Revenge is a dish best served cold, and filmmakers have been serving up this particular dish for a long, long time. After all, everybody loves seeing a bad guy getting blasted to smithereens. "John Wick," "True Grit," and "Mad Max" are all beloved films about aggrieved heroes trying to bust some skulls, and Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career on bloodstained badasses thirsting for vigilante justice.
But not every revenge movie gets as much attention as "Kill Bill" or "Inglourious Basterds." For every mainstream success, there’s a vengeful little film lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike when the moment is right. These little-known films might not have the reputation of a classic like "Death Wish," but they’ll satisfy your bloodlust while causing you to ponder what happens when you take the law into your own hands. From 1980s exploitation to LSD-inspired madness, these are the best revenge movies you’ve never seen.
(The following article discusses sexual assault.)
Hailed as the "the ‘Citizen Kane‘ of rape and revenge movies," "Ms. 45" is set in the sleazy streets of 1980s New York, a grimy city covered in garbage, where there’s danger around every corner. That’s especially true if you’re a woman. This town is just crawling with predators, and during one horrific day, a mute seamstress named Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) is violently assaulted on two occasions, once on the street and once in her apartment. After that second assault, Thana snaps and morphs from quiet girl to murder machine.
With a .45 pistol in hand, she trades her drab dresses for red lipstick and leather pants and begins prowling through the city, hunting for evil men at night. Once she draws them out, she unloads her gun. And as the body count piles up, Thana discovers that she really enjoys filling dudes with lead. (After all, her name does came from Thanatos, the Greek god of death.) Directed by Abel Ferrara, "Ms. 45" is full of unforgettable images, like a crazed killer dressed like a nun, kissing her bullets with ruby red lips before loading them into her clip. It’s "Death Wish" meets "Carrie," and even though our leading lady barely makes a sound, when she picks up her pistol and steps outside, she’s an angel of vengeance who puts Charles Bronson to shame.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
The Quick and the Dead
Whether it’s cabin in the woods-style horror or superhero blockbusters, Sam Raimi movies are always a blast. And that’s just as true for "The Quick and the Dead," a 1995 Western that finds Sharon Stone riding into town like a long-haired Clint Eastwood, chomping down on a cigar and looking for the man who ruined her life. Known simply as The Lady, this female gunslinger arrives at a hellish desert outpost known as Redemption, where she hopes to find a maniacal outlaw named John Herod (Gene Hackman). She plans on killing Herod — their beef has something to do with flashbacks involving Gary Sinise — and she plans on doing it in the coolest way possible.
See, Herod is the mayor of Redemption, and he’s hosting a tournament where the baddest desperadoes in the land will square off in the street and find out who’s the quickest draw. As you can guess by the title, whoever doesn’t win ends up dead. The Lady plans on joining the contest and putting a bullet into Herod, fair and square, but her revenge plan gets complicated as she runs across a host of colorful characters, each with their own reason for joining this twisted contest.
Russell Crowe plays a murderer-turned-man of the cloth, forced to play Herod’s game at the point of death. Leonardo DiCaprio steals every scene he’s in as the Kid, brash and cocky and looking to impress someone important. Keith David, Lance Henriksen, and Tobin Bell fill out the rest of the cast, to say nothing of Raimi’s presence behind the camera. "The Quick and the Dead" bears his trademark humor and techniques, and it’s an over-the-top explosion of good Western fun. It’s slick and pulpy, violent and goofy — basically everything you’d expect from the guy who made "Evil Dead II" and "Army of Darkness."
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Directed by Mike Hodges, "I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead" is haunting thriller about a gangster who’s returned to his old stomping grounds and finds his world has fallen apart. Clive Owen plays Will Graham, a mob boss who left the London underworld and has spent the last few years living in the wilderness. Hounded by guilt and regret, he’s completely cut himself off from the world, but you can’t ghost your friends and family and expect everything to be okay.
That’s a lesson Will learns the hard way when he discovers his little brother, Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), has committed suicide. Wanting answers for Davey’s death, Will returns to the life he left behind and learns there’s some sick stuff going down in old London town. Davey’s death might have something to do with an evil power player named Boad (Malcolm McDowell), but as he sets his sights on the elderly Alex DeLarge, Will’s return ignites a turf war, an old romance, and feelings of guilt for leaving his brother behind.
One of the finest British gangster movies, this picture creeps along at a steady pace, slowly winding its way through dark London neighborhoods. It’s neo-noir at its most brooding, and Clive Owen is brilliant here, so quiet and so intense, brimming with anger and struggling with grief "for a life wasted," both his own and his brother’s. And as the movie moves toward the final act of revenge, we’re reminded that every decision comes with a cost, and you’re always going to pay, no matter how far you run or how long you hide.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Dead Man’s Shoes
If you only know Paddy Considine as one of the Andys from "Hot Fuzz," then you’re in for a shock if you watch "Dead Man’s Shoes." Directed by Shane Meadows (who co-wrote the script with Considine), this British thriller follows a soldier who’s returning home, only he isn’t expecting a hero’s welcome. Instead, he’s come back to wreak some unholy vengeance. Played by Considine, Richard is nothing but seething, chaotic rage, all bottled up and ready to explode. And you know this guy has it out for somebody bad since his first lines in the movie are shockingly brutal: "God will forgive them. God will forgive them, and He will let them into heaven. I can’t live with that."
Yeah, Richard is hardcore, and he’s after some small-time thugs who bullied and tortured his mentally handicapped brother (Toby Kebbell). Now that he’s back home, Richard begins taunting the men, breaking into their homes, standing over them while they sleep, and freaking them out by donning the world’s creepiest gas mask. It’s all horrific fun and terrifying games until people start losing their lives. Armed with everything from an axe to drug-infused tea, Richard goes full-on slasher villain. But this film has a depressing twist up its sleeve that turns Richard’s revenge mission into an odyssey of regret and self-loathing. We won’t drop any spoilers, but if you want to see pure rage personified, then you should definitely try on "Dead Man’s Shoes."
For many moviegoers, 1974’s "Death Wish" is the ultimate revenge movie. But here’s a little secret: "Death Sentence" is way better. And you don’t have to take our word for it (even though we do think it’s a massively underrated action movie). Brian Garfield, the author of the novel that inspired "Death Wish," called "Death Sentence" a "stunningly good movie" about "the stupidity of vengeful vigilantism." And at the center of this bullet-riddled film, there’s Kevin Bacon giving one of his all-time best performances as a family man turned psycho killer.
Directed by James Wan, "Death Sentence" finds Bacon as Nick Hume, a loving husband and good father whose life is ripped apart when gangsters brutally murder his son. Realizing the justice system will let him down, Nick foolishly takes the law into his own hands, sparking a war between Mr. Middle Class and some pistol-packing drug dealers. Things spiral out of control fast, giving us some incredibly tense action scenes, like a desperate foot chase up a parking garage or the final shootout in the blood-red church. And the performances here are all scary good — especially with John Goodman chewing up the scenery as a foul-mouthed arms dealer.
But the real highlight here is Bacon, morphing from mild-mannered businessman into an absolute animal. After a series of horrible decisions, he’s got nothing left to lose — not even his hair — and while these bad guys definitely deserve a load of buckshot to the face, "Death Sentence" is a harsh reminder of what would actually happen if you turned vigilante: you’d lose everything dear to you, including your own soul.
I Saw the Devil
Do you know that Friedrich Nietzsche quote about how "if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you?" Well, picture Nietzsche writing that line while holding a pen in one hand, a meat clever in the other, and being absolutely drenched with gore, and that’s the best way to describe "I Saw the Devil." Directed by Kim Ji-Woon, this 2010 torture-fest totally earns its demonic title, and while it’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking, it’s absolute hell to watch.
The movie opens with a woman stranded on the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck, when Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik of "Oldboy" fame) shows up. Unfortunately, Kyung-chul is a serial killer who takes great delight in dismembering his victims, so needless to say, things don’t end well for the poor woman. However, her fiancé happens to be Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), a special agent who’s pretty good at dishing out pain. Driven by the hottest anger imaginable, Soo-hyun sets out after the serial killer and catches him quickly… only to let him go.
See, Soo-hyun doesn’t just want to kill Kyung-chul. He wants to play with him, to draw out the man’s suffering. It’s a game of cat and mouse — a game where a lot of bystanders get caught in the crossfire. What we’ve got here are two absolute monsters, one driven by evil and one driven by hatred, and pretty soon, it’s hard to tell them apart. The action here is almost non-stop, with insanely choreographed fight scenes and gross-out moments that put the Saw series to shame. Don’t eat anything before watching this movie, or you’ll be seeing more than just the devil. You’ll also be seeing your lunch again.
In most revenge movies, the hero is some sort of professional badass. The Bride is an assassin, Maximus is a Roman general, and Hugh Glass is a liver-eating mountain man. But what would happen if some ordinary, schlubby dude got a gun and tried to go all John Wick? Well, that’s the premise of "Blue Ruin," a brutal thriller by director Jeremy Saulnier, and the answer is pretty simple: it wouldn’t end well at all.
Played to dweebish perfection by Macon Blair, Dwight has some serious issues. He’s living in a beat-up old car, scrounging through garbage cans, and breaking into empty homes so he can take showers. He’s been homeless for a long time, ever since his parents were murdered. Their deaths have haunted him for years, and now their killer has just been paroled. Dwight has been dreaming for revenge for a long, long time, and he gets it in like the first 20 minutes of the movie. It’s sloppy, it’s sickening, and it’s totally realistic. But once you start a family feud, the feuding doesn’t stop until everybody is dead.
See, once Dwight gets his revenge, the family of the dead man comes calling, and they’re all armed with some serious hardware. Dwight wants to be Rambo, but he’s just an ordinary dude who should be working at Best Buy. He tries copying all those action hero cliches — like tending his own wounds — but it rarely works. Dwight has no clue what he’s doing, but with bad guys closing in, he’s forced to make a stand, no matter how foolish that might be. At times hilarious and other times tragic, "Blue Ruin" subverts one action movie trope after another and shows there’s a really good reason that revenge is best left on the big screen.
Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, "Nocturnal Animals" will leave you emotionally devastated, drained of life, and terrified of driving at night. The story starts off with Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an incredibly successful woman who runs an art gallery and absolutely hates her life. She feels like a sellout, her husband is cheating on her, and everything seems to be falling apart. That’s when she receives a novel called "Nocturnal Animals," written by her old ex (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book is dedicated to Susan, but as she pores over the pages, she quickly discovers that’s not a compliment.
As she reads this twisted book, we’re treated to a movie within a movie, where Jake Gyllenhaal shows up again, playing family man Tony Hastings. He’s driving across Texas with his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber), when they’re forced off the road by a gang of rednecks, led by a villainous Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Honestly, this roadside confrontation is one of the scariest moments ever made for a non-horror movie, and we’re left with our jaws dropped in shock when the creeps take off with Tony’s family, leaving him screaming on the side of the road.
Eventually, Tony teams up with a no-nonsense lawman (Michael Shannon) to hunt down the thugs who attacked his family, but that’s not the only revenge plot going on the film. As Susan gets deeper and deeper into the novel, we start learning more about her relationship with the author, and we soon realize her literary ex might have a serious axe to grind. The acting here is incredible all the way around, with Taylor-Johnson delivering a career-best performance as the world’s sleaziest thug. It’s a cold and mean film that will leave you shaken by the final frame, and in the end, you’ll never want to take another road trip as long as you live.
Shot on the indiest of indie budgets, "Mohawk" is an action-horror hybrid that reminds us American history is basically one big bloodbath. This 2017 flick follows a trio of lovers — an Englishman (Eamon Farren) and two Mohawk Indians (Kaniehtiio Horn and Justin Rain) — as they find themselves on the run from a group of bloodthirsty Americans. Tired of seeing his people scalped and killed, Mohawk warrior Calvin (Rain) attacked an American camp and left quite a body count behind. Now the remaining troops are out for blood, and their vicious commander (Ezra Buzzington) will stop at nothing to get his piece of Manifest Destiny.
So with a bunch of vengeful Yankees on their trail, our trio tries to vanish into the woods, pulling every trick out of the Mohawk playbook to stay alive. This forest is vast and deep and will swallow you up, and the further the chase goes into the woods, the more mystical this movie gets. Eventually, the power dynamics change, and it’s our hero (we won’t say which one) looking for revenge against the American tormentors. The movie’s last act goes straight into horror territory, and that should be no surprise as the movie was directed by Ted Geoghegan ("We Are Still Here") and co-written by horror author Grady Hendrix. The result is a film that feels like "The Ritual" meets Rambo, complete with mutilation, decapitation, and a lot of bloody explosions. It’s proof that you don’t need a big budget for big thrills, and it’s a reminder that America’s past is full of death and destruction.
Take Jodorowsky’s craziest movie, Black Sabbath’s most metal album, the scariest cover of a Stephen King novel, then mix them all together with a dash of LSD. Throw it in the fires of hell for a few minutes, and when it’s done cooking, you’ll get "Mandy," one of the wildest revenge movies ever made. Set in the fabled year of 1983, this trippy gorefest finds Nicolas Cage at his absolute Cage-iest, slamming vodka, snorting cocaine, and forging his own axe to fight a gang of Cenobite bikers.
And oh yeah, we’ve got a Cheddar Goblin.
Directed by Panos Cosmatos, "Mandy" starts off as a gorgeous, lyrical love poem. We watch as lumberjack Red Miller (Cage) and his artist wife, the hauntingly beautiful Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), spend their days alone in the woods. They’ve carved out a little paradise for themselves, where they can watch silly sci-fi movies, talk about astronomy, and gaze at one another after the sun sets. Unfortunately, Mandy catches the eye of a crazed folk singer-turned-cult leader (Linus Roache) who desperately wants her to join his freaky family. When she turns him down… well, this is a revenge story, after all.
And that’s when the movie shifts gears, with Red summoning the power of every crazy character that Nicolas Cage has ever played. Armed with a crossbow, he goes toe-to-toe with the cult and a gang of demon bikers. There’s an epic chainsaw battle, plenty of decapitations, and in between all the bloodshed, we’ve got psychedelic imagery galore. With Johan Johansson’s brilliant score driving the movie forward, Cage is an absolute beast, fighting demons and hunting hippies in the most heavy metal movie ever made.
The Skin I Live In
The only out-and-out genre film from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, 2011’s "The Skin I Live In" has more twists than a pretzel and more stomach-sinking body horror than any other entry on this list. Loosely based on French author Thierry Jonquet’s novel "Tarantula," the film centers on a brilliant but cruel plastic surgeon named Robert Ledgard (a captivating performance by long-time Almodóvar collaborator, Antonio Banderas). Consumed by the prospect of creating synthetic, burn-resistant skin, Dr. Ledgard is convinced he’s on the verge of a breakthrough thanks to his human guinea pig — a volatile bandaged patient (Elena Anaya), who Dr. Ledgard is holding captive in his secluded estate for mysterious reasons.
Merging Almodóvar’s unmistakably vibrant sense of camp with the skin-crawling genre stylings of David Cronenberg, Georges Franju, and Lucio Fulci, "The Skin I Live In" premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The details of Dr. Ledgard’s vendetta — and the lengths he’s willing to go to see it through — are haunting, unforgettable, and not worth spoiling here. Part Hitchcockian identity-thriller, part melodrama, part macabre Old Hollywood-throwback, "The Skin I Live In" is, in Almodóvar’s own words, "a horror story without screams or frights." An idiosyncratic entry both within Almodóvar’s filmography and within the revenge genre more broadly, "The Skin I Live In" is uncomfortable, unpredictable, and an unforgettable viewing experience.
Phantom of the Paradise
Bet you didn’t think we’d get a musical on this list. Well, thanks to the genre-fluid genius of Brian De Palma, we’re thrilled to include the greatest revenge-fueled rock-opera-farce-horror-comedy ever made. Okay, the only one ever made — but still!
Released in 1974, "Phantom of the Paradise" is a joyfully bonkers mashup of three classic spooky tales of obsession and violent comeuppance: Gaston Leroux’s "The Phantom of the Opera," Oscar Wilde’s "The Picture of Dorian Gray," and the legend of "Faust." The film itself centers on a talented, if woefully naïve, songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley), who’s duped into selling his life’s work (a cantata based on the Faust myth) to a devilish music producer named Swan (Paul Williams). Horribly disfigured in his attempts to regain control of his music, Leach dons a menacing, masked persona in an attempt to sabotage Swan’s glorious new concert hall, the Paradise.
As Esquire’s Peter Gerstenzang astutely puts it, when "Phantom of the Paradise" premiered, "it bombed everywhere but Paris and Winnipeg." But a passionate fandom ensured that "Phantom of the Paradise" survived and thrived, going from a B-movie flop to a riotous cult classic. Look, this movie has everything — music, murder, a character named Beef … what more could you ask for? And for such an acrid satire of the predatory, soul-stealing nature of the music industry, "Phantom of the Paradise" is overflowing with back-to-back bangers ("Life at Last" absolutely rips). Unabashedly strange and infectiously maniacal, self-destructive revenge quests are rarely this fun.
The Great Silence
One of the most visually striking and atmospheric Westerns ever produced, 1968’s "The Great Silence" is an icy tale of the tragic limits of eye-for-an-eye frontier justice. Directed and co-written by Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Leone’s only real competition in the realm of Spaghetti Westerns, "The Great Silence" is a bleak and strikingly beautiful examination of the twisted morality of the bounty law and contract killers that define the mythos of the Wild West.
Set in a snowswept mountain range as unforgiving as the bloodthirsty bounty hunters that stalk its valleys in search of profit, the film follows a mute gunslinger nicknamed Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a gun for hire whose vocal chords were slashed in childhood by the mercenary miscreants who killed his parents. Pitted against the sadistic and gloriously campy bounty hunter known as "Loco" (Klaus Kinski), Silence attempts to defend those on the receiving end of a justice system that favors deep pockets.
One of the great revisionist Westerns, "The Great Silence" is a pessimistic and scathing tale of the moral ambiguities of the Wild West and the never-ending bloodshed of revenge killings. Unforgiving and shockingly unsentimental, "The Great Silence" boasts one of the bleakest endings in genre film, a conclusion that The Village Voice’s Simon Abrams notes "still hurts so good a half-century later." The film holds a flawless 100% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Jen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) tags along with her very wealthy (and very married) boyfriend, Richard (Kevin Janssens), for a romantic getaway in the desert before his annual hunting trip. But after Richard’s buddies show up early, tensions rise, and one of his friends sexually assaults Jen. When Jen refuses to go quietly in the aftermath, Richard chases her off of a cliff. But Jen doesn’t die. Not only that — she fights back. Soon enough, Richard’s casual hunting trip with the boys takes a decidedly murderous turn.
Coralie Fargeat’s feature film debut hits the ground running and never looks back. Filmed in a joyfully garish and pointedly self-aware parody of the male gaze, "Revenge" takes the misogyny-tinged, "I Spit On Your Grave" rape-revenge offerings that came before it and flips them on their head. We feel surprised by what Jen is capable of, in part because we’re so used to seeing women like Jen underestimated in genre films. Decked out in hot pink, a lollypop dangling from her glossy lips, she’s the last person you’d expect to self-cauterize a wound with a beer can while tripping on peyote in a cave. And yet, there she is, outsmarting and outlasting her would-be murderers with the ferocity of a seasoned survivalist. Setting its tactical sights clearly on male entitlement, "Revenge" is a brutal, blunt, and decidedly bloody amalgamation of feminism and exploitation cinema.
The Virgin Spring
Set in medieval Sweden, two devout Christians, Töre (Max von Sydow) and Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), send their virginal daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), and their pregnant servant, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), to deliver candles to a far-flung church. While they make their way through a forbidding forest, the pair are surprised by a band of roving goat herders, who rape and murder Karin while Ingeri remains hidden. Later, the three killers seek refuge at Töre and Märeta’s farmhouse, unwittingly finding asylum in the home of their victim’s parents. Overwhelmed with grief and a desire for retribution fitting of the crime, Töre plots his revenge.
Melding exploitation cinema and medieval symbolism, "The Virgin Spring" is cruel, slow-burning, and subtly horrific. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, "The Virgin Spring" is one of the few films Ingmar Bergman directed but did not write. And yet, Bergman’s career-defining austerity and spiritual critique have arguably never been more visceral. A guttural fable of "a world teetering between paganism and Christianity" (according to Criterion), Bergman’s guilt-soaked parable is a gorgeous rendering of truly hideous subject matter. The plot of "The Virgin Spring" would go on to form the basis of Wes Craven’s infamous 1972 film "The Last House on the Left", which, as author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas notes, suggests that rape-revenge films indeed possess "a relatively auspicious heritage".
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s triumphant return to form offers a boldly subversive take on a well-worn revenge formula. When Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), the CEO of a video game software company, is assaulted in her home, she refuses to let the incident shake her carefully crafted life. Determined to uncover the identity of her unknown attacker, Michèle returns to business as usual while coaxing her assailant into a sinister game of cat and mouse, manipulating the violent desires of her attacker.
Premiering in competition for the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (to a seven-minute standing ovation), even with such high-risk material, "Elle" has enjoyed widespread critical acclaim, with pointed (and absolutely deserving) praise for Huppert’s performance. Heralded by the likes of Variety as a possible career high for Verhoeven (the man who directed "RoboCop" and "Starship Troopers"), "Elle" is a knowingly incendiary and twisted tale that’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
In the late 19th century, a dying imprisoned woman gives birth to a baby girl, naming her Yuki after the delicate snow falling outside, beyond their barred window. Before she dies, she utters her final wish — that her child be raised as an instrument of vengeance, a murderous tool to assassinate the three remaining criminals who slaughtered their family. Her mother’s wrath made flesh, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) sharpens herself into the perfect weapon. What follows is a bittersweet bloodbath of jaw-dropping violence and spectacular swordplay, a frigid tragedy of intergenerational fury dripping in style.
Based on Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura’s manga series of the same name, Toshiya Fujita’s elegant and über-influential genre masterpiece is, per the Criterion Collection, one of the cornerstones of Asian action cinema. Boasting a perfect 100% critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes and a favorable Metacritic score of 80, "Lady Snowblood" is a revenge-riddled must for international genre fans. Revenge, after all, is a dish best served cold.