Well, maybe not me. Them. But then, they deserve it. When one is trapped in a car with other humans for longish periods of time, one may find themselves engaging in odd conversations. In this case, I am The One, and as The One, I was talking to Lauren about my own work and why one of my projects did it for me so much – namely The Devil’s Due. The short answer is . . . I love my villain in that book. I think I got it right. Lauren, to her credit, nodded and agreed and didn’t say anything derogatory about my portrayal of Azazel, so I’m going to take that as I AGREE, BEST FRIEND THING, THAT YOU ARE AWESOME IN FICTION and take a bow.
In the meanwhile, though, it got me thinking “What MAKES a good villain?” Complicated question, that. I think understanding the bad character’s motives is the most essential piece – why does Bad Person X act the way they do? Can I wrap my mind around their actions? I understand the concept of malevolence for the sake of malevolence (the Japanese love their Angry Ghost For No Reason thing, and the movie The Strangers did a hell of a job of making the “WE’RE EVIL JUST CAUSE WE CAN BE” thing terrifying) but I think writers have to be careful with that particular trope. It’s overdone and most of the time, done poorly. For a bad guy to really get under my/our skin, it’s good for people to understand the baddy’s head space. Mind you, we might not agree with their twisted (and often psychotic) world view, but nothing is scarier than a villain who does things for reasons we can ALMOST get behind.
Making a villain likable on some bizarre level makes them dimensional. Dimensional makes them more relatable and thus . . . much more terrifying. It makes us think about ourselves and what deep, dark, mangled little things squirm at our cores.
So I decided I’d put together a list of some of my favorite villains. I even explain why I like them so much and in some cases, why they were on the list as opposed to other villains of the same genre. Really? I just talk a lot and put a lot of pictures up. Act surprised!
Right off the bat people are probably going to disagree with me, but that’s okay! I had to pick between Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Scar in The Lion King and this, and I went with the 1967 villain instead of the more recent one. Why? Because I always felt that Scar took a page out of Shere Khan’s book – as in he wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without some help from an earlier bad-guy-talking-animal. Not to sound like a hipster douchebag, but SHERE KHAN DID IT FIRST sorta goes on repeat whenever I hear people talk about how awesome Scar is. I know, I know “the only thing in common is they both have English accents!” Not true. There’s a certain /style/ to the villainy that carries over. Watch both movies and do a compare and contrast. I’m pretty sure you’ll get my meaning. The Disney writers definitely looked back before they looked forward in this case. Both villains are fantastic, but I’m going to give the nod to Tony The Tiger On Roids.
I actually didn’t like A ClockWork Orange if I’m being totally honest. The movie was heavy handed with its message, and I found a lot of the violence done more for shock value than advancing story, but I can appreciate what a great villain Alex was. You could see that Alex enjoyed what he was doing, hurting others. He liked being powerful and seeing others afraid. He raped, beat, and stabbed those not willing to go along with his horrible ideas, and every terrible thing done fueled his next Bad Plan. He got off on being wicked, and you could tell that he’d go on like that forever if there weren’t consequences for his actions. He made being bad look SO FUN, and in making it look fun, it made him scary. It made me as a watcher question if I’d like lording fear over others, and if I would, what does that say about me?
There is something so utterly likable about Geoffrey Rush. I don’t know if I can properly explain it, but let me put it this way – if I had a list of “people you could randomly have lunch with just because”, Geoffrey Rush would be on that list. He seems so damned approachable. And that’s why Barbossa is an amazing villain. You can get behind him. He’s funny and has as much flair as Cap’n Jack. He’s a very bad man, and yet you can forget it when he’s feeding his evil undead monkey or barking orders at his crew. There’s also a definitive creep factor to him too, though, and that’s what makes him so fantastic. I recently watched the first Pirates movie again, and was struck by how unsettling the scene is with Keira Knightly eating food at Barbossa’s table. He’s staring at her, longing all over his face. Maybe it’s because she’s a pretty girl, or maybe it’s because he misses the taste of that apple just that much. It’s intense and weird, and all because Geoffrey Rush is an amazing actor who did great things with a great character concept.
We all learn to be afraid of the doctor’s office as a kid. The doctor wants to give us a shot, and the shot is going to hurt. The good news — at least for me anyway — was that most of the time the doctor or the nurse that treated me would give me a sticker or a lollipop afterwards. They were very nice and would pat me on the head and say I’d been very brave even if I’d thrown an enormous tantrum. Nurse Ratched would have jabbed me in the eye with the needle and then punched me in the face as a follow up. And she would have been so even keel about doing it, I never would have seen it coming. The thing that’s so UGLY about Nurse Ratched is how she never gets excitable, never gets above ten miles per hour when she’s doing her evil nurse thing. She’s so temperate it’s inhuman, and combining someone inhuman with the healthcare industry? Yeah, that’s the stuff of nightmares. She’s a little piece of doctor’s office hell.
The thing I find the most admirable about Heath Ledger’s performance in this movie is the HUGE MOUNTAIN he had to climb before he even got onto the screen, namely overcoming everyone’s admiration of Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the same character twenty years before. It’s a bit like walking into a kitchen as a new chef and being told that the old chef was Gordon Ramsay and GOOD LUCK WITH THAT. He had to play an iconic villain and put his own spin on it, and he did it beautifully. Instead of going for the campy mustache twirling of the 60’s Batman, or Nicholson’s malevolent-yet-lovable gangster clown gone wrong, Ledger made The Joker FUCKING PSYCHOTIC. He was scary. The scene where he’s threatening to cut a smile into a woman’s face at the party? Terrifying. I squirmed in my seat. He twitched and licked his lips, his eyes darted all over. He was nervous and jumpy, a makeup smeared poster child for “This is what doing too much Ritalin can and will do to you”. Fantastic villain.
When you think of comedies, you think of the funnies associated with the plot line, not necessary the plot. You also don’t tend to think too much about the villain giving the good guys all the trouble. Then there’s Kevin Kline. A Fish Called Wanda is a hysterical movie — one of my favorites — with a stellar ensemble cast, and yet if you ask everyone who they loved the most after the movie, it’s not those Monty Python guys they talk about. It’s Kevin Kline as the assassin. He won an Oscar for his portrayal of Wanda’s other lover and it was well-deserved. Not only was he funny, he was also believably dangerous. It’s not too often that you’ll slap a comedic bad guy alongside the likes of Nurse Ratched, but I have no compunction about doing so with this particular pick.
Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those actors everyone hates working with. He pretty much becomes whoever or whatever he is playing, to the point he probably ran around the set of Gangs wielding sharp objects and threatening to shank the other actors. In this case (and admittedly in most cases – the guy’s amazing) it worked beautifully. Bill the Butcher is a racist asshole who runs the town, who’s more than willing to cut anyone and anything down to maintain his control. Those who are stupid enough to cross him die horrible, painful deaths. And yet. And yet those he cares for he’s overly kind to, like he’s trying to make up for his atrocities by loving his inner circle THAT much. The thing about Gangs that’s so brilliant, though, is right as you’re about to get behind Bill the Butcher and say “ahh hell, he’s not so bad” Bill does something so savage and bloody, you recoil and wonder what the fuck you were thinking. But for a few minutes? You start to believe he’s a great guy, and that’s what makes him so frightening.
If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s book, Jack Torrance is something of a tragic character. He’s a flawed bum just like you or me who made some bad decisions, but he wants to make it right. He wants to turn a corner on the bad and get back on the straight and narrow, and he takes this job at The Overlook to do just that. How could he know it was a haunted hotel? The beauty of King’s text is that Jack’s decline is so slow, it’s painful to watch. He’s besieged by his surroundings and it breaks down all of those good intentions. The remarkable thing about Jack Nicholson’s performance, then, is that he managed to hint at this while staying brutally intense throughout. You can see him teetering on that dark precipice from the beginning. Without having a really good reason to say so, you just know from five minutes in things are going to go badly for this guy, and it makes you uneasy from the onset.
Except Lex Luthor because that movie sucked. Anyway, Kevin Spacey is amazing. We all know this. The problem, then, is which villain do I put on the list? Do I put the serial killer from Se7en? I certainly want to. That movie made me feel dirty watching it. I one hundred percent bought into Spacey’s portrayal as John Doe, the religious zealot trying to point out human flaws with crimes embodying the seven deadly sins. When Spacey’s sitting in the back seat of the car talking about wrath and the wrath crime has yet to be discovered by the unsuspecting cops, there’s almost too much tension. You know whatever it is, it’s going to be awful just like the last few crimes. Conversely, do I put The Usual Suspects on this list? Cause he deserves kudos for that, too. Or, wait, he was in . . . fuck it. Kevin Spacey rocks.
Trying to pick a Tarantino villain for the list was hard. There’s Bill from Kill Bill, and Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. There’s bad guys galore in Pulp Fiction and Stuntman Mike from Deathproof. In the end, though, I went for Hans Landa. First off, he’s a Nazi, so the likelihood of us relating to this character is slim to none. The thing about Waltz’a portrayal of Landa, though, is that he’s so bon vivant about it, like waking up and reporting in to the SS is a delightful task and la-tee-da. He’s such a casual character, his evil so off the cuff it’s bizarre to watch. Where other villains brood and psycho their way into storylines, Hans Landa waltzes, smokes a cigar, and smiles. It’s the most blase portrayal of a homicidal douchebag I’ve ever seen, and that’s what I think works about it.
She doesn’t really swear, she smiles too much, and her home is warm and inviting. Sort of. She’s a huge fan of your work and she’s more than willing to nurse you back to health while you recover from a terrible car accident. She’ll fluff your pillows and cook you soup. She’s also a fucking psycho who’s going to hobble your ass when you try to leave her house. Kathy Bates takes a terrifying character from literature and breathes life into her. It’s Pygmalion from Hell. I remember seeing the movie for the first time, laying eyes on Kathy Bates, and going YES. YES, THAT. Because she nailed it. She took Stephen King’s horrible creation and made it her own. She became Annie Wilkes and turned her into an iconic figure of feminine terror. Your Old Aunt Gerdy has gone around the bend, and she’s going to beat you to death with her collection of Boston Terrier Statuettes, and you won’t know if you should scream or thank her for the money she sent in your Christmas card last year.
“But Hillary, where’s the Evil Queen from Snow White?” Okay look, it was a toss up. They are cut from the same cloth. They’re two evil bitches who want to kill a young innocent girl for selfish, horrible reasons. Let me tell you why I picked Maleficent over The Wicked Queen. One, she turns into a dragon. Two, SHE TURNS INTO A DRAGON. Three, SHE TURNS INTO A FUCKING DRAGON, GUYS. A more serious answer? The voice acting on Maleficent is spectacular, plus she’s the first Disney character to curse (she actually says the word Hell, and that was a big deal back in the day.) She’s similar to The Wicked Queen, but I feel like this is a perfected version. Where Shere Khan and Scar were a situation of “derivative do-over”, I feel like this is an instance where they looked back and actually improved upon an earlier version, and that’s saying something. The Wicked Queen was pretty bad ass. Oh, did I mention MALEFICENT TURNS INTO A DRAGON?
You knew she was coming. And what can I say about her really? As a wee tot, I’d sit for the annual television showing of The Wizard of Oz despite knowing I was going to shit Twinkies the moment the Wicked Witch came on screen. Her cackle, her evil trees, her bony fuckin’ hands . . . she scared the crap out of me. Now that I’m older, I’m not afraid anymore, but I can’t help being impressed by a woman who hires dung-flinging aerial simians to do her dirty work. That’s clever, way before its time. And, if we’re being really fair here, The Wicked Witch had a pretty good reason to get her bitch on with Dorothy – Dorothy stole her dead sister’s shoes. If I had a sister and someone took her cool stuff without asking me first? I’d be pretty furious, too.
If you clicked that link, I bet you want to smack me right now. Sorry! Anyway, Darth Vader’s iconic despite being a pasty-faced robo-man. The interesting part about him? The actor doesn’t do a whole lot beneath the mask. It’s all about the James Earl voice acting. It’s stellar. It’s exactly what you need it to be – dark, brooding, evil, and yet refined too. I’m not a Star Wars fan in general — PLEASE DON’T HIT ME HAMMARYN — but I can understand why it’s got the followers it has, and I can also understand why Vader set the bar for villains in the Sci Fi/Fantasy film genre. (Sidenote: I almost put a picture of Rick Moranis up from Spaceballs, but I figured someone would sic a rabid raccoon on me, so . . . idea banished. For now.)
Someone told me a story once, I think it may have been my mother, that when this movie went into the cinemas, Anthony Hopkins decided to go watch the audience to see their reaction to it first hand. I don’t recall a lot of hoopla about the launch of Silence, it was more a darling after it won every Oscar ever, so it didn’t get massive attention and massive release. Anyway, Hopkins goes into the movie theater, sits in the back, and watches people watching his movie. When it was over, people were gushing. Sir Hopkins tapped one gentleman on the shoulder, asked him how he liked it, and the man shrieked and /ran away/. I’d have done the same damned thing. Lecter has a casual approach to his badness (a bit of what I talked about with Hans Landa). He’s a refined gentleman who just so happens to FUCKING MURDER PEOPLE AND EAT THEM. He’s smarter than you on every possible level, so he’s the ultimate predator, which I think is what makes him so bloody terrifying. He was also given some of the best lines in a movie ever. “So I hate his liver with some fava beans . . . ” You can finish it, can’t you? I know I can. It’s going to take a lot to convince me that Lecter isn’t the best of the bad when it comes to movie villains.
So, have at the list. What did you like, not like? What would you change or add? I’d be interested to see which villains stuck with you and why! AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION TIME!