The Monomyth was first conceived by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 novel The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is a literary term conceptualized by Campbell that details the stages of the hero’s journey. He identified a pattern throughout mythology and literature and condensed it down to seventeen stages. Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler would later edit it down to twelve stages and his version would be the blueprint that every film would use from then on. The Ordinary World, The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the first Threshold, Tests, Allies and Enemies, Approach of the Innermost Cave, The Ordeal, The Reward, The Road Back, The Resurrection and The Return with the Elixir.
Just like how every script has a three act structure, every film that involves a hero on a quest can be broken down to these twelve elements. But that doesn’t mean that each step is important. The formula may be ironclad but there’s one step that’s far more crucial than the others and that’s step six: Tests, Allies, and Enemies. The hero can be uninteresting and the quest uninspired but if your villain is lame, nobody will remember. The hero is only as memorable as the villain he’s fighting. James Bond is one of the most iconic characters ever but the only films anyone gives a shit about are the ones where the villain is amazing.
From the mustachio twirling, train track tying ne’er-do-wells to mask wearing slashers to universe destroying uber baddies, cinema has had a long love affair with evildoers but which one is the most dastardly?
What Makes a Great Villain?
When ranking the best of the worst, there had to be a set of ground rules.
1. The villain doesn’t have to be fictional but his evil deeds must be depicted in a film. Hitler may be the ultimate evil but the film needs to depict him as the ultimate evil.
2. Anti-heroes can be included based on the the strength of their villainous period. Travis Bickle and Loki, for example.
3. The villains have to be intelligent beings with malicious intent. This rules out animals, forces of nature (such as storms, plagues or viruses), or characters that aren’t aware they’re doing evil. No Godzilla, no shark from Jaws and no Zombies.
4. The list will be covering the character and not the performance. Which means all versions of Dracula or the Joker will be counted as a single entity.
5. The villains were ranked based on influence, impact, degree of evil and style. The more Halloween costumes based on the character the better.
This is The 100 Greatest Villains Of All Time.
Played By: Ernest Borgnine
Film: Emperor of the North (1973)
There was a string of films in the late 60’s that all dealt with lovable rebels sticking it to the “man.” Whether it was the unflappable Paul Newman, the effortlessly cool Steve McQueen or the kings of the counterculture–Fonda and Hopper, you weren’t a hero unless you took on the establishment. But in each and every one of those films, the “man” wins. Emperor of the North feels like a reaction to that wave of 60’s nihilism.
Borgnine plays Shack, a sadistic train conductor during the great depression that delights in beating any vagrants he finds riding his train to death. He’s a malicious bully that rules with an iron fist, that is until A-No.-1 (Lee Marvin) decides to challenge his authority. The film’s message couldn’t be less subtle if it tried but a villain doesn’t need to be subtle to be effective, they just have to be evil and Shack is as evil as they come.
Played By: (N/A)
Film: Clash of the Titans (1981)
The last of the Harryhausen classics, Clash of the Titans is the culmination of over thirty years of stop motion expertise. The effects may look dated now but at the time, there was nothing else that looked as badass as the Kraken or as freaky as Calybos.
Or as scary as the Medussa.
Stop motion has produced some of the greatest characters in cinema. King Kong, Jack Skelington, Coraline, the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonaughts (to name but a few) but still, after 35 years, no one has come close to matching the fear inspiring menace that is the Medussa. From her unnatural movements to her stone inducing gaze, the Medussa is an all time classic movie monster and her scene is among the best sequences in film history.
78. Cody Jarret
Played By: James Cagney
Film: White Heat (1949)
James Cagney had already proven himself a seasoned vet within the gangster genre by the time White Heat was released in 49′ but everything that came before was merely the prep. Those two decades worth of devilish rogues were all a lead up to what would become his most villainous role–Cody Jarret.
A thief, a gangster, a cold blooded killer, Jarrett is everything Cagney did before, rolled up into a ball and then cranked to 11. He’s an unpredictable maniac that will kill everyone in the room without the slightest provocation. Plus his relationship with his mother is weird.
77. Sgt. Robert Barnes
Played: Tom Berenger
Film: Platoon (1986)
If war is Hell, Sgt. Barnes is the devil. Scarred both physically and mentally, he is the polar opposite of Willem Dafoe’s Sgt. Elias. Where Elias is compassionate and morally idealistic, Barnes is a sadistic monster that doesn’t blink twice when it comes to committing war atrocities. Since fighting for Uncle Sam automatically means your a hero, he sees nothing wrong with treating any foreigner he encounters with malice or disgust simply because they’re on the wrong side of the fight. Regardless of whether or not they’re soldiers or innocent civilians.
Everyone involved in the war (which means anyone unlucky enough to have been born in the country while he was there) his expendable in his eyes. He’s truly detestable and is the perfect example of how easy it is for war to corrupt.
76. Mrs. Eleanor Iselin
Played By: Angela Lansbury
Film: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Long before she would go onto play the sweeter than sugar Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast and the impossibly delightful Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, Angela Lansbury was known for playing one of the coldest screen villains in history. Released a year before the assassination of JFK, The Manchurian Candidate is an eerily prescient film about the cold war, brain washing and unwilling assassins and at the center of it all is Mrs. Iselin.
She’s the female equivalent to Emperor Palpatine but is debatably worse because as bad as Palpatine was in the Star Wars films, he never used his own son as a tool for political assassinations. That’s the definition of child blooded.
75. Clarence J. Boddicker
Played By: Kurtwood Smith
Film: Robocop (1987)
Playing what is essentially a wild dog on a very loose leash, Clarence Boddicker may not be the main villain of the film but he is unquestionably the most dangerous. Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox) might be the puppet master pulling the strings but Boddicker is the one getting his hands dirty. Leader of a gang that delights in terrorizing Detroit, they’re the ones responsible for turning Murphy into a Robocop in the first place.
They pumped him with so many bullets, it’s amazing they had anything left to turn into a robot. Boddicker deals in only extremes. He’s not just going to kill you, he’s going to turn your body into a Jackson Pollock painting. He’s a deranged madman of the highest order.
74. Noah Cross
Played By: John Huston
Film: Chinatown (1974)
What makes Noah Cross such an effective villain is the fact that he’s not a schemer hiding in the shadows. It’s an evil living in plain sight. We as an audience know almost immediately that he’s up to no good but the extant of his terribleness isn’t revealed until more than half way through the film. By that point, it’s just another god awful cherry on top of an already evil sundae.
He’s such a colossal figure that his shadow hangs over the entire film like a bad omen. He’s not in the film much but you never feel like you’re not getting enough of him. Everything in this film is directly tied to his evil scheme involving controlling California’s water supply. It’s not the most glamorous of villain plots but in a world where this actually happened (plus the other thing that’s way worse), he’s a monster that becomes more and more relevant as the years go by.
73. Col. Kurtz
Played By: Marlon Brando
Film: Apocalypse Now (1979)
It’s a testament to Brando’s skills as an actor that you even remember Col. Kurtz is in this film at all. In a film filled unforgettable moments and characters (coupled with the fact that Brando doesn’t even show up until the last 3rd), it’s difficult for any one element to stick out but even with the infamous napalm speech being quoted ad nauseam, it is impossible to forget Col. Kurtz. Looming over the film like a video games final boss, Kurtz exudes power and mystique even as he remains hidden in the shadows for most of the film.
By the time the film finally let’s us see Kurtz, he stopped being a man a long time ago. Embracing the horrors of war, he has reverted back to a primitive state where he is a God and the natives worship through sacrifice. He’s a deeply philosophical merchant of death that became fully consumed by the war around film and eventually learned that the only way to accept the horror, is to become the horror.
Played By: Jason Lee
Film: The Incredibles (2004)
Comic book super villains are a dime a dozen. Most are either bland CGI monsters that want to destroy the world by punching it to death or are glorified terrorists that have overly complicated plots that usually involve a laser shooting a giant hole in the sky. We’re living through the golden age of super hero films but as big as the budgets get and as fun as the heroes are, the villains almost always get the shaft.
The Incredibles is one of the few exceptions. Syndrome may appear on the surface to be nothing more than another byproduct of the James Bond cliche machine with his elaborate lair and impressive gadgets but it’s his motivations that set him apart from every other Bond or super hero villain. He’s not in it for world domination or a twisted sense of purpose, he’s doing it to be a hero. Every superhero he kills is just another stepping stone on his path to fame adulation. He’s the dark side of fandom personified.
Played By: Brad Dourif
Film: Child’s Play [Franchise] (1988-2017)
There’s an argument to be made that every horror film made throughout the 80’s was a direct result of the success of Halloween. Every studio wanted their own franchise but as most imitators would find out, success is 90% the villain. While the majority focused on the masked silent type, Child’s Play creators Tom Holland and Don Mancini decided to roll the dice on a new type of killer. Instead of playing it safe and producing another formulaic slasher film, the duo decided to shake things up by putting the soul of a stereotypical serial killer into the body of a doll.
On paper, it sounds absolutely absurd but thanks to some pretty decent puppetry and a Jack Nicholson-on-cocaine sounding Dourif, it works. There’s something inexplicably terrifying about something unnaturally small trying to kill you. Chalk it up to the uncanny valley effect or a phobia of things that remind me of Cabbage Patch kids but Chucky scares the shit out of me. Or maybe I’m just afraid of an insane Jack Nicholson trying to kill me. Who knows.