Thursday, April 2, 2009

Chillin' Like a Villain

Entertainment Weekly just did a very entertaining issue featuring their picks for the greatest heroes and villains of all time. A lot of them matched what mine would be (and those that didn't were covered by Stephen King's own editorial on great baddies in literature), but I still thought it would be fun to do my own list of ten favorite villains. In no particular order, here's my own rogues gallery...
The Joker & Two-Face. As a lifelong Batman fan, I couldn't do this list without at least a couple of the Dark Knight's awesomely colorful foes. The Riddler, Catwoman, the Penguin, Clayface... the list goes on and on. But tops goes to the fiendishly demented Joker, who's appeared successfully in so many different incarnations he practically rivals Dracula. There's the original comic creation (initially dark, then goofier in the 50s, then scary again in the 80s-on); the amusing Cesar Romero take from the camp classic "Batman" TV series; the iconic Jack Nicholson portrayal in 1989's "Batman"; and the wonderfully vibrant version from "Batman: The Animated Series" voiced by Mark Hamill. Of course, last year saw Heath Ledger set a brand new standard for onscreen Jokers with his compellingly twisted, Oscar-winning interpretation. While the Joker is a classic maniac, Two-Face is a more multi-layered affair. He's a tragic figure whose darkness is underscored by the fact that he was once a district attorney crusading for justice. But an unfortunate courtroom incident (acid in the face didn't help the Phantom of the Opera, either) warped both his mind and his mug. Now, the split-personality baddie is out for revenge on Batman and anyone else who wronged him with elaborate gimmicks and his ever present coin toss. I loved the "Animated Series" version of his story, which was a surprisingly heartfelt meditation on mental illness for a weekday show ostensibly aimed at kids; last summer's "Dark Knight" didn't get enough credit for how well it handled its *other* big villain, as marvelously portrayed by Aaron Eckhart. The filmmakers and actor pulled off the tricky feet of making Harvey/Two-Face both sympathetic and frightening, which goes to the core of this unique character.
Dracula is the first great horror villain, and like the Joker he's been portrayed countless times in ways ranging from the serious (Bela Lugosi's classic "Dracula") to the silly (Leslie Nielsen in "Dracula: Dead and Loving It"). The Gothic and immortal count is another tragic figure whose villainy is an understandable side effect of his wretched luck. Dracula is a great villain because he's as seductive and appealing as he is loathsome. My personal favorite Drac? Gary Oldman's brilliant turn in the visually dazzling "Bram Stoker's Dracula."
The Wicked Witch of the West & the Grand High Witch. As a kid my teachers were concerned that I was too fixated on witches and monsters. Maybe they were right. I was a sucker for anything involving a witch, from "Snow White" (the first movie I saw at the theaters) to the bizarre animated special "Witch's Night Out." Of course, the greatest of all witches is Margret Hamilton's immortal Wicked Witch, who terrorizes Oz with her horrible powers and limitless cruelty. (An early version of the film, with the green-skinned hag intoning "You can't even *imagine* the things I'm gonna do to you," had children in tears at test screenings.) Other kids were traumatized by this aspect of "The Wizard of Oz," but me, I lived for anything involving this stunning sorceress and her broomstick. Plus, Winged Monkeys? Best. Henchmen. Ever. Meanwhile, Roald Dahl's equally menacing Grand High Witch leaped from the page to the screen in Nicolas Roeg's 1990 adaptation of "The Witches." Anjelica Huston did a phenomenal job imbuing the child-hating leader of a murderous coven with personality and wit. But it was Jim Henson's Creature Shop that completed the transformation with eye-popping makeup effects. It doesn't hurt that the Grand High Witch can shoot fatal laser beams from her eyes.
Norman Bates, Michael Myers & Freddy Krueger. As a die hard horror fan, I had to give a shout out to this troika of iconic slashers. Of course, Tony Perkin's indelible Norman Bates is the grand daddy of them all; as at least one critic noted, many of the films released in "Psycho's" wake played like extended versions of the shower scene. But no other horror villain was as complex or sympathetic as Bates, a shy "boy next door" hiding a deadly secret. (Mean Mom is, of course, all in his head.) While Bates functions as "Psycho's" villain in some respects, his likability and struggles simultaneously establish him as a folk hero. Nearly two decades later, John Carpenter used Hitchcock's masterpiece as the template for his own horror classic, the relentless "Halloween." His ultimate bogeyman Michael Myers was like Norman without the personality, another tortured man child who'd lost all sense of personality or heart. Instead, he became a masked murderer whose idea of playing is stalking and killing babysitters. After seven sequels and a remake (with another sequel on the way), Myers has become one of the genre's most enduring stars. But no follow-up or rip-off can match the power of the slow, silent killer from the original film. The success of "Halloween" inspired countless knock-offs as well as a few films that put their own unique stamp on the stalk and slash formula. One of these was "A Nightmare on Elm Street," which introduced the world to reality-bending child killer (and probable pedophile) Fred Krueger. As played by Robert Englund, Krueger was another largely-silent stalker who had the added advantage of an unforgettable weapon-- a glove with knives for fingers-- and control over the dream worlds of his hapless teen victims. Further films in the series continued to explore surreal possibilities while also imbuing "Freddy" with a wise cracking sense of humor. By the time of 1994's "New Nightmare" Freddy had become something of a joke, but original creator Wes Craven proved there was still life in the character by remaking him as an evil demon let loose on the "real" world.
Ursula. Entertainment Weekly credits the Wicked Queen for setting the pattern for Disney villains, but my favorite is still "The Little Mermaid's" hilariously vicious Ursula the Sea Witch. This portly, flashy mix of woman and octopus slithered her way into the hearts of millions with her catty sense of humor and wicked magic. Besides, what gay man could resist a villainess modeled on Divine?
The Cigarette Smoking Man. "The X Files" was both a signature 90s series and a sci-fi landmark. Its one episode monsters were often highly memorable-- the Fluke Man, Eugene Tooms, that creepy limbless woman on the gurney in "Home"-- but its greatest villain was the shadowy Cigarette Smoking Man. As gruffly portrayed by William B. Davis, "CSM" was a sinister presence whose mystery only deepened as we learned the full extent of his role in the vast Conspiracy. Over the years Davis' character evolved from a mostly background presence to a personality so compelling he starred in his own episode, the history-spanning "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man." Cementing his status as a great villain? Quite possibly-- spoiler alert!-- the greatest death of all time: turning up in a cave after being thought dead (again), a long haired, leering CSM is hit by a missile-- and we watch his skeleton incinerate before our eyes. A fitting end for a truly "black lunged son of a bitch."

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