Every good movie has a villain, some antagonists trying to keep our heroes from achieving greatness (or just, you know, surviving). A great villain can make you love—or at least respect—them, even while actively rooting for their defeat.
These are some of the most iconic antagonists in film history. Don’t forget to check under the bed tonight.
Played By: Anthony Hopkins
Movie: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
There have been many cannibals in film history, but only one who could make us swear off our favorite meal: liver and fava beans with a nice chianti. A brilliant psychiatrist and human flesh-eating serial killer, Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is at his best in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, where the imprisoned doc guides young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in a game of quid pro quo as she pursues “Buffalo Bill,” a homicidal sociopath who’s fashioning himself a woman suit out of real woman-skin.
Even while caged or restrained, the evil genius is terrifying because, as Starling learns, given the chance, Lecter will eat somebody’s tongue right out of their mouth and his pulse won’t even go above 85. And when he does finally shed blood, having calculated his way to an escape opportunity, it’s gloriously stomach-turning: gentle classical music playing while Lecter beats his guards to death with a baton like a conductor leading a symphony orchestra. For his curtain call, he slips through police lines in an ambulance by wearing the face he removed from one of the dead men.
Nobody wants a psychiatrist in their head, but after watching Anthony Hopkins’ Academy Award-winning performance, it’s impossible to get Lecter out of yours.
Played By: Malcolm McDowell
Movie: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For all the ugly and unethical torment poor Alex endures, never forget that in the first 10 minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange he rapes a woman while gleefully reciting the lyrics to “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Yes, Alex becomes the means through which viewers are made to understand free will in the face of government control, but he’s still a monster. Malcolm McDowell imbues him with terrible charisma and, let’s be honest, cool, but he’s still an amoral beast who’d kick your teeth in without a second thought.
Played By: Hugo Weaving
Movie: The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003)
Computer code is the international language of nerds, but in a world where machines rule and harvest enslaved human beings as a bioelectrical power source by plugging them into the “Matrix,” a giant network that simulates life, it’s bleep-blooping badass.
Agent Smith is the human-loathing leader of three sentient computer programs with artificial intelligence that look like Secret Service agents and guard the Matrix from the inside. Alerted to activity within the network via an earpiece, and able to bend the rules of physics and control any non-awakened human’s simulated body within the Matrix, he poses a significant threat to the freedom fighters who must re-enter the system to liberate others.
Seemingly deleted at end the first movie by a fully conscious Neo (Keanu Reeves), who finally perceives the Matrix as nothing but moving computer codes, in the inferior sequels Mr. Smith appears transformed into a self-replicating virus and is even able to escape the network and enter the real world. Geek Squad can’t help you with that.
Played By: Kathy Bates
Movie: Misery (1990)
You’ve suffered a terrible accident. Squealing metal, crunching glass, snapped bones—these are just fragments of the painful kaleidoscope-like memory of the moment that landed you here, in this bed, where you’re trapped. Your movement is limited. Like a child, you’re dependent on the person caring for you.
Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of Wilkes, a deranged fan who winds up caring for her favorite novelist, Paul Sheldon, after he’s injured in a car accident. She’ll help Sheldon on the condition that he pen a new novel resurrecting the character she loves so dearly, Misery Chastain. Both the film and the novel milk the helplessness one feels during a hospital visit for everything it’s worth, crippling the viewer with fear. And that ankle breaking scene will haunt our dreams forever.
Played By: Nick Castle
Movie: Halloween (1978)
As Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) puts it in writer-director John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher trend-setter Halloween, Michael Myers is “purely and simply evil.” That iconic white mask is a perfect fit, since, like Myers himself, it’s a blank canvas devoid of emotion. The escaped mental patient who murdered his older sister when he was only 6-years-old doesn’t speak or show any signs of humanity. And, creepiest of all, he doesn’t even have a legitimate motive for killing. It’s just what he does.
The greatest Michael Myers moment ever happens in the original ’78 film. Having just jammed a large butcher’s knife into a teenage boy’s chest, pinning the victim against the wall like he’s a note, Myers stares at the lifeless, hanging body. And then, very subtly, Myers tilts his head and looks at the corpse in wonderment.
In this scene, Carpenter captures the character’s essence: Myers’ mind never advanced past that childhood day when he slaughtered his sister. It’s a case of arrested development gone horribly wrong.
Colonel Hans Landa
Played By: Christoph Waltz
Movie: Inglourious Basterds (2009)
In Quentin Tarantino’s history-warping WWII masterpiece Inglourious Basterds, all the Nazis are despicable, but the worst of them is Colonel Hans Landa. “The Jew Hunter,” as he’s known, has earned his nickname by ruthlessly pursuing Jews in hiding throughout Occupied France so they may be executed. An exceptionally adroit detective and smug quadrilingual intellectual, he hunts because those are his orders and he’s good at it, but he doesn’t believe in Nazi ideology or hate Jews. If he did, or didn’t take such overt pleasure in a job well done, he might be slightly less loathsome.
The only things Landa truly cares about are personal advancement and the satisfaction he derives from successful sleuthing. So, while he condemns countless Jews to death to move up in the military hierarchy and strangles German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), he also sells out Hitler and a bomb-rigged movie house full of Nazi officers, ending the war in exchange for immunity, U.S. citizenship with a hero’s welcome, full military pension, and a home on Nantucket. At least he gets some form of comeuppance when Aldo The Apache carves ‘his greatest masterpiece’ into the conniving former Nazi’s forehead.
Played By: Heath Ledger
Movie: The Dark Knight (2008)
What makes The Dark Knight’s Joker so bone-chilling is not just his casual gun-slinging and throat-slitting. He’s unpredictable. He’s impenetrable. There’s nothing about him that any feeling human can connect to. Hell, save for a quick mention of how he got his maniacal smile from his father, he doesn’t even have much of a motive to be wreaking havoc on the citizens of Gotham. There are no records indicating that he exists. It’s as if the Joker simply appeared.
Undoubtedly, the character wouldn’t have been so menacing had it not been for the Oscar-winning performance of the late Heath Ledger, who lived alone in a hotel room for a month, where he’d practice the Joker’s maniacal mannerisms and even keep a diary recording the villain’s thoughts and feelings. Some speculate that the emotional trauma Ledger put himself through took a toll on the actor, leading to his tragic, accidental death.
Played By: Kevin Spacey
Movie: Se7en (1995)
John Doe’s master plan is a work of strategic, perverse genius. Inspired by Christianity’s seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride), the anonymous, mostly unseen (until Kevin Spacey shows up in Se7en’s final act) serial killer handpicks each of his victims based on which of the aforementioned sins they’re guilty of; thus, an obese man eats himself to death (“Gluttony”), and a criminal gets strapped to a bed, unfed and immobile, for one year, becoming “Sloth.”
Doe’s elaborate scheme reaches its apex during Se7en’s final sequence, a knockout battle of wills between the killer and Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) that involves both “Envy” and “Wrath.” Without spoiling it for those who’ve yet to see director David Fincher’s dynamite thriller, let’s just say that Mills gets played like a puppet. And all over a cardboard box.
There are plenty more iconic movie antagonists that we have saved for future instalments of this series. In the meantime, share some of your favourites in the comments below.