What makes a good villain?

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Villains come in all different forms in the world of storytelling. From the small antagonist who is simply annoying, the an all-dominating force that looks to destroy the universe, the bad guys in our favorite works of fiction can be measured by how much you, the audience, at some point say to yourself “get that jerk!”.

Now, we’re talking about villains here not anti-heroes. Villains are characters (most rational people) don’t want to cheer for. There’s a part of us that does indulge in the apparent freedom really vicious villains have in being able to do what they want, and that often comes from the author making “protagonists” who are actually annoying (see: Friday the 13th films). Anti-heroes are good guys fighting for a just cause but doing it in a vicious way. Villains are remorseless characters who, for whatever reason, take cruelty to a level that is most often unforgivable.

Probably one of the most recent and widely recognized villain of recent times is Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. In the books, Voldemort was a mystery for the first three volumes until his grand appearance in full-form near the end of The Goblet of Fire. When he does finally manifest, he goes on a tirade that doesn’t much leave room for you feeling this is a cool bad guy. Tom Riddle, as he is known in some circles, displayed every bit of the attitude of a bully, a sadist and a megalomaniac.

Lord Voldemort

The portrayal in the films was just as haunting. Gone were the reptile-like eyes, but Ralph Fiennes‘ performance of the dark lord was rather unsettling. I remember (at the time not a big fan of Harry Potter) seeing the first scene in GOF and getting an uneasy feeling watching Voldemort so ravenously torture Harry – a fourteen-year-old boy – and relishing every second of it. Overall, whether in the books or the films, there’s something about a grown man wanting to murder an adolescent that is unnerving on so many levels. It makes Voldemort one of the better villains in recent pop culture.

I ate his liver with some fava beans, and a nice Ciante.

Then we have the cold, calculated villain in Hannibal Lecter. A minor character in most of the books (until Hannibal), Lecter was a creepy inmate on the page who showed a vastly superior intelligence to the FBI agents trying to glean insight from him.

Hannibal’s on-screen persona, as expertly crafted by Sir Anthony Hopkins in three films, took it to a whole different level. You really want to like Hannibal, which makes him all the more sinister as a bad guy. It’s his charm and wit that lets him in, and once he’s in, you’re in trouble. What’s most disarming about Lecter is that he demands politeness and courtesy, and to deny him that would certainly be the first nail in your coffin, however engaging with him politely allows him to plant the first seed in your mind of a weed that will have you questioning everything you are.

I was going to keep Darth Vader off this list, but having recently watched The Empire Strikes Back for the first time in years recently, I left compelled to include him. In the original trilogy, especially in Empire, Vader is a dominating force that relentlessly hunts down our heroes, all in an attempt to lure young Luke Skywalker into a trap, for what purposes at the time we could only guess (until the end of course!).

The Imperial March that played every time he stormed onto the screen, and the camera would pan up from the black boots and the bottom of his long cape, up to the soulless mask and dark helmet made anyone under the age of twelve recoil in fear. In Empire, you get the sense that the heroes really got lucky in the first film, and now were going to get their butts handed to them by the Vader-lead Imperial forces. And the fact that Vader was subservient to someone called The Emperor just made you shudder to think that there was someone worse than him!

God is in, His Holy Temple. Earthly thoughts, be silent now

Okay, that creeped me out just typing it. Who could forget Henry Kane, the scary preacher-ghost from Poltergeist 2? The film would have been laughable if not for Kane, as it was a lesser-quality film to the original by leaps and bounds.

Correction, the film would have been laughable if it were not for the performance of Julian Beck. Whoever played Kane in Poltergeist 3 is forgettable (I don’t remember his name and care not to look it up). Beck’s scene at the doorstep of the Freeling’s grandmother’s house, where he has a strangely engaging conversation with Steve Freeling has to be one of the more memorable, and skin crawling, monologues ever. There’s something genuine in Beck’s mannerisms and his southern preacher accent that strikes to something familiar in all of us.

Julian Beck as Henry Kane

Add to that the unfortunate poor health Beck was in, being only months from death sadly enough. He looked like a walking skeleton with a thin layer of flesh hugging his bones. Those eyes and those teeth just rounded out the look. In fact, I’m getting scared just writing this so I think I’ll move on.

We’ll go from the creepy to the unknown. Unheralded as a real villain, but effective nonetheless, are forces that are beyond our control. In the 90s there were a great number of disaster films from Deep Impact to Armageddon that gave us the faceless fear. There’s something about forces of nature that we can’t control or fight with our fists that make these man vs. nature stories come to life.

On the other side are monsters, and recently the best movie screen monster I can remember is the alien menace in Cloverfield. Half of the movie was spent with you wondering “what is that” because of the clever way in which the film was shot. They only gave glimpses of the creature, sometimes through “news” footage, sometimes in passing shots behind a building. The moment I knew the monster worked well was when the main cast is running into the subway amidst rocket fire and explosions, and we get a brief camera pan upwards towards the creature and see some 90-foot-tall thing screeching just before we go to black. Not much is still known about the Cloverfield monster, and unless there is a sequel, we won’t know much more.

Cloverfield

There are so many more. Bullies like Kahn from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and Sho’ Nuff from The Last Dragon, to monsters like Freddy Kruger and Michael Meyers, to forces of nature like volcanoes and the End of the World, villains – when done well – make you fear them and more importantly make you hero have something worth overcoming.


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