Sometimes the bad guys are way more interesting than the good guys are—just look at Russell Crowe’s performance in the recent “3:10 to Yuma.” These next ten characters are not your ordinary villains. A really good villain is more than just mean, they are the most compelling person in the shot every time they are onscreen. These next ten are so bad they’re great, with charisma so strong that you are attracted to them as much, if not more, than you are repelled. To set parameters to make it more interesting, this list excludes the AFI’s Top 3 villains of all time: Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates and Darth Vader. Be sure to check back next Tuesday for J.D.’s Top 10 Villains he loves to hate. For now, here’s mine:
This expressionistic masterpiece directed by Charles Laughton contains one of film’s most enduring images—the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on Mitchum’s psychotic preacher’s knuckles. What could be more frightening than a man of the cloth that weds and murders a widow and then stalks the dead couple’s children? Add to that the slow, deliberate drawl and menacing glare of a man who talks to God and twists Bible passages around for his own nefarious purposes, and you’ve got the kind of evil bogeyman who is a delicious pleasure to watch over and over again.
Ben Harper: What religion do you profess, preacher?
Rev. Harry Powell: The religion the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.
2. Henry, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Michael Rooker
The pointlessness of murder has never been rendered so realistically as it was in John McNaughton’s harrowing no-budget wonder. Very loosely based on real-life killer Henry Lee Lucas, it isn’t a documentary, but it sometimes feels like one. The general disinterest and emptiness Rooker portrays is a chilling counterpoint to the suave elegance of someone like Hannibal Lecter. This is an absolutely soulless man who is so dulled to his own existence that he can only get off on murder, and that too is beginning to have no effect.
Henry: Yeah. I killed my mama one night. It was my 14th birthday. She was drunk, and we had an argument. She hit me with a whiskey bottle. I shot her. I shot her dead.
Becky: I thought you said you stabbed her.
Henry: Oh yeah, that’s right, I stabbed her.
3. Count Orlok, Nosferatu (1922), Max Schreck
In silent film director F.W. Murnau’s film version of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the Count is no suave sexual predator in regal dress. He is a hunchbacked, pointy-eared monster with sunken eyes and long, knife-like fingernails. As Schreck’s Orlok emerges from the ever-present shadows, his hideous, emaciated frame comes into view and is forever etched into our collective nightmares. It helps that the movie was silent, for the vampire exists purely as a visual image, realized in no small part by Murnau’s surrealistic cinematography.
Count Orlok: (intertitles) Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.
4. Don Lope de Aguirre, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Klaus Kinski
Oh, the horror, indeed. Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” ain’t got nothin’ on Klaus Kinski’s mad Spanish explorer, tortured by the cruel inevitability of nature on a voyage down the Amazon River. Kinski’s eyes blaze with insanity as his quest for glory leads him to destroy everything in his path, including his daughter and himself. Director Werner Herzog’s long and circling camera takes around Kinski underline how alone this power-hungry madman has become.
Don Lope de Aguirre: (in German) That man is a head taller than me. That may change.
5. Cody Jarrett, White Heat (1949), James Cagney
Cagney’s most memorable psychopathic killer had one weakness, and a bizarre one for a 1940s anti-hero—a severe Oedipus complex. After discovering his mother has been killed, Cody’s rage goes through the roof and he escapes from prison to avenge dear old Mom and bully everyone he sees. Cagney’s cold-blooded nonchalance was pretty daring stuff for its time, especially when he shoots a man through the trunk of a car while casually chewing on a chicken leg.
Cody Jarrett: Made it, Ma! Top of the world!
Roy Parker: It’s stuffy in here, I need some air.
Cody Jarrett: Oh, stuffy, huh? I’ll give ya a little air. [pulls a gun from his pants and shoots four times into the trunk]
6. Don Logan, Sexy Beast (2000), Ben Kingsley
This is about as far from “Gandhi” as you can get. Ben Kingsley received an Oscar nomination for playing this British mobster with the barely contained rage of a pit bull who tries to convince his old retired “pal” to get in on one last heist. Don alternates between childishly hilarious and downright terrifying, even practicing his glowering routine in the mirror. All the tension in the film comes from the fact that somebody will have to eventually give in. Don seems incapable. He is an immovable object who will recognize one answer only from his old buddy’s mouth.
Don: Yes, yes, yes, yes!
Don: Talk to me, Gal. I’m here for you. I’m a good listener.
Gal: What can I say, Don? I’ve said it all. I’m retired.
Don: Shut up.
7. John Doe, Se7en (1995), Kevin Spacey
The polar opposite of Kingsley’s hotheaded gangster, Kevin Spacey projects the coolest, calmest aura of any serial killer. He benefits from the Harry Lime treatment for sure (named after Orson Welles in “The Third Man,” where characters talk about you for over half the film before you ever show up, therefore building endless anticipation). But when John Doe is finally revealed, Spacey’s stillness is particularly disturbing. Spacey was not yet a household name, but his name was removed from the opening credits so nobody would know who played the killer until the end.
John Doe: Realize detective, the only reason that I’m here right now is that I wanted to be.
David Mills: No, no, we would have got you eventually.
John Doe: Oh really? So, what were you doing? Biding your time? Toying with me? Allowing five innocent people to die until you felt like springing your trap? Tell me, what was the indisputable evidence you were going to use on me right before I walked up to you and put my hands in the air?
8. Patrick Bateman, American Psycho (2000), Christian Bale
This is one of those rarest of instances that a movie is light years better than the book (see also “3:10 to Yuma”). Reading page after tedious page of minutiae makes a strong impression in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, but also a frustrating read. Christian Bale embodies obsessed psycho killer Patrick Bateman so perfectly that we get the pitch-black satire and the film’s criticism of rampant materialism without having to endure every single one of the book’s banalities.
Paul Allen: Is that a raincoat?
Patrick Bateman: Yes it is! In ’87, Huey [Lewis] released this, Fore, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is “Hip to be Square”, a song so catchy, most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself. Hey Paul! [bashes Allen in the head with the axe] Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard! You fucking bastard!
9. General Zod, Superman II (1980), Terence Stamp
Kryptonian criminal General Zod might not be the most menacing villain in the world now, but to this 9-year old he sure was. “Superman II” is still my favorite of the series partly because of Zod’s holier-than-thou routine. British actor Terence Stamp had the authority and the accent to appear unstoppable, and his delivery was perfectly deadpan It is the perfect blend of the terrifyingly unimaginable (sending U.S. astronauts careening off into space after ripping their space suits, making the President kneel before him) and the campy (see below).
Ursa: [watching an Army helicopter] Look. They need machines to fly.
General Zod: What bravery. Be nice to them, my dear. Blow them a kiss.
General Zod: This Superman is nothing of the kind. You see, I’ve discovered his weakness. He cares. He actually cares for these Earth people.
Ursa: Like pets?
General Zod: I suppose so.
10. Terl, Battlefield Earth (2000), John Travolta
If you think about it, John Travolta does fit the criteria here. You certainly can’t take your eyes off him when he’s onscreen! I love to hate this performance not because it is such a transcendent portrait of villainy but because Travolta as Terl the Psychlo is so unbelievably bad that it almost makes Forest Whitaker’s performance as Ker bearable. Stuffed into his 7-foot tall space suit like a spoiled sausage, Travolta resembles a cross between Rob Zombie and Mr. Spock with a bad goatee. Add to that his high-pitched timbre and constant babbling about “the Academy,” and you have one of the most unintentionally funny villains ever.
Terl: Crap-lousy ceiling! I thought I told to get some man-animals in here and fix it.
Terl: Attention. This is Terl, your chief of security. Exterminate all man-animals at will, and happy hunting!
Terl: While you were still learning how to spell your name, I was being trained to conquer galaxies!
Terl: You wouldn’t last one day at the Academy