Villains throughout the cinema of the late 20th century were nasty individuals indeed, from Die Hard’s Hans Gruber to Speed’s Howard Payne, these figures cast a dark shadow over proceedings, making the most melodramatic action movie as enjoyable as possible for audiences. Although similar antagonists exist in modern cinema, many people consider contemporary villains to simply not be as sinister.
This is undoubtedly due to the watered-down villains of modern franchises, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe constantly shoving out watered-down antagonists for earth’s mightiest heroes to battle. They aren’t the only guilty culprits either, with Star Wars also ditching their previous fine form of villains in Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine to instead embrace the half-baked Kylo Ren and Snoke.
Look beyond similar mainstream filmmaking, however, and there is much sinister villainy to enjoy, existing in the corners of niche action movies and independent releases. Including films from such names as Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher and Park Chan-wook, take a look at our list of the ten most sinister modern movie villains, below.
The ten most sinister villains of modern cinema
10. Jeremiah Sand – Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)
A bizarre, punk horror film from the surreal mind of the Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos, Mandy stars Nicolas Cage as a husband whose wife is kidnapped by a nightmarish hippie cult. Tracking her down, Cage’s Red Miller is pulled into a surreal hellscape of twisted minds, led by Jeremiah Sand, a sinister cult leader who controls every movement of the group with a tight chokehold.
Sand shows off his insidious ways at many points throughout the film, but there is one moment when he confronts Cage’s character to explain his bizarre inspirations as the cult leader. As his face morphs into Cage’s wife’s, the scene becomes truly nightmarish.
9. Lee Woo-jin – Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Revenge, deceit and malevolence are the order of the day in Park Chan-wook’s venomous crime thriller, Oldboy, following a man who is released from unexplained captivity only to be told that he must find his captor in five days. A frenetic journey that makes the audience question whether revenge is ever worth it, Oldboy is memorable for several reasons, with the villain, Lee Woo-jin, being one of many.
Tricking the lead character, Woo-jin has some truly twisted motivations that would be too much of a crime to reveal for those who are yet to watch the movie.
8. Amy Dunne – Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)
David Fincher is known for making some of the greatest films of modern cinema, including Zodiac, The Social Network, Mank and Gone Girl, a twisted romantic mystery. Telling the story of a man’s wife who disappears, only for himself to be targeted as one of the main suspects, Fincher’s modern classic stars Rosamund Pike as the threatening Amy Dunne, an intimidating and manipulative figure who makes the protagonist’s life a twisted nightmare.
Nominated for an Academy Award for her terrific performance, Pike’s Dunne is a powerful figure of manipulation and control, making her truly a villain for modern times.
7. Voldemort – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates, 2011)
The Harry Potter series is known for its compelling villains, with Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange or Timothy Spall’s Peter Pettigrew also being worthy of a mention on this list. The finest villain of the series is, of course, Voldermort, however, a ghost-like figure who stalked the story with the ominous threat of the grim reaper and the perfect villain to face up against the innocent, good-natured Harry Potter.
Played by Ralph Fiennes throughout the film series, it is the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 that best shows off the character’s evil, hatred and untamed anger.
6. Joker – Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
“Oh, hee-hee, aha. Ha, ooh, hee, ha-ha, ha-ha,” Heath Ledger’s Joker cackled as he sauntered into Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, instilling a sense of instant threat as he turned the tide of superhero moviemaking. Sporting the kind of eerie makeup you would imagine seeing on a clown in the process of a nervous breakdown, Ledger would change the credibility of blockbuster cinema.
So much has already been said about the Joker’s terrifying position in Nolan’s film, with the chaos-loving terrorist holding a visual presence that is as terrifying as his blasé stance on violence.
5. Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men (The Coen brothers, 2007)
As a silent, unsympathetic killer, Anton Chigurh is thought to reflect the fear, apprehension and paranoia of post-9/11 America, where people on the edge of violence act on instinct rather than emotional or rational thought. Consequently, Chigurh, portrayed with haunting proficiency by Javier Bardem, has gone down as one of cinema’s most frightening villains, giving off an ethereal energy of omnipotence as he rains terror down on the Texas community.
Bardem’s performance elevated the Coen brother’s movie, becoming an undisputed classic of modern cinema, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as being nominated for a Palme d’Or at the Canned Film Festival.
4. Jack – The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier, 2018)
Telling the fictional story of the sadistic murderer over the course of 12 years, Lars von Trier’s film doesn’t shy away from showing the true extent of Jack’s violent ways, with scenes including the protagonist cutting a woman’s breast off as well as shooting two children in the head. An evil figure who finds artistic pleasure in his murders, Jack isn’t as enjoyable to watch as the controversial Danish director believes.
This reaches a peak in the film when he takes to a sniper’s crow’s nest and begins to pick off a mother and her two sons as they desperately hide for cover. It’s all a bit much really.
3. Standartenführer Hans Landa – Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Christoph Waltz plays one of the most sinister WWII villains ever put to film in Quentin Tarantino’s bombastic thriller Inglourious Basterds, appearing alongside Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender. Best brought to life in the very first scene of the movie where he throws his weight around and manipulates a French farmhand into revealing where he is hiding the Jews seeking refuge in his home.
Becoming a figure of enormous hatred, Waltz perfectly realises his role in the film and pulls off one of the most villainous performances of the 21st century. Nazi’s. They’re bastards, aren’t they.
2. Lil’ Ze – City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund, 2002)
Nominated for four Academy Awards, the Brazilian movie City of God remains a firm favourite of film fans worldwide for its frenetic pace and compelling characterisation. From the off Lil’ Dice (the younger version of Lil’ Ze) shows off just how brutal he can be in his pursuit of infamy, robbing the poor as well as mercilessly killing old friends, innocent bystanders and more.
There are countless unforgivable acts Lil’ Ze performs throughout the classic 2002 film, though nothing is worse than when he beats up Knockout Ned and rapes his girlfriend. He’s a proper piece of s**t.
1. Kyung-Chul – I Saw The Devil (Kim Jee-woon, 2010)
A favourite of the Sinister director Scott Derrickson, I Saw the Devil from Kim Jee-woon tells the story of a serial killer who goes head to head with a secret agent through several deadly traps and captures. Starring Lee Byung-hun, Jeon Gook-hwan and Ho-jin Chun, it is Choi Min-sik who plays the horrific villain of the film who is a nasty and downright evil figure of vicious hatred and violence.
Terrifyingly impulsive, there’s no knowing what Kyung-Chul will do next as he leaves a trail of murder victims in his wake.