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The 10 Best Revenge Films

Revenge films can be quite a cathartic viewing experience. Everyone has been done wrong and wanted to seek revenge. Growing up, Sundays started off with hours of wrestling, which I’m not a huge fan of, but they eventually transitioned into Kung Fu Theater. Kung Fu Theater typically consisted of a double shot of action packed martial arts pulp that more often than not focused on some sort of revenge. Typically, there are warring dojo’s where one is willing to do anything to be the best, even if it means killing the leader of the rival dojo. What followed was the best fighters of the attacked dojo seeking revenge for the murder of their master and possibly others that lived and worked in the dojo. Sometimes, the story would be adjusted to a larger scale where there are two warring kingdoms rather than just martial arts school.

As I grew up, I started to see the revenge formula in action films, action films of the 70’s in particular. Those films felt too gritty to me as a youngster hoping to see something I wasn’t supposed to see. Looking back at those films now, they are still gritty. I wondered if it was just me seeing the films at too young an age that made them seem so edgy but as I re-watched so many of those classic films over the years I was never disappointed at how edgy they are so many years later.

Revenge can actually be a thematic element in virtually every genre of film from comedy to sci-fi. Often fans associate revenge with serious films and while the best revenge films are definitely serious ones it can be interesting to look at every genre of film for that thematic element. With that said I believe the martial arts films from the 70’s really broke the formula down to its most base parts. So those sorts of movies are a good place to start when looking at revenge films, but the element goes much further. For the sake of this list, I’m limiting the parameters to dramatic, thriller, or even horror. If you add in comedy, there’s Revenge of the Nerds, Trading Places and tons more. Doing a single top 10 list even with these parameters is quite painful as I had to leave out some phenomenal films. I’ll leave them for you guys to add to your lists in the comments.

10. Friday the 13th

Often people forget that this whole series of films is based on revenge but the first is the most closely tied to the element. In future films, Jason Voorhees returns from the depths of Crystal Lake where he drowned as a youth because camp counselors were too busy fornicating to keep an eye on him. The first film though features Jason’s mother taking revenge on the counselors for letting her son die. Revenge of a mother can be the coldest sort of revenge! The mother’s finale in this film is also iconic. Look for young Kevin Bacon playing a counselor and getting another iconic kill.

9. Payback

Yes, this is a remake but it’s one of those few times that the remake surpasses the original (leave you angry comments below). Mel Gibson plays a thug that gets screwed over not only by his buddies but also by his best girl. Of course, they leave him for dead, but he’s most assuredly not. Upon his return, he seeks revenge on those that screwed him over and he only wants what he believes he deserves, even when he’s offered substantially more money than he is after. This is easily the edgiest role of Gibson’s career.

8. Kill Bill 1 and 2

Sure, this is technically two films, but this story was meant to be told in one film and hopefully it will be on blu-ray at some point. The bride is in a coma being taken advantage of by orderlies. One day, she awakens and wants revenge on her teammates, a group of super assassins who left her for dead. This Quentin Tarantino film celebrates all things that are great about 1970’s exploitation without spoofing it. This film isn’t homage to those classic grind house films, it’s one of them. Both Kill Bill films, sans the animated sequences, could have been release in 1972 and fit right in at the drive in between a kung fu movie and a low budget action feature.

7. Man on Fire

Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington, is another sort of throwback film. This one feels like a mid 80’s machismo action film made with Tony Scott’s modern style. In the film, Washington plays a drunken mercenary hired to protect a little girl, played by a young Dakota Fanning. When the girl is kidnapped and killed after a botched attempt to pay ransom for her Washington swears revenge on everyone involved. It isn’t just the plot and characterizations that are 80’s throwback some of the scenes are throwbacks to the heyday of action films too. One scene in particular involves Washington tearing down a bunch of weapons on a table with his old merc buddy played by Christopher Walken offering moral support. There’s an additional scene of note involving the strategic placement of an explosive that makes the film stand out too.

6. Cape Fear (1991)

Here we have another remake. The original film is quite good but Robert De Niro makes this version the definitive one. De Niro plays an ex-con in town looking for revenge on the lawyer that put him away for something he didn’t do. This character may not be De Niro’s most villainous role but it’s without a doubt his creepiest. The film features an all star cast with Nick Nolte playing the lawyer, Jessica Lange as his wife, and Juliette Lewis as the couple’s young and influential daughter. The film features some gorgeous scenes directed by Martin Scorsese, but the segments between De Niro and Lewis are the creepiest and most memorable of the film. Robert Mitchum is actually in both this 1991 version and the original 1962 film.

5. Last House on the Left

Here we are talking the 1972 classic not the subpar 2009 redo. The original film is Wes Craven’s first film and quite possibly the grittiest of his career. In the film, a group of thugs kill two young girls and the parents of one the girls seek brutal and merciless revenge. This one’s not perfect. There are a few hiccups, including some kazoo music, but the things that work in this film work better than any other film of this type. The brutality throughout the first half of the film is almost documentary style and painful to watch. This one offers the most cringe worthy revenge of any film on the list.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This film is easily the best of the entire Star Trek franchise, including the newest film. What’s great here is the revenge is brought over from the television series into the film franchise. The script is well written enough that you can enjoy the film having never seen the television episode where Khan first appeared. Khan is the leader of a group of people who have been engineered with superior intellect. The problem is that they are also villains so Captain Kirk felt it necessary to strand them on a technology free planet. Khan brilliantly played over the top by Ricardo Montalban eventually finds his way off the planet and all he wants is revenge for what Kirk did to him. The clash between Khan and Kirk is one of the greatest in film history. It’s Khan’s superior intellect versus Kirk’s street smarts. Kirk’s street smarts are part of the theme in this film stating with a subplot that reveals Kirk’s solution to one of Starfleet’s most challenging tests.

3. I Spit on Your Grave

In this classic bit of 1970’s exploitation, a woman leaves the city for a vacation in the country. All she wants is some peace and quiet and, of course, to do a little skinny dipping. A group of local thugs want to get to know her no matter what she wants.  What follows is one of the most disturbing rape scenes ever put on film. It’s not clean lavishly lit like a “Skinimax special: its shot on film and its gritty and dirty in the figurative and literal sense. After the woman recovers ,she of course seeks revenge. Her ultimate revenge comes in a scene that’s still talked about 30 years later. What I find more disturbing than what she does to the leader of her assailants is what she does afterwards. She’s rocks in a rocking chair and listens to the man bleed out and die slowly in agonizing pain. Really, isn’t that ‘nuff said?

2. OldBoy

Oldboy is the second in Korean director Park Chan Wook’s vengeance Trilogy which also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. Each of these three films fit the mold of the revenge film but Oldboy, to me, is the best of the three films. An average man is mysteriously locked away for 15 years with his only contact with the outside world being a TV. While in his surreal prison, he follows the news on TV and teaches himself to fight. One day, suddenly he is released and all he can think about is revenge. This is about as close to a perfectly executed film as it gets. The story is dramatic and moving, the mystery is fascinating, and the whole thing is beautifully shot. There’s one fight scene that has already been ripped off by other films over and over again. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you’ve probably already seen a version of the biggest fight scene in the movie. The final moments of the film are near heart stopping. Few revenge films have the layers that this one has. It was almost number 1.

1. Death Wish

When you think of revenge what do you think of? For me, it’s Death Wish. Death Wish boils the revenge movie down to its base and presents it one badass package with Charles Bronson on top. Bronson plays an architect making a life with his wife and daughter. When his wife is murdered and his daughter is raped, his life is turned upside down. When the police can’t satisfy him by catching the men responsible for attacking his wife and daughter, he hits the streets himself and begins attacking and killing street criminals. The city loves him while the police call him a vigilante. This story has been done over and over again most recently featuring Jodie Foster in The Brave One but no other film has been able to capture the story as well as Death Wish.

With all of that talk about martial arts films at the beginning of the article, I surprised myself by only including the Kill Bill films in this list. There are tons of great Kung fu films that could have made the list but honestly they just aren’t as good as those on this list. Leave your top 10 list below.