The revenge tale is one of the simplest but most satisfying forms of storytelling out there. Maybe that’s why there are so many books, films, and songs about people looking to get even—and usually succeeding.
They say that when you seek revenge, you should dig two graves—one for your enemy, and one for yourself—and many of the revenge movies on this list show us that’s a popular proverb for a reason. But while vengeance often makes monsters out of those who seek it, the road there is a lot of bloody fun to watch. Here are 13 killer revenge movies that prove it.
The Korean revenge film has practically become its own genre, and no practitioner is more synonymous with the form than Park Chan-wook. Chan-wook rocketed to international fame with the release of Oldboy, which introduced mainstream western audiences to the twists and turns of the classic Korean revenge film. Oldboy is packed with unforgettable moments—like an insane hallway fight and an octopus-eating scene—as newly freed prisoner Oh Dae-su sets out to find the people who imprisoned him.
I Saw the Devil
If Park Chan-wook is the acknowledged master of the Korean revenge movie, the form may have found its most intense and twisted expression in Kim Jee-woon’s crackling masterpiece, I Saw the Devil. For those unfamiliar with the genre, Korean revenge films seldom flinch from the price that vengeance extracts from those seeking it. But I Saw the Devil is truly one of the most intense portrayals of “battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster,” following agent Kim Soo-hyun on a bloodthirsty hunt for his fiancée’s killers.
Park Chan-wook is the only director to make this list twice, which seems fitting given his mastery of the genre. While The Handmaiden has plenty in common with Park’s previous revenge movies, this sprawling and ambitious adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Victorian-era crime novel Fingersmith is also very much its own creature. Set in Japanese-occupied Korea instead of London, it sees a conman and a pickpocket strive to swindle an heiress out of her inheritance—leading to plenty of double- and triple-crosses that will keep you riveted.
He just wanted out…but they pulled him back in. It’s a premise that has been done a million times before, but seldom as kinetically as in John Wick, which spawned its own mini-franchise of sequels. Keanu Reeves and a crackling script help sell the notion of the eponymous hitman as a force of nature so legendary he's the boogeyman to mobsters and assassins. But it’s the action scenes shot by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch that made John Wick an instant revenge classic.
Long before he played Batman’s faithful butler, Alfred—or showed up in pretty much every other Christopher Nolan movie—Michael Caine was one of the most unforgettable criminals in film history. Jack Carter, of the 1971 film Get Carter, is a hardened criminal who returns to his hometown with one goal in mind: avenging his brother’s seemingly “accidental” death. Caine took the role explicitly because, “Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.” Whoa.
When your movie is called Payback, you can bet it’s about revenge. This neo-noir starring Mel Gibson is adapted from the same Donald E. Westlake novel as the 1967 noir classic Point Blank. Little wonder the story has seen multiple iterations: The main character—a wronged criminal named Porter—unleashes a vengeful rampage so action-packed and so violent, it isn’t something you can walk away from.
It’s one thing to seek vengeance on your own behalf, but what if you were conceived and raised as a pawn in someone else’s revenge scheme? That’s the premise behind Lady Snowblood, a film that had a huge impact on Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge opus, Kill Bill. Meiko Kaji’s Yuki exists as her mother’s wrath incarnate, conceived with the express goal of getting revenge on her rapists and her family’s killers. Years later, of course, Yuki fulfills her mother’s wishes—in spectacularly bloody fashion.
Beginning with Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino made a vicious and bloody triptych of revenge films that could easily have made this list. We chose our favorite of the bunch—the sprawling and ambitious Inglourious Basterds. The movie is not only a traditional narrative about a woman wanting revenge for her family’s murder, but also a revisionist empowerment tale about the victims of genocidal fascism rising up in an explosion (both literal and figurative) of ahistorical retribution.
The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas’s novel is one of the earliest revenge stories, and it has been adapted into film many times since its completion in 1844 (this TV film is from 1975). One of the best examples of “revenge is a dish best served cold,” Dantès quest to enact revenge on his captors has served as a template for countless other stories. There’s a reason why the masked vigilante in the most recent modern adaptation, V for Vendetta, calls it his favorite film…
Before she was Kitty Pryde or Juno, Ellen Page played teenage vigilante Hayley Stark in David Slade’s shocking directorial debut, Hard Candy. While keeping audiences on the edge of their seats, Page’s Hayley entraps a sexual predator (Patrick Wilson) into an elaborate cat-and-mouse game. The fact that we spend most of the movie unsure if Wilson’s character is a victim or a villain makes it all the more chilling.
James Wan’s take on the Death Wish formula features Kevin Bacon as a father who vows revenge against the gang members who killed his son. While many films in this vein celebrate vigilante violence—even if they tack on a learning lesson about how crime doesn’t pay—Death Sentence is unusually tragic and ultimately elegiac, if also brutal, violent, and unrelenting. Bonus points got to John Goodman’s turn as a black-market arms dealer named Bones.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a lot of things—a crime thriller, a serial killer film, a ragged shriek of defiance—but it’s also an extraordinarily visceral revenge movie. In fact, Lisbeth Salander’s attack on her sadistic guardian is one of the most vicious and satisfying acts of vengeance in recent memory. Sure, the 2011 David Fincher remake features similar sequences, but for our money, the original is the way to go.
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Many of the films on this list reach their climax when the vendetta is complete—even if the person seeking revenge ultimately perishes themselves. Not so in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin. The 2013 film posits nested tales of vengeance, each one begetting more vengeance in a seemingly infinite chain of violence. Remember the saying, “When you seek revenge you should dig two graves”? Well, Blue Ruin suggests two isn’t nearly enough.
Feature still from "John Wick" via Thunder Road Pictures