Cinema is filled with memorable villains. Whether it’s the sardonic cheer of Gert Fröbe’s Auric Goldfinger, or the sneering oiliness of Die Hard‘s Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the movies are full of superb, loveably evil performances. The hero may get the girl and save the world in most instances, but it’s the villain who gets most of the quotable lines.
Every now and again, however, a movie antagonist comes along to genuinely still the blood, a villain played with a depth and commitment that is genuinely disturbing.
It’s like the alignment of the planets. Occasionally, a great director, an exemplary script and a gifted actor will join together on the same project, creating the kind of unsettling performances that linger in the memory for years afterwards.
Here, then, is our list of the most unsettling villains in movie history…
Manhunter – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox)
Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon was the first movie to bring cannibalistic academic Dr. Hannibal Lecter (in this instance spelled Lecktor due to rights issues) to the big screen.
And while Anthony Hopkins is the better-known Hannibal, even winning an Oscar for his work in The Silence Of The Lambs, for this writer, it’s Brian Cox who provides the better performance.
Cox’s Lecktor, a casual, callous sociopath who lies stretched out in his stark white cell like a panther, is a masterful creation, and the complete antithesis of Hopkins’ glowering, lip smacking performance.
The scene where Lecktor and troubled detective Will Graham (William Petersen) hold a terse, bitter conversation in the gleaming white of the latter’s cell is electrifying, Cox’s delivery calm and insinuating.
Lecktor’s appearance in Manhunter is brief, but the entire film exists within his shadow.
Blue Velvet – Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)
The late, sorely missed Dennis Hopper was on career-best form in his turn as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s 1986 noir thriller. His infamous scene with Isabella Rossellini, where he frenziedly huffs on an oxygen mask while screaming obscenities and performing acts unsuitable to mention on a family website, is one of the most disturbing in 80s cinema. Indeed, it’s remarkable to us that Rossellini didn’t simply break character and run screaming off the set.
In an unbroken run of films containing strange and unhinged characters, Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth is arguably the scariest in any of David Lynch’s works.
Cape Fear – Max Cady (Robert De Niro)
Robert De Niro chews both characters and scenery in a manic performance as Max Cady, an ex-convict who terrorises lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) for apparently failing to defend him effectively in court fourteen years earlier.
As Cady, De Niro laughs (and laughs, and laughs) at a cinema showing of 1990 comedy Problem Child (probably the only person in the world ever to do so), works out shirtless to Bernard Herrmann’s classic theme, beats the stuffing out of three armed men and then embarks on an insane religious rant, before finally expiring in a tempestuous concluding scene, still screaming and shouting to the bitter end.
Where Robert Mitchum’s turn as Cady in the 1962 original was comparatively restrained, De Niro attacks his role with crackpot fervour, delivering one of his most memorable, wild-eyed performances since Taxi Driver.
Se7en – John Doe (Kevin Spacey)
Barely glimpsed until the final reel of David Fincher’s 1995 thriller, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe nevertheless stamps all over Se7en like Godzilla, his series of grim performance art crimes terrorising a city already ridden with lawlessness and decay.
When Spacey finally appears for the movie’s gloomy climax, his performance is brilliantly counter to genre expectations. The very opposite of an eye-rolling maniac, he plays the role with a disquieting stillness. Sat demurely in the back of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman’s police car, Spacey commands every shot of an unbearably tense scene, quietly rationalising his homicidal plans with unflinching logic.
Se7en’s twist ending (“What’s in the box?”) may have passed into Hollywood cliché – by now everyone surely knows exactly what the box contains – but Spacey’s efficient, spooky performance is, like the entire film, unforgettably unsettling.
The Dark Knight – Joker (Heath Ledger)
Ledger’s turn as the Joker divided audiences somewhat, with an initially rapturous critical reception later giving way to a minor backlash. Nevertheless, Heath Ledger’s kamikaze performance is a perfect match for Christopher Nolan’s stark direction and the screenplay’s deeper subtext. Ledger’s Joker is terrorism incarnate, revelling in violence and destruction for its own sake.
Whether he’s threatening Maggie Gyllenhaal with a flick-knife, blowing up a hospital or hanging his head out of a moving police car window like an enthusiastic golden retriever, Heath Ledger’s performance is by turns hilarious, committed, and convincingly dangerous.
The Silence Of The Lambs – Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine)
Anthony Hopkins may have won an Oscar for his performance as Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs, but Ted Levine’s underrated performance as Jame ‘Buffalo Bill’ Gumb is infinitely more disturbing.
Behaving and looking like an infernal, malevolent Jim Morrison, Buffalo Bill lurks in his hellish basement, carrying out his wicked crimes while gradually stitching together a suit of human skin.
His bizarre, drawled exchange with the victim he keeps in a hole in his lair (“It places the lotion in the basket”) may have been hilariously lampooned in an episode of South Park, but it’s nevertheless a standout scene, and Levine’s turn is every bit as good as Hopkins’ and Jodie Foster’s Oscar-grabbing performances.
Sexy Beast – Don Logan (Ben Kingsley)
Placing the diminutive Ben Kingsley as an underworld villain alongside Ray Winstone’s hulking retired safecracker sounds, on paper, like casting madness. In practice, however, Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan is one of the most shockingly foul-mouthed, spite-filled characters in movie history, with the kind of blood-curdling performance that borders on the hypnotic.
Sent to Spain to convince Winstone to leave his sun-drenched ex-pat lifestyle for one last heist, every word Kingsley utters as Don is filled with pure hate, every sentence bellowed with machinegun-like delivery.
Even a potentially funny line such as “You got very nice eyes, DeeDee. They real?” is imbued with a stark sense of menace. Utterly terrifying.
Misery – Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates)
With only one location and two characters on-screen for much of its duration, Misery is horror’s Waiting For Godot. Thankfully, director Rob Reiner found the perfect actors to play the role of crippled novelist Paul Sheldon and his homicidally overprotective ‘number-one fan’, Annie Wilkes, and both James Caan and Kathy Bates shine in their respective roles.
The film arguably belongs to Kathy Bates, however, and her genuinely terrifying, faintly comic performance, which has more than a touch of Bette Davis’ equally unnerving turn in the thematically similar Whatever Happened To Baby Jane.
Misery‘s infamous ‘hobbling’ scene lingers in the memory, but the stand-out scene is arguably Bates’ bile-filled rant about Rocketman (“He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!”), which is unnerving enough to wilt plants.
The Brood – Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar)
An early movie from David Cronenberg, the The Brood was a slow burning, typically odd film from a director famous for his existential gore. Frequently described as Kramer Vs Kramer with horror overtones, The Brood is particularly memorable for Samantha Eggar’s wild-eyed performance as a savage matriarch whose anger literally begets monsters.
An eerie movie that, unusually for Cronenberg’s initial films, eschews graphic horror for a slowly building sense of dread, The Brood nevertheless concludes with a spectacularly bloody confrontation between Eggar’s crazed Nola and her estranged husband Frank.
Still shocking even today, the scene was trimmed of its ickiest moment by unsympathetic UK censors, much to Cronenberg’s chagrin. Blood and afterbirth aside, it’s Eggar’s powerhouse performance that gives The Brood its timeless punch.
No Country For Old Men – Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)
Javier Bardem brings the almost silent assassin in Cormac McCarthy’s novel brilliantly to life in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 adaptation of No Country For Old Men. In lesser hands, unstoppable killer Anton Chigurh could have been played like The Terminator with a strange haircut, but Bardem invests the role with enough creepy charisma to create an unforgettable screen villain.
Honourable mentions: Nosferatu – Graf Orlok (Max Shreck), Peeping Tom – Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), Unlawful Entry – Officer Pete Daves (Ray Liotta).