As all lovers of crime, suspense thriller, war, western, horror and science fiction films know, creating a truly great cinematic villain is no easy task. When it happens, it’s virtually impossible to forget that character.
We’ll now take a look at the greatest film villains of the 1980’s.
The criteria for this article is the same as my previous article Cinema’s Greatest Villains: The 1970’s: the villains must be from live-action films-no animated features-and must pose some type of direct or indirect lethal threat. The villains can be either individuals or small groups that act as one unit.
The villains must be human or human in appearance, so no shape-shifting alien from John Carpenter’s amazing 1982 The Thing, no Aliens from James Cameron’s classic 1986 sequel and no Predator from John McTiernan’s beloved 1987 film of the same name.
Also, individuals that are the central protagonists/antiheroes of their respective films were excluded.
Note: some of these performances were mentioned in my previous article Supporting Actors: The Overlooked & Underrated, which had a much broader focus. The inclusion of these entries in this article serves to further highlight the elite nature of those particular villainous performances.
Rutger Hauer as Wulfgar in Nighthawks (Bruce Malmuth, 1981): Hauer turns in a superb portrayal of a terrorist for hire wreaking havoc in New York City in order to prove to his former employers he is still the best in his field. Hauer’s intense performance in Nighthawks remains one of his finest and the film itself is one of the two best Sylvester Stallone movies of all time, along with Ted Kotcheff’s 1982 classic First Blood.
Michael Ironside as Darryl Revok in Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1981): Ironside’s unforgettable performance as a homicidal telekinetic in this David Cronenberg classic really put him on the cinematic map. Repeatedly cast as a villain in such films as Visiting Hours (Jean-Claude Lord, 1982), Extreme Prejudice (Walter Hill, 1987) and Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990) to name just a few, even Ironside’s less malevolent characters in Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986), Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997) and on television in the V series and ER all contain the actor’s trademark edgy intensity.
Robert Picardo as Eddie Quist in The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981): Those who only know Picardo from his more comedic roles in subsequent Joe Dante films and his lengthy television resume including The Wonder Years, China Beach and Star Trek: Voyager are missing out on Picardo’s extremely creepy and effective performance as a serial rapist and murderer that culminates in the greatest werewolf transformation scene ever put on film courtesy of the great make-up effects creator Rob Bottin (fans of Rick Baker’s accomplished transformation work in John Landis’ 1981 An American Werewolf in London commence acts of outrage now).
Vernon Wells as Wez in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981): Wells turns in his most memorable performance in this superb sequel that eclipses George Miller’s original 1979 Mad Max in every way. Making his big screen debut in this film, Wells creates a powerful, feral villain that desperately wants to destroy first and not ask questions later.
Wells fared far less favorably in subsequent villainous roles in such films as Mark Lester’s ridiculous but highly entertaining Commando (1985) and Joe Dante’s science fiction comedy Innerspace (1987) but his Wez character in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior remains a classic big screen villain.
Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982): In a perfect piece of casting, Hauer brings an appropriately “alien” quality to his portrayal of a synthetic being seeking longer life. Initially a box office failure, director Scott’s visually stunning film has since become regarded as a classic. Blade Runner is hailed primarily for its impressive production design, art direction and atmospheric visual style but Hauer’s acting performance is an underrated and absolutely integral part of Blade Runner’s quality.
Ricardo Montalban as Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982): Montalban executes his finest big screen acting in a performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as he reprises his unforgettable role from the original Star Trek television episode “Space Seed” from 1967. The talented Montalban may ultimately be remembered primarily for his extensive television resume but there’s no denying his masterful performance in a film seemingly destined to be overlooked by “serious” film critics.
The Star Trek film series continuously failed to create a villain on the level of Khan over the years until 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, wherein director J.J. Abrams and his creative team unnecessarily labeled their genetically engineered villain memorably played by Benedict Cumberbatch “Khan” in a manner that comes of as a highly forced gesture intended to please fans.
Malcolm McDowell as Colonel F.E. Cochrane in Blue Thunder (John Badham, 1983): McDowell adds his unique, menacing screen presence to this very entertaining film that pits McDowell’s character-a veteran pilot with a nefarious agenda-against his old rival in Roy Scheider’s Frank Murphy. Written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, Blue Thunder was a box office success that spawned a short-lived television series. Though this highly enjoyable film, which presented technology that was advanced at the time but would be considered primitive by today’s standards, is little discussed today, it does contain one of McDowell’s most memorable big screen performances.
George C. Scott as John Rainbird in Firestarter (Mark L. Lester, 1984): One of cinema’s most charismatic and powerful actors gives an often overlooked performance as a lethal government operative in this adaptation of the Stephen King novel about a pyrokinetic child. While Scott’s fascinating character certainly deserves a better film, his acting is the highlight of the otherwise mediocre Firestarter and is worthy of more critical attention than it typically receives.
Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator in The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984): Winning the role originally intended for Lance Henriksen-who would have to wait a couple more years for the substantial career boost he received from his performance as Bishop in Cameron’s Aliens-Schwarzenegger finds himself much better suited to the part of a nearly unstoppable killing machine inspired by Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger character from Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld than he was to playing Conan in John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian.
Questions about why a machine designed for infiltrating survivor hideouts in the future by looking like an everyday human would be supremely muscle-bound and have an Austrian accent aside, Schwarzenegger impresses nonetheless in a role that was severely softened for sequels.
M. Emmet Walsh as Loren Visser in Blood Simple (Joel Coen, 1984): A talented character usually cast in memorable smaller roles in such films as Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978) and Blade Runner, Walsh really shines in the Coen Brothers’ debut feature as a murderous private investigator. An example of flawless casting, Walsh’s performance is one of many mentioned in this article that are worthy of Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
Willem Dafoe as Rick Masters in To Live And Die In L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985): A year before his Best Supporting Actor Academy Award-nominated performance as Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War drama Platoon, Dafoe turned in an underappreciated performance as a lethal counterfeiter pursued by pair of reckless Secret Service agents in director Friedkin’s excellent crime film.
While To Live and Die in L.A.’s lack of box office success no doubt contributed to the lack of appropriate critical recognition for the then lesser-known Dafoe’s outstanding acting, his Rick Masters is one of the talented actor’s career-best performances.
Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandrige in Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985): Much like Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, Sarandon’s Jerry Dandrige is the first and the best. While the original Fright Night, very much a product of the 1980’s, hasn’t aged well, Sarandon’s charismatic performance as a modern vampire in the vein of Robert Quarry’s Count Yorga still holds up and is reason enough to seek out or revisit the film.
Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes in Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986): Veteran actor Berenger turns in the best acting of his career as the brutal counterpoint to Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias. Berenger and Dafoe were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars for this film and their performances remain the best things about Platoon.
Clancy Brown as The Kurgan in Highlander (Russell Mulcahy, 1986): In the world of Highlander villains, there can be only one and Clancy Brown’s Kurgan remains by far the
most memorable adversary in Highlander’s cinematic and television universe. A box office disappointment during its original release, the film gained popularity on home video and cable television movie channels, spawning sequels and a TV series.
While the film and its offspring are based on a great concept that has never been done in a truly satisfying way, Brown-an underrated actor who went on to give highly accomplished performances in films like Walter Hill’s 1987 Extreme Prejudice and Frank Darabont’s 1995 The Shawshank Redemption among others –creates an excellent, menacing character in Highlander.
John Glover as Alan Raimy in 52 Pick-Up (John Frankenheimer, 1986): Glover, an actor best known for his impressive television resume and many Emmy nominations, gives an incredible, severely underrated performance as a deadly blackmailer in director Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel.
52 Pick-Up remains one of the most overlooked films in Frankenheimer’s filmography and is one of the darkest, most effective Elmore Leonard adaptations ever made. Glover’s performance in the film should be more widely discussed as he creates a ruthless character that’s in the upper echelon of 1980’s screen villains.
Admirers of Glover should make a point of seeking out his brilliant performance as aging criminal profiler Declan Gage in the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episodes “Blind Spot” and “Frame”.
Rutger Hauer as John Ryder in The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986): With his third appearance in this article, Hauer cements his status as the greatest villainous character actor of the 1980’s. Here the Dutch thespian plays a mysterious and charismatic mass murderer with a strange, obsessive connection to a young man driving cross-country. The Hitcher was critically panned at the time of its release due to its grim, violent nature but Hauer’s performance is instrumental in making the film a 1980’s horror film classic. The film spawned a dreadful sequel in 2003 and a deeply unnecessary remake in 2007.
Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986): Hopper received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for David Anspaugh’s basketball drama Hoosiers, a film released the same year as Blue Velvet. The prevailing belief is that the nomination was informed heavily by the desire to recognize Hopper’s disturbing performance as a twisted kidnapper in Lynch’s film with his role in Hoosiers being the “safer”, more mainstream choice for Academy attention. In any case, Hopper’s Frank Booth is a classic screen villain and certainly one of the most quoted.
Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde in Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986): The underrated Noonan gives an amazing performance as a serial murderer being pursued by a driven FBI agent in director Mann’s classic based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. Unfortunately, Manhunter’s lack of box office success prevented Noonan from getting the critical attention he richly deserved.
To put Noonan’s very impressive performance in sharper focus, compare it to the take presented by the miscast Ralph Fiennes in the ill-advised 2002 adaptation of the Harris novel from director Brett Ratner.
Christopher Walken as Brad Whitewood Sr. in At Close Range (James Foley, 1986): Described by Walken as the “hillbilly Lucifer”, the intense, quirky actor’s performance as a small-time crime boss in rural Pennsylvania remains one of his career-best. Director Foley’s crime film classic, a box office failure on its original release, is too-often overlooked.
Doug Bradley as The Pinhead Cenobite in Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987): Sadly fated to be ground down to creative nothingness by repetition as most of the best horror film villains are (think Leatherface, Michael Myers and Hannibal Lecter among many others), Bradley’s original, authoritative performance as a visually striking demonic character with the key to other dimensions remains an unforgettable addition to the genre.
Billy Drago as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables (Brian DePalma, 1987): Drago’s sinister physical look and unique screen presence are perfectly suited to screenwriter David Mamet and director DePalma’s take on the real-life Chicago organized crime figure.
Having previously been seen in smaller villainous roles in films such as Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood, 1985) and Invasion U.S.A (Joseph Zito, 1985), the success of The Untouchables saw Drago graduate to much more substantial cinematic roles-still primarly villains-as a drug lord in Delta Force 2 (Aaron Norris, 1990), a unusual assassin in Cyborg 2 (Michael Schroeder, 1993) and the cannibal family patriarch Papa Jupiter in the horror remake The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006) among others, and on television in such shows as The X-Files and Charmed.
Jennette Goldstein as Diamondback, Lance Henriksen as Jesse Hooker, Joshua Miller as Homer, Bill Paxton as Severen and Jenny Wright as Mae in Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987): Hitcher screenwriter Eric Red teamed with co-screenwriter/director Kathryn Bigelow and continued his portrayal of the American Southwest as a lethal wasteland, this time populating it with a completely un-romanticized vampire family eking out a sparse, nomadic existence outside mainstream society.
Superbly cast all-around, this classic horror film-a box office failure at the time of its release-features three actors from James Cameron’s Aliens in Jennette Goldstein, Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton. The sequence wherein the predatory family slaughters everyone in an isolated bar remains an all-time classic and is one of the highlights of the film.
Terry O’Quinn as Jerry Blake in The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1987): Veteran actor O’Quinn, best known for his television work in Millennium, Alias and Lost, delivers the finest big screen performance of his career to date as a psychotic who insinuates himself into troubled families only to murder the members when they don’t live up to his expectations. Forget the softened and absurd 2009 remake (if you haven’t already), there is only one Stepfather and only one Stepfather.
Will Patton as Scott Pritchard in No Way Out (Roger Donaldson, 1987): The always intense Patton turns in a brilliant performance as a high-ranking Pentagon employee who ruthlessly seeks to cover up his superior’s involvement in a murder in this third cinematic adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock.
Patton later went on to become the best part of the Jerry Bruckheimer productions Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) and Gone in Sixty Seconds (Dominic Sena, 2000) but he has yet to top the high water mark he set for himself in No Way Out.
Mitchell Ryan as The General & Gary Busey as Joshua in Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987): Ryan and Busey play a pair of military-trained mercenaries that goes head-to-head with Mel Gibson’s ex-Special Forces Vietnam War veteran Martin Riggs in this still-entertaining Shane Black-scripted cop/action film that was heavily influenced by 1970’s men’s adventure books like Don Pendleton’s The Executioner series.
Adding further interest is the fact that this deadly duo of villains seems to represent what the Martin Riggs character could’ve turned into had he not become a police officer.
Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker in Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987): Highly accomplished character actor Smith will always be remembered for one of his career-best performances as a deadly criminal in Robocop’s futuristic Detroit. Of note is an excellent confrontational scene between Smith’s character and a drug dealer played by Lee DeBroux that was largely improvised by the actors.
Fans of Smith should seek out his work as an FBI agent in William Tannen’s underrated 1970’s suspense thriller throwback Flashpoint (1984) and his memorable performance in the X-Files Season 3 episode “Grotesque”.
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988): Very often imitated and never duplicated, Rickman’s performance set the high water mark for the spate of smooth European villains that followed in the wake of Die Hard’s success.
Mainly known as an accomplished stage actor prior to Die Hard, Rickman’s very successful big screen career has included lesser villainous roles in Quigley Down Under (Simon Wincer, 1990), Closet Land (Radha Bharadwaj, 1991) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds, 1991) along with his famous role as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter film series.
Through the years, the Die Hard film series has struggled and failed to create a villain on par with Rickman’s Hans Gruber in the same way the Star Trek film series has attempted and failed to create a villain that equals Ricardo Montalban’s Khan.
Lance Henriksen as Chris Caleek in Hit List (William Lustig, 1989): As was the case with George C. Scott’s John Rainbird in Firestarter, Lance Henriksen’s hitman character in Hit List deserves to be in a better film. Despite being a lesser-known performance in Henriksen’s long career, his Chris Caleek is one of the actor’s best villainous roles alongside his outstanding acting in Near Dark, Stone Cold (Craig R. Baxley, 1991) and Hard Target (John Woo, 1993).
Sean Penn as Sgt. Tony Meserve in Casualties of War (Brian DePalma, 1989): One of cinema’s most intense actors gives one his best performances as a sociopathic male monster in DePalma’s disturbing, fact-based Vietnam War drama. While the film may be hard-hitting and difficult to watch, Penn’s performance shines despite the fact that it is little-discussed today.
Other notable screen villains of the 1980’s:
These are excellent villainous performances that didn’t make the main portion of this article for various reasons but are all very much worth seeking out or revisiting.
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Robert Prosky as Leo in Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
Wings Hauser as Ramrod in Vice Squad (Gary A. Sherman, 1982)
Malcolm McDowell as Paul Gallier in Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)
Joe Pilato as Rhodes in Day of the Dead (George Romero, 1985)
John Russell as Stockburn in Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood, 1985)
Hakuryu as Kiyohiro in Violent Cop (Takeshi Kitano, 1989)
Yusaku Matsuda as Sato in Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989)
Most overrated villains of the 1980’s:
The following performances have a lot of admirers in the critical and fan communities but ultimately fail to stand the test of time.
Terence Stamp as General Zod in Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980)
Robert Englund as Fred Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
Glenn Close as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)