Introduction

Sharpen the knife and hide it in your sock.  Make sure the gun is loaded and the safety turned off.  Do you remember your favorite prayer from childhood?  Warm up your memory and have it ready.  Abide by every superstition.  Practice your most powerful spells.  And just in case, leave a note to tell your family you love them.  We’re here, ready to take on the ten most hated villains in the history of movies, and we’ll need all the help we can get.

10. Alonzo Harris, Training Day

Alonzo Harris

“This shit’s chess. It ain’t checkers.”

At first it’s just that his methods are questionable.  Maybe he’s a man both hardened and wisened by working a tough job in a tough place, acting on necessity to keep some discernible line where now there is a gray and blurry boundary between justice and criminality.  But the movie moves Alonzo carefully from the standard “do what’s necessary” movie detective trope to the less charted territory of “power-mad kingpin with wholly selfish intent.”  The shift is so patient that it’s difficult to map the viewership reaction from curiosity to anger to hate.  But, sure enough, on a rewatch, it becomes obvious that Denzel has performed as villain from start to finish.  Fittingly donning an all black get-up (reminiscent of another classic villain, anyone?), Alonzo spends the first act sizing up his audience (both audiences actually– his new trainee and everyone on the other side of the screen) before landing a series of sucker punches, leaving us no choice but to hit back with our hate.

9. The Hunter, Bambi

"We made it!  We made it, mother!  Mother?"

“We made it! We made it, mother! Mother?”

It could be argued that, since he never makes an actual appearance in the film, the hunter doesn’t belong on this list.  But if you’re measuring a villain by the hate left in his wake, the hunter is too large to deny.  Has any movie character done more damage to a larger audience?  It’s hard not to recall the nausea of that first watch, that empty existential feeling that took root as an unexpected early lesson in mortality.  The initial intention for the film had the hunter as an on-screen character, but Disney didn’t want to demonize the culture of hunting.  Early scripts called for Bambi to find his mother in a pool of blood.  The original script called for the hunter to shoot Bambi! I’m glad Disney ironed those details out or this movie might have been traumatizing.

 

8. Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter

"Join me in the forest tonight and confront your fate. "

“Join me in the forest tonight and confront your fate. “

Die hard Harry Potter fans had a hateful head-start on this one.  The movie series quickly pursued the success of its literary source material, and in so doing, borrowed from the readers a love for its central collection of hero characters and the hate for the top villain.  But perhaps the most crucial influence toward hating Voldemort before he takes precedent within the imagined universe is the dreadful anticipation boosted by the early hushed discussion of his existence.  He is a villain so evil that his name is forbidden, and every storytelling rule lets us know that he is coming back for our young hero.  When he does, he fits right into the ready made hate.  The reborn Voldemort is ugly and powerful, aiming for authoritarian control, and leader of the Death Eaters, the most chilling minions to ever serve a villain.

7. Amon Goeth, Schindler’s list

" This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that. That's cruel! "

” This is very cruel, Oskar. You’re giving them hope. You shouldn’t do that. That’s cruel! “

So I guess we’re going to have to start the conversation about Ralph Fiennes being film’s all-time great villain actor.  This is a pretty scientific and definitive list and his characters have earned two of the top ten spots.  And you probably knew his turn as the commander of Krakow-Plaszow Death Camp was due for an appearance. How often has it been asked, rhetorically, silently, or in the open:  How could  a large scale genocidal event such as the Holocaust unfold?  What kind of people could let this happen?  On an individual basis, Amon Goeth attempts to offer an answer.  Goeth exhibits all the characteristics required of such a position.  It is shown in small doses.  He cautions Schindler against giving hope, a virtue for which he deems his prisoners unworthy.  And it manifests as much more sizable evil.  Goeth is so fully void of empathy for his Jewish victims that he has no reservations about using them for sniper target practice.  This illustration of evil is driven home  by the knowledge that it is a portrait of reality.  This man actually existed and contributed to the darkest chapter of human history even more than the movie gives him credit for.

6. Scar, The Lion King

"No, Simba, you're in trouble again. But this time, Daddy isn't here to save you. And now everyone knows why!"

“No, Simba, you’re in trouble again. But this time, Daddy isn’t here to save you. And now everyone knows why!”

And behold, my long running “scarred villain” theory is fully vindicated.  A universally-loathed character who applies the theory so cleanly that his creators didn’t even bother thinking up a name.  Just Scar. If I’m remembering correctly, The Lion King inspired the first moment in my life that I called someone a “motherfucker.”  That someone was Scar, obviously, and if you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly when I said it.  Scar is a ruthless and despicable character from start to finish– a fratricidal, selfish, power-hungry megalomaniac– but it’s his second act betrayal that lines him perfectly within the sites of hate.  Mufasa’s murder proves an act beyond retribution.  Scar never seeks sympathy or forgiveness from the audience and it’s never offered.  In fact, the first time I witnessed his eventual demise afforded my second opportunity to use my newly discovered vulgar insult.  “It’s the circle of life, motherfucker,” I seethed, as I wished that I could see the teeth of the hyena tear into the fallen king’s rotten flesh.

 

5. Reverend Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter

"Not that you mind the killings! There's plenty of killings in your book, Lord... "

“Not that you mind the killings! There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord… “

The Night of the Hunter captures the worst kind of societal poison in its villain Reverend Harry Powell.  The movie is based on real-life serial killer Harry Powers, who, like his fictional counterpart, stalked the area around the Ohio River baiting in lonely women, killing them, and stealing their money.  As represented in the movie Powell operates with a pure hatred for women which he sincerely seems to believe is supported on a Biblical level.  He has scripture ready to explain his every evil action. And yet, he preys on weakness and loneliness and seeks material gain, two ambitions antithetical to the baseline of what most perceive to be the pure Christian message..  The Love/Hate tattoos scribed across his fingers punched the character into film iconicism (an unsettling score and masterful camera work sure didn’t hurt). And Mitchum’s haunting face seared him into nightmares.

 

4. Mr. Potter, It’s a Wonderful Life

Mr. Potter

“George, I am an old man, and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even. “

Frank Capra’s holiday favorite replays ad nauseam every Christmas season and its over-exposure has colored its sentimental message a very melodramatic tone.  But, while George Bailey’s struggle and epiphany might prove to be too sugary a holiday treat for some, one aspect of the film remains untainted by over-exposure. In all of film, there is no face more fitting and deserved to stand as the face of greed that that of Henry F. Potter.  Mr. Potter is a man driven by pure material exploit.  He is as corrupt and manipulative as any large scale leader and his small town context helps point a microscope at the empty substance of superficial obsessions.  Even his acts of charity are just poorly disguised bad deeds.  With the movies’ black-white-morality and character plasticity, George is more everyman than any man, and in so being, his curmudgeonly antagonist is a force we can all hate together, every year, on schedule.

3. Pennywise, IT

"They all float down here. When you're down here with us, you'll float too! "

“They all float down here. When you’re down here with us, you’ll float too! “

Strange that perhaps the most terrifying entry on the list be pulled from a 1990 made-for-TV movie.  A maniacal Tim Curry stepped into the role of Pennywise, perhaps Stephen King’s most prominent evil entity (with all apologies to Randall Flagg), and cartwheeled his way into the lifelong repetitive nightmares of an entire generation.  Pennywise the Clown is one of many forms. The evil entity appears as a skeleton, a giant spider, deadlights, and dead relatives.  A timeless force,  he is fueled by and built of fear itself, so it is no surprise that his most pronounced, common, and scarring appearance be that of a standard clown.  With their entire image designed as a perversion of the familiar and their comedic approach designed to be lunacy with horns and props, clowns are just inherently scary. But no one, not even Ted Bundy, has done more to exponentially enhance our culture’s shared fear of clowns than Pennywise, the sewer dwelling monster who wakes every thirty years to feast on children and wander about unseen by adults.

 

2. Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men

"Well, I got here the same way the coin did. "

“Well, I got here the same way the coin did. “

He has no minions, no henchman, no partners, and he answers to no boss.  Anton Chigurh is a force of nature, a movie monster as ugly and precise as Ridley Scott’s Alien, a manifestation of the divine and vengeful anger of the Old Testament. He’s a cold, sociopathic killer, uniquely illustrated with an unlikely haircut, an unplaceable accent, an unmistakable weapon, and a face that isn’t inexpressive, but rather, seems to mimic human expressions.  The scariest part of Chigurh lies in his ramblings, his indication that he’s operating under some twisted fatalistic logic that lies far outside of the grasp of the normal mind.  His murders aren’t decisions, they’re not crimes, they’re not even immoral.  In his own mind, the death that he delivers is just time unfolding as it must, the natural order of things, a single ominous note in the universe’s concert of fortune and destiny. (Note the way that Chigurh often seems annoyed how long it takes for the coin toss to proceed, as if this is a tedious and unavoidable task he’d rather skip through).  We see it play out as nerve-wracking theater several times, starting with the high-anxiety scene wherein the gas station attendant has his life decided by a coin toss before he can even figure the stakes. This exchange unfolds early in the film and ends with a sense of merciful relief.  There’s no way the movie can distribute such high level of stress again, we think to ourselves immediately after.  But it does, just about every minute that Chigurh is screen present.

 

1. Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

"You know Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this."

“You know, Billy. What worries me is how your mother is going to take this.”

It is a moment of rare triumph in the halls of the mental ward.  Billy Bibbit, who is all too often inhibited by his own self-doubt and anxiety, is asked if he’s ashamed of himself.  He steps forward and proudly proclaims, “No, I’m not.”  His words are boisterous, certain, and uninterrupted by his normal stutter.  His fellow patients cheer him on.  Nurse Ratched isn’t impressed.  Nor does she flinch at her temporary loss of control.  Her response is strategic and cold:  “You know, Billy.  What worries me is how your mother is going to take this.” Here is the extent of  understanding offered to viewers by this line of dialogue:  We can now be fully certain that Nurse Ratched does not care about offering treatment or progress to the patients over which she presides. Not even Billy, who we know to be the son of one of her close friends.  We know that Nurse Ratched does care about maintaining control over her patients.  But why?  She shows in this climactic sequence that their recovery isn’t a concern.  The ambition behind her sadistic domination is never clear, but there is never a single indication of compassion. Like any pure dictator, acts of disobedience make her tighten her grip over the group.   McMurphy’s constantly rebellious spirit turns her into a monster, a heart cold enough to break down and, ultimately, destroy the son of her friend in a single declaration.  Aside from McMurphy’s attempt to choke the life out of the head nurse (an instant that I cheer far more than I should, every viewing, hoping that someday they won’t be able to pull McMurphy away in time), there is no call to righteousness, no justice for the oppressed.  As the film closes, Nurse Ratched still holds her seat of power, suggesting that corrupt power is an incurable condition in society, that the most that free spirits can hope for is an occasional small victory, and the bad folks… well, they never go away.

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