Who are your favorite cinematic villains? The first couple that people usually bring up in answer to that question are Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West. Some would probably add Heath Ledger’s Joker to that list, and while I liked him a lot, he’s not quite one of my favorites. I like Nosferatu and (I’m kind of stretching the definition of “cinematic” here) Livia from the miniseries I, Claudius. She has reasons for what she does, but her behavior is so ruthless and so unutterably reprehensible that even when she’s desperate, she’s still terrifying. Realistically, no story is complete without a villain, even if it comes in the form of something intangible rather than a mustache-twirling fiend in black. Serial killers are eternally fascinating because they tap into our fear that beneath every placid surface is something sick and twisted. Hannibal Lecter is scary because he is just acting according to his nature. The most perturbing passage in A Clockwork Orange is the one in which Alex explains that he only rapes and murders because it’s what he likes doing. If he enjoyed helping people, he’d do that instead. Villains come in all shapes and sizes: redeemable, irredeemable, sadistic, tortured, creepy, charming, and so on. I still don’t know which kind I like the most.
In order to frighten us, horror has to access some primal fear that we didn’t even know we had. Vampires have a distinctly erotic edge to them. Zombies, as one friend pointed out, threaten us not with seduction, but consumption. Many American horror films feature city slickers getting lost in some country backwater in which every local is a member of some sick cult. If America were less urban, our horror films would feature kids from rural areas traveling to the cities. Since everyone’s idea of what is “unknown” is different, our concept of horror changes with the culture and tenor of the times. Somehow, the good stuff still endures.
I played the villain once or twice in my days as an actor. The key, as anyone who has ever done it will tell you, is to find the humanity in the character. Every evildoer either honestly believes that they are doing the right thing or knows it’s evil and doesn’t care. In the case of the latter, you should throw restraint to the winds and just have as much fun with the character as possible. (Think Emperor Palpatine.) In the case of the former, you’re still allowed to have fun, but the audience will want to see you look tormented at least once or twice. Nothing is more entertaining than a villain who is in agony over his failure to fulfill his master plan. But most importantly, the villain cannot be invincible. I’ve said before that Heath Ledger’s death, in a perverse sense, did Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy a favor. Instead of bringing the Joker back for the sequel, the filmmakers were forced to move on and find another threat to Gotham’s survival. And boy, did they ever. I loved Tom Hardy’s Bane, although I did wonder how he had managed to install a Surround Sound system in every room before entering it. I guess a big part of his plan involved rigging everything up for maximum dramatic effect. How else to explain his men descending on the plane perfectly on cue?
The ending, for the villain, is always a bit of a comedown. After practically ruling the world for the first 110 minutes, now the tables have to turn and he (or occasionally she) must be brought to justice. This can still be enjoyable. Ledger’s Joker was unrepentant to the last, so that even though he was about to be taken away to Arkham Asylum and kept under maximum security for the rest of his days, his only real regret was failing to turn the Batman into a killer. Honestly, it’s more of a draw than a victory for Bats. But as I said, I’m glad the Joker won’t be coming back. After all of that, you might as well give him the ability to shoot lasers out of his eyes.
One of the recurrent problems with any long-running series is the temptation to bring dead characters back. Lost did this in at least a dozen different ways, sometimes with semi-rational explanations, sometimes by blatantly contradicting the rules that the show had just set up. Davros dies in his first Doctor Who serial, but was brought back because, well, you can’t let a character that electrifying be a one-off, can you? The Master has died at least once or twice, but even if you put six bullets in his head, burn the body, then travel into parallel universes so you can kill all of his incarnations in them as well, there’s always magic ring something time warp something something stupid oh look he’s right over there. When will writers stop using this as a crutch and realize that some characters are made more powerful by their lack of screen time? Eko died on Lost and didn’t return, not even in flashbacks. He’s also one of my favorite characters on the show. Granted, his abrupt and final appearance may have been due to the rumored friction between actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and the others on set, but whatever the reason, I’m glad the show didn’t draw out his arc any more than it needed to.
Sooner or later, everybody has to die. Villains don’t always do it gracefully, but they often do it having fulfilled more of their potential than the rest of us. In a sense, they inspire us to try harder.