The 20 Greatest Human Villains In Movie History

As Alfred Hitchcock once said, it's often the villain that makes or breaks a film. A good baddie, one who is well-developed and/or a plausible foil for the hero, is often the most interesting character in the movie. 

It's all too easy to come up with a monstrous appearance for a film's antagonist, and the advances in CGI and special effects have led to an abundance of fantastically designed supervillains and malevolent supernatural entities. More often, though, it's the human villains who reveal themselves to be the most intriguing. They usually contain characteristics we try to repress within ourselves, such as ambition, greed, ruthlessness, and the freedom to act without the constraint of morality, all with the vulnerability that comes from being mortal.

Setting aside our favorite science fiction or supernatural villains (with apologies to Freddy and Jason), below are 20 of the most memorable human villains, some nuanced, others evil personified, but all iconic characters.

Bridget Gregory

John Dahl's "The Last Seduction" is one of the most fatalistic neo-noirs of the '90s. Linda Fiorentino is incredible as the unapologetically coldhearted Bridget Gregory, who makes other femme fatales look tame by comparison. The only character who seems to get on with her is J.T. Walsh's cutthroat lawyer who admiringly calls her a "self-serving b***h."

Traditionally, the femme fatale's true nature is only revealed at the end of the film (See: "The Killers," "The Maltese Falcon," and Dahl's own "Red Rock West"), but as the film's screenwriter Steve Barancik puts it, it's "more interesting being privy to her machinations than blind to them." As such, Bridget barely tries to hide her true nature. A lesser film might have given her a tragic backstory or a heart of gold, but that's not the case here. As she says herself, "I am a total f***ing b***h," and she is openly contemptuous of Peter Berg's guileless character from the moment she meets him, right up until the point where she coldly sets him up in the movie's closing moments. 

Bridget's not a bunny boiler like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," or a sociopath like Rosamund Pike in "Gone Girl." Instead, she's much scarier — a ruthless, calculating character who uses men as a means to an end. The character is so successful in her scheming that by the film's conclusion we are almost in awe of her.

Alonzo Harris

Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning portrayal of Alonzo Harris in "Training Day" still holds up today largely due to his incredibly charismatic performance. The casting is crucial as Washington has made a career out of playing morally upstanding characters, so you want him to be heroic here, too. What makes Harris such a great villain is the way he convinces both the audience and his new recruit Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) that he's merely an unconventional, rough around the edges detective — think Popeye Doyle or Dirty Harry — when he's really up to his neck in corruption. In turn, Hoyt's "induction" ultimately serves as a way for Harris to gauge exactly how malleable and corruptible he is.

Harris' motivations are left ambiguous for most of the film, and he constantly wrong-foots both Hoyt and the audience. Director Antoine Fuqua raises many red flags over the course of the film, but Washington almost convinces us that he's a good guy through the sheer force of his personality. His dynamic performance never betrays his true character either way — he switches between charming to sinister mid-blink. It's only towards the end of the film that we see he has been manipulating Hoyt all along, entrapping him so he has no choice but to follow Harris' orders, and then setting Hoyt up to be killed when he refuses to go along with his actions.

John Doe

The idea of "the banality of evil" is perfectly embodied by Kevin Spacey in David Fincher's "Se7en," playing a seemingly normal man who commits some of the most horrific murders ever committed to film.

John Doe appears 90 minutes into the film's runtime, and we never actually see him kill any of his victims, only the grisly aftermath. In the absence of a physical presence, you could be forgiven for thinking the killer is somehow more than human, or at the very least a raving psychopath. But as Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) puts it: "If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he's not the devil. He's just a man."

And so he is. As played by Spacey, John Doe is just a mild-mannered, incredibly creepy man. There's a meditative stillness to Spacey's performance that's almost unnatural; he remains unflappable right until the ending. The only moment he loses his composure is when Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) calls his victims "innocent" — a claim that sends Doe off on a self-righteous rant justifying his killings.


There are plenty of memorable villains in the Spaghetti western genre, such as Henry Fonda in "Once Upon A Time In The West" or Lee Van Cleef in "The Good The Bad And The Ugly," but none of them are quite so repellent as Klaus Kinski in "The Great Silence." Tigrero (or Loco, depending on which version of the film you watch) is different in that he operates entirely within the boundaries of the law. In another film, he might be the hero — a bounty hunter who brings in dangerous outlaws living in the hills. However, the warrants on these fugitives have been drawn up by the town's corrupt mayor, and Tigrero never brings them in alive.

He also seems to derive great pleasure in outwitting his quarry, justifying the killings with legal red tape. Kinski played his share of villains, in "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" and "Nosferatu The Vampyre," for example, but he seems to genuinely relish his role here. In arguably the most gleefully malevolent performance of his career, he makes Tigrero a character you love to hate; a truly odious villain decked out in a luxurious fur coat. This all contributes to what is potentially the most downbeat ending of any western movie.

Phyllis Dietrichson

It might be Fred MacMurray's seedy life insurance salesman Walter Neff who commits the pivotal murder in Billy Wilder's seminal film noir "Double Indemnity," but it's Barbara Stanwyck's sultry Phyllis Dietrichson who emerges as the infinitely more ruthless character. Wilder's first choice for the role, Stanwyck was best known at that point for her light comedy performances in "The Lady Eve" and "Meet John Doe." She was hesitant to take on such a villainous role, but her performance proved to be one of the most definitive femme fatales, setting the tone for the many that would follow, from Ava Gardner to Rita Hayworth.

Her introductory scene is iconic in itself, as we see her standing on her balcony wrapped in a towel. It's a calculated move to seduce Walter, and she quickly plants the idea of murdering her husband, only to become increasingly bloodthirsty as the film goes on. Most of her villainy occurs off-screen, relayed to Neff by her stepdaughter, as we hear about her sinister past. We don't need exposition, though, when her nature is evident in the murder scene. In what was ostensibly a way to maneuver past the production code, Wilder keeps the camera on Phyllis as Neff murders her husband in the next seat. The carnal look that crosses her face as we hear her husband's struggles is chilling, and an iconic moment in the genre.

Hans Landa

Of all the iconic villains Quentin Tarantino has created (including Mr. Blonde, Stuntman Mike, Elle Driver), the filmmaker has called Hans Landa "the best character I've ever written and maybe the best I ever will write," and it's easy to see why. Christoph Waltz's Oscar-winning performance as "The Jew Hunter" in "Inglourious Basterds" is captivating from the very first scene, where he effortlessly slips between languages and from friendly chit-chat to sinister interrogation without missing a beat. His delivery makes Tarantino's often mannered dialogue positively sing.

Landa is a character who is almost always in control. It's clear he takes pride in theatricality, and the opening scene is choreographed to the letter. He describes himself as a detective rather than a Nazi, and indeed, what differentiates Landa from the numerous other Nazi film villains is that he isn't a fanatic. He is shown to not have many convictions at all, which should make him more sympathetic, but if anything he becomes more horrifying. His antisemitism is a lot more subversive and insidious than the hatred that is usually depicted onscreen.

He seems completely unprincipled until the terrifying moment where he drops his facade and strangles Diane Kruger's Bridget to death in a burst of rage, but even this seems to be motivated by personal hatred than anything else. Landa is a fascinating creation, a disarmingly polite pragmatist who can only be trusted to act in his own self-interest.

Asami Yamazaki

For two thirds of its runtime, Takashi Miike's brilliant "Audition" plays out like a romantic comedy, as a widower, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), searches for a new wife by holding auditions for a film he has no intention of making. But when he meets the enigmatic Asami, he falls head over heels in love, and immediately settles on her, much to the disbelief of his colleague, who finds her a little unsettling.

Former model Eihi Shiina lends Asami an ethereal quality that can either be read as angelic or unnatural. The audience catches a glimpse of her true nature early on in a truly disturbing brief scene involving a phone and a burlap sack, but it's only in the film's final half-hour that the nightmare truly begins. While on the surface, Asami Yamazaki is one of the most unsettling movie villains out there, once you dig a little deeper you discover she's a lot more complicated than she first appears. To reveal too much would ruin the film, but suffice to say the sing-song way she says "Kiri-kiri-kiri" will stay with you weeks later.

Charles Oakley

One of my favorite elements about the films of Alfred Hitchcock is the way he forces his audience to sympathize with his villains. It's there in the moment the car doesn't sink in the bog in "Psycho," Bruno reaching for the fateful lighter in "Strangers on a Train," or Rusk retrieving his tie pin in "Frenzy."

Even with this in mind, there are few Hitchcock villains who lay out their entire raison d'etre in the same way as Joseph Cotten in "Shadow of a Doubt." The scene where "Uncle Charlie" talks about his hatred of rich widows at the dinner table is one of the most scarily insightful depictions of a murderer that we'd seen up to that point (the closest comparison might be Peter Lorre in "M") and is a sharp contrast to the friendly persona he outwardly projects to his unsuspecting family. 

Cotten gives a suave and charming performance, and Hitchcock wisely never shows him committing any murders, so our sympathy remains divided throughout the film — even when he tries to murder his suspicious niece (Theresa Wright) in a series of "accidents" we don't see him set up. It's easy to sympathize with a killer if he's played by Joseph Cotten and you never see him actually kill anyone. It's harder once you're confronted with their actions, as we are in the film's final moments where he tries to throw his niece from a moving train.


"The Last Of The Mohicans" isn't talked about enough anymore, suffering from the usual Michael Mann problems like paper-thin characterization for the protagonists. But where the movie shines is in the casting of its antagonist. As the Huron chief consumed by vengeance, Wes Studi gives a nuanced performance, perfectly exhibiting his contempt and hatred for the English people. He pledges to eat the heart of "The Greyhair" who destroyed his village and ending his line by killing his daughters.

Magua is a cold, clinical character, but Studi's intense performance is incredibly layered; he's not a monster, just someone who is motivated purely by hatred. At times he appears less an outright villain than an anti-hero, albeit one who goes to further extremes than what we might expect. It's Magua who propels the story forward, while the heroes are mainly reacting to the situations around them. He never betrays the slightest emotion as he hunts down the heroes (at least until the very end, and even then it remains enigmatic) effortlessly killing those who get in his way. He nearly succeeds in his task as well, leading a devastating ambush on the British army and finally killing Munro — and true to his word, cutting out his heart, although we don't see him actually eat it.


One of the most extreme, controversial films ever made, Takashi Miike's "Ichi The Killer" is a vividly gory film, one that is much better than its sensational reputation might suggest. Tadanobu Asano plays the stiletto-wielding yakuza Kakihara. Trying to locate his boss, he is quickly sidetracked by the titular Ichi, who he mistakenly believes is the ultimate sadist (in fact Ichi is a childlike murderer, provoked into fits of extreme violence).

The embodiment of Miike's punk aesthetic, Kakihara is an iconic villain, dressed in loud, garish outfits, with bleach blonde hair and self-inflicted scars across his face, casually blowing cigarette smoke through the slits in his cheeks. Asano makes his character macabrely funny, with a softly spoken, polite way of delivering his lines, that contrast with his sadomasochistic nature — he can only derive pleasure from intense pain. 

Kakihara is searching for what he hopes will be a new kind of pain, but he doesn't mind inflicting all manner of tortures on those who stand between him and Ichi in the meantime. In one case, he extracts information from one unfortunate with the use of fish hooks, tempura, and boiling oil. It's a horrific scene but one undercut by Kakihara's casual description of it as "just a little torture." As the film builds towards the pair's inevitable showdown, Kakihara becomes almost childishly delighted at how scared he is getting at the prospect of facing Ichi, feeling genuine fear for the first time in years.

Frank Booth

While some people might think the best villains are the ones in control, or super-intelligent, often it's those who lose control that are the scariest.

In David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is a terrifying villain principally because he has no self-control, no restraint. He's a psychopath who inhales a mystery gas through an oxygen mask (although Hopper later claimed it was amyl nitrate) that turns him into a giggling, frenzied maniac. Alternating between sobbing in Dorothy's (Isabella Rosselini) lap to beating and brutally raping her, he is a truly monstrous character.

Frank is an outlandish character, and one who's also funny and weirdly vulnerable, and is all the scarier for it. These contrasts should be jarring, but because Hopper fully inhabits the role, and never shies away from the extreme aspects of his character, it works. His frequent usage of the F-bomb (in pretty much every line) is hilarious, and his childlike screeches of "Pretty! Pretty!" as he huffs gas in the final scene is one of the creepiest moments in cinema. Also, you'll never listen to Roy Orbison the same way again.

Nurse Ratched

It might seem odd to include the antagonist from "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" in a list of the best film villains of all time. She doesn't kill anyone or order anyone's death. She only indirectly causes the death of one character towards the very end of the film, yet she might be the most reprehensible character on this list.

As written in Ken Kesey's novel, the controlling chief nurse is a grotesque character, and later incarnations have leaned into larger-than-life, almost campy portrayals. However, the genius of Louise Fletcher's performance is how softly spoken and friendly she initially appears. It's only when her authority is challenged by new patient McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) that we start to see her darker side. As McMurphy questions her rules and encourages his fellow patients to stand up for themselves, Ratched is ruffled (the flushed look of indignation she flashes at McMurphy when he uses her Christian name is incredibly telling) and uses increasingly extreme methods to reassert her influence over the group, even going so far as sending McMurphy to electro-shock treatment.

This all culminates in the film's ending, where we see how twisted her controlling nature is. Her callous treatment of poor Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) is unspeakably cruel — she knows what will likely happen, and Fletcher's calm, measured delivery makes it all the more chilling.

Rene Belloq

"Raiders Of The Lost Ark" towers over the other films in the "Indiana Jones" film series. It features the best heroine, the best sidekick, and undeniably the best villain in Rene Belloq. None of the antagonists who followed could possibly have measured up to Paul Freeman's suave French archaeologist. 

The ultimate "shadowy reflection" of the hero, Belloq is a very different character to Jones, more arrogant and mercurial, but more than a match for him intellectually. Their relationship is best summed up by the opening sequence; while Jones throws himself into the physical side of things (dodging arrows, swinging across ravines, outrunning a boulder), Belloq simply ingratiates himself with the Hovitos, having learned their language, and strolls off with the idol — but not before ordering the Hovitos to kill Jones.  

Where they differ is in ideologies: While Jones is an idealist, Belloq is more than happy to align himself with whoever can help get him what he wants. In this case, the Nazis, and while he comfortably allies himself with them, you get the sense he sees them as a means to an end, as is evident in his final scene with General Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), where the power balance has completely shifted. Belloq intended to use the transmitter to his own ends before handing it over to the Nazis, but it's this arrogance that proves his undoing.

Anton Chigurh

The Coen Brothers have no shortage of great villains in their back catalog, from the gangsters of "Miller's Crossing" to Peter Stormare's psychotic kidnapper in "Fargo." None, however, are quite so terrifying as Javier Bardem's mercenary in "No Country For Old Men," who always appears seemingly from nowhere, as inevitable as fate.

Operating in the shadows, and with a warped sense of honor, Chigurh is a nightmarish villain who cannot be reasoned with. Murdering countless innocents in his pursuit of the money found by Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), there are any number of scenes that demonstrate his psychopathic nature. One of the creepiest moments, though, is when he corners Woody Harrelson's fellow mercenary. As Harrelson attempts to bargain for his life, Chigurh looks fascinated by him, as if he's a different species. He almost laughs at him, but it's a laugh without any real emotion behind it, he's just toying with Harrelson and relishing the fear that is dripping off his old acquaintance.

Chigurh might not be superhuman, but he does feel almost supernatural in his manner and his innate ability to sense danger.

Hannibal Lecter

The breakout character from Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" novel, Hannibal Lecter is the only villain on this list where we're including two depictions of the same character: Brian Cox in Michael Mann's "Manhunter" and Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning performance as the cannibal in "The Silence Of The Lambs."

Both depictions have pros and cons. Brian Cox underplays his Lecter (or Lecktor) making him an all too realistic character, one who engages in genial patter with FBI agent Will Graham (William Peterson) before casually asking for his home phone number. It's a chilling moment, as is the way he casually manages to get hold of Will's address when supposedly talking to his lawyer, and contrasts with the barbarity of his letter to "The Tooth Fairy." Cox is brilliantly deadpan in the role, but suffers from very limited screen time.

Hopkins is rightfully celebrated but it has to be said he veers on pantomime in places, especially when leaning too far into his Truman Capote impression. The moments where we see the monster that lurks below the facade are truly terrifying though, such as his escape from his holding cell and his first appearance. The way Hopkins lies in wait in his cell, and stares unblinkingly into the camera lens and the audience's soul is genuinely unnerving, and the perfect introduction to the character.

Hans Gruber

Steven E. de Souza, the co-screenwriter of "Die Hard," has said himself that Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is the film's real protagonist, and it's John McClane (Bruce Willis) who disrupts proceedings. It's an argument that makes a lot of sense: Gruber doesn't just exist to chase after McClane; he has his own objectives, as we see in his genuine concern once McClane steals the detonators. Unlike the lackluster villains in the sequels, Gruber is able to constantly think on his feet and alter his plan accordingly, as he does once he comes face to face with McClane.

In his big-screen debut, Rickman gives a charismatic, frankly masterful performance that elevates the rest of the film, and made a lasting impression on the way genre villains were written. Originally conceived as more of a physical threat to McClane — the whole character changed upon the casting of Rickman. Instead of a mercenary, he was repurposed as a debonair, dryly witty criminal mastermind who can out-think the hero rather than fight him. 

Rickman makes Gruber both charming and utterly ruthless, not hesitating to murder hostages in cold blood (and actually, murdering hostages is a necessary part of the plan). This is undoubtedly Rickman's most iconic role, and one that had him typecast as the villain for the rest of his career. 

Captain Vidal

Guillermo del Toro's villains are often representatives of fascism, from the barbaric Jacinto in "The Devil's Backbone" to the stiff Colonel Strickland in "The Shape Of Water," but none so fully embody the ideals of fascism than the humorless Captain Vidal in "Pan's Labyrinth." Set in the midst of the Franco Spanish civil war, Vidal is introduced as the emotionless new stepfather of Ofelia, who has been tasked with hunting down the Republican rebels hiding in the hills.

Sergi Lopez makes an incredibly sinister, imposing villain. Immaculately dressed in a spotless uniform and perfectly shined boots, Vidal runs his household regimented and disciplined to a fault, the same way he runs his division. Obsessed with rules and regulations, the first time he meets his new stepdaughter, he refuses to shake her hand, instead instructing her how to do it correctly. The most disturbing thing about him is the way he never breaks composure. In one scene he beats a suspected rebel to death with a wine bottle and barely breaks a sweat, and only scolds his underling a little when it emerges the man was completely innocent.

Del Toro's most fully-realized villain, Vidal is a terrifying, monstrous creation, and brilliantly brought to life by Lopez.

Norman Stansfield

Gary Oldman has played more than his fair share of iconic film villains: in "True Romance," "Air Force One," and "Bram Stoker's Dracula" to name a few. But it's his scenery-munching turn as the corrupt, Beethoven-loving Detective Stansfield in "Léon: The Professional" that remains his most memorable and fully fleshed-out baddie.

The complete inverse of his morally upright Jim Gordon in "The Dark Knight" trilogy, Stansfield is a villain through and through. Addicted to his mysterious pills, and not averse to murdering an entire family to make a point, he's the polar opposite of the film's hero, the hitman Leon (Jean Reno). While Leon is manic and introverted, Stansfield is all frenzied energy and prone to histrionics (his bellowing of "EVERYONE!" is just incredible), and their contrast is further exemplified by their respective costumes. While Leon dresses primarily in black, Stansfield is entirely decked out in light colors, the inverse of the usual goodie-baddie look. 

While Oldman's performance often veers over the top, he is a genuinely sinister character, as shown in the scene where he menaces Mathilda (Natalie Portman) in the police station. Oldman brings an unnerving intensity to Stansfield even in his quieter scenes, and his fate is one of the most satisfying on this list.

Harry Powell

Charles Laughton's only outing as a director is a singularly terrifying piece of cinema — a fairytale mixture of American gothic and film noir, as two orphaned children are relentlessly pursued across the country by the murderous preacher Harry Powell, who follows his own version of Christianity "the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us." 

Robert Mitchum might be best remembered for his portrayal of Max Cady in the original "Cape Fear," but for our money, it's his idiosyncratic turn as Powell that remains his defining film performance. He's an iconic figure, with "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his knuckles, and spouting Bible verses to gullible townsfolk, all the while murdering women without compunction, and threatening to kill the children as he attempts to locate the $10,000 hidden by their father.

Shot in such a way that he is both imposing and cartoonish, his constant refrain of "Children, oh children" is truly spine chilling, as is the hymn he sings to himself, that lends him an almost supernatural air as he tracks the children day and night. The monstrous scream he emits as they escape onto the river is the stuff of nightmares.

Norman Bates

It's well-known that "Psycho" was based on the true story of Ed Gein, the real-life murderer who served as the basis for "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Silence Of The Lambs," and "Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer," among others. But where Hitchcock's film differs from these is in the depiction of the killer. Instead of a heavy-hitter, Hitchcock cast preppy, bookish Anthony Perkins as the repressed Norman Bates — 100 miles away from the middle-aged, balding character from Robert Bloch's book — and used the actor's affable charisma to lull the audience into a false sense of security.

Perkins makes Norman a likable, if awkwardly intense figure from his very first interaction with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Even when we see glimpses of his darker nature (spying on Marion in the shower) it's difficult to believe Norman is a killer. He seems altogether too hapless, as if he "wouldn't hurt a fly," which makes the final reveal all the more spine-chilling. Because, of course, it's not Norman who commits the murders — it's his dead, domineering mother, who has taken over at least a portion of Norman's mind.

Perkins was typecast for the rest of his career (even playing Norman twice more) but said that even if he had the choice again, he'd still take the role. It's one of cinema's greatest performances, and that final, fourth-wall-breaking moment remains incredibly unsettling to this day.