Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #14: Favorite villains?

A reader, Jose, writes:

"This is something that, obviously, I'm very interested in getting your views on.”

“Since your writing voice and passion are always so cheery, I'd like to take you to the Dark Side for a moment. In short: Who are your all-time favorite villains from the world of genre cinema and cult TV?”

“Favorite is a broad term... this could mean that you thought they were genuinely frightening or painfully inept and humorous, or just downright cool. Let us know why you're attracted to these black hats and femme fatales." 

Jose, that's a terrific question because a powerful or dynamic villain often represents the difference between a genre film's success or failure.  More often than not, the villain is the character who drives the film's action, eliciting the actions/response of the protagonist or hero in the process.  

In other words, the villain is really a narrative's catalyst.

I tend not to prefer very conventional villains, the ones who simply seek more wealth, or are motivated wholly by revenge or insanity.   

Instead, the villains I judge most intriguing are those that probably would not view themselves as villains at all.  Instead, they seek to somehow complete or perfect themselves, but they use methods that are, at best, questionable.

I realize that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) are two relatively unpopular films in that franchise. And yet I find the brand of villainy embodied in both pictures rather compelling.  

V'Ger set out to find his Creator, and would let nothing stand in his way.  It was a mission of destruction, to be certain, but also one to establish identity...and emotional connection.  In this case, “villainy” is about filling a void inside one’s self.  

Similarly, Sybok in The Final Frontier is a villain who has lets his beliefs impair his judgment.  He too seeks to find "God," but can't see through his "arrogance and vanity" to realize he is engaged in a fool's errand.  When Sybok claims to “free minds” and “take away pain,” I see not a man who considers himself a villain; but rather a savior. 

In real life, these types of saviors are often incredibly deluded and dangerous, and yet, indeed, they are very dedicated or committed to a cause.

Another villain I find endlessly intriguing is Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) from the original Planet of the Apes (1968).  Chief Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius is an absolute zealot and censor.  He mercilessly applies his power against any who oppose his beliefs, from scientists such as Cornelius to humans such as Taylor and Landon.  

And yet, from his perspective, no doubt, Zaius is absolutely correct to suppress certain information regarding Ape history.  Mankind did destroy his world, rendering a paradise "a desert" in the process.  And ape-kind did rise from man's world, thus owing his very culture to human-kind.  

Again, these are highly inconvenient facts if Ape City – and indeed, Ape Civilization itself --- is to thrive and grow.

I find men (or simians…) such as Zaius fascinating because, again, they don’t believe that they are doing wrong.  They don’t act out of evil, per se.  Instead, they have cast themselves as defenders or protectors of the status quo, and legitimately feel that if the truth were to come out everything that they hold dear would be threatened. Zaius actually believes that Taylor is “evil,” a pestilence that must be wiped out if his culture is to survive.

Commander Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell) in The Black Hole (1979) is another villain who I like.  He refused a direct order to bring Cygnus home to Earth because he wants to explore the world beyond a black hole.  

When this exploration is threatened again by mutiny, he transforms his crew into the equivalent of mindless zombies.  It's an evil act, no doubt, but Reinhardt's ambition “to know the truth” has no bounds.  It absorbs his humanity the way the black hole absorbs all light and energy.  

And then there's that weird moment in The Black Hole when Reinhardt confides in the crew of the Palomino, and begs them to save them from his own sinister creation: Maximillian.  This strange, almost throwaway line of dialogue suggests Reinhardt may be a megalomaniac, but he remains, also, a vulnerable human being.  

Reinhardt is a variation, of course, on Captain Nemo, a Jules Verne villain I have always found myself attracted to.  My favorite villain of all, Nemo is a man who is "done with society" and bears allegiance to no country, no nation, and no ideology.  

Instead, Captain Nemo creates his own world at the bottom of the sea: a world of knowledge and research and science.  I truly appreciate this idea of a man who has forsaken what he views as the world's corruption and created a bubble around himself that better suits his desires and needs.  

I've been described, myself -- by one of my best friendsno less -- as possessing a "complex and contradictory personality as an outgoing and imaginative hermit/misanthrope who has spent his entire adult life dedicated to the dissection of the stories, characters and images found inside the frames of television sets and film screens."  So perhaps I have something in common with Nemo, except that I construct my universe around and seek solace from film and television, not around the sea.  Nemo goes wrong when he begins to sink ships and kill people, of course, but still...there's a nobility and purity about the man.  Also, of course, excessive hubris...

In terms of the horror genre, my preferences are a bit different.  In short, I appreciate “monsters” or villains that genuinely frighten me. 

Personally, I find Halloween’s Michael Myers terrifying, at least in his original incarnation in 1978. 

Michael's motives are opaque, his visage is masked, and for long spells he is quiescent…merely watching others, waiting to strike.  Michael may resemble a human being in “shape,” but he seems only a shell, emotionally and intellectually. He's either very different from the rest of us, or very stunted.  

As you all know, I watch horror movies regularly and am rarely deeply bothered by them.  But I have experienced, over the years, recurring nightmares of Michael Myers.  There is something irrational – nay anti-rational about him. 

That anti-sense comes from the fact that he walks slowly and yet can still catch-up to you while you’re running; from the fact that he has a sixth sense about any hiding place you select; from the fact that no matter how many times you kill him, he always comes back to life.  I have written about Myers a lot here on the blog, but I feel that he is so effective a horror movie villain because his white mask is a blank slate, and we can impose our own fears and psychological issues upon that slate.  He is the ultimate horror movie Rorschach test. 

I don’t know if I have answered your question clearly enough, but in general, I really enjoy watching villains who are intelligent, boast a unique world view, and don’t consider themselves villains in the first place.  I would put HAL9000 in this camp.  I might even put Francis the Sandman in the same camp, as a dutiful soldier doing his duty, but, in fact, working for the wrong side.


  1. Anonymous9:23 PM

    John, like you, I have always been a fan of the Captain Nemo character in the Walt Disney 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The production design of the Nautilus is simply an extremely believable 1800s design. The best friend of yours that has declared that you “…spent his entire adult life dedicated to…television sets and film screens” well, I would consider this a badge of honor and that you are like Nemo. Your home office is your Nautilus for you to command the journey of the written word in the domain of television & film. It is like in the opening credits to the late ‘80s anthology series Ray Bradbury Theater when Ray Bradbury would walk into his office. In the voice-over Bradbury stated the office inspired his writing by being surrounded by all of his collected items as your office must inspire you.

    Your analysis of what makes a villain is interesting because they often range from misunderstood to the extreme evil incarnate like Halloween’s Michael Myers. I agree that Myers early on screen appearances are truly haunting often lingering in my nightmare thoughts. As we all know without these antagonist villains there would be little for the protagonist hero to do. I remember STARLOG published two books in the ‘70s one called Heroes and one Villains. Here is a link to the covers:


  2. A fantastic response to my question, John! I had a feeling that your choices would be more less-than-obvious and interesting picks, and you've certainly pointed out some fascinating villains. I, for one, am a huge sucker for ne'er-do-wells who openly acknowledge that they're evil and visibly relish it. I think those types of villains are more easily accessible to viewers and offer them an immediate, cathartic thrill.

    Your choice of villain is an important one, though. The Snidely Whiplashes of the world may be good for kicks and giggles, but your examples offer up characters that are much truer to who we are as people. There are very few truly evil people in the world, like the villains I enjoy, whereas these characters here offer up a window into ourselves. They're not black-hearted, just misguided or driven. We can all relate to those feelings and, in certain contexts, we might end up being "the heavy" if a movie were to be made about our lives.

    Great stuff, my friend!

  3. I have often thought that the creature from 'Alien' was not actually evil. The facehugger, the chestburster, and other versions are naturally occurring biological functions, hence the term 'Alien'. Most specifically the Scott version, the creature seemed so primal.