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30 Great Psychopath Movies That Are Worth Your Time

09 April 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Jason Turer

best suspense films

What is a psychopath? The word gets thrown around so casually these days that it’s nearly lost all meaning. Rather than being synonymous with “crazy” or “evil,” however, the term refers to a specific cluster of personality traits coupled with distinct patterns of antisocial behavior.

It is not listed in the current version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the closest recognized diagnosis being antisocial personality disorder, but it is a very real and documented condition. Renowned Canadian psychologist and psychopath expert Dr. Robert D. Hare has codified the prevailing features in his Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-Revised), which lists some of the following characteristics:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Impulsivity
  • Superficial charm
  • Shallow emotions
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Irresponsibility
  • Manipulative behavior
  • Early behavioral problems

A similar term is “sociopathy,” which is – though its subtle differences with psychopathy continue to be debated between social scientists and psychologists – for all intents and purposes, pretty much the same thing. Not all criminals are psychopaths (although many are, including a disproportionate number of prison inmates), and not all psychopaths become criminals, or are even necessarily violent.

Psychopaths do, however, make up roughly 1% of the American population, so statistically speaking, you’re virtually guaranteed to have met at least a few in your life.

One final word on the definition of “psychopath”: It should not be confused with “psychotic,” which is totally different and entails having lost touch with reality (examples include schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and the rare – but frequently used in fiction – dissociative identity disorder, aka, multiple personality disorder). Unlike psychotics, psychopaths know exactly what they are doing, but either can’t help themselves or don’t care when committing crimes and misdeeds.

Keeping all this in mind, the criterion for this list will be movie characters who exhibit enough psychopathic symptoms to be (non-professionally, admittedly) diagnosed as such. Supernatural villains will be excluded (sorry Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, and the Terminator), as well as those characters who are clearly disturbed but not technically psychopaths (think of the roles played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, and Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy).

Most notably, Psycho’s Norman Bates is NOT a psychopath, but suffers from a bizarre form of psychosis. Ditto for Jack Torrance in The Shining (though his case is definitely a bit more ambiguous).

Obviously, there is no shortage of mental illnesses portrayed in cinema, though the track record for accuracy is questionable. That said, psychopathic characters are often hard to forget, and it’s no coincidence that so many of these characters resulted in acting accolades come Oscar time (see key below).

As an interesting sidenote, it is also worth mentioning that most Disney villains would probably qualify as psychopaths, so in the interests of diversity, none will be represented below. What follows are thirty (or so) of the scariest, craziest, and even at times, funniest, psychopaths in movie history:

*Oscar NOMINATION
**Oscar WIN

 

30. Funny Games (1997)

Funny Games (1997)

The Psychopath: Paul (Arno Frisch)

The more talkative half of the criminal duo that sets the eponymous “games” into motion, Paul’s calm and straightforward demeanor make his contrasting actions all the more sinister.

While the film has been criticized as sadistic, infuriating, and pretentious by its detractors – and alternatively, praised as a brilliant takedown of the mainstream consumption and acceptance of simulated violence as entertainment by its fans – one thing Austrian director Michael Haneke’s polarizing film isn’t, is forgettable.

The provocative, deeply meta-film can perhaps be seen as the final word on the “home invasion thriller,” both functioning as a merciless example of such, as well as being a scathing critique of the subgenre. American actor Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire, NBC’s Hannibal) plays Paul in the director’s own shot-for-shot remake made ten years later, but it’s Frisch’s performance in the original that sets the template for the malevolent role.

The character routinely breaks the fourth wall throughout, playing with both the family he’s holding hostage and the audience at the same time. Never is this more chilling than in his silent wink at the camera as the petrified Anna (Susanne Lothar) investigates the fate of the family dog…

Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “You bet us, that tomorrow at 9:00, you’ll be alive, and we bet you, you’ll be dead, okay?”

 

29. Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960)

The Psychopath: Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm)

Extraordinarily controversial when it came out in the UK, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is the only film on this list that effectively cost its director his career.

Released within months of Hitchcock’s Psycho, it tells the story of Mark, a cinematographer and serial killer who films his victims as he murders them. The film was groundbreaking in its psychological exploration of its complex protagonist, a man who is keenly aware of the depravity of his behavior and seeks to understand it, if not overcome it.

In addition to being a thoughtful character study, the movie also works as a bold examination of the concept of voyeurism, uncomfortably implicating the viewer. This was likely part of what turned off so many, though of course, the film’s reputation has undergone a dramatic transformation over the years.

Effusively lauded by such icons as Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert, the film is today considered a masterpiece. Granted, it’s not as outright entertaining as Psycho or Rear Window (both of which also deal with voyeurism), but it was unquestionably ahead of its time, both prescient and a clear influence on future thrillers.

Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear.”

 

28. Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Seven Psychopaths

The Psychopath: Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell)

As the title suggests, there are plenty of characters who qualify as psychopaths in this black comedy, written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). That said, it’s Sam Rockwell who steals the show. His amoral character (who shares a last name with a certain Scorsese anti-hero) is a struggling actor who concocts a dog-napping scheme while trying to help his friend (Colin Farrell) finish his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths.”

The film is heavily self-reflexive, satirizing Hollywood clichés while delivering enough stand-offs, shoot-outs, plot twists, and over-the-top violence to satisfy everyone. Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Colin Farrell all deliver expectedly terrific performances, but Rockwell, whose character’s true nature and motivations don’t become clear until the end, gets the funniest lines and leaves the most lasting impression.

Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “I didn’t mean to break his nose. His nose was just in the middle of where I was punching.”

 

27. In the Company of Men (1997)

In the Company of Men (1997)

The Psychopath: Chad (Aaron Eckhart)

A striking example of a non-violent psychopath, Chad is scary because of just how normal he seems. It’s his idea that gives the movie its simple and horrifying premise: He and his co-worker friend, Howard (Matt Malloy), will simultaneously date and seduce the same vulnerable woman, then dump her at the same time. Incidentally, their target (Stacy Edwards) also happens to be deaf.

Their plot is unspeakably cruel, of course, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. As they proceed, we see it create more than one victim, as the bitter but otherwise passive and more relatable Howard begins to actually fall for the woman.

This is easily one of the hardest films to watch that doesn’t contain any violence or gore, as evidenced by the MPAA’s R-rating “for language and emotional abuse.” It’s a reminder that some psychopaths get off on causing mental rather than physical anguish, and we watch, stupefied, as the grinning, heartless monster played by Eckhart goes about his methodical plan to destroy a complete innocent.

It’s the kind of character writer/director Neil LaBute has made a career out of exploring, and while some may balk at the film’s apparent misogyny, it’s actually a condemnation of such pervasive and harmful attitudes.

We all know guys like Chad, unfortunately. But if you think you couldn’t hate him any more than you do while watching the film, just wait for the final revelation at the end – a twist that, unbelievably, propels the character to an even greater level of unconscionable evil.

Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “Let’s do it. Let’s hurt somebody.”

 

26. Ichi the Killer (2001)

Ichi The Killer (2001)

The Psychopath: Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano)

To say that Ichi the Killer is a little violent would be an understatement. Takashi Miike’s adaptation of Hideo Yamamoto’s manga series is so graphic and explicit that it’s been banned in a handful of countries (never mind that the tone is more cartoonish than serious).

The plot involves a yakuza gang war, centering around the intensely sadomasochistic Kakihara, his search for his missing boss, and the incredibly lethal but mysterious man known only as Ichi (the Japanese word for “one”).

The title is a bit misleading, as Kakihara is the real protagonist. With a modified jaw that would make the Joker wince, he elevates the act of physical torture to an art form (the tempura oil and meat hooks scene being just one of many examples).

He dreams of one day meeting his match, hoping that Ichi will be the one who can both inflict and endure pain like him. He is, needless to say, a textbook psychopath, while his nemesis is, in some ways, much more damaged – confused, manipulated, and yes, very, very deadly.

Whether all this sounds appealing or not is up to the viewer – the film is definitely not for everyone. That said, the violence is so extreme that it becomes almost ridiculous, distinguishing the film from others in the genre (which is really more action than horror).

When barf bags are handed out at screenings, as happened with this film at festivals in Toronto and Stockholm, you know you’re in for something unique. It’s a weird, crazy, enjoyable ride… provided you have the stomach for it.

Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “Listen, when you’re giving pain to someone, don’t think about the pain that person is feeling. Just concentrate on how good it feels to be causing someone pain. That’s the best thing you can do for a true masochist!”

 

25. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre-the-Wrath-of-God-Werner-Herzog-1972

The Psychopath: Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski)

Based on a real person – a 16th century Spanish conquistador who explored the Amazon in search of the mythical city of El Dorado – Aguirre is basically the definition of a megalomaniac. After staging a mutiny, the power-hungry Aguirre takes charge of an already dwindling crew, steering them further down the river and toward their inevitable ruin.

The behind the scenes stories of the film’s production only make it more remarkable in retrospect, as writer/director Werner Herzog frequently clashed with Kinski over the interpretation of the main character – fighting that escalated beyond tantrums and into death threats (despite everything, the two later collaborated on four more projects).

The difficulty of the film shoot, which took place on location in the jungles of Peru, likely resulted in performances that were even more authentic. The intensity of Kinski’s crazed eyes in the final scene is particularly haunting, and earns his character a deserved spot in the annals of cinematic madmen.

Opening to acclaim and today considered a classic, the film – an acknowledged influence on Apocalypse Now – is required viewing for any serious fan of world cinema.

Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “I am the Wrath of God. The earth I walk upon sees me and quakes.”

 

24. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Directed by Peter Greenaway, 1989)

The Psychopath: Albert Spica (Michael Gambon)

In this highly symbolic black comedy art film from British writer/director Peter Greenaway, Michael Gambon absolutely appalls as the metaphoric “thief” of the title. A despicable, disgusting oaf and also a hot-tempered gangster, Albert purchases a classy French restaurant, then subjects his guests, who are either too loyal or fearful to leave, to his inane and ignorant rants on a nightly basis.

He’s the sort of man who genuinely believes he’s cultured and refined when he’s actually anything but, and its not long before his vicious and nasty behavior drives his wife (a fearless Helen Mirren) to begin an affair with a kind bookshop owner (Alan Howard).

Greenaway pulls no punches, and if it weren’t for the handful of shocking scenes that punctuate the first half of the film, the later plot points involving torture, murder, and ultimately, cannibalism, would seem out of place.

Intended as a trenchant satire on Thatcherism, the film’s effect would be muddled without the larger-than-life presence of a bravura villain, a challenge that Gambon tackles with relish. He makes Albert not just a petulant bully, but a scary one – an achievement all the more impressive in light of his work years later as the beloved Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.

Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “I think those Ethiopians enjoy starving. Keeps them thin and graceful.”

 

 

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  • Facundo

    Nice list, pretty complete

  • Brian Lussier

    Wow! I’m surprised you put The Lovely Bones in your “honorable mentions”, that must be a first on this website. I still think it was unjustly reviewed…

  • Olympia Singh

    Cruel intentions Katheryn

    • marcel

      Memories oh memories 🙂

  • Daniel Krone

    Good list.

  • marcel

    No worries Jason, there’s plenty of psychos out there. Can’t meet them all but I would add:
    Surveillance
    Antikorper
    Balada triste de trompeta
    and many more I don’t rememeber right now.

    • Spiderpigmom

      To my short shame, I’ve seen only three of these. I absolutely second Ripley — superb example of a psychopathic character. I’ve seen Red Dragon but didn’t find it particularly memorable; I actually don’t remember much of the plot at all. And while Grenouille is a good candidate for psychopathy, I wouldn’t mention Perfume, because the book is among my favorites but the film was a major let down. Just atrocious IMO.

      • marcel

        As you cannot read a movie…you cannot watch a book… so we let them exist individually 🙂

        • Spiderpigmom

          Sure, sure… but don’t you find it frustrating when they make a mediocre (or downright horrible) movie based on a great book? I sure do. I was saddened that they messed up Perfume that badly.

          • marcel

            Usually books are better, I don’t remember otherwise. But movies target different kind of people or many kinds. So you are right.

          • eggnostriva

            Books are not better. Merely a different media. How long does it take to read a book as compared to watching a film. If we consumed films over many hours ad several sittings, then we may be able to make a direct comparison.

          • marcel

            I made my statement to piss you off. I don’t read books. I like movies.
            But people who do read books get attached to the story and don’t like the changes made for the big screen. That’s what makes them complain.

  • El Mariachi

    //Daniel Plainview is all these things and, make no mistake, a pure psychopath. Portrayed by quite possibly the world’s greatest living actor…//

    You had me there.
    Can’t agree more.
    Absolutely despised the character.

  • lelya troncoso

    The Butcher in “Seul contre tous” (Dir: Gaspar Noe)!!

  • Still D.R.E.

    O Dog from Menace 2 Society

  • Still D.R.E.

    Alex isn’t a psychopath he’s just a bad person, a lot of the movies on this list just have bad people in them not everybody is a psychopath

    • J.Mak

      What definition of psychopath are you using?

  • Unkle Amon

    Brando as Kurz? Glenn Close in Fatal attraction?(yes, she has borderline disorder but she is still psycho)

  • Klaus Dannick

    Good list except that it is sorely missing “Spoorloos”/”The Vanishing” (1988) and the original, superior “Cape Fear”. Also, I will never understand the high respect given repeatedly to “American Psycho”, a mediocre shock-film with a shaky premise and scenery-chewing performances.

  • J.Mak

    Has no one mentioned The Talented Mr. Ripley?

  • Niels Brabants

    Norman Bates?

  • AЯCHIE MOOЯE

    No “Cargo 200” or “Sombre” in the lists!

  • Biswajit Bhattacharya

    where the hell is Norman Bates?

  • Tessa Shillabeer

    Lionel Shriver is a woman. Just saying.

  • It’s a shame Angst (1983) isn’t on this list. It deserved at least the #20 spot.

    • Alex

      Definitely! At least #5 for me.

  • Edmund Finegan

    Pretty much all of Nicholas Winding Refn’s films ought be on this list, but the one that comes to mind is Only God Forgives, packed full of psychopaths but most notably Chang, creepiest bad guy since No Country…

  • Rebecca Zayed

    I think The Reader was a very unique psychopathic portrayal, because it wasn’t so much about bloody violence as it was about a psychopaths erratic attempt to fake emotions and common manipulation on empathic partners.

  • Avi Upadhyaya

    Would love to have an article related to books on psychopath”criminals”and a little more insight on their personality types…nevertheless brilliant analysis of the characters

  • Aggelo Gjeorgi

    what ever happened to Baby Jane ?
    purple noon (and) the talented mr ripley

  • Awesome two lists, thanks a lot for the post! And yes, there will ALWAYS be those that will point out your unforgivable, criminal, shameful omissions.

  • Klaus Dannick

    Several of these films fall short of “greatness” (American Psycho? Really?), but I applaud the inclusion of films which depict psychopathic behavior which are not typically associated with “psycho”-movies (particularly, In the Company of Men). It’s an intriguing, fresh list, but I think it’d have been better served if it were called a list of “30 films which depict psychopathic behaviors” rather than yet another list of highly-debatable “great”movies.

  • sugar_man

    then where’s the vanishing (Spoorloos) ??????

  • Alex Shepherd

    Mr Brooks should be on the list.

  • Frankie

    Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) in “Gangs of New York”

  • Steppenwolf

    I really dont understand the fascination / horror / concept of psychopaths like in Clockwork Orange and Funny Games. In my opinion these are just little, spoiled, rich kids who would shit themselves if they would ever meet someone like Hanibal Lector, The Bride from Kill Bill or Walt Kowalski fron Gran Torino. I just don’t understand the whole concept. I’m not terrified by arrogant assholes that kill out of boredom at all. I just want to put them over my knee, spanking some sense into them.

    Besides of that, I was really surprised to see “We need to talk about Kevin” on the list. Great choice!
    John Doe from Seven needs to be Top 3 imo

  • fantail31

    Psycho?! Strangers On A Train ( another Hitchcock masterpiece) , Summer Of Sam, The Butcher Boy, The Little Girl Who Lived Down The Lane, Repulsion,

  • Klaus Dannick

    Hitchcock’s Rope?

  • Sasha Kozak

    Great list! I would have had the female from Audition, O-Dog from Menace II Society and also the guy from I Saw The Devil to, but overall very good list!

  • Sucio Anacoreta

    spoorlos!

  • Janko TheTank Gontarek

    sushi girl!

  • Bryant Low

    Thanks for a really interesting and informative article. Lionel Shriver is a woman by the way.

  • SignalToNoise

    Wouldn’t Malice be a good candidate?