Nothing beats a well done bad guy. Evil wrongdoers have the potential of being some of the most effective and memorable characters in film. A truly worthy and ill-intentioned presence has an almost preternatural ability to change the very air pressure in a room; temperatures are higher, or colder, and things that should be familiar may seem out of place and not quite right. You can feel it in your gut when someone of real strength and quality of meanness sets their shadow to fall near yours, and your behavior is suddenly most careful; at least if you’ve the sense to be at least a little bit afraid.
When done poorly, the opposite effect occurs. Nothing is more exasperating when a supposedly evil and powerful character on screen has the presence and threat of a snarling dormouse. Dracula in the tragically bad Van Helsing of few years past comes easily to mind. Here you had a foppish and laughable characterization of a being that should have been awe inspiring and chilling. The mistakes made with this sort character have been repeatedly committed many more times than such a character was ever done right. A lot of care needs to be taken in casting a villain and scripting their dialogue. You can’t just use someone that has a nice shoe size; you need someone that melts film.
Here I want to give you seven solid cases of bad and powerful men done exceedingly well, focusing on more recent times and then stepping back into past decades. I am not submitting these as necessarily the best of all time; however they are solid and fit for such a nomination. All of the characters, especially en masse, are an excellent study for anyone looking to create a mean character.
Another note before we start; these characters are not solely from the world of horror, but are taken rather intentionally from a broad range of films. A couple of the films mentioned might surprise you. Horrific men are not the monopoly of the horror genre, and I don’t think anyone would contest the fact that all of these individuals that I am going to list for you carry the beating black heart of terror within them. Read on.
There’s not a more esteemed place to start this list than with the winner of Best Picture in the 2008 Oscars. No Country for Old Men was an artfully done film of denial, distraction, and exasperating frustration that tragically mirrors the patterns of real life. The film features a lethal brute with a page boy haircut and an air compressor that fires a static spike more conventionally used to slaughter cattle. With such a startling method of execution, one would think that would be the highlight; it’s not.
Anton Chigurh, played magnificently by Javier Bardem, is like a hissing ball of lethal energy every time he steps into the scene. One of the more disturbing things about Chigurh is his resolution and loyalty to his own private and sometimes bizarre set of rules of conduct. The man has a will of iron, and it is a will dedicated to enforcing his concocted rule-set with the discipline of a monk. If the rules say someone needs to die, they will die; however there is always the last minute heads-or-tails coin flip as long as they’re willing to play the game.
Constantine was a film of highs and lows, to be sure, but arguably there was no higher point that Peter Stormare’s brief appearance as that great hoary lord of the infernal abyss, Lucifer. The high power of Satan himself is one often cast, and botched, in film, and it’s rare that any actor manages the profound role with any sort of real gravity and mass. Lucifer is, by all accounts and purposes, the quintessential bad guy; the high water mark for what it is to be evil and powerful. Taking on the role of this high angel requires a complex and powerful actor who can believably impersonate an ill-intentioned being of divine strength.
Beaming a quirky combination of charismatic charm twisted with black evil, Stormare effortlessly twitches from lucidity to insanity and back again within the blink of an eye. Stormare successfully portrays an entity of bloated power that gets a rather perverse and slightly sexual thrill out of the enforcement of his will. He conveys a personality with real and true power. This is complex and difficult stuff, and highly entertaining to watch. Lucifer is the mightiest villain of them all, to be sure, and seeing him portrayed so well made me wish the film was more about him and less about the hero Constantine.
You just don’t get too many neighborhoods as rough as the historically notorious Five Points in middle of the 19th century New York. The huddling masses of people, rampant disease, unemployment, crime, and prostitution were a boiling pot for some of the toughest gangs of hoodlums ever to birth out of despair. From this mess arose a star in the world of villainy, cast in film, in the form of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting.
In a world where only the cruel and tough may thrive, Bill is as tenacious as iron wrapped in wool. This character, portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Day Lewis, is roughly based upon a true historical character. Bill is the leader of a gang of nativists who are made up of individuals born in the United States from earlier English protestant immigrants. These men had staked out their small territories and hold extreme resentment for any newcomers looking to stake out their own claim. He leads his gang of thugs in various wars against the new influx of Irish catholic immigrants and wields cruelty and fear with a mean proclivity that puts many to cowering in the corner.
By his own admission in a second act monologue, Bill’s most significant weapon is fear. The world Bill resides in is horrid; to rule in it, one must then excel at horrid works. Bill the Butcher is a dark champion in a world of death and despair, a veritable man-made-demon with a vast competence in ruthless sensibilities. What’s interesting to me is that Bill’s extreme behavior is a necessity of this environment rather than being the cause of it. He’s vicious because the world around him is vicious, and he’s the type of man that will drive himself to do what it takes to be on the top of the heap; even if it requires being a right bastard to his brethren in order to get there.
Of all the entries within this list, this one might generate the most surprise. What, some Indian dude from some 1990’s time period action romance? What the bloody hell? It’s true; Magua, played with a steady eye by Wes Studi, was a terrifying villain, being merciless, determined, and competent. This was a man of sublime focus and drive who’s whole being had become solely existent for the solitary purpose of achieving bloody revenge.
His motivation is one of the things that make the man a great villain; his tragic situation is understandable. His life was completely torn apart, and now he seeks to destroy the life of the one who committed the destruction. It wouldn’t be too hard to manipulate the entire script to cast Magua as the protagonist. While it is true that he cuts down innocents along the way, and this is bad business, it’s also true that his main target likely really does have it coming.
Magua’s sheer ferocity, ruthlessness, and mean competence puts him in the top ranks of villainy. He is completely driven, completely without mercy, and of a single mind and heart in pursuing his revenge. “When the Grey Hair is dead, Magua will eat his heart. Before he dies, Magua will put his children under the knife, so the Grey Hair will know his seed is wiped out forever.” Brilliant!
Hannibal Lecter is so bloody obvious for a list such as this that it is nearly unavoidable. When talking of unsettling men who enjoy a bit of killing from time to time it is simple gravity that will cause Anthony Hopkins’ now legendary performance as Hannibal Lecter to come to light. Hannibal has become a character of film legend, one who is now a standard for the brilliant and disturbing sociopath to the point of becoming a veritable design template.
The terrifying things about Hannibal are many. This man is undoubtedly smarter than you, probably stronger than you, and, of course, he may want to fry slices of your brain in a lovely mix of butter and garlic. Of all these things, it’s the blasted preternatural intelligence that really makes him the sort of villain that follows you home from the theater. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power, and the piercing eyes of this cannibalistic killer can penetrate your simple veil and deduce things about you that you do not even know. The fact that this man is capable of smugly and correctly categorizing you with routine accuracy along with the fact he might decide to murder and eat you on whim is electrifyingly scary.
Sometimes it is what we do not know that is effective, such as in the case of the mysterious John Ryder, played by Rutger Hauer, in the 1980’s thriller The Hitcher. By the time the credits rolled around we knew about as much about Ryder as we did at the beginning, and it is this empty lack of motivation that is all the more effective and intimidating. Compounding this is an excellent performance by Hauer that gave the character real depth and tangibility. This isn’t some cackling crazy man with a personality one-inch thick, no, but rather a character seemingly driven by some deep internal grief and bitterness who has chosen to go out like a blazing comet cutting blood and sorrow through the ranks of those near the impact point.
Ryder’s rampage was just as suicidal as it was homicidal, though he was certainly looking for a lot of the latter before he got around to the finale. Perhaps the most tense and brilliant scene was in the very first act; “I want you to say four little words: I, Want, To, Die.” You might not want to give him want he wants!
Mad Alex knew how to have a good time. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re out getting loaded on hopped up milk, beating up colorful rival gangs, bums, and other unfortunates, and then engaging in group sex with women you don’t even know while the William Tell Overture keeps the beat for you. I first saw this film when I was 10 or 11, and then knew right what I wanted to do when I grew up. Balderdash to being an astronaut, doctor, or fire fighter; being an evil leader of a gang of droogs looked like a hell of a lot more fun.
While I never got around to wearing a jock strap outside my pants, buying a cool cane with a hidden dagger in it, and leading a gang of thugs, I never stopped admiring the lethal Alex for the brilliant hoodlum and cutthroat that he was. The motivation behind this character was simple glee; Alex liked to have a good time, and he was going to get it at anyone’s expense but his own. This hedonistic lack of complex motivation made him all the more charismatic and even somewhat likable in a strange and roguish sort of way; you understood that all the little creep wanted was to have a good time. Is that so wrong?
In conclusion, it’s interesting to me to analyze what it is about these characters that make them so damned intimidating. It seems to me that the common threads is that they all have tremendous will power and an imaginative perspective that allows for seeing many more options for any a given situation than your average human being. This, I think, is what really makes them scary. You don’t know what they’re going to do next, and it is this unknown that is so unsettling.
If you accidentally bump into a rather average individual on the street, the set of possible reactions is very small; if you accidentally bump into one of these stronger, and perhaps quite malevolent, personalities, the set of responses is much, much larger. You don’t know what these guys are going to do next, however you’re also aware they’re quite capable of hurting you and might even enjoy doing so. These individuals then are greater than life, containing within them nearly all there is to being heroic; lacking only that awful hampering morality and ethics more suited to the common masses.
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