If life were a movie, it would never have a happy ending, seeing as how everyone dies in the end. Yet over the years, a routine “Hollywood ending” was one where every villain was either killed or brought to justice and the boy walked away with the girl and lived happily ever after under a gorgeous sunset. The good guys win and the bad guys lose.
Spoiler alert: The bad guy wins in all of the films below. In each case here, it was necessary to reveal the ending to explain exactly how the bad guy wins. That’s really the entire purpose of the article.
Here is a master list—along with fifteen honorable mentions—of horror movies where the villain wins. Some of them might not even technically classify as “horror” films until you consider that the most horrifying possible outcome for any movie would be for the bad guy to win. Some are mysteries, some are thrillers, some are simple romantic dramas with a twist ending.
Although the warden, played with delicious sadism by Strother Martin, is the most identifiable “bad guy” in this morality tale about the brutality of the Southern prison system, the real “bad guy” in this film is the system itself, which winds up squashing every last bit of rebellion out of the free-spirited rebel Luke, played by Paul Newman in a career-defining turn. We expect him to win, but in the end after Luke is shot in a standoff with police, the evil warden decides to send the ambulance to a hospital that’s so far away, his most rebellious inmate has no chance of living.
The first in a string of Satanic-themed blockbusters from the late 1960s into the mid-1970s, Rosemary’s Baby stars Mia Farrow, a young married woman living in an apartment building with her husband, who without her knowledge arranges for her to be raped and impregnated by the Devil. As her suspicions grow, everyone around her assures her that she’s just being paranoid. She is put under sedation for her delivery, and when she awakes she is told that her baby was stillborn. But then to her horror she realizes that the infant is alive and she’s just given birth to the Devil’s son.
George A. Romero’s landmark black-and-white 1968 classic wasn’t the first zombie film, but it can fairly be called the one that launched an entire genre of copycats. During a sudden zombie invasion in Western Pennsylvania, a scared woman is rescued by a heroic black man—rare for that time in cinema—who boards them both up inside a house hoping they can fend off the living dead. But in the end, just when you think the zombies have been quelled, some vigilantes mistake the black man for a zombie and shoot him dead.
Based on the futuristic dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange is a meditation on exactly how far a government can go in its attempts to prevent crime without becoming brutally criminal itself. It follows that trail of Alex, a young gang leader who remorselessly chases his lust for both sex and blood until he winds up in prison. He is administered a form of therapy involving drug injections and forced exposure to extremely violent material that will make him become nauseous whenever confronted with violence and thus unable to commit violence himself. When he is released, he is an easy target for criminals and some of his former victims. The government apologizes for its overreach and restores Alex to his natural state as a gleefully remorseful predator.
A devout Christian detective (Edward Woodward) risks life and limb traveling to a remote island called Summerisle to rescue a missing girl. He finds himself a complete fish out of water, surrounded as he is by pagan islanders who mock his superstitions and practice an openly carnal lifestyle. In the end, he realizes he is to be offered up as a fiery human sacrifice to appeasements the pagan gods.
Based on Ken Kesey’s classic 1962 novel about the totalitarianism behind psychiatric care, this film was one of only three in history to win all five of the top Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Jack Nicholson stars as Randall McMurphy, a petty criminal who manipulates his way into a mental hospital rather than serve a prison sentence. Here he locks horns with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a coldly sadistic dorm leader who seems to delight in completely dehumanizing and mentally destroying the patients in her charge. One of the minor good guys actually makes an escape at the end, but the main good guy winds up lobotomized.
The third in the Big Three of Satanic Blockbusters from the late 1970s to mid-70s—the other two being Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist—this one is similar to Rosemary’s Baby in that the Devil wins in the end. Gregory Peck plays Robert Thorn, a man who adopts an abandoned infant, only to slowly realize that the boy, whom he names Damien, is the Antichrist. Robert does all he can to take Damien to heel, going so far as dragging him by force into a church, but it’s all for naught. After Robert dies, Damien becomes President of the United States.
Robert De Niro is at his unhinged best as Travis Bickle, a mentally unhinged Vietnam vet who takes a job driving a cab on the night shift throughout a New York City that was is violent, rotten, and unforgiving. As he alienates women and stalks a presidential candidate, Travis anoints himself an avenging angel who vows to wash all the “scum” off the streets. His messianic impulse drives him save Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute, in a bloody hail of gunfire which he survives. And even though he technically murdered people and probably will keep doing so, Travis does no prison time. Instead, he becomes a public hero and continues driving his taxi.
Peter Finch won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal as Howard Beale, an aging broadcaster who is not so subtly being nudged out of his job and into retirement by an aggressive new station manager (Faye Dunaway) who views the news not as a noble profession, but merely as a vehicle to get ratings and make money. One night after wandering in a stupor through a thunderstorm, Beale walks onstage, goes off-script, and tells his viewers that he’s mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore—leading to a national trend and superstardom for Beale. But in the end, someone even madder than Beale shoots him dead live and on camera.
The Empire Strikes Back is known as the darkest of all Star Wars movies, precisely because the Dark Side wins on every count. Whereas the first installment ended with the glorious explosion of the Death Star, the Empire comes raging back at the beginning of this movie by destroying the Rebel base on Hoth. Lando Calrissian betrays his colleagues. Han Solo is left frozen in a carbonate coma. Luke Skywalker suffers the loss of his hand. He also learns, to his tremendous dismay, that Darth Vader is his father.
In this, director Lawrence Kasdan’s not-so-subtle tribute to the 1944 film Double Indemnity, Kathleen Turner turns in a career performance as a highly sexualized seductress. Her only ambition is to “be rich and live in an exotic land.” She achieves this by posing under a false identity, effortlessly slipping through murder plots and criminal frame-ups, until at the very end we see that she has achieved her goal—she’s lounging on a tropical beach, completely unharmed despite all her malicious behavior.
Starring as Winston Smith, John Hurt attempts to have an affair with a like-minded thought criminal, only to have his rebel spirit and sense of individuality crushed by Big Brother at every turn. Roger Ebert favorably compared this version—released ironically in the year 1984—to a 1954 cinematic rendering: “The 1954 film version of Orwell’s novel turned it into a cautionary, simplistic science-fiction tale. This version penetrates much more deeply into the novel’s heart of darkness.”
A Chicago attorney (Richard Gere) defends a stuttering teenage altar boy (Edward Norton, in his film debut) who is accused of murdering a priest. But the deeper he delves into the story, the more he realizes that his client is hardly innocent and has been gaslighting him the whole time. SF Gate praised the film: “Norton gets to show some admirable range as the defendant, a fellow whose stutter and aw-shucks politeness makes his altar boy credentials seem impeccable. The fact that everyone turns out to be exactly what he or she seems is one of this cynical movie’s more amusing conceits.
Two preppie-looking young males invade a family’s house and systematically destroy their minds before killing them. There is a small bit of redemption when the family’s matriarch kills one of the two antagonist, but this is counterbalanced when her bound body is dropped in a lake at the film’s end. The Critics’ Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes is: “Though made with great skill, Funny Games is nevertheless a sadistic exercise in chastising the audience.”
Heavily inspired by real-life events from the 1990s such as the Ruby Ridge massacre, the Waco siege, and the Oklahoma City bombing, Arlington Road stars Jeff Bridges as Michael Faraday, a terrorism expert and widower who starts to suspect that his neighbors are involved in a terroristic plot. In the end, though, his neighbors successfully frame him for a terroristic bombing. His neighbors move away and start plotting for the next person they can frame. Roger Ebert panned the film: “Arlington Road is a conspiracy thriller that begins well and makes good points, but it flies off the rails in the last 30 minutes. The climax is so implausible we stop caring and start scratching our heads.”
In this exploitation horror film by Rob Zombie that was inspired by such classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, a pair of couples traveling through rural Texas searching for the origin stories of urban legends wind up trapped by a rural family of serial killers. Filmcritic.com criticized the movie for featuring “”hick after hick, cheap scary image after cheap scary image, lots of southern accents and psychotic murders,” claiming it was “too highbrow to be a good cheap horror movie, too lowbrow to be satire, and too boring to bear the value of the ticket.”
In one of the most profitable horror films of all time, two strangers wake up in a room with no idea of how they got there and soon realize that they are pawns in a sadistic serial killer’s game—but make no mistake, the killer has designed the game so that he alone emerges as the winner. Marvel Movies News enthused: “From bear traps to barbed wire and more, Jigsaw is one of the most successful villains to ever lay in a pool of fake blood on a bathroom floor.”
This Coen Brothers classic won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It centers around a botched big-money drug deal along the Rio Grande river. Javier Bardem shines as the antihero Anton Chigurh, a murderous psychopath who kills with glee and emerges at the end with only minor injuries. A 2018 article in Business Insider stated that after a group of psychiatrists studied 400 movies, their consensus was that Anton Chigurh was the most accurate portrayal of a real-life psychopath.
Director Ridley Scott had originally planned to turn the Alien franchise into a five-movie story arc, but his plans were dashed when this, the second installment, proved to be a disappointment for fans who were looking for a happy ending. Michael Fassbender stars as a robot with dual personalities—the likable, outgoing Walter, and a calculating killer named David. Vulture.com explains how the character of David consumes the entire film: “David, and by extension Fassbender, isn’t just sticking around because it’s right for the movie. David has become the movie, in the way that the best villains often do.”
Marvel subverted their own good guys v. bad guys narrative on which all comic books and superhero movies are founded in this dark tale where superheroes rise up to fight the forces of evil, only to have the forces of evil—embodied in a character named Thanos—wipe out half of all the universe’s life with one snap of his fingers. If genocide is the ultimate evil, Avengers: Infinity War shows the ultimate bad guy triumphing in the end.
More Movies Where the Villain Wins
- Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) features the bad guy turning the good guys into his slaves at the end.
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers(1978) has the emotionless pod people winning out over normal people and their inconvenient emotions.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) features scar-faced pedophilic loser Freddie Krueger as the winner.
- Brazil (1985) is a dystopian sci-fi fantasy that makes you want to run away from the future back toward the warm safety of the past.
- The Vanishing (1988) proves that evil can triumph over good in dramatic fashion.
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991) ends with gruesome killer Hannibal Lecter walking free and stalking another human to eat.
- Se7en (1995) has one of the seven deadly sins emerging victorious at the end—no prizes for guessing which one.
- The Usual Suspects (1995) ends with the criminals outwitting the police.
- The Crucible (1996) is set during the Salem Witch Trials, but this time the witches win.
- Fallen (1998) is director Gregory Hoblit’s follow-up to Primal Fear,and the bad guy wins again.
- Valkyrie (2008) ends on a dark note (Hitler stays alive) and is partially based on a true story.
- The Dark Knight (2008) spotlights Heath Ledger as the villainous Joker, who controls the movie throughout and forces batman into hiding.
- Gone Girl (2014) features so many villains, it’s impossible to tell who the good guy is.
- Creep (2014) a man’s evil side winds out over his good side.
- The Neon Demon (2016) the lust for eternal beauty turns everyone into a villain in the end.