A top notch villain can steal the hero’s limelight. And deep down we love them for it.
Heroes are all well and good but let’s face it, they can be a tad dull. Good-looking (certainly never short or overweight), predictably efficient and a tendency to take themselves way too seriously.
However a truly memorable villain will stay with us long after the credits finish rolling. They will be quoted, mimicked and embedded in movie folklore.
The quintessential villain is part cunning, menacing, witty and larger than life. They evoke a mixed bag of emotions ranging from dread and revulsion to bemusement and even admiration.
Either way, when a compelling villain is onscreen we sit up and tell everyone around us to shut up.
Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard
By the late 80s Hollywood was starting to run out of bad guy nationalities. Hold on, how about some East Germans…thought some bright spark and Hans Gruber was born.
Immaculately dressed, meticulously prepared and a better grasp of the English language than many English speakers, Gruber was a delight.
While Bruce Willis was doing his best smart-aleck tough guy routine, Gruber calmly went about insulting any incompetents around him and when necessary, executing them.
Not one to tolerate fools, our Hans.
After shooting the Nakatomi Corporation CEO in the head for refusing to cooperate, Gruber explained the deal to the terrified staff.
“Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see things my way…so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.”
Annie Wilkes (Cathy Bates) in Misery
Imagine you were a best-selling romance author and you crashed your car in the middle of nowhere, breaking your legs. Fortunately you’re rescued by one of your fans. Unless of course, that fan happens to be Annie Wilkes.
To describe Annie as mentally unhinged would be a massive understatement.
Instead of the emergency room, Wilkes takes the author (James Caan) home and grills him about his books.
It heads south quickly when she discovers he plans to kill off her beloved Misery character. Gulp.
Wilkes calmly orders a rewrite while holding a gun by her side. Sensitive to the frustrations of writing, she then cures him of writer’s block with some vicious hammer blows to his ankles.
Annie alternates between fits of volcanic rage and joyful exuberance. The wild mood swings keep the audience (and James Caan) in a constant state of tension.
Wilkes brings him his breakfast and sums it up succinctly. “Nobody knows you’re here. And you better hope nothing happens to me, because if I die you die.”
No autograph for you.
Darth Vader (voice: James Earl Jones / actor: David Prowse) in Star Wars
Perhaps the most recognizable screen bad ass of them all is The Dark Lord or “Darthy Boy” to his friends.
Vader’s physical presence was immediate. He was played by 2m tall bodybuilder David Prowse and clad in black armour, part samurai-inspired, part robotic. This was capped off by his helmet which hid any traces of humanity. This man was here on business.
When The Dark Lord spoke it was in a deep, almost machine-like voice, with labored breathing – a voice highly unsuitable for bedtime stories and ideal for obscene phone calls.
His signature move was the aptly named Force Choke. If someone was foolish enough to disobey an order or snigger at his voice, Vader would use his telekinetic powers to choke them to death. What a party trick.
The last thing one of his lackeys ever heard was, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
No! I have faith! I promise I have fai..errrkkkk….”
The Shark (The Shark) in Jaws
Jaws ruined the simple pleasure of larking about in the ocean for millions. After watching the relentless great white wreak limb-tearing havoc, people in Europe were even afraid to stick their toe into a river 100km inland.
We didn’t get to see the actual shark until an hour into the movie. When audiences did it was certainly terrifying, causing even the most restrained film critics to blurt out, “Look at the size of that f$# ing shark!”
Director Speilberg’s craftiness was in keeping the mischievous megalodon underwater for the first half. Sure, we saw blood and even a jetty being towed out to sea but it simply served to let our imaginations run wild.
Fun fact: Speilberg had no red displayed in costumes or set designs for greater impact when blood finally flowed in the water.
Jaws was seemingly indestructible and certainly didn’t seem to harbor any guilt about devouring people in front of their loved ones.
It took a pressurized air tank being shoved into its mouth and then shooting it for the ravenous rascal to be finally seen off.
Police chief Brody fired the final shot and growled, “Smile, you son of a bitch!” before the shark exploded. At the time the scene sent cinema goers worldwide into rapturous applause, with none of them going into the ocean ever again.
Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction
One thing should be made clear from the get-go: Alex Forrest was not totally to blame for the mess that ensued from her adulterous fling with Dan (Michael Douglas).
The Douglas character was a smug, narcissistic A-hole who deserved at the very least, an expensive divorce and public stoning.
However Alex Forrest couldn’t leave it be. Instead of perhaps blabbing to his wife and then moving on, she grew more and more obsessed with bringing down the entire family.
The late night phone calls, spying on the family from their garden and if you’re a lover of rabbits, skip to the next paragraph. Put simply, sorry rabbit – boiling pot of water – family come home – not a great day.
She then turned on the charm and absconded with Dan’s daughter to an amusement park, eventually dropping her off home to her horror-stricken mum. Not before demanding and getting a kiss on the cheek from the oblivious child.
Alex’s mental deterioration was best captured towards the end as she sat staring into space, turning a lamp on and off.
When she finally leapt out of a bath with knife in hand, audiences as one leapt with her.
Most ominous line from Alex to Dan. “Bring the dog, I love animals. I’m a great cook.”
Stansfield (Gary Oldman) Leon: The Professional
There’s getting into character, then there’s overacting and way beyond that is Gary Oldman’s lunatic police officer Stansfield.
A wildly entertaining villain if ever there was one. Oldman was apparently given free rein by director Luc Besson and free rein he took.
From his opening appearance as a wild-eyed, trigger-happy, drug-taking DEA agent, Stansfield leaves the audience in no doubt he has, to put it politely – lost his marbles.
He sniffs an suspect’s face up and down like a rat sniffing cheese, he unloads his weapon at an elderly woman for asking him to be quiet and listens to Beethoven to get in the zone for some wall-to-wall carnage.
He explains it to a nervous offsider as they wait with guns drawn outside a suspect’s apartment.
“I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven. Can you hear it? It’s like when you put your head to the grass and you can hear the growin’ and you can hear the insects. Do you like Beethoven?
“Er…I really couldn’t say…”
Natalie Portman debuted in the movie and has said her scene with Oldman was easy because “I don’t think I had to act ”, such was his super-charged looniness.
After a fleeing perp’s bullet grazes Stanfield, he guns the man down before emptying his chamber into the corpse.
Stanfield’s concerned (and long-suffering) deputy runs up to him.
“Stan! Stan! What are you doing? He’s dead. He’s dead!”
“He ruined my suit,” says Stanfield matter-of-factly.
To be fair, it was a nice suit.
I’m going to watch The Professional again. Thanks for the tip. I’d forgotten about that Oldman role.
I never tire of it. Great example of hands off directing