Forget turning the other cheek, or that whole “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” thing. Revenge is sweet. Whether it’s the surprise gratification of instant karma, or that delicious feeling you get when your well-plotted scheme serves your target a needed helping of justice, it just feels good to have bad things happen to the ones who have wronged you.
Unfortunately, reality often limits the scope of our retaliatory efforts, with pesky things like laws and moral compasses getting in the way of the delivery of our vengeance. Perhaps that’s why revenge stories in movies are so popular.
There’s so much to love about cinematic revenge. First, it’s probably not real, which means you can keep your glee unchecked while watching it go down. Second, it lets us live out those fantasies we wish we could carry out. Want to kill your boss? Horrible Bosses has you covered. Wronged by a lover and/or your friends? Give Kill Bill a whirl. Actually, that second one might be a bit too extreme.
There are so many revenge movies out there, and so many good ones, that it’s impossible to get them all onto one list. Here, though, we've compiled the eight must-sees. Be warned, some spoilers ahead.
8 Roadhouse (1989, Action)
Roadhouse is not the best movie ever made. It’s not even a particularly good movie. That said, it has one of the craziest changes of tone you’ll ever see. The last third of this movie is completely nuts, and it’s pure, distilled revenge fantasy - which makes it pretty great.
7 The Prestige (2006, Mystery/Thriller)
It’s the closest you'll get to a showdown between Batman and Wolverine, full of all the magic and mystery and backstabbing you could ever ask for. It’s the tale of rival magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), as they compete to ruin the other, while Angier searches for a trick to beat Borden’s greatest.
This is a Christopher Nolan film, so expect the usual issues of so-so character development. Still, with Michael Caine, David Bowie, and Scarlett Johansson rounding out the cast in a movie about a magician vendetta, it’s pretty easy to see past the faults and enjoy trying to figure out the mystery of how Borden can pull off his finale.
6 A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Horror)
Freddy Krueger is one of the biggest characters in horror, famous for his iconic getup and terrifying powers. A demon man who can enter your dreams and kill you? That’s pretty horrifying.
Freddy was a child murderer who was then murdered by the parents of some of the dead children. What does he do posthumous? He sets out to murder the surviving children of those parents. There’s a lot of revenging going on in this movie, not to mention some fantastic and gory offings of teens.
Do yourself a favour: skip the recent remake and go straight for the older ones. They’re a little hokey, but classics all the same.
5 Gangs of New York (2002, Drama)
It’s not Scorsese’s best, but this is nonetheless a seriously entertaining movie, thanks mostly to the commanding presence of Daniel Day Lewis. His portrayal of Bill the Butcher, the seemingly superhuman force that dominates 19th century New York, is riveting, and is pretty much the reason the film succeeds.
The film follows Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) infiltration of the Butcher’s gang, in the process of getting close enough to Bill to kill him as retribution for having killed Vallon’s father years ago. Well-acted, with terrific fight sequences and the greatest language lesson ever filmed, this is definitely worth a watch.
4 Mean Girls (2004, Comedy)
Are there still people out there who have yet to see this movie? Written by Tina Fey, Mean Girls stars pre-meltdown Lindsay Lohan in a hilarious revenge story set in the wasteland of high school. She becomes the instrument of rejects Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Fanzese) in their plot to take down “the plastics” (Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Chabert), but soon finds herself slipping into the plastic lifestyle while trying to catch the eye of one of the plastics’ exes.
Mean Girls is hilarious fun, full of back and forth revenge that plays just a little more ridiculous than what you’d find in a regular high school. It also has the finest mathlete rapping that you will ever see.
3 A History of Violence (2005, Drama/Suspense)
This one is a bit more substantial than some of the other films on this list, a thoughtful but brutal exploration of society’s love of and addiction to violence. It stars Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a regular man who finds himself the center of national attention after dispatching two killers who were set on robbing his diner. Enter Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a mobster who is convinced that Tom Stall is secretly the violent criminal who blinded him years ago.
There’s plenty of action in this movie, all to underscore a disturbing point: we might hate violence in theory, but we crave it in secret. Maria Bello, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, and William Hurt also star.
2 Les Diaboliques (1955, Horror/Thriller)
If you can speak French, or you don’t mind subtitles, Les Diaboliques is a must-see. It’s the story of a plot between a wife and a mistress to murder their mutual lover, who is abusive to both. However, once they pull off the deed, they begin to see that things are... not quite right. His body vanishes, he begins to appear in photos, and a detective involves himself in trying to discover what happened on that fateful night.
This film has a surprise ending that's shocking to this day, and was good enough that the filmmaker tacked a message onto the end of the film demanding that the audience not spoil anything for those who had not seen it yet. It’s that rare film that doesn’t show its age, even all these years later, and it’s one of the best revenge films around.
1 Inglourious Basterds (2009, Drama)
Kill Bill is fantastic, and Django Unchained is a lot of fun. Neither approaches Inglourious Basterds, though, when it comes to being the best revenge film made by the modern master of on-screen violence, Quentin Tarantino.
It begins with one of the best scenes ever shot, the introduction of Colonel Hans Landa in the French farmhouse. The slow heightening of tension culminates in the death of all but one of the members of a family of Jews, and the film continues on in the same vein, ratcheting the tension of the film up and up until that lone survivor finally gets her shot at revenge.
This is a glorious film, a showcase for Tarantino’s talent, and one of the best revenge movies ever. Watch it, re-watch it, and then wonder how on earth it didn’t win for Best Picture.