The fact that Villa keeper Peter Enckleman collected the man of the match champagne after the game says it all on an afternoon when the scoreline could quite easily have been reversed had Glenn Roeder's team shown more discpline and quality at both ends of the field.
Roeder named the same eleven players in his starting line-up that drew with Manchester United last Sunday, but Hammers today sadly didn't produce the solid display that had denied one of Europe's finest teams three points just six days ago.
Despite being passed fit to play after returning to full training in the week following his two month lay-off with a groin muscle injury, Fredi Kanoute was not included - perhaps sensibly by Roeder considering the bitterly cold conditions in the midlands, meaning that Paolo Di Canio and Jermain Defoe continued their partnership in attack.
And after Villa had missed the target with a couple of speculative long range efforts early on, it was Defoe who enjoyed the first real chance of the game in the 11th minute, when Di Canio's dummy run allowed him to cleverly turn Mellberg and create space in the area. However, with just Enckleman to beat, the young striker flashed his low shot wide of the far post.
At that stage, Hammers looked to be gaining the upper hand and saw another great chance to open the lead go begging in the 25th minute when Schemmel's low cross from the right was palmed out by Enckleman to Cole, whose goalbound header from just six yards out was cleared off the line by Samuel.
Defoe then converted superbly from Cole's right wing cross, but was flagged offside, just as he had been in the first half against United last week
Despite enjoying the better of the play, though, the visitors still looked slightly uncomfortable in defence up against the aerial threat of Dion Dublin and the lively running of Hendrie on Vassell, and it was that connection that combined to give Villa a 29th minute lead.
Barry's floated free-kick from the centre circle was nodded down by Dublin and as Carrick and Cisse both failed to clear the loose ball, Hendrie nipped in to gain possession and skip past three weak challenges before poking the ball past James from 10 yards out.
Understandably, the goal gave Villa an immediate lift, as they continued to search for the head of Dublin at every available opportunity and twice came close to extending their lead before the break.
First Ian Taylor crashed a shot against the crossbar after Dublin had caused panic from a corner, then the veteran Villa striker met a near post cross himself to force James into a superb reflex save.
The second half began with Dublin being booked for a cynical shove on Winterburn as the ball was running out of play that left the Hammers left-back lying in agony after crashing into the advertising hoardings.
However, the 38-year-old showed his fighting spirit to return to the action, and that attitude seemed to rub off on his team-mates as Hammers began to push forward in search of an equaliser.
Four minutes later came the perfect chance to do just that. Sinclair shaped to volley a cross on the edge of the area, and his mis-hit effort bounced through to Cisse, unmarked just six yards out. However, the Frenchman somehow blasted his shot straight at Enckleman and the ball cannoned away to safety.
Villa then went straight up the other end and almost grabbed a second when Leonhardsen's far post header beat James but was cleared off the line by Pearce.
By now, an end-to-end thriller at the Villa was developing and on 55 minutes, Hammers wasted another glorious opportunity to draw level.
A flowing move down the left involving Carrick, Defoe and Di Canio finished with the Italian clipping a perfectly weighted pass through for Sinclair, who controlled well but was denied by Enckleman again, who rushed off his line to block the effort.
You sensed that, after letting Villa off the hook twice in a matter of minutes, Hammers would be made to pay for their profligacy in front of goal and, sure enough, just four minutes later, the hosts doubled their advantage.
Again, the goal owed more to incompetent defending than it did to attacking prowess. After failing to properly clear their lines from another long ball, Hammers allowed Vassell to turn in the area and skip along the 18-yard line before slipping a pass through for Leonhardsen, who slammed the ball past James from an acute angle.
On 65 minutes, the hosts should have made it three, when James spilled a Hitzlsperger shot at the feet of Dublin, but the former Villa keeper breathed a sigh of relief as his opponent somehow flicked the ball wide with the goal at his mercy.
That seemed to shake the Hammers into life again and five minutes later came the vital breakthrough that had been threatened for so long.
Cole fed Sinclair on the right, and the winger's clipped cross into the danger area was missed by Defoe but met at the far post by Di Canio, who headed home to bring Hammers right back into it.
Sadly, though, we were right back in it for less than 90 seconds. Cisse was booked for a foul on Vassell on the left just moments after the restart and, from Hendrie's free-kick, Dublin rose above Dailly to head into an almost unguarded net as James attempted in vain to punch clear.
After a game full of turning points and periods of domination for both sides, the third goal appeared to hammer the final nail in the coffin for West Ham and, 10 minutes from time, Villa made the game safe with their fourth.
Leonhardsen's threaded pass found Vassell in what looked like an offside position, but the linesman's flag stayed down and the pacy striker fired confidently past James from 12 yards out.
The result leaves Hammers now rock bottom of the Premiership, after slipping below West Brom on goal difference and puts even more pressure on next week's crucial home clash against in-form Southampton, when the expected return of Kanoute will hopefully provide a massive boost.