When looking back at the undulating beauty of cinema it can be hard to look past the gallery of heroes for the shining stars of film. But while lead actors will always lean towards the safety of certainty that being the flick’s hero can provide, the unstable insanity of the story’s villain can often be the most captivating character.
We thought we’d honour those characters who aren’t just villainous wretches desperate to thwart the hopeful plans of the plucky hero but are, almost certainly, psychopaths. While the definition of “psychopath” can vary, the power of these performances is undeniable.
Let’s take a look back at some of cinema’s most infamous psychopaths.
Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
When looking for a list of cinematic psychopaths, Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman in 2000’s American Psycho really is the saviour of the lazy journalist. While scientific definitions of a “psychopath” don’t really relate to Bateman, Bale’s performance is undeniably incredible. His adaptation of the monstrous demon of capitalism Bateman from Brett Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel, garnered him a heap of praise and set out Bateman as the murderous embodiment of darkest depths of machismo and consumerism.
Hannibal Lecter – Silence of the Lambs
While Dr. Lecter may be the only entrant on this list to have his own special meal go down as a piece of cinematic history, he is also the only entrant to be on the right side of the police investigation. A respected Baltimore forensic psychiatrist, as well as a cannibalistic serial killer. When he is caught and incarcerated for his crimes, he consults with the FBI to assist them in finding other serial killers.
Lecter was first introduced in the 1981 thriller novel Red Dragon but it is Anthony Hopkins performance of Lecter in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs that has us reeling. Working as the antagonist, Hopkins delivers a measured, informative and ultimately chilling performance as he depicts Dr. Lecter at his most intense.
Mr Blonde – Reservoir Dogs
In Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs Michael Madsen gives life to a different kind of cinematic psychopath. His character Mr. Blonde, the long-time friend of mob boss Joe Cabot, is drafted into the gang to take part in the diamond heist which acts as the starting point of the film’s action.
Eventually, as the heist goes wrong, Blonde’s crazed antics take centre stage as he is given the task of guarding L.A. police officer Marvin Nash, whom he subsequently tortures by cutting his ear off and dousing him in petrol all set to the now infamous tune from Stealers Wheel ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’.
Frank Booth – Blue Velvet
The twisted mind of David Lynch is always a great place to look when trying to find the most infamous psychopaths of cinema. You needn’t look any further than the maniacal drug-dealer and sexual deviant Frank Booth, the antagonist of Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet.
Using violence and his partner’s position in the Police Department, Booth holds the family of Dorothy Vallens hostage, using their peril as a way to make her become his sex slave. Booth continues to mix the gas he huffs through a face mask (only ever adding to his insanity) with a deep-set menace that makes his mere presence extraordinarily unnerving.
Much should be made of Dennis Hopper’s performance of Booth. He expertly toes the line of the intelligent drug-dealing murderer and his drug-using schizophrenic to make both “Baby” and “Daddy”—the personas which commit the ritualistic rape—effortlessly disgusting.
Jack Torrance – The Shining
The archetypal “broken man” Jack Torrance, the leading man in the Stephen King novel, and subsequently, Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of The Shining, is a shoo-in for any list like this. But while his popularity may lead some of our more cynical audience to snort in derision, Jack Nicholson’s performance of Torrence is like no other.
While in King’s novel Torrance is a badly adjusted victim of his traumatic childhood, Nicholson’s performance in the film is a less sympathetic view. In the novel, Jack is a tragic hero whose shortcomings lead to his defeat, while the film implies that he is insane from the start.
Watch Nicholson getting ready for that scene from behind the scenes of The Shining.
Annie Wilkes – Misery
The second nod to the expert writing of Stephen King sees Annie Wilkes, the tapped antagonist of Misery, is another masterpiece of theatrical control as Kathy Bates easily earned the Academy Award she won for Best Actress.
A nurse by training, she has become one of the stereotypes of the nurse as a torturer and Angel of mercy. While tending to the care of her favourite writer Sheldon, who confesses his plans for the in-film novel ‘Misery’, soon becomes aware that, in fact, Wilkes is not helping him recover but is acting out her murderous fantasies. His situation becomes as impossible as Bates’ performance is extraordinary.
Norman Bates – Psycho
Could it really be a list all about cinema’s psychos without mentioning the originator of the brand, the villain of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho the mother-loving murderer Norman Bates. Created by author Robert Bloch as the main antagonist in his 1959 thriller, he was then portrayed by Anthony Perkins in the 1960 film.
Bates has become the epitome of “mother issues” and in Bloch’s novel, he suffered severe emotional abuse as a child at the hands of his mother, Norma. After her depiction of all other women as “whores” there are even suggestions of an incestuous relationship.
This combination of twisted perception of the outside world, isolated and then incubated by his mother, with the murderous intent of Perkins’ performance has to see Bate smake our list. Plus, ya know, it’s Psycho—the clue is in the name.
Amy Dunne – Gone Girl
Research shows that there are fewer female psychopaths, and it’s no exception in the world of cinema. Enter Amy Dunne, the whip-smart powerhouse of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl novel as well as Fincher’s adaptation; a decided move away from the traditional devil-woman archetype, delivered in an exemplary performance by Rosamund Pike.
The performance was particularly praised receiving nominations for an Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Golden Globe Award an SAG Award for “Best Actress” as she effortlessly displayed the twisted intelligence of Dunne. Rather than stick to hypers-exualised tropes, she is methodical, calculated and cerebral through each twist and turn of the film, cementing her place in our top 10.
Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men
According to definitions, Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men is the most akin to the notion of a “psychopath”. Chigurh, empowered by the stoic facial acting of Bardem, will open a jar of pickles as comfortably as he would shoot his epic tool for destruction the silenced shotgun or, indeed, unleash his sinister captive bolt stunner, which is used in real life for putting cows down for the count.
The frightening moments of the film are all rested on Bardem’s performance. The menace he is able to instil in every situation is only enhanced by Chigurh’s calm disposition and serene exterior. When he flips his coin to decide your fate you best hope luck is on your side.
Alex DeLarge – A Clockwork Orange
The main character in Anthony Burgess’ ‘ultra-violent’ novel A Clockwork Orange Alex DeLarge is easily the most sexually violent mention on this list. It is this abuse of power and the thrill which it provides “The Large” that has seen him gain a spot. A speaker of Burgess’ adolescent language ‘nadsat’ DeLarge is a marauding sociopath intent on robbing, hurting, murdering, and raping innocent people for his own amusement.
Malcolm MacDonald’s performance as DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed film adaptation in the book is widely regarded as one of the most infamous villains of all time. But while the gore and gravity of his DeLarge’s actions are monstrous, it is the knowledge that his decisions are a conscious choice that really fills us with terror.
Do you agree with our list? Let us know in the comments.