So let’s begin the top 20 countdown, starting with…
20) General Zod (Superman, Superman II) – Terence Stamp
1978, 1981 – Obviously, everyone knows Superman’s arch-nemesis is Lex Luthor; however, as a fellow Kryptonian, General Zod’s beef with the Man of Steel is much more personal, having been exiled to the Phantom Zone by Kal-El’s father Jor-El for his attempted insurrection. Eventually freed unwittingly by Superman, Zod makes his way to Earth where he’ll stop at nothing to achieve his quest for world domination, which is complicated by his newfound quest for revenge upon learning that the son of Jor-El resides on the planet as well. Calm and coolly played by Terence Stamp, with a bit of arrogant narcissism thrown into the mix, Zod is “king of the mountain” and he knows it. You know you’re dealing with a man not to be trifled with when he can steal from Siegfried and Roy’s wardrobe and still ’cause the President of the United States to bow down in fear.
19) Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars: Episodes I-III, V-VI) – Ian McDiarmid
1999, 2002, 2005, 1980, 1983 – Sometimes, even the most memorable villains have someone behind them pulling the puppet strings. Fact is, you wouldn’t have Darth Vader if not for Palaptine’s manipulation of Anakin Skywalker and the calculated, merciless destruction he brought upon the Republic. As performed by Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor is as slithery and monstrous as they come, but McDiarmid underlies his deep, cackling voice with a gravitas that gives the villain a dark Shakespearean touch. Vader is obviously the face of the Empire, but when even he, of all people, warns his commanders that Sidious is not as forgiving as he is, that should speak volumes as to who really rules the galaxy.
18) Count Dracula (Dracula) – Bela Lugosi
1931 – Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula may have been more faithful to the original novel, but there’s no doubt that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is by far the definitive depiction of the legendary vampire. Everything from his presence to the slow and deliberate pacing of his dialogue – “I bid you… welcome!” – was captured with such powerful perfection by the Hungarian Legosi. Even in the moments where he says not a single word – such as the battle of wills between he and Van Helsing – Legosi comes off just as frightening with that icy, cold stare of his that stays with you long after you’ve seen it. It’s unfortunate that this role ended up being such a double-edged sword for Legosi. As famous as the role made him, it also brought upon him the curse of typecasting following this film. That still doesn’t take anything away from the enduring performance he gave in this horror classic.
17) Count Orlok (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) – Max Schreck
1922 – If a movie with no spoken dialogue can still manage to either move you, make you laugh, or send a chill down your spine, you know you have a masterpiece in the making. That is the case with Nosferatu, the classic German silent film from the early twenties. Inspiring the many vampire portrayals that would follow in the decades to come, Max Schreck’s Count Orlok is easily the most unsettling of all the vampire depictions. There’s not a shred of charisma, most often seen in every other vampire performance, to be found here, only emptiness and suffering. No, it’s not scary by today’s standards, but seeing that unforgettable moment of Orlock’s shadow slowly rising up the staircase is still good enough to evoke a shiver or two.
16) Max Cady (Cape Fear) – Robert Mitchum
1962 – Sorry, De Niro, you’re great, but your over-the-top version doesn’t hold a candle to Robert Mitchum’s magnetic performance as the sleazy degenerate Max Cady. Holding Georgia lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) personally responsible for his conviction, Cady, upon his release, begins stalking Bowden’s wife and 14-year-old daughter. What makes Cady such a disgusting villain is not just his perverse behavior, but how easy it is for him to basically get away with murder. Every time Bowden tries to pin down Cady with the police, it seems the authorities can’t find the evidence proving Cady’s wrongdoing. Having studied law while in prison, he knows how to be one step ahead, and proves to be a much smarter foil for Bowden than his vulgar demeanor leads you to believe.
15) The Shark (Jaws) – “Bruce”
1975 – A modern day version of Moby Dick, Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough hit Jaws, proves you can have a “villain” that’s just as monstrous as the rest of them without being seen onscreen. For most of the film, you don’t see the shark, even when it’s attacking its victims, the first of which is ill-fated skinny-dipper Chrissie. That’s the beauty of Jaws and the genius of Spielberg. When we do finally see the shark, it’s worth the wait. Whether it’s Spielberg’s ability to create suspense out of an unseen monster, the late, great Robert Shaw’s depiction of the shark during the town hall scene or John Williams’s phenomenally perfect musical score, there’s a reason people were afraid to go into the water in the seventies.
14) The Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) – voiced by Lucille La Verne
1937 – The greatest of all the Disney villains, vain and jealous are just the tip of the iceberg with this icy bitch. The Queen has no black heart or heart of stone. No, those with a black heart or heart of stone at least have a heart to begin with. That may explain why, upon finding out her step-daughter’s overtaken her spot as the “fairest in the land”, she’s cutthroat enough to desire Snow White’s heart cut out and brought to her. When the Queen’s true ugliness takes form as the old witch, and tempts a naive but sweet Snow White with the poisoned apple, you simply wanna choke the old, bitter hag for how she could ever find it in herself to kill such an innocent girl.
13) Khan Noonien Singh (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) – Ricardo Montalban
1982 – Revenge. Khan or “Khaaaaaaaan!!!!” is all about revenge. Fifteen years after being exiled to Ceti Alpha V by Capt. Kirk, Khan is hellbent on seeking revenge for not only what was done to him, but also the death of his wife, which he personally blames on Kirk. As the Enterprise leader’s most formidable foe, Ricardo Montalban commands every viewer’s attention as his wild-haired self starts up intergalactic calamity once again. The cherries on top of all his malevolent deeds are the mind-controlling eels – or “pets”, as he calls them – he uses to gain control of the USS Reliant. They’re just as disturbing to watch nowadays as they were for me when I was just 3-years-old. Nightmares naturally followed back then.
12) Annie Wilkes (Misery) – Kathy Bates
1990 – It is my sincere hope that I never attract a reader like Annie Wilkes. Kathy Bates won an Best Actress Oscar for her chilling portrayal of the obsessively psychotic Wilkes. A die-hard fan of famed novelist Paul Sheldon, Annie ends up taking care of Sheldon after he is involved in a nearby auto accident. What seems to be a dream come true for her ends up being a nightmare for him when he starts to realize she takes his writings a tad bit too seriously. It’s her ability to always be one step ahead of Paul whenever he tries to break free that makes her so convincingly terrifying. And it’s when she looks back on Paul and utters, “… God, I love you.”, after smashing his ankles with a mallet, of course, you finally realize just how bat-shit crazy she really is.
11) The Joker (The Dark Knight) – Heath Ledger
2008 – Of course, Jack Nicholson was great as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, but Ledger’s macabre and nuanced performance wins between the two. While Nicholson’s was more an ode to Cesar Romero’s campy Joker from the ’60s, Ledger’s was dark, demented, anarchic, and surprisingly intelligent. No one could get under Batman’s skin and inside his head as effectively as the Joker, and here, no one could bring Batman closer to breaking his “one rule” – not to kill anyone – more than the sadistic clown. On top of that, if you’ve seen the trilogy’s finale, The Dark Knight Rises, you realize he’s eerily prophetic. “They’ll cast you out like a leper… You just watch. When the chips are down, these civilized people… they’ll eat each other.” It’s a beautifully twisted performance that earned Ledger a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – one he deserved regardless of his unfortunate passing.
One. Two. Three. Four down, just one more segment to go. Next week, I’ll have the top 10 greatest fiends to ever grace and terrorize the silver screen. Start placing your bets as to who’s #1, readers.