Tuesday, 13 September 2011

We Love to Hate Them

I recently watched Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects for the first time and found myself, to my own horror, rooting for the members of the Firefly family.  How could this be?  These people make Ed Gein look tame.  I couldn't believe some of the monstrous acts they commit in the film, but at the same time they are totally charismatic and sympathetic.  What's with that?

Villains. Bad guys. We love them. And we love to hate them. Think of any Batman film you've seen.  Before it came out, was the anticipation not "I wonder what gadgets Batman will use," but "I wonder who the bad guys are this time!"

Aren't we supposed to be rooting for the heroes?  Don't we want the protagonists to survive? Aren't we supposed to sympathize with the people who are most like us?

The truth, in fact, is that the villains in a story represent everything we always wanted to be, but never could, whether because of moral, religious, or social restraints.  The fact is, if human beings weren't programmed with a sense of morality, we would all be running around wearing hockey masks butchering hot cheerleaders and their dumb jock boyfriends (though I will confess that thought has crossed my mind many a time.)  This does beg the question: are we, in fact, naturally programmed with a sense of morality, or it is just instilled in us by our parents because of accepted social norms that have been shaped over hundreds of years?  Big question.  We'll have it for another post.

On top of that, when we see an actor having an absolute ball portraying someone so satisfyingly evil, it makes it that much more enjoyable for us to watch because we get to live through their joy of giving themselves into their primal urges to portray these horrible people.

Let's take a look at some examples, shall we? *Full of spoilers!*

1. Freddy Krueger - Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street)

This is a character that everyone, and I mean everyone, loves.  From the initial choice by the producers of Nightmare on Elm Street to market the film to kids, to the continual sequels that allowed Englund to make his lovable serial killer more and more over-the-top and still remain scary - anyone who lived through the 80's knows who this guy is and can't help but get a kick out his craziness.  

The best part is that Englund gets it, and he loves it.  In a recent Q&A at the Toronto Underground Theatre, after rhyming off a great list of A-list actors that he's worked with in some pretty legit films even before he started his stint as Freddy, Englund stated, "I'm fine with horror.  And I'll tell you why.  Because I found you guys.  I found a younger generation.  And not only you here, but in Europe.  Horror - like action movies and science fiction - it speaks the universal language of film.  I could take the three hundred of you here and drop you in Paris, or London, wherever.  Not everyone knows who Jay Leno or Jennifer Aniston is, but they LOVE horror.  They all know Freddy Krueger, they all know Rutger Hauer, they all know The Exorcist, they all know Interview With The Vampire...  You guys, it's this, the universal language.  We're all the same on this level.  This action, horror, fantasy, sci-fi level, we're all in bed together.  This is the big link."

The man's got some pretty solid points there.  In the end, it's people like Freddy who bring us all together.

2. Hannibal Lector - Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs)

Hannibal the Cannibal is a character that audiences fall for, and then are almost ashamed at how much they enjoy the experience of being in his presence.  Why?  Because he's so damn charming and intelligent, you forget that the atrocities he's committing are utterly horrifying.  

By the end of the movie, we're laughing right along with him as he bids goodbye to Clarice by slyly commenting that he'll be "having an old friend for dinner."  Whatever he did to capture the deepest part of our hearts, it worked.  At that moment, we're 100% on his side.  We're glad he was able to elude the FBI, we're impressed by his ingenious escape, and we actually become disappointed when the credits begin to roll because we don't get to see whatever clever trick he devises to lure in and devour his former doctor.  

He loves classical music, chianti, and human liver.  How can you not love this guy?

3.  Catherine Tramell - Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct)

Smart, sexy, confident, successful novelist, elusive serial killer.  She's the epitome of the modern succubus, luring both men and women with her powerful advances and drawing them into her web of sex and death.

Tramell is a brilliant, charismatic sociopath who manipulates everyone around her for her own amusement.  She killed her own parents simply to see if she could get away with it, for crying out loud.  

She is everything both sexes want; she is what we desire, and she is what we wish we could be.  There is a freedom in her sexuality and her indifference to the outcome of her actions that we all wish we could attain in our own lives.

Her power is alluring, her intelligence unwavering.  Truly seductive, truly frightening.

4. Jack Torrence - Jack Nicholson (The Shining)

I think what is equally enjoyable and terrifying about Jack in this film is how utterly free he is in creating this character.  His descent into madness is completely believable, even when he says and does the most ridiculous things.  His iconic line, "Here's Johnny!" could be laughed off the screen if it wasn't for Nicholson's complete commitment to the insanity of this character.  

There is nothing was in the way, there are no judgments, no wrong choices.  It is all truthful, and it is all gold.

5. Jason Voorhees/Michael Myers - The Silent Killers (Friday the 13th Series/Halloween Series)
Ah, yes, it's always the quiet ones.  

There's just something about a hulking figure lurking in the darkness wearing a mask and wielding a sharp instrument of death.  You know they're there, you know it's a bad idea for that character to go running up the stairs when the power's out, but you can't help but cheer on these silent killers.

Granted, the initial killer in the first Friday the 13th film is Jason's mother (which in itself is a stroke of genius - what other petite older woman could have accomplished such creative and brutal killings?  This mom is badass!), but as soon as grown-up Jason finds that goalie mask and begins his vengeful tirade against the camp counselors that neglected him and killed his mother, we fall in love.

And the image of Michael Myers' ghostly white Captain Kirk mask emerging from the darkness behind Jamie Lee Curtis will continue to haunt our dreams - and keep us coming back to this classic film with this iconic villain because we just love him so damn much.

Honourable mentions go to:

Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) - Psycho
Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) - Back to the Future trilogy
Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) - A Clockwork Orange
Nurse Rached (Louise Fletcher) - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Zorg (Gary Oldman) - The Fifth Element
The Shark - Jaws
The Alien - Alien
Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) - The ORIGINAL Star Wars Trilogy
Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) - Die Hard
The Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) - Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) - Harry Potter films

... okay, so we've established Alan Rickman makes a fantastic villian we all love.

But in the end, it comes down to what effect villains have on their audience.  And as Time columnist Richard Corliss explains, every good villain must do the same thing in order to be fully successful at winning us over: "convince the characters he/she is corrupting, and the audience in the theatre, that evil is both plausible and essential, liberating and enthralling."

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