The 50 best movie villains of all time

Go to the dark side with our ranked list of evildoers.

  • Movie villains: Leatherface, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

  • Movie villains: Dr. Mabuse, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

  • Movie villains: Norman Bates, Psycho (1960)

  • Movie villains: The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

  • Movie villains: Frank Booth, Blue Velvet (1986)

  • Movie villains: Michael Myers, Halloween (1978)

  • Movie villains: Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

  • Movie villains: Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

  • Movie villains: Reverend Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter (1955)

  • Movie villains: Darth Vader, Star Wars (1977)

Movie villains: Leatherface, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)


Leatherface, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Here's what's often missed about this human-skin-wearing killer: He's a sad, lost little boy. Just look at him, nervous and shivering after he makes his kills, worrying about being beaten by his father for destroying the door, or getting teased by his brother. The character might have been based on Wisconsin's notorious Ed Gein, but director Tobe Hooper and actor Gunnar Hansen imbue him with a subtle sense of soul. (A legendary deleted scene has Leatherface sitting before the mirror, applying lipstick and rouge to a cracked, borrowed persona.) Of course, the monster is best known for his artistry with a chain saw: He's on our list for building huge buzz.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Dr. Mabuse, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

No one is safe from this mesmeric master of disguise. Director Fritz Lang's silent serial casts the sinister-looking Rudolf Klein-Rogge as a criminal genius. He's a blight on Weimar Germany's wealthy populace, cheating at cards to finance his larcenous schemes and indulging in kidnapping and murder when it suits him. But he's also a direct result of the era's excesses, a malefactor twisting the reigning order to his own nefarious purposes. Lang would pointedly return to this diabolical character in two subsequent films—1933's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and 1960's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse—that likewise placed him in counterpoint to charged historical moments.—Keith Uhlich

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Norman Bates, Psycho (1960)

Some boys are close to their mothers; let's just say that Norman loves his mom not wisely but too well. Like our No. 10 villain, the character may be loosely based off of serial killer Ed Gein, according to the book's author Robert Bloch, but credit Anthony Perkins for making the gangly caretaker of the Bates Motel seem like he's simply a slightly off version of the boy next door, what with the oddball hobbies and awkwardness around Janet Leigh. All the better to fool viewers once it becomes apparent that Norman is—what's the phrase?—not himself some days. The original slasher-film villain remains a touchstone for using the banality of evil to make audiences loosen their bowels in fright. Not even a handy psychologist's wrap-up can explain away his monstrousness; Norman may not hurt a fly in the last scene, but that death's-head smile at the end suggests that he's far from cured.—David Fear

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The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

There's a puff of orange smoke, munchkins start screaming and scrambling over the yellow-brick road, and then she appears: a green-skinned hag with a black hat, a broom and a world-class cackle. Margaret Hamilton takes this Grimm's fairy-tale caricature to high-camp levels. (Just try imitating her "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too" line without playing it to the rafters.) But she also turns this nemesis of Dorothy and her friends into a child's worst nightmare come to life, all grasping hands and gothic gloom. Whether she's lusting after her dead sister's ruby slippers or sending flying monkeys to nab our homeward-bound heroes, this witch wears wickedness like a badge of pride.—David Fear

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Frank Booth, Blue Velvet (1986)

Lumberton, North Carolina's resident lunatic and No. 1 Roy Orbison fan is a nasty piece of work: a drug dealer and drug addict (what exactly does he keep huffing in that oxygen mask?), a kidnapper, a killer, and a sexual-deviant rapist with tons of Freudian issues. In Dennis Hopper's hands, this bad guy becomes every repressed violent and carnal urge shoved into human form with a leather jacket slapped on it. A star with no shortage of bad-behavior baggage, Hopper already brought a wild-card sense of danger to the role simply by showing up. But the way he infantilizes Frank ("Baby wants to fuck!") and plays up his rage makes the character's pathologies that much more frightening. This guy is pure id, a snarling beast lurking beneath the shiny facade of small-town Americana.—David Fear

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Michael Myers, Halloween (1978)

"It was the boogeyman," whispers a shocked Jamie Lee Curtis, her ordeal seemingly over. But Michael Myers is both more—and, in a profound sense, less—in John Carpenter's mythic classic. As former TONY editor Jason Zinoman argues in his fun new horror study Shock Value, the character is a success for being completely hollowed of detail, all the better to project our own fears onto him. He's more ferocious than the shark in Jaws, more blank than a ghost. (The closing credits call him only "The Shape.") Conceptually, you can feel the impact of Michael Myers in everything from Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning killer in No Country for Old Men (see our No. 33) to Ryan Gosling's single-minded man-machine in Drive.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins wasn't the only actor to bring everybody's favorite flesh-eating doctor to life. (Let's give a hat tip to Brian Cox, whose portrayal in 1986's Manhunter came first.) But once the Welsh actor took on the role in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal "The Cannibal" and Hopkins became inextricably linked; it's impossible to think of the gourmand serial killer without seeing those shining eyes or hearing that insinuating voice mentioning the eating of someone's liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. From the first moment you see him in Lambs—calmly staring right at you as the camera tracks to his cell—the sense that this genius psychopath is the most dangerous person within a 300-mile radius is immediately apparent. And Hopkins wisely emphasizes Lecter's dominating intellect; this is a man who gets a rush rooting around in people's heads—when he's not eating their brains, that is.—David Fear

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Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

At first, heroic Hollywood icon Henry Fonda didn't want to take the villainous starring role in Sergio Leone's breathtaking spaghetti Western. It was only after the great Italian director insisted in person ("The camera tilts up to the gunman's face's Henry Fonda!" Leone reportedly said) that the actor known mostly for playing relatable everymen took the leap. We're happy he did: From his first iconic scene, where he commits the unpardonable sin of shooting a child in cold blood, Fonda's smooth-shaven gunslinger chills with his unrepentant brutality. There's a world of hate behind those steely blue eyes, which Leone takes every chance to frame in his visionary extreme close-ups.—Keith Uhlich

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Reverend Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The mighty Robert Mitchum angered up for this masterly portrayal of evil in Charles Laughton's underseen American thriller. The character is a money-hungry predator, bent on recovering some stolen loot from the widow of a West Virginia robber. Charming his mark with phony righteousness, he woos and weds her—but two small children are on to him, and, fleeing home, they are pursued by a maniac. Mitchum's howl is as pure and uncut an expression of rage as the screen has delivered; he also coos the traditional hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" in a way that unsettles just as much. Powell's unnerving knuckle tattoos—one for love, one for hate—were paid homage by Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Darth Vader, Star Wars (1977)

It says something that, even in light of the atrocious prequels and George Lucas's incessant tweaks to the first three films, we easily agreed our top villain had to be Star Wars' helmet-and-cloak-clad Sith lord. You know you're in the presence of someone legendary when the character emerges through laser-fire smoke in the beloved first movie; he's instantly mythic with his queasily mechanical breath and take-no-prisoners attitude. And it just gets better from there, as anyone who's ever swung a plastic lightsaber or intoned "I find your lack of faith disturbing" can tell you. Congratulations, Darth. You're the one who most makes us want to turn to the dark side.—Keith Uhlich

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