Villains and Monsters

I like villains because there’s some­thing so attractive about a committed person – they have a plan, an ideo­logy, no matter how twisted. They’re motivated.”

Russell Crowe

Love Thy Enemy. You must love your villain in one of two ways.

Cartoon villains, in the best sense. Iago. Darth Vader. The Wicked Witch of the West. He is a truly horrible wicked person, and there is a tremendous force and intensity to his person­ality. You love writing him. The actor will love playing him.

Real­istic villains. Give him tremendous sympathy and self-justification. He believes he has his reasons. Hitler thought he was ridding the world of evil Jews, and taking the world for the Master Race, as was their right. Claudius really loves Gertrude, and has convinced himself he loves Hamlet, too. He feels terribly guilty for murdering Hamlet’s father.

They are all evil, but they think they are only misunderstood.The stronger an impres­sion your villain makes, the greater the obstacle for the hero, the better the conflict, the more drama.

Alex Epstein, Inter­me­diate Screenwriting

If we believe Robert McKee’s maxim that “a char­acter can only be as inter­esting as the forces that oppose them”,  it follows that a  powerful and complex antag­onist is a tremendous asset in any story. Some­times, as we know, more emotion­ally enga­ging and more important than the prot­ag­onist. You can recast the prot­ag­on­ists for the sequel, after all, but you better not replace the actors iden­ti­fied with Freddy Kreuger or Hannibal Lector; not if you want to keep your audience.

There are broadly speaking two categories of Antag­onist, strad­dling a line between reason and unreason. Gamers under­stand this better than the average writer. Playing an old fash­ioned role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons, you roll the dice to decide not just whether your char­acter is ‘good‘ or ‘evil‘ but also whether they are ‘lawful‘ or ‘chaotic‘. (Dr Who would be a ‘good/chaotic‘ char­acter, for instance, and Adolf Hitler ‘evil/lawful‘).

This is a direct acknow­ledge­ment of the Greek concept of drama; the war between chaos and order, between Dionysus and Apollo. (See ‘Char­acter: Char­acter and Arche­types‘).  When we roll the dice to create the moral universe within our story, we consciously or uncon­sciously draw up a battle line for this war and a lot of that is to do with the kind of antag­onist we choose.

Another way to say this is that every great film should have a girl and a monster in it – in one form or another. Those have always been good ingredi­ents for a story and a useful fall-back for a writer.


Smile and smile and be a villain …

To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good”

Aleksandr Solzhen­itsyn

The more successful the villain, the more successful the film”

Alfred Hitch­cock

A villainous antag­onist often inhabits the same end of the spec­trum as the prot­ag­onist but in an inverted, mirror-like fashion. Their attrib­utes will often be exag­ger­ated versions of the ones possessed by the hero. If the prot­ag­onist is intel­li­gent, the villain will be super intel­li­gent. If the hero is strong, the villain will be stronger – or with similar special skills, or super-powers, or whatever.

The villain is a conscious, willful, and some­times – but not always – mali­cious opponent of the prot­ag­onist. It is possible to admire them, empathise with them, or even be attracted to them. Villains have a rationale, they operate according to some kind of logic, however, twisted it might be. The threat they present to the prot­ag­onist is based on a motiv­a­tion that rises above the purely mali­cious; they are dangerous because they are adaptive and reas­oning creatures.

Magni­fi­cent madness

A monster, on the other hand, in the purest form is a primal force; unknow­able and terri­fying. In our rela­tion­ship to them, we are like chil­dren in a night­mare, with the same sense of power­less­ness and help­less­ness. A true monster is a driven char­acter, impossible to reason with, and capable of driving a story because of it. That makes him tremend­ously useful to the writer but also diffi­cult to control successfully.

Monsters are embod­i­ments of The Fool arche­type in its most demonic form. It has become some­thing of a movie cliche to pretend to kill these kinds of char­ac­ters at the climax of a movie, only to have them ‘resur­rect’ them­selves for one last attempted attack. Super­nat­ural and mech­an­ical monsters, like The Termin­ator, are good examples of these traits but, as these clips demon­strate, they can equally be given to human characters.

Compulsive or cunning?

Neither of these categories is mutu­ally exclusive of course. It is quite common in stories for a ‘rational’ villain to be goaded into becoming a maddened ‘monster’ by circum­stances, or for madness to appear behind a seeming mask of sanity (as in Psycho or Night Must Fall). In the clips below, are examples that hope­fully show several shad­ings in between the two. Where does the villain become monstrous? It’s for you to decide.

The pitiful monster

Maybe you know that over-told Aesop fable about the scor­pion and the frog in which the scor­pion asks the frog to carry him across a river on its back? The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scor­pion says, “If I do, we will both drown.” They set out, but in midstream, the frog feels an agon­ising pain in his back. The scor­pion has stung him. As the frog starts to sink, he has just enough time to gasp “Why?” The scor­pion replies: “Because I’m a scorpion”.

The pitiful monster is a victim. He or she has a ‘better side’, a conscience and vestiges of humanity. They struggle against their own monstrous nature but more often than not it defeats them. The monster moves us because we can recog­nise ourselves in it. Our irra­tion­ality and our human perversity are magni­fied and reflected in the pitiful monster. They are driven char­ac­ters, compelled to behave destruct­ively, even when it is against their own interests

The second kind of monster that deserves our pity are those who don’t know how to be human because fate or nature has imposed monstrous­ness on them. These are not mali­cious but misun­der­stood creatures and their attempts to be human often have tragic consequences.




Night Must Fall 1964

Albert Finney gives a charis­matic perform­ance in this Tony Richardson adapt­a­tion of Emlyn Williams hoary old stage shocker about a psycho­path who keeps a severed head in a hatbox. Finney plays the char­acter as a monstrous child catching sight of his real nature in horri­fied glimpses and somehow makes him vulner­able. Quite an achievement.

Street Smart 1987

Long before he became known for playing Pres­id­ents and saintly old convicts in The Shawshank Redemp­tion, a relat­ively unknown Morgan Freeman played a vicious pimp in this B movie with Chris­topher Reeves.

As he said in an inter­view, Freeman got the part for bringing an under­stated realism to the role at the audi­tion. The resulting perform­ance, at the time, was genu­inely quite shocking. This char­acter is so habitu­ated to viol­ence that he finds nothing monstrous about it.

Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead 1995

Chris­topher Walken has played many bad guys in his career but never with quite such relish as he does here in his role as a para­lysed, wheelchair-bound gang­ster with the power of life and death over the prot­ag­onist. “I have bed-sores, they leak pus” he says by way of casual explan­a­tion for his beha­viour.  A magni­fi­cently nasty creation.

Klute 1971

Villains always believe they are justi­fied in what they do but they don’t always get the chance to explain them­selves. In this penul­timate scene from the movie (warning – spoiler alert!), the killer gets to do just that. His reasons are banal and snob­bish but then evil often is banal.

Sexy Beast 2000

Ray Winstone was worried about ‘acting with Gandhi’ (Ben Kingsley) who seems unlikely casting for a cockney villain. He needn’t have been, Kingsley is great in the role. He makes the char­acter slightly autistic and child­like in a totally believ­able way. When he asks ‘Why?” it’s in exactly the tones of an obstinate two year old – only this one is dangerous and has a gun!

Pretty Poison 1968

The most artful piece of casting in Pretty Poison is Anthony Perkins who here gets to play an inno­cent version of his ‘Norman Bates’ char­acter, a harm­less fantasist who gets hooked up with a pretty cheerleader-type (Tuesday Weld in wonderful form); in reality, a psycho­path who becomes sexu­ally turned on by murder.

In a wonder­fully ironic ending, Perkins becomes the patsy and his warn­ings about her procliv­ities go unheeded. This role reversal (Janet Leigh getting her revenge?) is clever but its the solid central perform­ances that make the film work.

To Die For 1989

Nicole Kidman, in prob­ably the most inter­esting role she’s ever played, creates a fine monster out of a driven, sociopathic, wannabe tv presenter. Her mono­logues to camera are espe­cially well delivered; perfectly capturing the hollow soul of the char­acter without over­selling her.

In this sequence we see her convert a couple of teen­agers, one of them Joaquin Phoenix, into willing pawns in her plot to murder her husband. This ability of a villain to seduce us, as well as their victims, remains one of their most effective attributes.

Manhunt 1969

This wartime drama about the under­ground resist­ance was an example of a genre that became so well known that its tropes were parodied in sitcoms like Allo Allo. Never­the­less, this early offering had still had some fresh­ness and origin­ality despite its low produc­tion values.
In this sequence, Robert Hardy plays a German Sergeant inter­rog­ating a member of the resist­ance (Cyd Hayman). In a nimble piece of writing, the Nazi ‘stereo­type’ is turned on its head; reminding us that villains are never more dangerous than when they’re aware of the roles they are forced to play.

The Night of The Hunter 1955

The only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, this remark­ably original film is a dark fairy tale heavily influ­enced by expres­sion­istic German cinema. Robert Mitchum virtu­ally created a whole genre with his char­acter: a psycho­pathic, switchblade-wielding, preacher who has ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles.
If there was any doubt that our enduring fear of the monster origin­ates in some­thing very primal and very old – and that that fear is justi­fied – this film dispels it all on its own.

Five Corners 1987

Some­times a char­acter needs only a few deft strokes to come to life and this brief scene does exactly that for John Turturro, estab­lishing him as the neigh­bour­hood ‘bad boy’ with a wonderful economy.

Monsters in disguise

The Babysitter  2017

These two recent horror films both play with expected tropes of the genre by tinkering with roles usually assigned to certain char­ac­ters. Both are playful in the way they do it but create very different types of monsters.

In The Babysitter, Bee (Samara Weaving) is every teenage boy’s wet-dream: gorgeous, feisty and cool. She also turns out to be a murderous satanic cult leader but even then she is somehow like­able. The film is full of knowing refer­ences to other movies and to pop culture, and it helps that it doesn’t take itself too seri­ously, so we can excuse some of the less cred­ible ingredi­ents because of its sheer charm

Better Watch Out 2017

This is an equally knowing movie and belongs to the bad seed horror sub-genre of evil chil­dren wearing a mask of inno­cence (The Omen, The Good Son etc). Here the monster role is given to a teenage boy who seems nerdy and harm­less but is revealed as a cunning manip­u­lative psychopath.

We don’t like him but we do appre­ciate his resource­ful­ness and the twist at the end is satis­fying because he is outwitted rather than just unlucky. This is the appeal of char­ac­ters like Hannibal Lecter, they are unashamed pred­ators and they do it so well.

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