I think most moviegoers will agree that a movie is only as good as its villain. If you go to a lot of trouble to craft a film with a terrific central hero, or group of heroes, but pit them against a weak, ineffectual, or even just plain anonymous villain, then the movie itself weakens as a result.
But if the bad guy is one for the books, a real larger-than-life, powerfully evil, hissable monster... chances are it'll be a film you’ll never forget.
In the real world, bad guys often go unpunished…in fact, as history has sadly proven time and again, they often prosper. Is it any wonder then that when it comes to the fantasy land of moviemaking, we love to see the bad guys get theirs.
Hans Gruber says sayonara at the end of Die Hard.
Of course, even in movies, the villains sometimes go unpunished. Certainly, many of the “villains” in dramas and comedies don’t die, they merely get humiliated, thwarted, lose the girl and/or the game, get shown up as the creep they are, etc. -- which is justice enough.
But in the arena of genre films, where a movie often triumphs or fails on the strength of its bad guy(s), a good villain deserves, and usually gets, a good, violent – and if possible, poetic and grandiose -- death.
I’ve seen more than my share of these kinds of films. Here are some of the more memorable examples of demonic demises which come to mind.
Beware! SPOILERS (and some violent images) ahoy!!!
10. Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow (1999)
In the climax of Tim Burton’s sumptuous ode to Hammer horror films, we find out that the conniving villainess who has orchestrated all the mayhem and has sent the Headless Horseman on his gory murder spree is none other than Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), the innocent heroine’s stepmother. When Ichabod Crane and friends break the spell she holds over him, the Horseman is more than happy to return the favor by immediately escorting the treacherous stepmother right where she belongs... to hell.
9. James Hong as Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Played more for laughs than serious thrills, John Carpenter’s riff on Asian fantasy films is goofy fun when taken on its own terms. It does have a few genuinely great moments, one of which comes in the finale. Our cocky “hero” Jack Burton (who doesn’t seem to realize that he is the sidekick in his own movie, not Dennis Dun) exhibits his one particular skill set – occasional lightning reflexes – by catching the knife thrown at him by the thousand-year-old, horndog Chinese sorcerer Lo Pan, and immediately tossing it back, nailing Lo Pan right in the brain pan.
That’s all she wrote, folks.
It’s a great throwaway moment, both surprising and funny.
8. Christopher Lee as Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The Bond series is crammed with countless inventive death scenes for its baddies. My pick for best coup de grace comes in The Man with a Golden Gun. Surely not most fan's favorite Bond film, TMWTGG remains a guilty pleasure for me, with its exotic Hong Kong and Thailand settings, fun action and clever resolution of the final duel between imperious hitman Scaramanga and 007 (Roger Moore). It’s set up in the opening teaser, where we see the wax statue of Bond in the background of Scaramanga’s funhouse (right before he kills the mafia hitman).
Scaramanga falls into his own trap at the end, realizing too late that the real Bond has taken the dummy’s place. Result – bullet between the eyes for old Scaramanga. (Let’s not think to deeply about whether Bond really had the time to remove the statue and stash it away somewhere before scrambling back and assuming the exact same pose in the scant minute or so available. It's still a very cool scene.)
7. Basil Rathbone as Captain Esteban Pasquale in The Mark of Zorro (1940)
One of the great swordfights in cinema history, in one of the best swashbucklers around. It’s delightful to watch the haughty Captain begin to sweat in fear as he realizes that the supposed dandy Don Diego Vega is in reality a badass fencer of the highest order. All sneering and cocksure swagger evaporated, our villain is beaten inexorably back against the wall and pinned like an insect by the point of Zorro’s sword. In a surprisingly graphic shot for the time, we see the blood blossom upon Rathbone’s blouse, his grimace of pain, his collapse out of frame, his fall knocking a painting off the wall to reveal…the mark of Zorro.
6. Henry Fonda as Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Old Stone Face himself, Charlie Bronson.
Considered by many Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West is a gorgeous, slow, deliberate movie and the build-up to its villain’s death is equally slow and deliberate. For nearly three hours we’ve watched the enigmatic Harmonica (Charles Bronson) circle his prey, Frank (Henry Fonda, at his most cold-blooded and cruel), waiting for just the right moment: the end of the climactic gunfight, when Harmonica's motivation becomes clear and Frank (and we, the audience) realize just who he is and what he 's come for.
5. Jan-Michael Vincent as Steve McKenna in The Mechanic (1972)
Bronson, older but just as tough (and with worse hair)
Michael Winner’s cold, efficient thriller saves its tastiest treat for the very end.
Young punk hitman-in-training Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) has just poisoned his veteran mentor Charles Bronson. Thinking he pulled one over on the old man, he saunters out to claim Bronson's sports car, picking up the wax ball he’s always playing with. He gets into the car and then his eye catches something taped to the rear-view mirror. It’s a note from Bronson:
If you read this it means I didn't make it. It also means you've broken a filament controlling a thirteen second delay trigger. End of game. Bang you're dead.
4. Wes Studi as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Wes Studi has had some good parts over the years, but none has equaled his fierce turn as Magua, the Huron warrior who’s out to kill British Col. Munro and “wipe his seed from the earth.” Unlike most baddies on this list, Magua is a more conflicted, nuanced character, with a clear background motivation for his villainous acts. Nonetheless, his course is set for one of the all-time great bad-guy bashdowns, in one of the most stirring finales in recent movie memory.
Having killed Munro and taken his youngest daughter Alice captive, Magua and his men are pursued by our noble heroes Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), Chingachgook and Uncas.
Uncas, in love with Alice, spurs on ahead and challenges Magua in hand-to-hand combat. A great fighter, Uncas is still no match for the mighty Magua, and is soon savagely dispatched. This incurs the wrath of Uncas’ father, Chingachgook, now the last Mohican.
Trust me on this one: you do NOT want to be on the wrong side of Chingachgook and his MASSIVE tomahawk.
3. Andrew Robinson as the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry (1971)
By all accounts one of the nicer guys you’d ever want to meet in real life, Andrew Robinson here plays one of the most convincingly vile serial killer scumbags in movie history. I’m convinced part of the reason so many liberal viewers of the time were shocked and outraged over the “fascism” of Dirty Harry is that they felt themselves lusting for Scorpio’s death and felt appalled and guilty at the feelings provoked. Robinson does everything in his considerable power to make the viewer seethe with hate as his character murders, tortures, kidnaps and manipulates the law in his quest to make Inspector Harry Callahan’s life miserable. But in the end, there’s no escaping retribution from the barrel of Harry’s legendary .44 Magnum, along with that famous speech (so famous, you probably don't need me to quote it here, but I'm going to anyway, because it's so damn cool):
"Go ahead, punk."
“I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
2. Gene Simmons as Malik al Rahim in Wanted: Dead or Alive (1986)
Let me be clear right up front…I have very little memory of this movie. But the ending has resonated for me down through the years since I saw it for the one and only time back in the late 80s. I have no idea if the movie is any good, really …in fact, I’d be surprised if it is. Rutger Hauer plays Nick Randall (supposedly related to old time bounty hunter Josh Randall, played by Steve McQueen in the western series of the same name), on the trail of a scuzball terrorist played with slimy relish by former Kiss member Gene Simmons. In typical 80s action movie fashion, Rahim does about every bad thing you could think of to our hero: he blows up his car and his home, kills his girlfriend, his friends. He even kills his dog. Eventually Hauer gets pissed off enough to capture Rahim alive. He pops a grenade in Rahim’s mouth and, keeping his finger on the pin, leads the terrorist to the waiting FBI agents for arrest and trial. Well, that's the plan, anyway. At the last second, he decides to save the taxpayers some money. He pulls the pin and walks away. Bye bye, Rahim.
You guessed it…BOOM!
1. The shark in Jaws (1975)
I’ve saved the biggest fish to fry last. Jaws is basically a perfect film, the granddaddy of all the blockbusters that have come down the pike since. Directed by a young, hungry and extraordinarily talented Steven Spielberg, the whole film is a masterpiece of editing. This is clearly apparent in the climactic showdown, which acts as a much-needed catharsis after nearly two hours of sustained suspense.
Roy Scheider, on the mast of the sinking boat. The implacable monster of a great white closing in for the kill, an air tank clenched in its massive teeth. Schneider aims his rifle...
“Smile, you son of a ---“
Those are my picks. I know there are tons more that I've missed. What are some of your favorite Bad Guy deaths? Leave me a comment and let me know.
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