October is the month of Halloween, when we are supposed to embrace our dark side, the holiday where we are encouraged to scare the wits out of one another. It got me thinking about who some of the scariest characters in the history of film are, and I started combing through the horror movies I'm familiar with, when I realized that limiting myself to the horror genre would eliminate many of the scariest performances I've ever seen. In other words, it isn't just horror movies that have monsters in them. Any genre can have a hero, and any genre can have a villain.
What makes a great villain? Sometimes subtle, sometimes slimy, sometimes unexpected, all villains have to, at some point, accept and embrace evil. The only rule that applies in creating a great villain is that they have to be formidable and substantive in some recognizable way. They have to provide a worthy challenge to the hero. When they don't, it's yawning time.
There are many types of villains. In some, it is the presence of pure evil in what appears to be normal and good people. In these villains the evil is more frightening when you realize what these otherwise normal people are capable of.
Then there is the villain who is superior in physicality and intellect but is missing any shred of goodness. These villains are frightening because of their ability to dominate all that is good.
Evil isn't evil unless there is good to contrast against, and most great villains need a great hero. This isn't to say that good always triumphs over evil; how boring would it be if that were always the case? Some of the greatest villains in movie history never get their comeuppance, and some even triumph in the end. A test of a great villain, and a great story, is that the question of which will triumph, hero or villain, is in doubt until the end.
Some of the best villains are those that represent an unresolved dark side of the hero. It's as if the hero stands in front of a mirror and sees his deepest and darkest fears reflected back.
The best villains tell us something about the heroes, and something about ourselves. Sometimes it's just as important that we're reminded of who we don't want to be as who we aspire to, and to recognize that, as John Huston says in Chinatown, "in the right time and the right place" we are "capable of anything."
Here are 15 of the scariest villains in movie history:
15. John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown (1975, Polanski)
14. Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962, Frankenheimer)
13. Henry Fonda as Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Leone)
12. Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus (1947, Powell - Pressburger)
11. Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train (1951, Hitchcock)
10. Glenn Close as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (1987, Lyne)
9. Robert DeNiro as Max Cady in Cape Fear (1991, Scorsese)
8. Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949, Reed)
7. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007, Ethan and Joel Coen)
6. Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955, Laughton)
5. Joseph Cotten as Charlie Oakley in Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Hitchcock)
Released in 1943, Shadow of a Doubt is Alfred Hitchcock's earliest masterpiece. It remained one of his own favorites for the rest of his life. Casting the normally likable and gentlemanly Joseph Cotten as a serial killer of widows, and the perpetually sweet and innocent and pretty Teresa Wright as his bored and innocent niece, who has always adored her uncle, the film becomes an essay on the nature of evil. Written by the great American playwright Thornton Wilder, who celebrated the classic American small town in his play, "Our Town", Shadow of a Doubt lifts the cover off of that small town and reveals the monsters that are hidden there. Unspeakable evil can exist just beneath the surface facade of affable charm, whether it's in the stereotypically sweet and simple town or under the easy-going likeability of Cotten's portrayal of Uncle Charlie. Hitchcock uses Wright, who was always cast (often times annoyingly so) as the pretty and sweet girl next door, to great effect. Her naivete and innocence are shattered when she begins to learn the truth about Charlie. Charlie is pure nihilism, his evil made darker by the contrast to the every day good guy everyone assumes he is. He is sick and prone to psychosis, as when he delivers this icy monologue at dinner one night:
"The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women... Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?"
4. Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man (1976, Schlesinger)
3. Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986, Lynch)
2. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)
1. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme)
Who would you choose as the best villain?