The 10 Best Stephen King Villains

Stephen King Villians - IT

The 10 Best Stephen King Villains: For generations, the words ‘Based on a Stephen King novel’ have been a seal of quality in the horror community. A sign of reliability. Those words indicate that when the credits roll, the viewer will be changed somehow. But it is important to remember that King has more strings to his bow than simply a horror writer. Four films on this list would scarcely be considered horror films at all.

That being said, Stephen King is not known as the Master of Horror for nothing. Nobody has contributed as many ghouls, murderers, and bullies to the cinematic landscape as King has. Whether it be telekinetic teenagers, killer cars, or corrupt prison warders, King has scaled the depths of hell and the darkest corners of the earth for his ghastly creations.

To celebrate the upcoming release of his latest adaptation, The Boogeyman, here is a list collating ten of his most terrifying creations. It is a testament to King’s durability and unique talents that I could have easily expanded this list to 20 or even 30 names. The characters I have chosen are here because they disgusted, intimidated, or stuck with me for weeks after leaving the cinema. Most of all, these characters frightened me – and that’s the most villainous thing of all.

10. Carrie (Carrie, 1976)

Stephen King Villians - Carrie

Let me make one thing clear. Carrie White is a victim. Smothered by her overpowering and overzealous mother and bullied by her peers, even the headmaster of her school can’t remember her name – Carrie stands up to all of them in a devastating display of destructive power. That doesn’t change the fact that when she finally cracks, her rage is indiscriminate. Even her supposed allies go down in the end, and Sissy Spacek’s wild eyes peering out through a layer of pig’s blood is an iconic image.

As a teacher, I can attest that there is nothing so terrifying as teenage girls. Carrie and, indeed, Carrie White herself represent the confusion of adolescence and the alienation that comes with being a teenager. Arguably no movie before or since has done a better job of capturing that feeling and condensing it into the perfect horror movie. Brian DePalma employs everything in his box of tricks, including a couple of plays from Hitchcock’s handbook. Still, it would all be for naught without Spacek as Carrie White – a truly memorable horror villain.

Related to Best Stephen King Villains – 10 Classic Horror Movies You Can Watch on HBO Max Right Now

9. Killian (The Running Man, 1987)

Stephen King Villains - The Running Man

Nobody likes gameshow hosts. They are smug, smarmy, and dead behind the eyes. Damon Killian from Paul Michael Glaser’s ‘80s classic The Running Man is all of the above but also a vicious murderer and flagrant propagandist. In a scene that now feels eerily prescient, Killian manipulates video footage of our hero Ben Richards to trick the public into turning against him. The decision to cast real-life quiz show host Richard Dawson was inspired, and it is depressing that a figure like Killian would no doubt thrive in today’s corrupt society.

Whilst Killian is perhaps only emblematic of the dystopian future in which he resides, he is also a symbol of the greed and corruption brought on by late-era capitalism. He stands as a warning to our current society. What happens when the game show is over? When does reality TV end? When the lights go out, the audience shuffles off, and the doors are locked? Well, then we are left with Killian’s smiling face and a trail of death and disaster in his wake.

8. Ace Merrill (Stand By Me, 1986)

Stephen King Movie Villians - Stand by Me ACE

King is the master of writing bullies. Chris Hargensen from Carrie, Henry Bowser from IT, and most importantly for this list, Ace Merrill from Stand By Me. King always resists the temptation to give his bullies a back story that validates their actions, though he humanizes them to an extent. Nevertheless, as time they are pure evil. It is this lack of morality that makes these villains so menacing. When Ace pulls out a switchblade on Gordie and Chris Chambers, Ace veers between typical onscreen bully activities like smashing up mailboxes and driving too fast to more insidious fare. The fact that Kiefer Sutherland absolutely looked the part really sells Ace Merrill’s dark side. Nobody can quite rock a leather jacket and greaser hairdo like Sutherland.

The key to the success of Stand by Me is that everyone has been a child. Everyone has felt the hot pinch of injustice when a bigger boy steals their lunch money. Ace Merrill would steal your lunch money, your girlfriend, and even a dead body that you’ve found in the woods if he thought it might hurt you.

Related to Best Stephen King Villains – The 10 Best Stephen King Film Adaptations

7. Christine (Christine, 1983)

Stephen King Villains - Christine

This is a tough one because while Christine does all the killing, she is undoubtedly nothing without Arnie Cunningham behind the wheel. Just like the witches in Macbeth, this red Plymouth Fury is the catalyst for the protagonist’s downfall. Christine’s most villainous moment is the reveal that she can rebuild herself and take bloody revenge after being trashed by a group of high school bullies. Perhaps the most chilling thing about Christine is that she attacks indiscriminately – Will Darnell, the garage owner in which Arnie works, and Christine is stored, discovers that Christine is sentient and shows her nothing but admiration. The car kills him anyway.

While John Carpenter’s film doesn’t quite do justice to the book (King’s longest at the time), it does capture that period of ‘80s excess in horror that would never be relived again. This film would not be made today, not by a major studio and not by a renowned, successful director.

King has dabbled in other inanimate killing machines in Maximum Overdrive and The Mangler – but this was his first and best foray into this weirdly specific subgenre that can be seen everywhere from Julia Ducournau’s Titane to Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber. King’s obsession with the 1950s and classic cars converged with master director John Carpenter’s eye for the spectacular to create something genuinely gruesome in this 1983 classic.

6. Percy Wetmore (The Green Mile, 1999)

The Green Mile is not a horror film; instead, it veers between a prison movie and magic realism marking the first of two collaborations between King and master director Frank Darabont on this list. Rather than being downright evil, Percy Wetmore is just plain pathetic. Promoted beyond his status due to family connections and lacking moral fiber, Percy treats his job as a correctional officer on death row as one big joke – despite the interventions of Tom Hanks’ iconic protagonist Paul Edgecomb.

Wetmore hides his vindictive spitefulness behind the authority of his job, and as such, he represents the power of hierarchical structures to do harm. King has been vocally critical of authoritarian regimes throughout his career, and Wetmore is what happens when the mundanity of bureaucratic barbarism leads to unthinkable violence.

The most pertinent example of when simple cruelty can have devastating effects occurs when Wetmore fails to wet the sponge used to speed up the process of death by electric chair – the resulting scene is as dark as any in a King adaptation and secures Wetmore’s position in the cinematic hall of infamy.

5. Warden Norton (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994)

Warden Norton - Stephen King Villains

There are a number of villains throughout The Shawshank Redemption. Bogs Diamond and his motley crew of prison rapists. Captain Hadley and his random acts of violence (although credit where it is due – he eventually offers the prisoners a beer each on a warm day). Who can forget Elmo Blatch? The man responsible for Andy Dufresne’s incarceration? It could even be argued that the American justice system is the story’s real villain. But in Shawshank Penitentiary, one man stands tall above all others…

Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) starts off as an ally to Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) but soon comes to see him as an exotic bird in a cage that he can show off to all his rich and powerful friends. When Andy refuses to play ball, his punishment is weeks in solitary and the removal of privileges. However, Norton’s most awful moment comes with the death of Andy’s protégé Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) – murdered out in the yard simply for having the temerity to attempt to provide information that might see his mentor free from prison at long last. How can Norton be so obtuse?

Unlike some of the other malcontents on this list, Norton eventually receives his comeuppance, and oh, what a sweet cinematic moment that is.

Related to Best Stephen King Villains – 10 Films To Watch If You Love The Shawshank Redemption

4. Cujo (Cujo, 1983)

As with Carrie, it’s not Cujo’s fault that he becomes a terrifying monster, but there is no denying the sheer power of villainy that overtakes the previously loveable St. Bernard by the end of the film. Rendered rabid following an encounter with some diseased bats, Cujo gradually starts to lose his mind resulting in a stand-off with Donna Trenton and her young son Tad – trapped in their car on a blazing hot day while Cujo terrorizes them from outside. While the film’s conclusion isn’t as dark as what unfolds in the book, Cujo’s prolonged and increasingly frenzied attacks are nightmare-inducing and unforgettable.

Director Lewis Teague used four St. Bernards, several mechanical dogs, and a black Labrador-Great Dane mix in a St. Bernard costume to create the effect of one monstrous canine terrorizing an innocent family, and the result is a film that made me absolutely terrified of all dogs for years to come. The effects stand up forty years later and help ensure that Cujo is still the first name on anyone’s lips when reaching for a killer dog comparison.

Related to Best Stephen King Villains – The 20 Best Dog Movies of all Time

3. Pennywise (IT, 2017)

Stephen King Villains - PennyWise

“Oh yes, they all float down here, and you’ll float too” – it is with this chilling declaration that Pennywise announced himself to the world, shortly before ripping off Georgie Denbrough’s arm in one of the most harrowing opening scenes in cinematic history. Not just the most terrifying clown in history (sorry, Art), it is Pennywise’s ability to shapeshift into whatever his victims fear the most that make him such a ghoulish villain. While IT: Chapter Two mostly squanders this dark potential, there is no denying the sheer power of the dancing clown’s evil in the first film. His final form? A massive spider. Of course, it is.

Bill Skarsgård’s blank stare and manic, feverish dialogue will go down in horror history – bringing Pennywise to life is a tough assignment. In Bill Skarsgård’s capable hands, the clown is at once grotesque, murderous, and yet strangely compelling. It’s a heady mix that enchanted cinema-goers upon release in 2017.

A word too for Tim Curry’s portrayal in the beloved TV adaptation of IT – while the movie became one of the highest-grossing horror films of all time, it is the TV version that most people of my generation cite as the reason for their lifelong Coulrophobia. That white makeup. The blood-red smile. Oh God… the balloons. There is no wonder that Pennywise has become the final word on killer clowns.

2. Jack Torrance (The Shining, 1980)

While King himself wasn’t the biggest fan of Stanley Kubrick’s breathtaking adaptation of The Shining, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a masterpiece. And while one could argue that it is the Overlook Hotel and the spirits within that are the real villain here, it is Jack’s weakness and alcoholism that opens the door for them. Whether hacking at the bathroom door with an axe while his hyperventilating wife cowers inside or writing page after page of meaningless phrases instead of the novel he is supposed to write, Jack Torrance is a truly spine-chilling creation.

Kubrick’s intense filming techniques in The Shining have become the stuff of legend (just ask Shelley Duvall), and he coaxes an incredible turn out of Nicholson here, who genuinely looks unhinged for large stretches of the film.

The combination of Kubrick’s eye and King’s storytelling is perhaps unbeatable in modern-day filmmaking. The Shining is one of the key films in any discussion of the greatest horror films of all time. Nicholson’s performance will go down as perhaps the greatest in any horror film ever, and he’ll always be the caretaker of The Overlook Hotel. Forever. And ever. And ever.

Related to Best Stephen King Villains – The Shining (1980) Claustrophobia And Insanity

1. Annie Wilkes (Misery, 1990)

Annie Wikes - Stephen King Villians

Another entry that feels prescient in the era of toxic fandom, Annie Wilkes hits the jackpot when Paul Sheldon, the creator of Wilkes’ beloved Misery books, suffers a car crash down the road from her secluded lodge. What begins as a nurturing relationship soon turns problematic when Sheldon confesses to harboring ambitions to kill Misery off and write something else. Echoing the vitriolic entitlement that is now all the rage on social media, Annie takes this news badly. Very badly. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game in which the cat is utterly insane, and the mouse is bedridden after an excruciating and epochal scene featuring a sledgehammer which I won’t spoil for anyone here.

While there are some truly evil characters on this list, Annie Wilkes’ dead-eyed stare and utter delusion see her sit proudly atop the throne of villainy. Be careful out there.

And there we have it, and I haven’t even mentioned Greg Stillson (The Dead Zone), Mrs. Carmody (The Mist), or Rose the Hat (Doctor Sleep). It is clear from this list that no writer in the annals of cinematic history has created as many villains as Stephen Edwin King – horror writer extraordinaire. The truly frightening thing is that if we revisit this list in ten years’ time, there might be a whole new menagerie of killers, ghouls, and villains sitting proudly atop a jet-black throne.

Read More: All Batman Movie Villains (Including The Batman) Ranked From Worst to Best

Every Spider-Man Live-Action Movie Villains Ranked