As one of the greatest horror writers of all time, Stephen King knows a thing or two about creating twisted and dread-inducing villains. His stories provide the perfect double whammy of compelling protagonists and spine-tingling antagonists, and over the last half century, we have seen that brilliant dynamic translated to the big screen many times in excellent fashion. Each title has its own flavor, but all of the deadly foes have that unique spice provided by King’s style.
Because of Stephen King’s talent for crafting excellent villains, the process of ranking them is daunting and challenging. After all, characters like Isaac from Children of The Corn, Captain Hadley from The Shawshank Redemption, Percy Wetmore from The Green Mile, Leland Gaunt from Needful Things and Christine from Christine are great and iconic – and yet, they don’t quite make the cut as dreadful enough to place in our Top 10 list. So who beat them out, and who do we see as being the top tier King antagonists? Read on and find out…
10. Greg Stillson (The Dead Zone)
Stephen King came up with the idea for The Dead Zone devising a scenario where an assassin targeting a political figure would be justified in their actions to the audience, and telling this particular story required the target of said assassin to be one truly scary individual. This is the true nature of Martin Sheen’s Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation, and he is definitely one disturbing dude. As prophesized by Christopher Walken’s John Smith, his wild rhetoric destines him not only for the White House, but also initiating World War III, and it’s a horrible vision that John reasonably has to stop at any cost.
9. Gage Creed (Pet Sematary)
On a surface level, Gage Creed from Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary suffers from the Chucky Problem, which is to say the question of why you can’t just punt him across the room – but it’s really the psychological side of the character that makes him just a horrific villain. Prior to his terrible, accidental death, Gage was a sweet and innocent child, and it’s Louis’ grief over the loss that starts him down a path to madness as he makes the decision to reanimate the toddler. What comes back from the grave is nightmarishly manipulative, which is how Gage ends up murdering his own mother. While he’s ultimately able to be put down with a simple injection via a syringe, the emotional damage he leaves in his wake is incalculable.
8. Ace Merrill (Stand By Me)
Bullies in Stephen King stories are definitely next level scary. While your average high school tormenter will steal your lunch and try and pants you in front of a crowd, those in the world of the horror legend regularly pack a switchblade and are always ready to commit murder (see: Carrie, Christine and IT). Arguably the king of the teenage bullies, however, is Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace Merrill in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. As far as screen time goes, his role isn’t as big as some of the other antagonists on this list, but is presence is impactful and his energy is dreadful.
7. Mrs. Carmody (The Mist)
It should say something that while Frank Darabont’s The Mist is rife with otherworldly monsters that tear apart any humans that come in contact with them, we still consider Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody to be the movie’s primary antagonist and candidate as one of the great Stephen King villains. The situation that all of the characters find themselves in is bad enough, but Carmody’s eccentric and dangerous rhetoric makes things exponentially worse – most notably when she starts calling for child sacrifices to appease God. She is pure human, but also pure villain, and one of scariest creations to ever emerge from the writer’s brain mostly because she is so very realistic.
6. Rose The Hat (Doctor Sleep)
“Sinister” is the perfect word to describe Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose The Hat in Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep. She is a literal monster who, after centuries of life, operates with pure id and hunger – and the end result is her never losing the smile from her face as she mercilessly tears into the flesh of her young, power-possessing victims. Her energy is effortlessly hypnotic (every “Hi there” makes the hair on your neck stand up), but her will to survive is terrifying. Killers who target children are fairly easy to make scary, but Rose The Hat functions on a totally different frequency, and along with the rest of the True Knot make for some of King’s creepiest villains.
5. Margaret White (Carrie)
As properly reflected in Brian De Palma’s adaptation, Stephen King’s Carrie is not a story overflowing with good characters. Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan, who pour the bucket of blood on the titular character's head, are clearly young psychopaths; Sue Snell, who lends Carrie her boyfriend for prom night, operates mostly out of guilt; and obviously Carrie herself doesn't exactly act with great moral character when she makes the call to burn down the school with her classmates and teachers locked inside. Still, we give the villain crown from the movie to Piper Laurie’s Margaret White – who is the true catalyst of misery in the story due to her religious zealotry and cruel emotional and physical abuse. Needless to say, you definitely don’t feel a great deal of sympathy for her when she meets her end.
4. Annie Wilkes (Misery)
As demonstrated throughout this list, a Stephen King villain doesn’t have to be supernaturally strong or magically powered to be terrifying – they simply need to have the right mind set and motivation. Annie Wilkes, as portrayed by Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner’s Misery, is a perfect example, as she is a character who is completely out of her fucking mind. Suffering from some kind of bipolar condition. as well as a complete and total obsession with a particular series of books, Annie is a force to be reckoned with, as Paul Sheldon discovers during his months in captivity. Thanks to her, no creative in history will ever be able to think about the phrase “I’m your number one fan” the same way ever again.
3. Pennywise (IT And IT Chapter Two)
With an entire generation having grown up watching the 1990 IT miniseries, Bill Skarsgard had a lot of pressure on him to live up to the legendary performance given by Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown in the small screen adaptation when he was hired for the role in Andy Muschietti’s IT. Fortunately, the actor turned out to be an inspired choice, as his performance is the kind that stops movie-goers from peacefully getting to bed at night without keeping a light on. He immediately hypnotizes you in the opening sequence of the first film, luring young Georgie down into the sewer, and there isn’t a moment when you’re watching the movie and wondering if he might just pop out and attack. He inspires pure dread.
2. Cujo (Cujo)
Looking at things in the grand scheme, we’ll say it: poor Cujo. For years he was just a lethargic, lumbering and lovely neighborhood dog… but then that goddamn bat had to bite him on the nose and turn him into a 150-pound killing machine. As portrayed in Lewis Teague’s Cujo, once the rabies disease fully sets into his brain, he becomes a totally reckless animal, and his encounters with humans are pure horror shows as a result. Even seeing a flash of his tail makes your heart skip a beat as he traps Donna and Tad Trenton inside their broken-down Ford Pinto. While the end of the book is far darker than what’s in the film, it doesn’t undercut that Cujo in the film is an honestly scary monster and one of the great Stephen King villains.
1. Jack Torrance (The Shining)
Stephen King famously isn’t a big fan of Jack Nicholson’s turn as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. His issues primarily lie within the character’s arc, as he doesn’t believe that there is enough of a transition from recovering alcoholic to homicidal maniac. With all due respect to that opinion, however, the performance in the legendary film is iconic for a reason, which is that Nicholson’s Jack is wet-your-pants scary at his peak. He may just be a man, but being deprived of his addiction, left in isolation and having ghosts whispering in his ear takes its toll, and the result is masterful cinema and the greatest Stephen King movie villain we’ve seen.
Do you agree with our rankings, or do yours differ wildly? Answer our poll regarding who the most dreadful Stephen King villain is, and hit the comments section with your personal lists. And, as always, stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for all of our coverage of King adaptations, both past and future.