Psychopaths. Sociopaths. Maniacs gone wild. There are lots of films that peer into the darkest of minds and explore what those people are capable of. They frighten us, yet draw us in with morbid intrigue.
But before we dive into those movies, I think it's important to know that medical professionals rarely use terms like "psychopath" and "sociopath" in diagnosing a condition.
Rather, psychopaths and sociopaths are those who suffer from antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
ASPD is characterized by a lack of respect for societal norms and mores, plus a lack of empathy for the feelings and sufferings of others. Within ASPD, you have psychopaths and sociopaths.
A psychopath is one who has absolutely no conscience. They're capable of doing heinous things and experience no guilt, shame, or self-loathing in committing those acts. They may feign such emotions, but only because doing so benefits them in some way (e.g. earn sympathy).
A sociopath has a conscience and can recognize that what they're doing is wrong. They have a conscience, but it's weak and easily ignored. So, even if the little voice in their head says they shouldn't, they will steal things, manipulate people, destroy property, etc.
Generally, both psychopaths and sociopaths find it impossible to identify with others. Even so, psychopaths have less regard for others and often perceive people as mere pawns to be used.
Lastly, a key difference is that psychopaths are "cold" while sociopaths are "hot." Psychopaths are emotionally vacant, callous, and calculating, while sociopaths are volatile, temperamental, and wild.
That said, here are the best movies about psychopaths, sociopaths, and maniacs that are absolutely worth watching.
10. American Psycho (2000)
Directed by Mary Harron
Starring Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas
Crime, Drama, Horror (1h 42m)
Patrick Bateman is a textbook psychopath. I mean, come on, it even says so right in the movie's title!
While not every psychopath exhibits such violent, murderous behavior to such a clear degree, Patrick Bateman is about as transparent as they come, stalking the streets at night in order to make a kill.
His targets are those who rub him the wrong way, those who disgust him, and those who are challenging him at work—especially those who have better business cards than he does.
9. Psycho (1960)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 49m)
People often claim that Alfred Hitchcock was the first man to put a psychopath on the big screen with Psycho.
Now, while that may not be entirely true—Robert Mitchum's Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955) seemed pretty psychotic, if you ask me—Hitchcock's depiction is certainly one of the most memorable.
Without getting into too many details (or spoilers), suffice it to say that Psycho represented one of the first times that audiences were cinematically exposed to the darkest depths of the human psyche.
8. Cape Fear (1991)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange
Crime, Thriller (2h 8m)
There's debate as to whether Cape Fear's Max Cady is a psychopath or a sociopath. Either way, Robert De Niro's depiction is horrifying.
After paying a dentist to ruin his teeth for the part, De Niro owned the role and made it look way too easy to play an unhinged serial rapist who preys on vulnerable women, beats people to a pulp, and kills anyone who stands in the way of his goal.
What is his goal, exactly? Revenge. To torment the man who defended him years ago—torment him and then kill everyone he loves.
7. Se7en (1995)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey
Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h 7m)
John Doe of Se7en is an interesting case. Driven by religious extremism, he decides to kill seven people in seven specific ways, with each murder associated with one of the "seven deadly sins."
However, John Doe shows what appears to be a conscience in one scene when he spares David's life, which feels like an act of kindness.
Little do we know it's just a ploy to complete his masterpiece of a plan, which is pretty psychopathic thinking, if you ask me.
6. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates
Comedy, Drama, Crime (2h 16m)
Alex DeLarge is a textbook maniac. Medically, a maniac is often described as one who's violent for no reason. Alex is certainly that.
Coming from a nice home and loving parents, Alex walks out into the night and wanders the dystopian streets—with his trio of "droogs"—only to inflict torment, rape, and murder on innocents.
In fact, Alex DeLarge is such a psychopath that he's deemed too violent even for his own team, particularly when he turns on one of his own after having his pride hurt. A true psychopath.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 58m)
Hannibal Lector is the quintessential psychopath. He brims with cunning, intellect, and the ability to weave and manipulate the people around him into his immensely horrible spider's web.
He's always sure of his plan and never has qualms with killing in order to get things done. In fact, he seems to rather enjoy it.
Expertly played by Anthony Hopkins, the Hannibal Lector we see in The Silence of the Lambs is the iconic image of a psychopath that has stayed in the public consciousness for decades.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Action, Crime, Drama (2h 32m)
The one thing about Heath Ledger's Joker that makes him truly scary is how he believes that everyone is like him: "They're only as good as the world allows them to be."
Conceiving human nature to be inherently evil, The Joker considers his actions to be a kind of medicine that enables the truest and most fundamental human impulses to rise to the surface.
The Joker wants Gotham to be swallowed by chaos and subsumed under anarchy. He has a master plan to make it happen, and he won't let his conscience or laws stop him. Yep, that's a psychopath all right.
Expertly played by Heath Ledger, The Joker in The Dark Knight was one of the best movie performances we've ever seen.
3. Gone Girl (2014)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 29m)
Rosamund Pike's depiction of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl still gives me the absolute creeps. Despite being the only female psychopath on this list, she's so close to the top because she's so cunning, so ferociously determined, and so coldly calculating.
Like most psychopaths, Amy Dunne views everyone around her as pawns, able to be manipulated all so that she gets what she wants. It doesn't matter who they are—they're all expendable.
And what does she want? Attention. Praise. To be unconditionally and eternally adored. Yikes...
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 2m)
Of all the Oscar wins since the turn of the millennium, Javier Bardem's win for Best Supporting Actor is one of the most deserved.
His portrayal of Anton Chigurh, a hitman on the hunt for a briefcase full of cash, was menacingly chilling to watch. His smile didn't fit with his eyes, and his eyes were cold as ice and filled with malice.
What makes Anton Chigurh so frightening isn't that he's willing to kill to get what he wants nor that he's really good at it, but that he seems to love killing for the fun of it.
Anton Chigurh takes pleasure in his work and he likes watching a person's expression turn as they realize they're about to die. Cormac McCarthy wrote a picture-perfect psychopath, and Bardem played him flawlessly.
1. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz
Adventure, Drama, War (2h 33m)
Though he often escapes such conversations, it's Hans Landa (played with incredible skill by Christoph Waltz) who deserves to reign at the top of any list about the best psychopaths in cinema.
In the very first scene of Inglourious Basterds, Hans Landa describes his profession as a job that requires skill and cunning. He takes great pride in his work, characterizing himself as a hawk.
On the surface, he smiles, he's polite, he's friendly, he's even charming. But there's a violence in his movements. When he takes somebody's hand, you can see their face recoil in both fear and disgust.
He may be the most intelligent of all of the psychopaths on this list. After all, when he realizes that the Axis Powers have been defeated, he quickly jumps ship and changes sides.
But that just makes him all the more frightening, knowing that he places himself and his own survival above everything else. And when you're one of his quarry, there's very little you can do to escape his grasp.