Friday, February 17, 2012

My Five Favorite, Absurdly Underrated Movie Villians

 Hailing the most horrendous (and underrated) cinematic antagonists of the last quarter century 

Hey! The Oscars are coming up next week, and I, for one, don't really give a hoot. Between the eight hour long acceptance speeches and those pointless musical interludes and the fact that dry, boring ass Hallmark movies are nominated as opposed to truly great flicks like "The Raid" and "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within," my interest in the Academy Awards is pretty much limited to whether or not somebody will try to make a really misguided, awkward political statement a la George Clooney or Mikey Moore while on stage (My bet? That dude that made "A Separation" will say something about the Israelis, pending he's picked up a little more English since the Golden Globes.)

One thing that really struck me about this year's acting nods was the complete and utter lack of ANY traditional villainous roles getting nominated. Granted, not every year can we have Daniel Plainview and Amon Goethe up for awards, but I have to say, I am really starting to get disappointed by the lack of refined villainy in our movie-going experiences in general. When was the last time you went to the local googol-plex and said to yourself "damn, that dude is all sorts of evil?" and really, you know, meant it?

The hyper-relativism of modern cinema makes the great movie villainy of yesteryear a fairly outdated ideal. Nowadays, the only times you're presented with straight-up, distinctly evil antagonists is when you're dealing with Nazis or racists. Even our serial killers are typically presented as multifaceted, quasi-sympathetic figures whose proclivities were borne of prior emotional abuses. If Freddy Krueger were a modern advent, they would probably turn him into a janitor with ADHD that was beat up by his dad and inadvertently offs tweenagers instead of a hideously burnt "To Catch a Predator" forerunner. The humanities are killing the fine arts, I tell you what.

Of course, that's not to say that there aren't some great movie villains out there, including some fairly recent ones. Everybody and their mom can rave about Heath Ledger's Joker or Alex Delarge, but what about those cinematic bad guys that just never got the respect the deserved as iconic movie villains? Even though they may not have gotten the approbation of a Hannibal Lector or a Darth Vader, there are quite a few movie baddies that I think deserve equal footing in the pantheon of celluloid immortals - in fact, I can name five of the top of my head that ought to become the archetypes for film evil from hereon out.

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling sort of listless this afternoon; now, who's up for a walk on the dark side of film with me this evening?

Doyle Hargraves in “Sling Blade” (1996)

For some reason, nobody ever talks about the absurd brilliance of Dwight Yokam’s performance in “Sling Blade.” Granted, Billy Bob Thornton was pretty captivating as the mustard-biscuit chomping, pig-pecker avoiding Carl Childers, but not only did Yokam steal the show as Doyle Hargraves, he put on what I consider to be one of the all-time greatest cinematic villain performances in the process.

To this day, I am convinced that Yokam wasn’t so much acting as he was reliving specific moments from the 1980s on camera. There’s such a subtlety and realness to his evil that I’m pretty certain that, at one point in his life, he probably did have a ferocious alcohol problem while cohabitating with a Dollar Tree employee, her son, her homosexual best friend and a recently released, mentally-retarded serial killer that lives in a garage outback.

It’s the smoothness of Yokam’s evil that really drives the movie. Take the scene where he gets rip-roaring drunk and throws his band (including criminally underappreciated alt-country legend Vic Chesnutt) out of his girlfriend’s house; after dropping ninety seven thousand permutations of the “f-bomb” in three minutes of undiluted raging, he falls to his knees and proclaims to his girl “I’m hurting’ Linda,” before responding to her son’s criticisms with “I hate you too, you little prick…no, I don’t, I love your mother” with a sneer on his face more Satanic than anything you’ll see in a Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lector movie. Attention, all first-year drama students: if you’re looking for a clinic on how to display reverse pathos, that performance right here ought to be your new north star. 

Lotso-Huggin’-Bear in “Toy Story 3” (2010)

I’ve said it countless times, but it bears repeating: Hollywood might as well just stop making movies after “Toy Story 3.”

Odds are, we’ll never see a mainstream, mega-money-backed project that awesome ever again (and clearly, never again from PIXAR, as the tremendously disappointing “Cars 2” most definitely demonstrated.) During “Toy Story 3,” I ran the gamut of emotions, from nostalgic bliss to abject horror to almost pissing myself during the trash compactor scene - and for those of you that doubt the power of the narrative, when you want to scream “NO, YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH!” towards an anthropomorphic teddy bear, you KNOW you are no doubt witnessing one of the greatest villain performances in the history of American cinema.

Lotso-Huggin’-Bear, the strawberry-scented, Ned Beatty-voiced overseer of Sunnyside Daycare’s toy room, is one of the most nuanced villains to come along in quite some time, a hyper nihilistic although strategically cool sumbitch scarred by aging, longing and his own egomania. He straddles that line between pity and evil so expertly that you wonder how Beatty didn’t get an Oscar nod for his voice work alone. Cultural studies scholars often tell us that illustrative evil is transcendent from the cultural text from which it is born - and if that’s the case, the multifaceted vileness of “Lotso-Huggin’-Bear” is destined to become one of those multimedia exemplars of evil that we’ll be citing and imitating for years to come.

Billy Mitchell in “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” (2007) 

In my quarter century of movie going experiences, I have never encountered a figure in a film that I have wanted to punch in the face as much as I did this prick. Billy Mitchell, the Donkey Kong world champion and Florida hot sauce baron, is a real-life figure so comically evil that you wonder how close the guy is to turning into a real life Batman villain. I’m guessing one dip into a pool of volatile chemicals, and we’ve got a major social blight on our hands.

Mitchell’s evilness is almost inherent. Before the guy even speaks, you know he’s a grade “A” douche, and by the five minute mark of the film, you want to see him ran over by a wheat thresher. Mitchell is probably the biggest megalomaniacal narcissist since Hitler, so if there’s a silver lining anywhere to be found in the miserable thunder cloud that he is, I suppose it’s the fact that he took up arcade games as opposed to eugenics as a hobby.

Mitchell is very much a technocratic form of evil. In the “King of Kong,” he maintains his world record high score on “Donkey Kong” via an elaborate, bureaucratic network and, according to the hero of the film, breaking and entering into people’s homes so he can send saboteurs to mess up their Donkey Kong, Jr. cabinets. By the time the film’s over, you’ll marvel in the real life majesty of the man’s innate messed-up-ness, concluding that, yeah, there’s a pretty good chance he may end up killing someone to preserve his unblemished Robotron 2040 win loss record.

 Precious’ Mom in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire” (2009)

I’m likely to catch a lot of flak for saying it, but it’s something we are all pretty much thinking immediately after screening “Precious”; holy crap, was that movie hilarious.

Granted, it’s not hilarious in the traditional sense, but hilarious in the oh hell, I need a defense mechanism to protect me from the abject horror of the situation kind. You may be wondering how a film about an AIDS-infected, morbidly obese illiterate girl raped by her own father can be construed as comedic, in any regard. Well, I can summarize that in one word for you: Mo’Nique.

There’s “over-the-top” performances, and then there’s Mo’Nique’s performance in this film. Precious’ mom isn’t just the embodiment of evil in the film, she’s the kind of evil that most of us refuse to even exist in real-life - you know, the I’m-going-to-throw-my-newborn-grandson-at-my-daughter kind of evil. I’m still waiting for somebody to come up with a drinking game for this movie, in which you have to take a shot every time Mo’Nique throws an inanimate object at her daughter. Granted, you could model one around the number of times she drop’s the f words (the other one’s “fat,” in case you were wondering), but I’m pretty sure you would die from alcohol poisoning before the twenty minute mark of the picture. Mo’Nique deserves a spot on the list just for the scene where she tries to find her wig before the social worker comes in…based on her effectiveness in this role, I think she can legally claim the right to the next ten Best-Supporting-Actress awards.

The Warden in “Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky” (1991)

“Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky,” is the greatest bad movie of all-time. The early ‘90s Hong Kong action-splatter film has long been trumpeted as among the all time masterpieces of garbage cinema, and I reckon it’s pretty hard to disagree with the experts here: “Riki-Oh” sucks better than any motion picture in the annals of the art form.

For the most part, the protagonist of the film - this karate master that no-sells bullet wounds and has the ability to punch his way through people’s flesh like tissue paper - is a pretty uninteresting character; thus, the burden of the film is placed on the shoulder’s of the movie’s primary antagonist, the Warden of a futuristic mega-jail with a gaggle of aesthetically interesting cronies that put the entire James Bond series to shame.

It’s sort of hard to pinpoint what makes the Warden so interesting in the film. Perhaps its his coolness and reserve, which is sort of hard to maintain when you’re watching a three hundred pound inmate get disemboweled by a guy that looks like Liu Kang from “Mortal Kombat” just three feet in front of you. Perhaps it’s the profound absurdity of his decision making skills, as it one point, he promulgates burying the main character alive instead of, you know, killing him - and even more irrationally, he just lets him go after a week of rotting in the ground. Hell, maybe it’s even his relationship with his son, the heir apparent to the meg-jail (apparently, the idea of father/son bonding in Hong Kong entails plucking out peoples’ eyeballs with walking sticks.) But ultimately, the thing that puts the Warden WAY out in front of the pack regarding underappreciated film villains is the (OH MY GOD, SUPER SPOILER COMING UP) fact that, at the climax of the film, he just turns into a hulking, Play-Doh faced Muppet monster without any explication from the film itself to do battle with the titular character. 

So there you have it, an illustrative look at the refined concepts of cinematic evilness for us, the post-post-modern generation: alcoholic construction workers, nihilistic teddy bears, narcissistic Pong champions, hyper-abusive chronic welfare recipients and poorly dubbed jail overseers with the ability to turn into Beaker's roided-up monster form in times of great duress.

Now, let’s see your lame-ass Darth Vaders or Magnetos top ANY of those afore-mentioned feats of neo-cinematic villainy.


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