If peering into the depths of human cruelty is your idea of enjoyment, we have just the movies for you!
Entertainment: There’s a reason why books about Hitler outsell books about Churchill. Evil is far more compelling than good as long as it is kept at arm’s length, abstracted into words or images, and not in our faces or homes.
These ten individuals are among the worst beings in history—merciless despots, vicious murderers, stock brokers—but their heinous actions provide the raw material for fascinating, unforgettable films investigating what makes evil tick. Perhaps watching one of these films will help you identify and avoid real-life evil. Probably not, but they’re still wonderful films.
- Adolph Hitler — Downfall (2005)
You have to start with the big one, the man who revolutionized genocide, Adolph Hitler, the one-and-only, the most infamous.
There are many powerful films about Nazis, but Downfall is o’s favourite. It brings viewers into the führerbunker, the underground air-raid shelter where Hitler, his girlfriend, and his closest associates and their families gathered like rats in the war’s final days, based on witness testimony and verifiable truth. This documentary refuses to moralize or exaggerate since seeing Hitler and his enablers as they were is worse than anything you could imagine.
- John Wayne Gacy — Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022)
John Wayne Gacy is a scary serial killer. He appeared to live a normal, upright life—he was married, managed a KFC, worked as a shoe salesman, and was involved in the Jaycees—while torturing and murdering 33 innocent boys in his suburban Chicago home. He also dressed up as a clown for local children’s gatherings. Shudder.
This documentary shows the when, what, where, and how of everything that happened in the Gacy case, but it never explains why. Seeing Gacy relate his story in his own words does not make his actions more reasonable, most likely because there is no response.
- Idi Amin Dada — The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Ugandan warlord Idi Amin Dada was one of the cruellest modern tyrants, but Forest Whitaker’s career-defining performance shows that Amin’s grip on Ugandans wasn’t exclusively based on terror. He’s hypnotically charismatic, like the most dangerous despots, disguising his poison heart behind a big smile and a back-slapping laugh until it’s too late to leave. The Last King of Scotland is a disturbing film on the allure of autocrats, especially idealistic people who believe outsiders have good intentions.
- Elizabeth Bathory — Chastity Bites (2013)
Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian noblewoman accused of torturing and murdering up to 650 people. According to her accusers, her preferred victims were young girls because she believed that washing in the blood of virgins would keep her forever young. Chastity Bites is a horror/comedy in which Bathory’s beauty regimen works. She is still alive, preying on modern high schools by arranging religious chastity vow programmes to ensure her victims are virgins. This unappreciated film is low-budget and rough around the edges. Still, it’s humorous, insightful, and parodies the horror genre’s sex = death fixation, right-wing hypocrisy, shallow adolescent culture, materialism, beauty obsession, and pretty much everything else happening in 2013 America.
- Jordan Belfort — The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
OK, Jordan Belfort isn’t the worst person in history—more he’s of a two-bit conman who got lucky—but The Wolf of Wall Street is such a massively enjoyable, candy-coloured film that it lifts his penny-stock swindle to epic proportions. That, I suppose, is the power of cinema. He’s here to represent the problems that result from unfettered greed and amorality (in other words, capitalism)—the notion that many small deeds by people who aren’t all that horrible can sum up to something horrific.
- Ed Gein and Elmer Wayne Henley — Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Plainfield Ghoul’s heinous actions inspired both Psycho’s Normal Bates and Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface (and, by extension, every slasher movie villain since). To create the warped Sawyer family at the centre of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, director Tobe Hooper combined Gein’s out-of-control anarchy with Houston, serial murderer Elmer Wayne Henley’s more structured (but no less violent) technique. I’ve seen a lot of horror films, and this one is by far the scariest and most unrelenting.
- Various — The Act of Killing (2013)
If peering into the depths of human evil is your idea of a good evening, I have a movie recommendation for you! The documentary The Act of Killing portrays some of the butchers who butchered over a million people in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. Because the country’s right-wing death squads became the government, these mass murderers were not brought to justice; instead, they were honoured. Fifty years later, the heads of murder squads are evil’s elder statesmen—sort of celebrities, but celebrities that everyone is scared of.
- Tomas de Torquemada — Witchfinder General (1968)
In Witchfinder General, horror icon Vincent Price gives an unexpectedly restrained and terrifying portrayal inspired by Tomas de Torquemada’s life and misdeeds as the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.
The “holy” guys wandering from town to town, torturing people and burning heretics at the stakes in Witchfinder General aren’t zealots; they’re cold-hearted operatives, just like their real-life counterparts. No one believes in witches, heresy, or even God, not the inquisitors, the victims, or the villagers eager to see a public execution. They believe in money and power and are content to murder inconvenient people for a smidgeon of either, which is a million times scarier than any witch.
- Vlad the Impaler — Nosferatu (1922)
Vlad The Impaler (aka Vlad Dracula) governed as ruler of Wallachia from 1448 until 1462. Over 14 years, he killed almost 20% of the population, boiling people alive, feeding babies to their parents, and impaling his victims on sharpened pikes from buttocks to mouth—hence the title “Impaler.”
Vlad inspired the titular character of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, inspiring every filmic vampire. But Nosferatu’s bloodsucker isn’t a refined, charming aristocrat like Bela Lugosi in Universal’s Dracula. He’s a straight-up monster, like the actual Vlad the Impaler, with all claws and teeth and no charm. Nosferatu is as timeless as an undead ghoul despite being a century old. Another vampire film.
- Al Capone — The Untouchables (1987)
Movies typically romanticize organized crime—easy it’s to root for a stylish antihero, especially if he’s dressed up in a good suit—but in reality, mobbed-up individuals like Al Capone are the worst criminals. The “organized” aspect of organized crime violates laws and disturbs the foundation of law itself because the law is the only thing that keeps our society semi-civilized.
The Untouchables does not take the easy path of glorifying Capone’s crimes. Instead, it takes the much more difficult approach of asking us to root for lantern-jawed G-man Elliott Ness and his law-and-order team, even though they’re a bunch of squares with only tax evasion as their best charge.