Champion Villainy (a list)

Champion villainy

I know — another villain list. Comb the Web and you’ll find dozens of these. The thing is, I’ve always wanted to fashion my own version and omit the three cinematic arch-villains — Vader, Luthor, and Goldfinger — who’ve superseded even the mythical figures of folklore. Sure, the cartoonish blockbuster super-villain has his place, but he’s never interested me as much as the nuanced varieties. The list below has displaced a few of the more conventional choices in order to highlight less recognized villains who deserve a bit of broadcast (though certain indispensable faces have been included).

The trick is to avoid including anti-heroes, who are often the most memorable villainous types but, per design, not villains. A real villain operates only in relation to a hero — it’s the hero who attracts the audience’s sympathy. Villains are not protagonists but highly antagonistic antagonists. Lex Luthor: villain. Patrick Bateman: anti-hero. Darth Vader: villain. Tony Soprano: anti-hero. Dr. No: villain. Alex de Large, Carl Boehm’s Peeping Tom, Michael Rooker’s Henry: all anti-heroes. Villains are often less richly textured than anti-heroes, but my favorite villains avoid the thinness that endullens your generic Bondian super-villain out for world domination.

As always, parameters keep things manageable. This list is limited to villains of live-action feature films — no animated villains (sorry, Aku), and no TV-show villains (sorry, Adibisi). I’ve also ignored the monsters (sorry, Predator and Alien), the machines (sorry, Terminator and HAL), and the immortals (although a couple of the latter managed to creep in) in favor of the ones we homo sapiens can identify with — humanness amplifies a villain’s depravity, no?

Capitàn Vidal / Pan’s Labyrinth (2006): Vidal is a recent incarnation and has yet to slip into the traction of hindsight, but he earns his spot based on sheer economy and intensity. He’s the culmination of every autocratic fascist baddie and abusive step-parent ever put to celluloid, poured into one razor-seamed uniform; he’s two very particular villain-birds killed with one green-glass bottle, if you will. Who better to cast than Sergi Lopez, a Spanish actor known for playing villains? Unlike The Shining’s Jack Torrance and The Stepfather’s Jerry Blake, there’s no whiff of anti-hero rising out of Vidal’s pores — he’s the Real Deal, void of all sympathy from the get-go, lurking in the background of young Ofelia’s environment, and more nightmarish than the eyeless hide-monster guarding the fruit. He’s the reason Ofelia’s upper world disintegrates — he is War and Politics and Violence in trim trousers and glossy boots, Patriarchy with an acrid bark and clocked fist, Ambition with a blood-lust. It was Vidal’s antics that took Pan’s Labyrinth over the edge — his brutality was a shot of black ink injected into a fish-tank filled with exotic gliding creatures. Vidal also represents the underside of the fairy-tale; he’s the witch, the troll, the power-drunk king who corrupts the pastoral glade. He’s the villain who can piss all over a child’s magical realm and leave his stink so deep in the place that it warps her imagination and rots her optimism. The likes of Vidal are potent enough to ooze their cancer through multiple dimensions (whether everyday or fantastic, political or domestic) by sheer osmosis — that’s some powerful villainy.

 

Thulsa Doom / Conan the Barbarian (1982): Forget Darth Vader — Thulsa Doom is James Earl Jones at his villainous best. He’s only a voice with Vader (and, thanks to Jones’ talents, voice goes damned far), but in Conan he’s got much more to play with. Thulsa is the literal serpent in an already-corrupt landscape peopled by fallen humans whose hardscrabble lives center on points of honor and good, solid warfare. But even the most carefully crafted sword can’t stop Thulsa when he’s a mere marauder — and when he crowns himself king-deity of a massive commune, his charisma and hypnotic gaze take care of anything his barbarian goons overlook. As a villain, he’s a classic: turn people into machine parts that prop up your political system; destroy entire villages in your quest for supreme power; decapitate a mother in front of her child with a satisfied look on your face; whittle charmed arrows out of garden snakes (or morph into a python yourself when all else fails); serve hand soup to your orgy slaves. Jones’ villain — along with Callaghan’s cinematography and Poledouris’ famous score — is what makes Conan the Barbarian the definitive sword-and-sandal pizza party, and one of the few honest film adaptations of a comic-book source. It’s Jones — not Arnold — who makes this movie endure. We shouldn’t expect any less from a heavy who delivers lines like “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe. Crucify him,” the single most sulphurous command ever uttered on film. Only the finest villains have a Tree of Woe, so points ought to be accorded.

 

Annie Wilkes / Misery (1990): Is it just me, or do female villains generally fall into one of four groups? There’s the femme fatale in her most extreme form, the witch figure, the evil maternal figure, and the psychotic lunatic. At times these categories slurp over one another; Alex in Fatal Attraction, for instance, is more psycho lunatic than femme fatale, because the femme fatale in her pure form is an ambivalent, sympathetic character, and rarely a true villain. However limited the treatment our female villains get onscreen, some great ones have been generated, especially those who spring from literary sources. Think Mommy Dearest (evil maternal), most Disney villains (witch/evil maternal), Mrs. Danvers (evil maternal characterizes a lot of sinister movie servants), and Annie Wilkes, who inhabits three of the four categories nicely: she’s a little bit witch (the single woman in the cabin on the town’s fringe), a little bit evil maternal (feeding and cleaning and coddling her prisoner), and a lot psycho lunatic. In fact, she’s one of the scariest psycho lunatic women ever put to film, judging by anecdotal lore about viewers’ lasting impressions. While Stephen King created Annie to embody his fear of the rabid fan, Kathy Bates transformed her into the misogynist’s firmest conviction: the “crazy lady,” the “irrational bitch,” the “permanently on the rag chick,” the “suffocating mama,” and (less stereotypically) the vagina-bearer with more physical strength than her put-upon male guest. Annie is the monstrous feminine with no sex appeal — which makes her all the more monstrous in the average male’s view, because without sex appeal, he can’t see that she serves any socio-cultural purpose. She’s the non-person with a motherfucking chip on her shoulder, and her ability to take control over a man the way women have often been controlled is harrowing stuff. Most harrowing of all is her slow disintegration, seen through the eyes of James Caan’s novelist, and the escalation of their villain/hero dynamic as he seeks a way out of his trap while Annie seeks a way to keep him and love him and call him George forever.

 

Bill / Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (2003-04): Kill Bill taught me that hell hath no fury like a man scorned, and that David Carradine can, in fact, be convincing (who knew?). Bill’s weathered face, slight lisp and heartbroken aspect belie his abusive-partner tendencies — so flagrant, so epic that only the five-point-palm exploding-heart technique can take him down. As the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad’s head snake-charmer, Bill’s first points for villainy are scored with his knack for recruiting and creating near-indestructible killers. He leeches the humanity out of his pack and sends them into the world with their Hanzo vorpal swords. Further points must be credited for his (and I quote) never having been nice his whole life, for being a real bad daddy, and for murmuring do you find me sadistic? to the woman whose head is about to be blown open by his shotgun. Tarantino does his best to distract us from Bill’s über-villain status with eye-candy choreography and an ear-candy soundtrack (QT uses tunes the way the genre Italians did in the ’60s and ’70s — to my eternal gratitude), but don’t be deceived. Archetypal clues announce what Bill is made of. He uses a truth-serum on our hero, for crying out loud; he spins atmosphere with his hypnotic storytelling gifts; he’s obsessed with “consequences” (as many self-entitled villains seem to be). Of all the hero/villain relationships, those wherein the rivals began as friends are the most intense, and Tarantino literally stages the pas-de-deux structure of the hero/villain dance in the first moments of Volume 2, focusing on Bill and Beatrix’s feet in close-up as they re-negotiate their relationship on the porch of the Chapel at Two Pines. They’re no longer master/serf, lover/beloved, mentor/protégée but villain and villain-wrangler. Perhaps what makes Bill so irredeemably vile, finally, is the way he plays Beatrix’s lust for revenge against her maternal instincts in the final scenes — not cool, but it falls in line with the rest of the story’s fascination with hybridity and dualism.

Lady Asaji Washizu/ Throne of Blood (1957): One of the few types of female villain that falls outside the four categories mentioned above is the Machiavellian femme with tits of steel. What injects this villain type with her particular brand of evil is her taking on what were considered very masculine traits, traditionally; it’s the ambition and political acumen under a rounded chest that apparently gave this character her biggest sting back in the day. Lady Macbeth willed herself “unsexed” for a reason, but she’s only the best-known version — the masculinized woman-schemer has a rich history that goes all the way back to Greek tragedy, crops up in Gothic fiction, and haunts the onscreen femme fatale. Kurosawa re-imagines Lady Macbeth in Lady Asaji Washizu, who eggs on her husband with a stone-faced tenacity. Lady Asaji holds nothing back — her determination is as bleak and crisp as Kurosawa’s black-and-white photography, as cold as the film’s snow-scapes and as pointed as the arrows that eventually gore her husband. She can quantifiably be called the villain to Toshiro Mifune’s anti-hero Macbeth rendering, even though they’re batting for the same team. It’s a rare onscreen dynamic, and quite arresting to behold as Isuzu Yamada toils through the story in the guise of a dutiful wife — one whose coiling intentions steal the freaking show.

Hans Gruber / Die Hard (1988): Alan Rickman is permanently on call for villain roles, and his Hans Gruber is king of the action-movie bad guys. Gruber approaches the super-villain with his large-scale networking, but it’s not quite Goldfinger scale (and, unlike Dr. No, or Han of Enter the Dragon, he doesn’t appear to own an island retreat, which excludes him from the type of villain Dr. Evil parodies). World domination doesn’t seem likely, here — Gruber’s one down from the super-villain and somewhat more complex. Witness the way he relies not so much on technology or henchmen, in a pinch, but on his own wiles: When McClane stumbles across Gruber alone in the utilities room, it’s not a laser but method acting he whips out. Suddenly the poised commandant is a sniveling civilian (a feat of acting marred only by Rickman’s imperfect Yankee accent). Gruber embodies the chameleon villain with a thousand aliases and very deep pockets, who travels the world, collects heavies, plots undreamed-of takes, and philosophically justifies his fiscal terrorism (Gruber’s so fabulously arrogant that he romanticizes his avarice and pulls ersatz political motives out of his ass). We sense that it isn’t people he wants to lord over, ultimately, but hordes and hordes of cash; it isn’t power for the sake of power that drives him — he just wants to cool his heels in Saint-Tropez for the rest of his life, nestling his ass on a cushiony pile of lucre. But he somehow makes his everyday greed and his dressed-up safe-cracking terribly dashing. He also puts our hero through one of the most boisterous cat-and-mouse dynamics ever filmed. Die Hard is nearly 20 years old, but Rickman’s arch-thief, however archetypal, is as fresh as ever.

 

John / Companeros (1970): Companeros is the best spaghetti western not directed by Sergio Leone. Scored by Ennio Morricone and shot by Sergio Corbucci (an uneven genre director who reaches tidal heights when he succeeds), Companeros doesn’t deserve its North American obscurity, especially with a cast that includes Jack Palance at his sinister best. Palance pulses at the heart of the film as John, the villain with the wooden hand who plagues Franco Nero’s Swedish cowboy. Like Bill and Beatrix, John and Yodlof used to be tight, and that history — coupled with John’s mild, screws-loose mannerisms — thickens their antagonism. While Yodlof guards civilians, John undresses his pet falcon, Marsha, with his eyes, and smokes the local green ‘til he’s the happiest psycho for miles. Palance isn’t completely over the top, but nor is he completely subtle, either; his villain is still sane enough to be wily, and human enough to get fired to the outer limits when Yodlof nabs his bird. John is one of the top spaghetti villains, along with Henry Fonda’s Frank (Once Upon a Time in the West) and Klaus Kinski’s Loco (The Great Silence). And the way he chatter-murmurs “Marsha” will stick in your brain for years to come.

 

Hannibal Lecter / The Silence of the Lambs (1991): This entire list would have been overrun by serial killers had I not forced myself to seek out characterizations more complex than Jason, Michael and Freddie. Plus, unless you count the Final Girl figure who manages to fuck up their shit, many serial-killer villains are often the film’s centerpiece, which structurally launches them into a depraved extreme of the anti-hero (and explains why fanboys root for knife-wielders). Since I’ve already argued out the Bateman figure in my introduction, I’m left with finding a pure serial-villain to represent all of his cherished brethren. Hannibal Lecter is the perfect candidate. While he may leech more audience sympathy than Buffalo Bill, the presence of Clarice Starling (our true locus) bars Lecter from anti-hero classification and permits him to fully inhabit his end of the hero/villain dynamic. That slow dance between the embodiments of good and evil plays out over the course of the film, point-counterpoint. And what’s more evil than a hyper-educated man, veneered with posh civility, who breaks the cannibalism taboo with such relish? Hopkins’ crisp enunciation, lullaby tones and wombat stare have become impressively iconic in a short time; omitting him from this list would have been grounds for accusation.

 

John Ryder / The Hitcher (1986): You knew Rutger would crop up. Even though, by my count, he’s played more heroes (or anti-heroes) than outright villains, still there’s something sensually Satanic about him, and few do evil so well. His psychotic, possibly supernatural John Ryder exudes a unique attar of villainy — it’s his unknown motivation, his insinuation that victims may not be as random as they seem, and the fact that he’s somehow anthropomorphically twinned with a mean set of wheels. The Hitcher deploys the Highway Hitman trope that classic B-cinema must never let die — the one used in other thrill-greats like Duel, Road Warrior and, most recently, Death Proof. Rutger in the full prime of manhood looks as solid as his big black guzzler, only he’s big and blond and baneful. His keen blue eyes ought to be the gaze of a corn-fed, second-gen Dutch-American growing sere on a windswept Nebraska farm. Instead, they’re peering out of the face of a lethally sober madman, filling the screen so brightly that the Southwestern desert vistas fade around him. So do social codes whenever he’s in the area. He’s a force that collapses everything mundane you’ve ever relied on. He’ll make a hash of the authorities and kill your new girlfriend without breaking a sweat, but he depends on bullets and speed and torque to get where he’s going. John Ryder is neither man nor monster, and leads his hero in a lingering, movie-long dance of the most visceral kind.

 

Rhoda Penmark / The Bad Seed (1956): The Bad Seed helped spawn a cottage industry of devil-children stories: The Omen, The Exorcist, It’s Alive, The Godsend, The Good Son … the list goes on. In each of these, the homicidal ankle-biters claim villain status, since audience sympathy generally attaches itself to the mother who’s aghast at what she’s birthed (or to a male family member bent on protecting his brood). Patty McCormack’s pinafored reprobate was so unnerving for contemporary viewers that the studio smashed the so-called fourth wall at film’s end to remind everyone that such an anomaly could only happen, really, in fiction (see? It’s just a cute little actor kid and her actor parents, and ain’t they having a blast? Man alive, do I hate that naïve, lifted-curtain ending of an otherwise tight little number). The influence this archetype has had on succeeding villainy can’t be underestimated, and Rhoda Penmark remains the ultimate child-felon because — unlike Damien and Regan, who are possessed by outside forces — her taste for killing is inherent (Bonnie in The Godsend is a close second, with her blank-faced innocence and cuckoo impulses). Like the infant in It’s Alive, Rhoda’s a genetic aberration rendered all the more aberrant by her age, sex and appearance, and by her ability to evade detection and exploit her youth. And because she’s pre-pubescent (unlike Regan, who’s often read as the threatening female coming into her sexuality — think Ginger Snaps), Rhoda doesn’t stand in for the devil-woman stereotype. She’s actually a recent bugbear: the maniac masquerading as the purest embodiment of innocence. The Bad Seed archetype — as we know it — could never have existed outside of folklore before the 1750s, when Western culture started to romanticize childhood and idealize the underaged; it only took a couple hundred years for horror writers to fix on the flipside as the perfect face to disturb us.

 

Lord Summerisle / The Wicker Man (1973): No villain list can even call itself a villain list without Christopher Lee. Lee excels at more than playing vampires — he’s often the cavalier aristocrat the film’s hero confronts in a clash between tradition and progress, whether he appears in bloodsucking form or in more subtle guises of the same old tension. In The Wicker Man, the Old Ways vs. New Ways are held up in the characters of Lord Summerisle and Sergeant Howie, the mainlainder who tries to wrench an entire island community out of the pagan past. Summerisle has all the villainous trappings: charisma, erudition, wealth, and outlandish amounts of power over his realm (small as it may be). He also has control over the population’s sexuality and the ability (like Thulsa Doom) to charm his people into giving up one of their own in sacrifice. This malevolence is iced with an affable mien, a lovely singing voice, and the appearance that all is well under his care; the island is (generally) in fruitful bloom, the people are well-fed and -fucked, and the landlord’s daughter delights so with the part that lies between her left toe and her right toe. He’s everything the pre-industrial age English monarchy once purported to espouse: stick with tradition, keep your station, and all will be well. This ancient political anxiety is what beats at the heart of the film and gives it, along with Howie’s frightful fate, its power to unnerve. Worse, Lee’s Summerisle almost convinces us that his way is the best way — the cherry blossoms on his isle are so full, the hills so green, the songs so charming, and his own gentlemanly diction so lulling, that he almost pulls us back into the vexed traditions we only recently left behind. He’s the villain with the power of illusion and the balls to broil us alive with a song in his heart.

 

Dr. Frank-N-Furter / The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): We’ve  established how effective the right voice can be when villaining, and God knows Tim Curry’s got voice. He’s also got legs; anecdata suggests a lot of straight women would drop trou for Frank because of his cross-dressing, not in spite of it. While his ancestor, Victor Frankenstein, is all anti-hero, Frank plays antagonist to Brad and Janet’s squeaky-clean do-gooding — or plays seducer, at least, and mighty well. He’s the mad scientist and the vampiresque debaucher in the stormy castle haven, lording over a campy group of ragtag sock-hoppers, fabricating go-boys in gold shorts, and saucily adjusting his garters as he belts out tunes at overnight guests. Frank’s on this list, additionally, because I wanted to remind readers that slinky can be villainous, too, and so can funny; the right player, in the right character mode — wearing just the right shade of lipstick — can still exude a lot of threat through the comedy. Granted, that threat is now recognized as plain old bisexual panic by more politically aware viewers but — like the fear of plague and live burial — sexual intimidation (justified or not) casts a long line back into the annals of horror and has moulded a handful of classic villains.

 

Klaus Kinski (in anything): Tip: if they can see your skull beneath the skin of your face, you’re already halfway to Villainville. Klaus Kinski had a countenance that screamed to be cast in bad-guy roles, and so he was — over and over and over, hungry for paycheck and determined to keep his name in lights no matter how incompetent the production (Um, Web of the Spider?). Despite the odds, and the questionable resume, he still managed to bang off a lot of successes; Kinski’s the only actor who can make my heart explode in admiration (insert any Herzog-Kinski collaboration here, even Cobra Verde) or my skin clammify with revulsion (insert Kinski Paganini). With Kinski, it was always a matter of how well the direction could harness his genius and contain his megalomaniacal odiousness. Herzog fashioned plenty of memorable anti-heroes with Kinski, but he also fashioned my pick for World’s Best Vampire, the villain to beat all other villains — it’s Kinski, and not Christopher Lee or even Max Schreck (to whom Kinski is indebted) who’s my vote for best Dracula. Not only does he play, in Nosferatu, the finest cinematic Count Undead (putrid past his charisma — not some dandy in Brylcreem and rubies), he can also carry his menace into other types of villain roles: the mad scientist (Android), the cold-hearted kidnapper (Venom), the serial killer (too numerous to list), the general criminal type (ditto), the sexual deviant (ibid)… Look through the history of Western cinema, and you’ll see that it’s Kinski lurking in the shadows, skulking in a cape, sucking your blood, slashing your throat, seducing your children, beating your spouse, plotting your downfall, delaying your movie, or living in your crawlspace.

Countess Bathory / Daughters of Darkness (1971): It seems right to follow my Dracula pick with a nod to the female bloodsucker, who’s usually trotted out in the lesbian vampire genre. Worthy productions include Jorge Grau’s Vampyres, Jess Franco’s Vampiros Lesbos, the Carmilla Karnstein trilogy from Hammer Films, and especially Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness. Delphine Seyrig’s smoke-voiced Countess Bathory is absolutely definitive. Her face, form and movements are a sequined shrine to Old World values, stunningly framed by the Bruges architecture that fills the screen and symbolizes Bathory’s agelessness and aspirations of legacy. Like Frank-N-Furter, Bathory enjoys playing with her same-sex lover (you could do worse than cherry-ripe Andrea Rau), but she’s also programmed to seduce and destroy the young couple that falls into her hands in a near-desolate hotel. Seyrig nails the role — her affable ennui, her slow grace and her relaxed conversation are the habits of someone with oceans of time on her hands (she’s the leisured aristocrat as much as the bored immortal). Watch this one for production design, especially, and female gorgeosity. Visuals aside, Kümel has read his folklore and managed to create a setting — muted, yawning — that represents the threat of undeadness and class consciousness even better than a decaying Gothic pile. The encroaching Belgian winter’s a nice, emblematic touch.

 

Victor Kruger / Highlander (1986): I thought Highlander was the shit when I was younger, and I was heartbroken when an ex-boyfriend mangled my copy in his VCR. Many years elapsed between the loss of that VHS tape and a more recent viewing. Unfortunately (for me, anyway), the movie doesn’t hold up as well as Razorback, that other Russell Mulcahy trip from the 1980s. It turns out my younger self was immune to the misplaced Queen soundtrack (it’s not them, it’s the film), the craptastic white high-tops/trenchcoat look (Desperado, you gotta let somebody dress you), and Christophe Lambert. But never mind. Highlander has a place in many, many hearts, and it lives on in my own thanks to one element: Clancy Brown as the Kurgan, the hair-raisiest villain my younger self ever eyeballed on a screen. In the case of this villain, size matters, and voice is potent enough to blast the enamel off your teeth. The most frightening thing about Victor Kruger isn’t the way he dogs McLeod like a guillotine on legs, but the ghastly things you imagine he gets up to during his leisure hours. Rapist may as well be stenciled into his forehead, on account of how it seethes in his iron-jawed face, and Christ knows how many puppies the man’s eviscerated with a pinky-nail. Better not to think about it — thanks to the Kurgan, I’m able to leave everyone with an image of the ultimate boogeyman: nearly immortal, nearly invincible, and more sinister than most villains, on their best days, can even begin to wish to be. — Ranylt Richildis

(Originally posted as part of Pajiba.com’s Guide to What’s Good for You series, on November 13, 2007.)

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