For the September, 2016 issue of Empire (#327, Suicide Squad cover) we thought we'd compile a Greatest Film And TV Villains list with a bit of a difference. Rather than just poll the office and end up with the usual suspects at the top, we went to the villains themselves. 28 responded (two of them too late for the number crunching and the print deadline, but we won't name and shame them here), resulting in the Top 50 list you see below. They made for a fascinating final tally, as interesting for its ommissions as its inclusions. Neither Alan Rickman in Die Hard nor Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner got anywhere near the list. And while there were some votes for television, no small-screen bad guys scaled those heights either.
For in-depth discussion of the results, be sure to spend an hour or so with this dedicated Empire podcast. And to see who voted and how their votes broke down, click here. Now read on...
Hammer's suave, ruthless Dracula was in many ways the defining role of Christopher Lee's career: most of his life would be spent playing versions of the Count, elegant figures capable of terrifying violence. His towering height and deep voice made his Dracula an intimidating presence even before the blood started to flow.
Wicked words: "Sleep well, Mr Harker."
49. Vito Corleone
The Godfather vote was split between Brando, Pacino, De Niro, James Caan and Gastone Moschin, so, intriguingly, it’s only Young Vito that scrapes the Top 50. And then only just. But perhaps it's the spiky energy and unstoppable drive that De Niro brings to the focused gangster as he violently rises to the challenges of a life of crime.
Wicked Words: "I make an offer he don’t refuse."
48. Freddy Krueger
Wes Craven believed that the greatest monsters are recognizable just in silhouette – so the hat and glove would have been enough on their own. But the sweater and the grievous burns ahelp make the icon too. Freddy became a twisted comedian over seven sequels, but in the original Nightmare, much talked about but seldom actually seen, he’s at his most diabolically powerful.
Wicked Words: "I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy."
47. Jack Colby
Lee Van Cleef (High Noon, 1952)
Some actors exude dark, screen charisma without obviously doing anything. Van Cleef was one of them: drawing the eye in only his second screen role as a wordless, hawk-featured gunman laconically preparing for battle. He’d get dialogue in subsequent movies, but that persona never changed much.
Wicked Words: He doesn’t say anything, but he does a mean glare.
46. Guy Woodhouse
John Cassavetes (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968)
Displaying the shallow vanity of a pretentious but seldom-employed actor, Guy’s credulous nature then leads him to be seduced by the Satanists next door. He spends the film’s run-time quietly gaslighting his wife, Mia Farrow. The point where that becomes an actual agenda, rather than mere insensitivity, remains tantalisingly ambiguous.
Wicked Words: "It was kind of fun, in a necrophile sort of way."
Bela Lugosi (Dracula, 1931)
Lugosi’s lugubrious count is a far cry from some of his more bloodthirsty successors. Dwarfed by the incredible set design of his decrepit castle, he’s a sorrowful beast, aware from dire experience that "there are worse things than death". Lugosi’s thick accent and odd intonation render him truly other, but there's something eerily seductive too.
Wicked Words: "Listen to them: children of the night. What music they make!"
44. Mary Poppins
Yeah, you read that right. Just consider: Poppins infiltrates the respectable Banks family and radicalises the children against their eminently sensible and hard-working father. She also takes them on dangerous rooftop excursions, and possibly feeds them hallucinogens in the form of "sugar". How else can you explain the penguins?
Wicked Words: "The children will find my games extremely diverting…"
43. Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, 1967)
Blofeld is finally revealed – scar across eye, cat in lap – towards the climax of the fifth Bond movie (having been heavily foreshadowed in the previous four). Pleasence’s twitchy maniac became the Bond-villain template for the next two decades, although he’s actually less eloquent and more socially awkward than most of his successors.
Wicked Words: It won’t be the nicotine that kills you, Mr Bond.
42. Dad Longworth
Loosely based on the legend of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Malden’s sheriff Longworth is a conflicted character: plagued with guilt, but also defensive about his betrayal of the youthful Rio (Marlon Brando) years earlier. He attempts to assuage his conscience by smashing Rio’s gun hand and setting him up for a lynching.
Wicked Words: "Your gun days are over."
41. Bill Gillespie
If he isn’t exactly the villain of the film, Police Chief Gillespie is nevertheless a loathsome racist, delighted to fit innocent black guys up with circumstantial evidence if it means an easy case-closure. Forced to work with Detective Sidney Poitier, however, the pair achieve a grudging mutual respect. Gillespie wasn’t irredeemable.
Wicked Words: I got the motive which is money, and the body which is dead.
40. Jud Casper
Freddie Fletcher (Kes, 1969)
Ken Loach elicited a performance from Fletcher every bit as naturalistic as David Bradley’s – but nobody remembers Fletcher quite as fondly, playing as he does Billy Casper’s bullying older brother. He’s such a bastard that he kills the bloody hawk!
Wicked Words: "It were his own fault!"
39. Erik, the Phantom
Lon Chaney (The Phantom Of The Opera, 1925)
While Chaney’s phantom is a fully fleshed, arguably sympathetic character, it’s the monster face reveal that’s been remembered for almost a century. His self-designed make-up involved fish skin, glue, egg membranes draped over his eyeballs and a painful wire slicing into his nose. For Chaney, prosthetics were an extreme sport.
Wicked Words: "Feast your eyes!"
Oliver Parker’s truncated Othello struggles for authenticity and respectability in all but one respect: Branagh. The lines between protagonist and antagonist in Shakespeare’s tragedy are already blurry, but Branagh’s rip-roaring Iago leaves no doubt as to who’s actually driving the narrative. And he makes it look effortless as some of his co-performers seem to struggle.
Wicked Words: "Ideas can be like poisons…"
37. Dwight Hansen
Robert De Niro (This Boy’s Life, 1993)
One of De Niro’s more underrated turns, Dwight is the quintessential little man who bolsters himself by bullying others. To begin with he’s likeable and almost comic, charming his way into the lives of a new family. But once embedded, the paranoid sadist in him is given free reign.
Wicked Words: "I know a thing or two about a thing or two!"
36. The Id
Animated by Joshua Meador (Forbidden Planet, 1956)
An invisible enemy, briefly revealed sketched in beautiful crimson strokes when exposed to an electrical gubbins. The beast that’s been causing havoc on Altair IV turns out to have been the subconscious mental projections of the Prospero-like science wizard Morbius. The monster is in all of us.
Wicked Words: Grrraaarrrrgh!
Palance’s first film role, and his future black-hat persona arrives fully-formed. Elia Kazan’s noir casts him as an unknowning plague-carrier on the run from the authorities: criminal enough that he’s not quite sure why he’s running, but knows he’s probably guilty anyway. Stark lighting makes his gaunt face all the more skull-like.
Wicked Words: "I don’t like nobody putting anything over on me."
34. James “Fatso” Judson
The pugnacious Borgnine was best known for playing heavies, and they don’t come much heavier than Fatso. The US Army Staff Sergeant’s beef with Frank Sinatra begins with the threat of a switchblade, and progresses through appalling – ultimately fatal - abuse in the stockade Fatso runs.
Wicked Words: "I’ll show you a couple of things…"
33. Darth Vader
Almost 40 years after we first saw him, Darth Vader’s name still remains instantly recognisable shorthand for supreme villainy. When we talk about him we’re talking about a perfect amalgamation of elements: Dave Prowse’s stature; James Earl Jones’ voice; the rasping wheeze; the samurai costume beneath the flowing cape; and that mask. He’s a perfect Sith synthesis.
Wicked Words: "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant…"
32. Annie Wilkes
The 'hobbling scene' –in which Bates smashes James Caan’s ankles with a hammer to keep him from escaping her clutches - is justifiably infamous. But Bates, against all the odds, somehow makes Annie Wilkes sympathetic. It’s a monstrous portrayal of loneliness and dull wits, as well as of an obsession mutated horribly beyond fandom.
Wicked Words: "I’m your number one fan…"
31. Red Grant
Shaw plays it urbane, but the "old man" geniality is the practised performance of an engineered Russian killing machine. When the gentlemanly mask slips ("Red wine with fish; I should’ve guessed," observes Bond) the gloves come off to reveal a vicious sadist who comes as close to killing Bond as anyone ever has.
Wicked Words: "Crawl over here and… kiss my foot!"
30. Miranda Priestly
With Priestly, Streep took a caricature and made her a human being. Based loosely on Vogue editor Anna Wintour, she’s impossible, demanding, ferocious, mercurial, solipsistic and tyrannical. And just plain mean. But in Streep’s hands she’s also undeniably charismatic, with, every so often, a glimpse of a chink in her formidable armour.
Wicked Words: "Find me that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday morning."
29. Alex Forrest
The personification of "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned". The strength of Close’s ferocious performance here is almost enough to mitigate Fatal Attraction’s misogynist streak. We might cheer as she protractedly dies, but she’s arguably the film’s only actual victim (apart from the rabbit). The attraction’s only fatal to her.
Wicked Words: "Bring the dog. I love animals. I’m a great cook."
28. Frank Booth
Hopper had been in movie jail for the decades following his disastrous The Last Movie, but he broke out spectacularly thanks to David Lynch. His performance – mesmerising like a road accident - as a sadomasochist sociopath with a love of deviant sex and amyl nitrate is absolutely fearless. "I have to play Frank," Hopper rather disturbingly insisted to Lynch. "I am Frank!"
Wicked Words: "Baby wants to fuck!"
27. Harry Lime
Lime is absent for most of The Third Man: much talked about but only revealed towards the end. A study in the danger of charisma, the man everyone thought so admirable turns out to be a ruthless, reprehensible war racketeer, profiting from the sale of diluted penicillin, with a queasy line in self-justification. And yet he retains that irresistible Welles twinkle.
Wicked Words: "The dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here."
26. Asa Watts
John Wayne enlists kids from a local school to help with his cattle drive, but they reckon without the hindrance of Dern’s brutish antagonist. Unmoved by his enemies’ youth, he’s a palpable threat, not least to the boy who gets savagely dunked in the river. The method Dern was apparently as mean to the children off-screen as he was on.
Wicked Words: "I’m gonna come to you some night when it’s real dark…"
25. Vincenzo Coccotti
It’s sometimes hard now to remember the days when Christopher Walken was scary, but his "Sicilian scene" with Dennis Hopper in True Romance is perhaps the purest distillation of the Walken bad guy. A classic Tarantino-scripted sequence of surface bonhomie underscored by terrible, terrible threat.
Wicked Words: "I haven’t killed anybody since 1984."
24. Travis Bickle
Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver, 1976)
Disquieting even before that haircut, Bickle is a fictionalised Mark Chapman or John Hinckley Jr: a quiet psychopath whose unfocused inner rage will eventually find a random, bloody outlet. "God’s lonely man" coasts through his monotonous days until "suddenly, there is a change". But it’s not one you’d say was for the better.
Wicked Words: "Are you talkin’ to me?"
23. Colonel Kurtz
Brando, sensitive about his elephantine size, insisted on remaining in shadow for the bulk of his short time in the jungle. His mumbling cult-leader Kurtz, living off-grid in some remote ruins, is guilty of terrible war crimes perpetrated as an intellectual exercise. He dominates – and arguably, ultimately derails – the entire film.
Wicked Words: "Horror and moral terror are your friends."
22. The Child Catcher
Robert Helpmann (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968)
There’s a point in the middle of the twee musical fantasy where all bets are suddenly, horrifyingly, off. It’s all fun and games until a beaky Pied Piper flounces into town dementedly promising sweets. After which it’s a cage-bound journey with a cackling coachman to a castle dungeon. Never go with strangers, kids.
Wicked Words: "Come and get your lollipops!"
21. The Joker
Taking little from the comics (or Jack Nicholson) aside from the colours, Ledger’s astonishing Joker is his own unique creation. This is the grunge version: lank of hair, unimposing of posture, nihilist of philosophy and dry of wit. Some critics struggled to understand his plan, missing the point that he only wants "to watch the world burn".
Wicked Words: "How about a magic trick?"
20. Jane Hudson
Jane is a former child star, psychologically stuck in her glory days, now living in obscurity playing heinous, bullying mind-games with her paraplegic sister. There’s pathos and tragedy not far below the surface, but Davis’ baby-woman is monumentally grotesque and increasingly unhinged.
Wicked Words: "But you are, Blanche! You are in that chair!"
19. Alex DeLarge
Villain or victim? The answer is, of course, both, as McDowell’s proto-punk moves from ghastly rapist thug to broken shadow of his former self, via some eye-watering aversion therapy. Somehow, it feels like a win when he breaks his programming: testament to McDowell’s success in making the abhorrent Alex weirdly sympathetic.
Wicked Words: "It had been a wonderful evening…"
18. Christian Szell
William Goldman’s screenplay is unusually unfocused, but there’s a drill-like precision to Olivier’s diamond-smuggling Nazi antagonist. If it wasn’t bad enough that he’s an SS war criminal, he’s also a dentist. The torture scene is almost unendurable, but Szell’s line in non-sequitur questioning is equally disturbing.
Wicked Words: "Is it safe?"
17. The Monster
Jack Pierce’s make-up is iconic, but it took Karloff to inhabit it, acting his way out from behind the greasepaint and mortician’s wax to deliver a nuanced portrait of a child-like creature, prone to rage but also capable of great tenderness. This monsters is a tragically bewildered victim; the lumbering caricature a popular misconception based on later versions.
Wicked Words: Uhhhhnnnrrrr!
16. Tommy Udo
Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death, 1947)
Widmark made an indelible impression in his first screen role as sniggering psychopath Udo. Shockingly vicious, he seems positively to enjoy terrorising a woman in a wheelchair before binding her in electrical cord and pushing her down a flight of stairs to her death. And that's just the first act in a drama that sees him implacably killing and stalking.
Wicked Words: "You know what I do to squealers?"
15. Henry F. Potter
Lionel Barrymore (It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946)
A banker and a property magnate. Boo! Hiss! Proving that moneymen were viewed as the scourge of decent society decades before the most recent banking crisis, the corrupt Potter deprives his decent rival James Stewart of crucial capital and, for a time, gloatingly reaps the rewards. Even worse is the film’s alternate-reality reveal of the Hell-on-Earth that is Pottersville, a depraved capitalist nightmare.
Wicked Words: "You’re worth more dead than alive."
14. Norman Bates
Perkins’ twitchy psycho runs the gamut from likeably awkward to full-on alarming: from aww-shucks charm to murderous, cross-dressing lunacy. The fascinating thing is that, for Norman, neither is an act: they’re both really him. It’s a portrait of truly unsettling madness, played to perfection by Perkins, who never escaped Bates' shadow to reclaim his clean-cut career.
Wicked Words: "A boy’s best friend is his mother."
13. Johnny Friendly
Lee J. Cobb (On The Waterfront, 1954)
America’s distrust of trade unions stems from historical reports of mob ties, as personified by Cobb’s slap-happy gangster boss. The archly-named Friendly rules the Hoboken longshoremen with an iron fist and the odd murder until former contender Marlon Brando stands up for a bruising knock-down confrontation.
Wicked Words: Gimme!
Sergio Leone cast Hollywood’s quiet hero Fonda jarringly against type as a steely killer, henchman for a corrupt railway magnate. His introduction is unforgettable. Following the massacre of a farm family, and just before he shoots a child, Leone’s camera homes in for the first time on Fonda’s freezing blue eyes.
Wicked Words: "People scare better when they’re dying."
11. The Wicked Witch Of The West
Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard Of Oz, 1939)
Although in many respects it's a pantomime performance, there’s nevertheless something about Mitchell’s green-skinned harpy that makes her a lasting psychological scar for generations of children. Make no mistake: she would kill Dorothy for those slippers. And if we’re in any doubt that she means business, we’re fully convinced when she threatens to drown the dog and lights the Scarecrow on fire.
Wicked Words: "These things must be done delicately…"
10. Tommy DeVito
There’s a day-to-day, business-like vibe to the gangsterdom in Scorcese’s modern classic. But pinballing through the middle of it is Pesci: so unpredictably psychopathic that he even intimidates his friends – sometimes for a laugh, which can then turn on a dime back into menace again. Every other word’s an F-word too, which makes his final, plaintive, non-profane “oh no” strangely touching.
Wicked Words: "Funny how? How am I funny?"
9. Richard III
Laurence Olivier (Richard III, 1955)
It’s all there in Shakespeare’s dialogue, of course, but Olivier’s Richard III is as much about what he doesn’t say, expressed with masterful physicality and subtle facial expressions. He dominates his own film almost to its detriment. The rest of the cast sometimes just look resigned to being acted off the screen.
Wicked Words: "I have her. But I will not keep her long."
8. Jack Wilson
Jack Palance (Shane, 1953)
It’s a good hour before Palance rides into town as hired muscle against the pint-sized heroism of Alan Ladd. But from that point on all eyes are on him. Only 34 at the time of shooting, he wasn’t yet as craggy as the legend we’d come to know. But he already had that odd, breathy delivery, and the smiling eyes of a killer.
Wicked Words: "Prove it." (NB That "pick up the gun" business that Bill Hicks talks about doesn't actually happen at any point.)
7. Anton Chigurh
The character comes from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. The look – that bizarre haircut – comes courtesy of the Coen Brothers. But Chigurh is brought to eerily placid life by Bardem. He makes the enigmatic, frighteningly one-dimensional force-of-nature perplexingly real while he philosophises over coin-tosses and shoots people with a cattle gun.
Wicked Words: "Call it."
6. Hans Beckert
Peter Lorre (M, 1931)
The toad of Beckert squats at the centre of Fritz Lang’s bleak fable about a child murderer and the mob that brings him down. His crimes are disgusting enough, but Beckert is also pathetic and outrageous in his sense of grievance at being brought to book by a kangaroo court. At the end it doesn’t even feel as if "justice" has achieved much.
Wicked Words: "Who knows what it’s like to be me?"
5. Amon Goeth
Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, 1993)
Discussion of the Nazi machine sometimes touches on the idea of "the banality of evil", so Schindler’s List perhaps oversteps the mark by aparently making Amon Goeth insane. But whatever the truth of the real man, Fiennes is absolutely chilling as the concentration camp commandant, playing cruel psychological games and, in one scene, using Jews for casual target practice.
Wicked Words: "You are not a person in the strictest sense of the word."
4. Cody Jarrett
James Cagney (White Heat, 1949)
Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is an incendiary performance, culminating in a blaze of, if not exactly glory, something akin to it. A psychopath with a mommy complex, recently escaped from jail and undertaking a gonzo heist on a chemical plant, he’s alarmingly charismatic as well as wildly out of control.
Wicked Words: "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"
3. Harry Powell
Mitchum’s self-ordained fire-and-brimstone preacher, clad in black, with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles and a switchblade in his pocket, roars through Night Of The Hunter, seducing, threatening and murdering in his pursuit of a doll full of stolen loot. A villainy masterclass, pure and simple.
Wicked Words: "There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord."
2. Nurse Ratched
It could almost have been a Nicholson one-man-show, but his iconoclastic Randall P. McMurphy was nothing without a system to rebel against. Personifying the institution is Fletcher’s infuriatingly placid Ratched, running her awful regime from within a steely shell of quiet equanimity. She can’t be bargained with; she can’t be reasoned with…
Wicked Words: "The meeting was adjourned and the vote was closed."
1. Hannibal Lecter
There have been other Hannibal Lecters, but there’s still really only one. That basilisk stare, that stillness, that peculiar delivery and devastating psychological insight: Anthony Hopkins’ iteration is comfortably the villain most lauded by his peers.
Hopkins’ take on Hannibal the Cannibal dominates the cultural perception to such an extent that even original author Thomas Harris couldn’t separate actor and character in his own mind. His subsequent novel, Hannibal, was a sequel to the film of The Silence Of The Lambs more than the book. Silence had been a bestseller but Hannibal was a juggernaut, with an unprecedented first print-run of a million copies. That was the Hopkins effect.
But Hannibal felt like a slightly sillier affair than its predecessor. Hopkins returned for Ridley Scott's film, but somehow Lecter was more powerful when caged, more frightening on lockdown. Trapping him (in Jonathan Demme’s gothic dungeon; very different to the gleaming cell in which Michael Mann housed Brian Cox) gave him that devastating, laser focus. Strapping him and masking him on that trolley makes a promise of the danger he represents: a promise fulfilled in the Grand-Guignol escape sequence where he steals and wears a cop’s face.
Harris’ later prequel, Hannibal Rising (also filmed), weakened him by giving him context. Hopkins’ Lecter was most effective when he was inexplicable.
Wicked Words: "I ate his liver…"