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My Favorite Film & TV Villains

In the past, villains were bad guys, without any redeeming features, and heroes were good guys, with no bad qualities, except maybe a bad wardrobe or hairdo. Then came the era of anti-heroes: heroes who had some less than stellar qualities or who’d made some seriously bad decisions or life choices that prevented them from being perfect, like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name (played to great effect by the late Peter O’Toole in the film, which is what made me read the novel in the first place, trying to understand Jim’s motivation).

Over the last couple decades, however, the villains have become sort of anti-villains, as books, movies, and television series show the villains as real human beings. No matter how bad, evil, or wicked the best villains are, they have some redeeming or interesting characteristics, whether it’s caring about women and children (limiting their violence to men, for example) or great senses of humor, or simply being absolutely faithful to their own moral codes, even if they’re criminal ones.

Here are my favorite film and television series villains, in no particular order. And it’s understood that, without the specific actors playing them in these roles, these fascinating and charismatic villains would simply not have been the same.

Hannibal Lecter
Silence of the Lambs

Boy, did Sir Anthony Hopkins deserve the Oscar he won for his chilling performance of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the first film version featuring the character, Silence of the Lambs, from the Thomas Harris novels. Beginning with Lecter’s look — hairstyle and tightly fitted prison garb, which were Anthony Hopkins’ idea — to his voice, his facial expressions, and his threatening demeanor even when standing perfectly still, Hopkins’ Hannibal sent insomniac movie viewers into therapy because, though they were terrified by him, they were also fascinated. Ain’t that what makes a great villain these days? His very first scene, in the underground FBI prison cell, when Hannibal “The Cannibal” meets rookie agent Clarisse Starling (played by Jodi Foster) shows just a hint of how scary and charming Hopkins’ serial killer can be.

Warning: Language

Boyd Crowder
Justified

Walton Goggins, previously known for his role in “The Shield,” plays bad guy Boyd Crowder, the foil to and bane of US Marshal Raylan Givens’ (Timothy Olyphant) life. But the two grew up together, and their shared past, with divergent careers which are mutually exclusive, combined with the actors’ improvised lines in many of their scenes together, make Boyd a criminal whom audiences root for. In fact, Boyd was supposed to be killed at the end of the pilot for the show, but the initial screening audience chastised the studio so much for “killing” Boyd, that the pilot was rewritten. Despite “guest star” criminals each season, none has the fascinating personality or the chemistry with Olyphant’s Raylan Givens that Goggins’ Boyd Crowder has. This sequence shows his initial “Fire in the Hole” activity from the pilot (characters based on an initial story by that name and characters in subsequent stories by the late, great Elmore Leonard, who was an executive producer of the show till his death this year) as well as some other clips (interspersed by music that does not, unfortunately, come from the show, i.e., it’s not as good as the music in Justified). Still, the montage shows you some good examples of Boyd’s violent interactions as well as his humor and intelligence. Though nominated several times for an Emmy for this role, Goggins has never won: I hope they remedy that in 2015’s final season of the series.

Detective Norman Stansfield
The Professional

My first introduction to Gary Oldman’s formidable acting was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Oldman played the title character. But when I began to seek out his other films, I found this one, which is one of Oldman’s best. His corrupt Detective Norman Stansfield “directs” Beethoven before confronting a drug-dealer who has stolen from him. Stansfield displays a wicked sense of humor, both in what he says and does. “We said noon” is a great introduction to Oldman’s villainous Stansfield in a gripping film that also stars Natalie Portman, in her film debut, as the abused daughter of the man who stole from Detective Stansfield and whom Stansfield is seeking, and French actor Jean Reno as the professional hitman, Léon, “hired” by Portman’s Mathilda to protect her from Stansfield while teaching her to defend herself from him as well.

Warning: Violence

The Archangel Gabriel
The Prophecy
(Trilogy)

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I think Christopher Walken is one of the greatest actors ever. Comedy, Drama, Films, Theatre, Singing, Dancing, Hero, Villain — the man can do it all, and he does it all with consummate skill and amazing range. One of my favorite roles (and Walken’s, as he’s stated in interviews) is as the villainous yet deadpan-funny Archangel Gabriel in The Prophecy (Trilogy), where, in the Second Angel War, Gabriel is trying to steal the blackest human soul ever — which angel Simon has taken from the corpse and hidden in someone else’s body — to use that evil human soul in Gabriel’s fight to keep humans out of heaven.  Gabriel uses some of the human characters, whom he calls “talking monkeys,”  to  get things he can’t obtain himself or to travel (he can’t drive). He uses humans who were either suicides or criticially ill & dying patients, “reviving them” (or as Walken’s Gabriel describes it to Adam Goldberg’s character in the first film, “letting them die slower”). This montage, showing clips from the first two films in the trilogy, show his menace and his deadpan-humor. His scenes with Adam Goldberg (not included here), Amanda Plummer, and the late Brittany Murphy are among some of the best moments in the films. Walken’s Gabriel combines his fearsome portrayal of villains with his comedic talent, to great effect.

Tony Soprano
The Sopranos

Though marred by some uneven writing in a few of its seasons, the ground-breaking HBO series The Sopranos introduced us to New Jersey mob-boss Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. And, boy, did Gandolfini play him to perfection. Totally loyal to his own criminal code, Tony Soprano was nevertheless a lying, philandering (unfaithful to both wife and mistresses), murderous criminal. The very premise of the show — a mob boss entering therapy because he’s having panic attacks — was part of its charm. Tony Soprano’s crush on his therapist, played by Lorraine Bracco, as well as his anger at her refusal to be anything but his psychologist and her insistence that he examine his “feelings” were among the show’s highlights. Gandolfini’s Emmy win(s) as Tony Soprano were well deserved for his consummate acting in this role. This “If you lie” scene, when Tony is attempting to uncover the identity of an FBI informant, show’s Gandolfini’s Soprano as his most fierce and most vulnerable.

Warning: Language

Sheriff Little Bill Daggett
Unforgiven

Sheriff Little Bill doesn’t like guns or violence in his town of Big Whiskey, despite or because of his own past as a gunslinger and killer. Played to Oscar-winning perfection by Gene Hackman, Little Bill is cruel and ruthless, but is building his own house (though he ain’t no carpenter) — Hackman’s idea — and a born storyteller, especially if he’s discrediting an old arch-enemy like English Bob (one of Richard Harris’ best roles) in front of his biographer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Repeatedly calling English Bob’s biography, titled The Duke of Death, the “Duck” of Death, and referring to English Bob as “The Duck”  — another of Hackman’s improvizations, which, according to director and co-star Clint Eastwood, caused the entire cast and crew to break out in uncontrollable laughter when Hackman first said it — Hackman’s Little Bill is wickedly funny without ever cracking a smile. At the same time, he’s deadly serious about the fact that he will be the only one doing any killing in his town. After he’s viciously beaten and kicked English Bob for carrying firearms within the town limits, then lying about it, Little Bill dares the biographer Beauchamp to try to shoot the sheriff (but not no deputy), then offers the gun to the imprisoned English Bob. The “First, You Got to Cock It” scene reveals Hackman’s Little Bill at his fiercest, bravest, psychologically cruelest, and most complex, and, ultimately, honest.

Al Swearengen
Deadwood

If you’ve never seen HBO’s Deadwood — with its multi-star cast, superb writing, outstanding storytelling, fascinating characters, and historical accuracy — then you don’t, as they say, know what you’re missing. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon/Brothel and one of the “founding fathers” of Deadwood SD while it was still a territory illegally on Native American land, makes him the classic villain for all time. Foul-mouthed, violent, sarcastic, murderous, and otherwise cruel to the point of sadism, McShane’s Swearengen is nevertheless also empathetic,  a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment, and frequently hurt by those whom he believes he can trust (though he usually reacts in anger to betrayal). Creator David Milch apparently created the role with Ian McShane in mind, and McShane’s performance as the vicious yet vulnerable Al make him one of the most memorable and oft-quoted villains in history. For the 10th anniversary marathon weekend showing of Deadwood, which is also playing serially weeknights on HBO Signature, numerous blogs imitated Al Swearengen’s voice — not that of any other character. No one scene could possibly show you McShane’s range as Al. Ian’s subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and glances alone demonstrate more ability and talent in this role than some actors display in their entire careers. The fan-made montage “Al Talks the Talk & Walks the Walk” displays just some of Al’s villainy and McShane’s talent (one of the “murders” shown is actually a mercy-killing of a severely afflicted and dying character, which Al had to be persuaded to assist in, since no one else — not even the camp’s doctor — was willing to help end the character’s intense, progressive, and incurable suffering).

Über-Warning: Language
(Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You)

If you’ve missed any of these brilliant actor’s performances as one of these top villains, you can rent them (or, even better, often view them for free, on HBO GO or with Amazon Prime), you’ll want to catch them when you’re in the mood for some fine acting, fantastic characters, and even some occasional dark, villainous humor.

And if your comments aren’t too villainous themselves, you can nominate your own top villains. If I’m not familiar with them, I’ll put them on my “To Be Watched” list.

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7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World

No Spoilers

Okay, so I was gonna go all classical on you by proving that I could name the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, but I couldn’t find any pictures of them because they’ve all been destroyed. Except for the Great Pyramids at Giza. So then I thought I’d do the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, but there are so many disagreements, it’d be like going to a family reunion and listening to great-aunts and uncles argue about what happened to you when you were three: You did not cross the Golden Gate Bridge; you went up the Empire State Building. I wanted to take you to see the Giant Statue of Jesus in Brazil, but your mother wanted you to see the Great Wall of China, while your father — God love him — wanted you to see the Panama Canal. (And, yes, those are some of the items actually considered to be Wonders of the Modern world.) Instead, I decided to do something I found a lot more interesting: the 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.

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Hammer Horror Film Stars, L to R: Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price

I have always loved scary movies, I grew up on all the Hammer Studio classics with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, I loved anything with Vincent Price because it was usually based on something by Edgar Allan Poe, and I didn’t even care about the special effects. Who cared if you could see the shadow of the fishing pole holding the “bat” that was flying around the room, terrorizing the beautifully made-up and costumed tourists (all with really big hair!). I was in a darkened theatre with my siblings and lots of other kids whose parents had dropped them off to get them out of the house for a while, being scared out of our wits, and I loved it.

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Of course, I laugh at most of those movies now, though I appreciate what they were doing at the time. Now my horror movies have to have something different to scare me, something that could really happen, or some new twist on the paranormal. And I have to want to watch it over and over, even though I already know the story. That’s one of the reasons I love October so much: watching all the horror movies while waiting for Halloween. But I’ll watch a good horror movie any day.

And by “good,” I don’t mean a bunch of stupid teens in some isolated area screaming while running in high heels (girls) or bare feet (boys) while a killer with a dangerous implement (fill in the blank) chases them down till he finally catches them and hacks them into pieces.

Here then, from #7 to #1, are my picks for the Top 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.

#7
Psycho

And I’m talking Hitchcock’s original here, which was ground-breaking even if it was only because he killed off his leading lady, who  happened to be a big Hollywood star, less than halfway through the film. Then again, maybe it was that atmospheric music, if you could call it “music.” It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that my little sister and I watched it on the sofa-couch when we were 6 & 7, respectively, while “babysitting” our baby brother.

Yeah, we were scared. Long before we ever found out about Norman Bates’ mother, too. I still find it fantastically creepy. And that Shower Scene. Janet Leigh claims she could never take a shower afterward and feel quite safe enough. I hear you, Janet.

For my in-depth #NoSpoilers review, with links to viewing, see Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

#6
The Shining

To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what “the shining” in the movie (or the novel of the same name) is. And I know fans complain that the Kubrick version is nothing like the Stephen King novel on which it was based. But there’s something terrifying about the entire concept: being stuck, without rescue, in an isolated place, with a husband who’s slowly and obviously going violently insane. Now that’s horror for me, if only because it could really happen.

And I love Jack Nicholson, even before he gets to the iconic — and ad-libbed — “Here’s Johnny” scene. The typewriter tantrum is just a taste of the scary to come.

#5
Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton makes some weird movies, I admit, but he also makes some fine ones. This is one of my favorites. It has big stars — Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, and Christopher Walken. It has atmosphere. It has good special effects, especially since Burton doesn’t overdo it on the gadgetry stuff he likes. Depp’s performance as the fainting-under-stress detective Ichabod Crane investigating the murders in upstate New York is a funny but seriously interesting take on the original Washington Irving story. But Walken as the Headless Horseman can not be beat. Even when he has no head.

In interviews, Walken claimed the director instructed propmen to hold lights under his chin, shining them upward, to “make him look scarier.” Walken told him, “Get those d***d lights out of my face. I can make myself look scary without any help from them.” And he proved true to his word. He’s at some of his scariest in the Death of the Hessian scene.

#4
Orphan

We found this film totally by accident one night, and within a few minutes we were hooked. I could only find the trailer since the film is only a few years old, but I doubt I could show you any scenes that wouldn’t give away the frightening premise and revelation at the finale. You know the main idea: parents longing for another child and also to do good in the world — no, not Angelina and Brad — adopt an older, unwanted orphan from another country — in this case, Russia — and bring her home to the good life in America. Where, of course, things start to go wrong. But not in any way you’d ever guess.

Though the earnings at the box-office were mixed, Orphan was a prize-winner in several Independent Film Festivals, and Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan Esther was universally acclaimed.

For my in-depth #NoSpoilers review and links to viewing, see When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

#3
Let Me In

A great twist on the age-old vampire story, a prize-winning entry in Independent Film Festivals, based on the Swedish version of the film and directed by the same person. I can’t even tell you anything about it without doing the Spoiler Alert thing. Suffice it to say that it starts out with two lonely and outcast kids who begin a tentative friendship while scary, gruesome murders are being committed in their neighborhood.

Some viewers like the Swedish version — Let the Right One In — better, some the American. I don’t usually like to read my films, so I’m guessing I’d prefer this one. The performances by the child-actors are great, and the ending of Let Me In is completely unexpected.

For my in-depth #NoSpoilers review and links to viewing, see Coming-of-Age with a Vampire, Let Me In, the Film

#2
The Others

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Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this isn’t really like Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, on which it’s based, where two young children in a governess’ care claim to see ghosts. Or the governess claims that the children told her they see ghosts and that she has to protect her wards from the supernatural beings, depending on your interpretation of the governess’ reliability. Some film buffs prefer the 1956 Deborah Kerr version of The Innocents, if only because they say it’s closer to the James’ book. For my money, give me Nicole Kidman and the stunning child actors in this version. You have to watch it a second time to see all the clues you missed the first time. And you’ll probably be willing to do it right away, it’s that good.

Set in a brooding old estate right after World War II, where wife (Nicole) and children are patiently and worriedly waiting for Daddy to come home from the War, while being looked after by a trio of servants who “come with the place.” The Others is so close to #1, I had to flip a coin (not really… well, okay, only a couple times).

For my in-depth #NoSpoilers review and links to viewing, see The World of the Living and The World of the Dead: The Others, the Film

#1
Bram Stoker’s Dracula

There is no doubt that this is one of the greatest film versions of the classic vampire story. Surrounded by a short set-story explaining Dracula’s and Mina’s psychic and emotional “connection”, the rest of the film is pretty loyal to the novel, even showing the characters writing their letters, receiving telegrams, and typing their diaries/journals, which is how the book is presented. Great performances by all, including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Cary Elwes, etc.

But no one, and I most emphatically repeat, no one can out-do Gary Oldman’s spooky, eerie, sexy (yes!), scary, totally believable turn as Count Dracula, or as he’s known to Mina, Prince Vlad. And I ain’t talking about the special effects here because director Francis Ford Coppola went old-school and refused to use computer graphics anywhere in the film (and added the author’s name to the title of the film so it wouldn’t be confused with any other Hollywood version).

I’m not talking the brilliant costumes, hairdressing, wigs, and makeup on Oldman either. I’m not talking about his accents — he claims to have used a different accent or dialect for every film he’s made, and that none has ever been his own natural dialect — which change, consistently, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula whenever he needs them to. He even learned an old dialect of Transylvanian for the set-story which begins the film and appears before the credits.

I’m talking about Gary Oldman, in what should have been an Oscar-winning performance. He rocks as Dracula (sorry, Christoper Lee: you know I loved you when I was a kid.) Oldman is so good, that I’ll even watch this one with commercials, though of course, they leave some of the coolest stuff out.

The best horror movie of all time, and included high (usually in the top 10) in the lists of most “Best Horror Movie” compilations: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Somebody who knows me already asked why I didn’t include The Prophecy (1, 2, and 3), with Christopher Walken as a kick-ass Archangel Gabriel come down to steal someone’s soul to help with the War in Heaven. I love that movie. Seen it dozens of times. But there’s so much humor, especially with the scenes including Amanda Plummer, Adam Goldberg, and Walken, that I don’t even know if it, technically, classifies as horror. So, I left it out.

What say you, my Lovelies? Any of your favorite horror films that should have made it on this list? Let me know, in spooky comments.

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Filed under #31DaysOfHalloween, Actors, Books, Halloween, Horror, Horror Films, Movies/Films, Videos