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Who Was The Signature Movie Villain The Year You Were Born?

May 12, 2020 67.3k views46 items

What was the best movie villain the year you were born? These cinematic bad guys reflect how movies and tastes have changed over the decades, as audiences have responded to different depictions of evil. Some of the villains are straight out of horror movies, while others come from thrillers, sci-fi adventures, or dramas. Most are fictional, but two of them are based on real-life individuals who committed actual atrocities. There are even gender differences. In six years between 1960 and 2005, the villain who made the biggest onscreen impact was a woman. 

You'll also notice a difference in how these antagonists are presented. Was the most popular villain the year you were born a figure that could only come from someone's imagination, like Darth Vader, or was it a character who could theoretically exist in real life, such as Hannibal Lecter? 

Whatever the case, this list of the signature movie villains by year will tell you who audiences were rooting against when you came into the world.

  • Photo: MGM

    HAL 9000 isn't even a person and still makes for a terrifying villain. HAL is an artificial intelligence program in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, considered by many to be the greatest science-fiction film ever made. All we see of him is a camera lens with a glowing, pupil-like light at its center. After what is essentially a power struggle between him (it?) and the scientists on Discovery One, HAL starts executing some power moves, including turning off life-support systems and locking one astronaut out of the ship. Just because HAL is a computer doesn't mean he can't be a cold-blooded murderer.

    Voiced by actor Douglas Rain, HAL 9000 speaks in a calm, soothing voice that makes his increasingly defiant behavior troubling. Kubrick accomplished something extraordinary in having his film's central villain be a generally unseen technological force. The film has been enthralling audiences ever since.

  • 1969: Frank - 'Once Upon a Time in the West'

    Henry Fonda almost always played good, virtuous men. Sergio Leone flew against that, casting him as an unforgettable bad guy in his epic Western Once Upon a Time in the West. Fonda plays Frank, a hired gun brought in to intimidate a landowner into letting go of some of his real estate so that a railroad can come through. He takes the situation too far, gunning down the man and his children. That's just the first of his many vile acts.

    Audiences weren't prepared to see Fonda as such a ruthless villain. He won them over by effectively playing against type. Never had his baby-blue eyes looked so sinister. The veteran actor tapped into something he'd never really had the chance to show before, earning accolades in the process, as well as turning the picture into a must-see.

  • Airport was a big deal when it was released in 1970. The all-star disaster movie, adapted from Arthur Hailey's novel, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was also a huge box-office success and spawned three sequels.

    Van Heflin plays D.O. Guerrero, a demolition expert who sneaks an incendiary device onto an airplane with the intention of setting it off once in the air. His scheme is eventually uncovered, and for a brief moment it seems as though he might abandon the plan. Then he bolts into the bathroom, detonates the bomb, and blows a hole in the side of the plane, threatening the lives of everyone else on board. Although his motivation is to take his own life so his wife can collect a life insurance payment, his willingness to callously put other people at risk makes him a harrowing, everyday kind of villain.

  • Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) famously talks about being "ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence" in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The movie presents us with a villain who is unrepentantly evil, yet also so oddly charismatic that we can't take our eyes off him, no matter how heinous his behavior.

    Among the vile things Alex does in the film are terrorizing a writer and assaulting that writer's wife - while singing a happy tune in the process. McDowell brings Alex's lack of a moral center to the forefront, creating a character who actually derives pleasure from making other people suffer. This peek into the heart of darkness continues to mesmerize viewers to this day.