Defining a Villain

Mr. Auric Goldfinger… widely regarded to be the best Bond villain, although not my personal favorite.

A brief glimpse into how my Borg-like mind works… recently I thought of making a list of my favorite Bond villains, but I’ve only sat through nine Bond films in their entirety (Goldeneye made me mad enough to turn it off within 20 minutes). But it gave me the idea to do a post about villains, and what makes one. And what doesn’t. No matter what the AFI’s Top 100 Heroes & Villains list says, the shark in Jaws is not a villain (the real villain of Jaws is clearly capitalism– just kidding!– sort of).

I’m getting ahead of myself.

The ever-faithful Oxford English Dictionary defines “villain” thusly: Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes (“villain, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 3 April 2017).

Class still plays a big part into the hero vs villain dynamic (a lot of heroes were born with a silver spoon and villains tend to have built up their empires from the ground, especially in comic books), but “villain” doesn’t necessarily mean lower-class anymore. So let’s throw that part of the definition out.

More interesting is that the definition of villain is very gendered… a villain is a “man” pretty much every time. I had to scroll all the way down the OED’s page to find a note that says the definition applies to womyn as well. My spelling, not theirs. But obviously, anyone of any gender can be a villain. And probably some of the first villains kids encounter were female: the witch from Hansel and Gretel, the step-mother in Cinderella, the queen from Snow White, Professor Umbridge…. But the male villain is still what most people associate with the title. Googling “top movie villains” as I write, I see one female villain– Annie Wilkes from Misery. It takes a couple clicks to get to Nurse Ratched, Alex Forrest, and the Wicked Witch of the West. (Disclaimer– Google is changeable, but  my point is still valid.)

The rest of the definition concerns being unprincipled, depraved, and association with crime. The “crime” part of the definition is interesting, and certainly many villains are associated with it. Returning to the James Bond example, SPECTRE is obligingly clear about their motives (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion is their anagram). It’s even a little too on-the-nose.

The definition of crime itself is a knotty one. After all, as the memes point out… slavery was legal. And O’Brien from 1984 is a horrifying villain, but everything he does is legal and encouraged under Big Brother’s regime.

So it seems being “unprincipled” and “depraved” are the best ways to determine a villain. It’s still a bit knotty there, but then you can have a “straight-edge” villain who still has people messily murdered as a point of pride. Or the villain might not kill anybody, but still causes pain just because they can (which shows a lack of principles).

And of course, a chilling smile or laugh always helps. But it is almost overdone, so not a requirement.


Top 10 Vampires #4 Barnabas Collins

There's more here than meets the eye.

There’s more here than meets the eye.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows had plenty of critics.  I skipped that party.  In fact, I love this movie.  It probably helps that I was fresh from watching as much of the old soap opera as I could stand in the months before the film was released.  People who disliked the movie seemed to find fault along two lines: Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins and making Caroline Stoddard a werewolf instead of Quentin Collins.  As I burned out on the soap before Quentin showed up (Barnabas took three episodes to get across his living room, after all), I can’t speak to that, but as to the vampire, well… read on MacDuff.

What I’ve noticed, is that people who nostalgically talk about Dan Curtis’ old TV show is that they’ve forgotten how much of a bastard Barnabas Collins could be.  When he first appeared he was quite frightening: beating Willy Loomis with his cane for slight offenses, keeping Maggie Evans imprisoned in the basement of his home until she promised to marry him, turning Caroline into a vampire (which took years!)….

With that in mind, a lot about the movie makes a lot more sense.  Anyway, for those who need a refresher… it opens with Barnabas’ narration of how he came to be turned into a vampire by his spurned lover, Angelique, a witch, and imprisoned in his coffin for a couple centuries.  Now, in 1972 Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters on the train to Collinsport to take a job as a tutor for the young David Collins.  Workers accidentally dig up Barnabas, who, is too thirsty to not kill them all.  Returning to Collinwood, the ancestral home, he finds that the family has fallen upon evil days.  The two servants are useless.  The brother is worse than useless; the doctor is a leech, and the kids are… strange.  Elizabeth, the matriarch, has her hands full, and is inclined to dismiss Barnabas as a fraud, but when he shows her his father’s secret treasure room she accepts his story and allows him to stay.

Barnabas tries to adjust to 70s life and become human, via blood transfusions from Dr. Hoffman, but he also knows he is a fish out of water and sometimes uses his vampiric powers to achieve his means– such as hypnotizing an old sea-dog (played by Christopher Lee!) into quitting his job with Angel Bay Fisheries and working for the Collins family.  In addition to being rather self-aware– he asks for help and follows the received advice, for better and for worse– he can still be brutal and violent.  He kills the construction workers and a group of hippies, along with Dr. Hoffman when he realized she was using his blood to turn herself into a vampire.  He keeps the audience off-balance because he breaks the rules.  Will he succeed or die (such as it is) trying?

The end result is a very clever, fun movie that still gives its audience a good kick every so often with its darkness.  This is, in no small part, aided by its most unusual vampire who provides a surprising amount of funny comedy relief, but also a lot of scares, too.  The slaughter of the construction workers is quite unsettling– particularly the way Barnabas asks the foreman for forgiveness before biting him; an exchange like that could become a snickerfest but remains dark.  His appearance hearkens back to Count Orlok in Nosferatu (look at those fingernails!), but with a modern twist.  I wouldn’t call Barnabas “so old he’s new” but he’s something like that, and he’s a remarkable breath of fresh air amongst all the Twilight stuff and deluge of zombies.