelyn’s wife or that excruciating wait as the wrapper unfolds that manage to set your hair on end. Anton basically he knows he can kill you and you know that he can and he knows that you…all while leaving your life in the balance of a coin.
- The Thing, The Thing
How can fight something that can shape shift? Well hopefully you can capture it when it’s in its monstrous form, but as the explorers in The Thing found out, that’s easier said than done. Some of the best practical effects and makeup went into making this monster work on-screen. What I love most about this villain is that just the thought of it inspires feelings of deep paranoia and unease (anyone of us could be a monster!) before opening up to chomp off someone’s arms or going full-fledged alien monster at the end.
- Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty
The crown jewel of Disney’s villain crown, Maleficent is a force of nature. We don’t really get any motivations for why she’s doing what she’s doing other than being pissed she wasn’t invited to a party and just enjoying doing terrible things. This makes her even more imposing as she enacts a curse that won’t come to bear for 16 years. I don’t know about you, but being able to sustain on a curse for that long knowing one day it will come to roost is on a different level. Maleficent’s deviousness and cunning is matched by her strength (changing into a dragon is a nice trick).
- T-1000, Terminator 2: Judgement Day
I cannot think of any character that so thoroughly embodies what it means to be a villain. More than a mindless killing machine, what makes the T-1000 work so well as a villain is that there’s consciousness behind the killings. There’s amazing ingenuity and creativity in how he searches for John (that shot of him as Connor’s foster mom with his dead foster father still haunts me), the wonderful uses of the technological advances he has (liquid metal!), and in a surprising turn of events, a charisma brought forth by Robert Patrick’s performance of an otherwise uncharismatic character. It all comes together to form one of the best characters ever committed to screen.