The 20 Best Revenge Movies of All Time
7. Carrie (1976)
‘Carrie’, directed by the great Brian De Palma and based on the Stephen King novel of the same name is a harrowing portrayal of the life of a complex and unfortunate girl. One of the greatest horrors of the 70s or any other decade, it’s a movie of truly brutal vengeance.
Starring Piper Laurie, John Travolta, William Katt, Nancy Allen and Sissy Spacek as the title character; ‘Carrie’ is a tale of growing up different, and in ‘Carrie’s’ case; very different, when she discovers she has telekinesis. She is teased in the opening scenes when she gets her period in the school showers and reacts with terror and confusion.
We find ‘Carrie’s’ mother (Laurie) is instrumental in this reaction, bringing ‘Carrie’ up under a shelter of extreme religious fundamentalism in which sex and sexuality is the focal point for sin, mirroring the biblical theme of original sin and the antiquated notion of the ‘female cursed by blood’.
‘Carrie’ is asked to prom by the popular Tommy after his girlfriend Sue is banned from going. Their friends Chris and Billy decide to play a brutal prank on ‘Carrie’ at Prom leading to one of the most memorable and terrifying revenge scenes in cinema history, all orchestrated by Spacek’s extreme performance.
The film is a masterwork in suspense by De Palma and kicked off a run of astounding movies. As a horror and revenge movie, it’s one of the greatest ever and that ending has gone down in history as one of the best jump scares.
8. Rolling Thunder (1977)
One of the greatest unsung movies of the 1970s, ‘Rolling Thunder’ follows the revenge formula and is also a significant treatise on the alienation of Vietnam veterans returning from war, written by ‘Taxi Driver’s’ Paul Schrader and an influence on Tarantino and Springsteen. ‘Major Charles Rane’ (William Devane) and ‘Sergeant Johnny Vohden’ (Tommy Lee Jones) held as POWs in Vietnam and tortured, return to their hometown as heroes.
The narrative follows ‘Rane’s’ attempts to readjust to normal life. His wife wants a divorce to marry the local Sheriff and he struggles to connect to his son. ‘Rane’ moves himself into the small woodshed clearly needing the continuation of confined space. He is rewarded by the town with a silver dollar for every day of his captivity (2,555 to be exact) and treat with reverence and respect by most of the population. As we start to hope that ‘Rane’ will successfully reintegrate, he returns home to intruders who want to steal his silver dollars.
In an act of extreme brutality, they cut his hand off using a garbage disposal to get him to tell them were he has hidden the coins. When his wife and child return they use them as leverage and his son tells them where the coins are. They shoot dead his family and leave ‘Rane’ for dead. Following his recovery, and minus a hand, he hunts down the killers, enlisting ‘Vohden’ to help him. The end scene is brutal and swift and played out in contrast to the relative slow pace of the movie.
The absolute highlight is Devane’s performance, he keeps the movie and the violence grounded in harsh reality. ‘Rane’ is a tragic character and despite making aviator glasses look cooler than Tom Cruise did we soon realise these represent the thin veneer between his ability to cope and his proximity to the edge of madness, illustrated by his best line “It’s like my eyes are open and I’m looking at you but I’m dead, they’ve pulled out whatever it was inside of me…”.
9. I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
‘I Spit On Your Grave’ is an infamous video nasty and exploitation classic. It’s a straight up example of the simple, powerful formula adopted by many of the most effective revenge movies. A woman from the city spends the summer writing in a lakeside cabin, she immediately attracts the interest of some local men. Under the pre-tense of doing their mentally disabled compatriot a ‘favour’ they attack and rape her before sending their friend back to kill her, which he only pretends to do.
The rape sequence is brutal and prolonged and made more difficult to stomach when the perpetrators keep letting her go before chasing her down again to continue her torture. By today’s standards and envelope-pushing in the torture porn/rape-revenge genre, it’s a shocking and brutal watch. The gang begin to worry when her body isn’t discovered and go back to find out she is alive.
When the aforementioned would-be killer arrives again, lured there on a grocery delivery, she uses her sexuality to lull him into trusting her before hanging him. She proceeds to take revenge on the rest of the gang and despite the savagery of the movie, it’s cathartic to watch her take back her feminine power whilst doling out her vengeance, particularly in the case of one gang member who tries to blame her for their actions. ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ was an original video nasty and still is a pretty nasty movie, perfect if that’s what you’re in the mood for.
10. First Blood (1982)
Before Stallone became a caricature, he was a promising actor with a good eye for what the public wanted in a movie. First Blood is one man against a prejudice who’s had enough and been pushed too far. ‘John Rambo’ wanders into the quiet town of ‘Hope’ after discovering an old friend from Vietnam has passed away. He attracts the dislike and suspicions of the Sheriff (an ever dependable Brian Dennehy) and is eventually arrested for vagrancy.
His treatment at the police station is heavy handed and disrespectful and he eventually snaps and rampages through the station, escaping on a stolen motorbike and being chased through the town by police. There’s impressive stunt work in the movie, many of the action sequences have a gritty realism for the time and lend themselves to Stallone’s physically energetic and intimidating screen presence.
‘Rambo’ escapes into the forest and a manhunt ensues, the police bring in ‘Rambo’s’ former commanding officer ‘Colonel Trautman’ (a steely and weathered Richard Crenna) to assist them. One of the great narrative devices in the film is the build up of ‘Rambo’s’ backstory, particularly through ‘Trautman’s’ advice to the police.
For the most part, the script is solid; co-written by Stallone, he wisely gives himself very little dialogue, choosing to emote through physical action and a hollow-eyed intensity. The only real blip is the incoherent, emotional monologue toward the end. Be sure to check out David Morrell’s original novel which takes the story down darker paths, the novel’s ending was originally that of the movie but didn’t test well with audiences at time.
11. Savage Streets (1984)
An 80s cult classic; ‘Savage Streets’ stars Linda Blair as ‘Brenda’, the ass kicking, rebel leader of girl gang ‘The Satins’. ‘Brenda’s’ younger sister ‘Heather’ is deaf, played by scream queen Linnea Quigley.
After a night cruising the streets with ‘Brenda’s’ gang she tags along when they steal a car which belongs to ‘The Scars’, led by ‘Jake’ (Robert Dryer), a guy seriously lacking in any normal level of human morality, Dryer really steals the movie and has the knack for playing a sadistic psychopath. In a disproportionate act of vengeance the gang rape ‘Heather’ before ‘Jake’ puts her in a coma. This is a seriously bleak scene in the film and feels like a moment from a harsh exploitation movie of the 70s.
In the midst of ‘Brenda’ trying to find out who did this to her sister, the gang also kill her best friend by throwing her from a bridge. Inevitably, ‘Brenda’ finds out who was responsible (as though she needed more than one guess!) and decides to take her vengeance. She doles out some pretty brutal punishments on the gang and you’re really cheering her on at this point given the level of hatred the film has churned up for ‘The Scars’.
Linda Blair is incredibly likeable switching between charming innocence and unhinged toughness with great ease. Given its serious production issues, including a change of director and producer, re-writes, recuts and funding problems; Savage Streets is an uncompromising, exciting film with all the great hallmarks of the revenge movie plus bags of catfights and nudity.
12. Revenge (1990)
This is the film during which Tony Scott found his rhythm, it was a first foray into the revenge thriller which he so memorably revisited in ‘Man On Fire’ (2004). Kevin Costner plays a recently retired fighter pilot named ‘Michael Jay Cochran’ who is travelling to Mexico to visit his old friend ‘Tiburon ‘Tibey’ Mendez’ played by Anthony Quinn.
‘Tibey’ invites him to stay at his mansion, ‘Cochran’ is introduced to ‘Tibey’s’ wife, a stunning Madeline Stowe and a mutual attraction is immediate; leading to a lustful affair between the two. Inevitably ‘Tibey’ finds out about this and take revenge on the two.
In the early parts of the film, Anthony Quinn cuts a kind and friendly figure, we know he’s a gangster but you get the feeling age may have softened him somewhat. Gradually, and in particular, following the affair, we realise just how dark and dangerous a character he is. It’s testament to Quinn’s excellent performance just how much a shift this is and the vindictive way in which he takes revenge leaves us in no doubt of his true nature.
Overall, it’s a great, tight movie; a newer cut of the film became available in the mid 2000s and drops a good chunk of running time getting rid of any pacing issues. It’s a blueprint for the revenge genre as you’d expect from the title and has all the hallmarks Tony Scott went on to refine in the 90s.
13. The Crow (1994)
In the polished universe of today’s franchised comic book adaptations, there isn’t enough darknes, granted there are moments in the genre; ‘Sin City’, ‘Dredd’ and Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ to name a few examples. But, take a trip back over twenty years and you will find one of the most visually stunning and baroque comic adaptations in cinema.
Frankly, it’s a gothic wet dream, and that’s meant with the utmost respect. The mid-90s was a time when goth sub-culture was a fringe lifestyle with an allure of danger and edginess; ‘The Crow’ encapsulates this perfectly.
Starring Brandon Lee as ‘Eric Draven’, he and his finacee are murdered, she is raped, by a gang on an anarchic night where criminals go on the rampage know as ‘Devils Night’. One year later we are witness to ‘Eric’s’ resurrection, by a crow, which leads him to his killers on whom he wreaks a brutal revenge.
This is the movie during which Brandon Lee died in an on-set accident, had he not, this performance may have given him the boost his career needed. He’s excellent as ‘Draven’, moonlit rooftop guitar solos notwithstanding, and his untimely death ironically hangs over the film darkening the atmosphere further still. Watching now, comparisons to Ledger’s ‘Joker’ aren’t too far fetched.
Beyond the narrative and performances; the cinematography and soundtrack are sublime and perfectly balanced with the overall style of the movie. There’s also a great supporting cast here including Ernie Hudson and a clutch of journeymen bad guys such as Tony Todd, Michael Wincott and David Patrick Kelly.