Sense of Wonder: Shedding a Tear for the Death of the Bad Guy
In horror, fantasy, and science fiction, even the worst of the worst sometimes garner a moment of deathbed sympathy.
Arbogast, the mystery man behind the excellent Arbogast on Film blog, recently revived his “One You Might Have Saved” blog-a-thon, which originated two years ago with a post about an unfortunate character in Joe D’Amato’s horror film BUIO OMEGO (“Beyond Darkness”), whose death resonated far more deeply that than of the usual disposable victim. The concept is for bloggers to articulate a personal moment when their audience identification with an on-screen victim reached the critical mass that engendered the irrational desire to break the fourth wall and offer assistance. The result has been an impressive series of posts that offer a startling picture of empathy not normally associated with horror fans, acting as a corrective to the mainstream mis-perception of the genre as doing nothing more than feeding the bloodlust of alienated outsiders.
I made my contribution to the effort back in May of 2008, but the project’s renewel has inspired me to dust off a slighlty similar idea that has been resting on the catafalque for quite a while; my version shifts the focus from victim to villain. If the majority of victims in horror films are anonymous bodies whose death serves up little more than a visceral thrill, the villains tend to be sacrificial strawmen, set up just so we can enjoy seeing them knocked down. This may be true in most genres, but it is especially true in horror, fantasy, and science fiction, where evil is often spelled with a capital “E,” and the stakes range from your immortal soul to global extinction. Characters who perpetrate this much pain and suffering are supposed to get it – and get it good – for the cathartic satisfaction of the audience, who are encouraged to applaud the demise, preferably of a magnitude that will settle the huge karmic debt.
However, upon rare occasions, filmmakers will throw an unexpected curve ball. I’m not talking about the bogus redemption of Darth Vader in RETURN OF THE JEDI, Pinhead in HELLRAISER II, or Jaws in MOONRAKER, all of whom suddenly become “good guys” (at least the last one was treated as a joke). No, I mean bad guys who remain bad – and yet display a sudden, startling flash of humanity, a mere minute spark of soulfulness that seems to blaze all the brighter because it contrasts so astoundingly with the surrounding darkness.
In order to narrow my list down, I will avoid including characters whose villainous status is ambivalent. We may shed a tear for King Kong when he plunges off the Empire State Building, but we have had reason to root for the big ape long before then; monster though he may be, he risked his life to save his beloved little blond girlfriend. I will also exclude characters when it is not clear to me that the filmmakers intend sympathy; for instance, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and his Japanese counterpart, Godzilla, may have died painful deaths in 1954, but I’m not sure the filmmakers wanted me to feel sorry for them.
This, then, is my list of villains for whom I have shed a tear…
Turner in WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929)
This insidious representative for powerful interests uses criminal methods, including threats of violence, to force his way onto a trip to the moon along with the film’s heroes. Turner is a rather unctuous character, and something of a mystery; as played by Fritz Rasp, he evokes extreme confidence in his endeavors, and he suggests a threat of continuous danger, even when he is observing formal rules of decorum.
Unfortunately for him, he meets his demise on the moon. There is a certain poetic justice in this, which should give reason for the audience to rejoice, and yet director Fritz Lang refuses to play the scene for the obvious emotion. Instead, as Turner lies dying in the arms of his reluctant travelling companions, the other characters ask whether there is anyone back on Earth to whom they should deliver a message. Turner looks deep into the spectre of death approaching him and says, “No one.” And then expires.
You were a creepy despicable little man Turner, but the loneliness of your death disturbs. Okay, technically, you were not alone, but the emptiness of your final words suggests a deep loneliness of soul: no family, no friends, no one at all. I can’t say you deserved a better final resting place than the cold lunar surface, but I should have revelled in your death, and now I can’t.
Marlin Arlington in TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)
When we first meet Arlington (Paul Cavanagh), he is disembarking a boat to Africa, upon which it is abundantly clear that he has just had an affair with a married woman. This is merely our introduction to the perfidy of the man, who later shoots Tarzan in the back and leaves him for dead. Viewers can be forgiven for expecting that the plot will contrive a final-reel confrontation between the Lord of the Jungle and this scheming villain, but fate intervenes in the form of a pack of hungry lions that systematically begins devouring the members of a team that includes Arlington and Jane. With only the two of them left, and no sign of rescue arriving in time, Arlington – the so-far soulless bastard – reveals a starling concern for Jane’s welfare, declaring: “When the end came, I never thought it would matter, but it does – because of you!” And then he throws himself to the lions, his death delaying their attack upon Jane for a few moments – long enough for Tarzan to arrive and save her.
Arlington, you were an adulterer and a would-be murderer, and probably many other things besides, but at the end you did a far, far better thing than you had ever done before.
The Penguin in BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
This comic book villain (portrayed by Danny Devito) is a rather repulsive freak. Resentful that his parents abandoned him and that his unsightly appearance has made him a perpetual outsider, he seeks not acceptance – but vengeance upon the denizens of Gotham city. His goal is not to prove his underlying humanity; rather, it is to become a “respectable” monster (like the film’s Max Shrek, a businessman every bit as nefarious as the Penguin, who passes as a pillar of the community). The Penguin’s understandable resentment over the cruel hand that fate has dealt him lights a small spark of sympathy, and yet he works overtime to extinguish it, even going so far as to plot the death of every first-born child in Gotham. By the end, he is declaring, in a deliberate ironic evocation of the Elephant Man, “I am not a human being; I am an animal!” When he finally meets his demise, we should be glad to see him go; even at the point of death, he is still fixated on killing Batman, reaching for an umbrella that he expects is a disguised weapon, only making the mistake of grabbing a joke one instead (it opens witha flag that says “Bang” instead of firing a real bullet).
But then, as life fades, he suddenly distracted from his homicidal intent by a desire for a nice, refreshing drink of ice water. It’s a thirst that is never quenched, his body giving out and falling flat. The simple human desire to enjoy a simple pleasure recalls the lost humanity hidden inside his mis-shapen form. The effect is underlined by his funeral procession, as the real penguins that have been his companion since childhood, guide his body into the water, rather like a Viking being sent to sea for one final voyage. Ultimately, Oswald Cobblepot, your unfortunate appearance – and the reactions it provoked in others – was not enough to justify your villainy, but at the end, it is sad to see you go.
Chi Wu-Shuang in THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (1993)
Ranking amongst the most bizarre villains in cinematic history are the Siamese twins in this Hong Kong period fantasy – they’re over-the-top even by the exaggerated standards of Fant-Asia films. Played by Francis Ng and Elaine Lui, this male and female set of Siamese twins (!) are joined at the back, forever forced to sleep on their sides, never enjoying a comfortable night’s sleep lying face up. I’m not sure whether this is supposed to be what hardened their hearts and turned them into evil schemers, but they ruthlessly destroy the Romeo-and-Juliet romance between the two leads (warriors from rival factions who fall in love despite their family enmity). The heroine has trust issues – she doesn’t want her lover ever to doubt her – and the viscious twins kill off hero’s clan in such a way as to implicate the heroine, who goes mad with rage, her hair literally turning white when the hero suspects her of the murder. The ruse may have worked, but it backfires when the titular Bride with White Hair kills the twins by splitting them in half.
It should be a moment of triumph – and it is to a certain extent – but it is marked by an unexpected grace note: as Francis Ng’s half of the evil duo lies dying, staring face up into the camera, he gasps out, “So this is what it’s like to lie on your back. It’s wonderful!” I can’t forgive the damage these two have done, but I feel that little moment of blessed respite flashing through Ng’s eyes in his final moment upon this Earth.
Dr. Jonas Miller in TWISTER (1996)
Working at a high-class (i.e., snooty) outfit like Cinefantastique, I know I am supposed to regard this special effects laden blockbuster with utter contempt, and yet I enjoy its mindless orchestration of destruction. And I think it deserves credit for one unexpected moment of humanity. Dr. Miller (Cary Elwes) is set up as a man you love to hate, a scientific rival against our heroes, who is only in the tornado-chasing game for the glory, not the science. In this kind of movie, you just know he’s going to buy the farm – it’s absolutely obligatory – but you also expect the film to revel in his death,chortling in silent complicity with the audience, “Well, he got what he deserved.”
And yet, when the all-too-predictable moment comes, there is no joy in it, only fear. Yeah, the guy was a pompous dick – so arrogant that he ignored the warning that could have saved his life – but even so, he didn’t deserve this. Kudos go to Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton for their thunderstruck reaction to the horrible event. They didn’t like the guy one bit, but even though his death clears the way for them to succeed where he failed, their faces express only stunned horror over Miller’s death. It is a horror that we in the audience, quite unexpectedly, share. Yes, Dr. Miller, we knew you had to go, and we were expecting to cheer, but in the end, we don’t.
Nabel/Macanudo in SPACE TRUCKERS (1996)
This bad guy (played by Charles Dance) meets what should have been an unfortunate demise fairly early on, only to reappear later in cyborg form. His brush with mortality hasn’t taught him any sympathy for the rest of the human race; if anything, he’s worse than before; trying to coerce the film’s heroine into bed against her will, he’s actually loathsome even when his semi-mechanical existence makes us almost want to feel sorry for him. When death finally does come definitely knocking on his door, he doesn’t exactly have a change of heart, but his pathetic condition (“I’d shit myself…if I had an anus”) cannot help evoking some sympathy, especially as he displays what might be taken for a rudimentary form of dignity in his final moments. Not enough to redeem his previous bad actions, but even our hero John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) has to admit, “You know, for a son-of-a-bitch, gimp rapist murderer… he died ok!”
J.T. in DEAD GIRL (2008)
About the only good thing you can say for this scumbag (brilliantly embodied by Noah Segan) is that he was too young and stupid – too lacking in the moral guidance that might have pointed him in a better direction – to be fully responsible for his heinous behavior. We dont’ know much about J.T.’s background – we’re told that no one cares about him except maybe his grandma – but this consideration is hardly enough to excuse him. Faced with a discovery of a living-dead girl, chained helplessly in the bowells of an abandoned hospital, J.T. gets the bright idea to use her body for his own sexual pleasure – and to pimp her out to the rest of his high school’s male population. Then, when the titular Dead Girl’s decomposition becomes a turn off, he hits on the bright idea of obtaining a fresher specimen – i.e., murdering an innocent female and turning her into his new zombie sex slave. Unfortunately, he selects the object of desire of his best friend, leading to a chaotic confrontation that leaves J.T. mortally wounded while the Dead Girl escapes.
Bleeding out, knowing the end is near, this thoroughly selfish prick looks into his best friend’s eyes and shocks the cinematic audience into sadness by saying, “Don’t tell my grandma, okay?” J.T., you were one messed up mother-f*cker, and I was rooting throughout the whole film for the tables to turn against you. Then, when they finally did, you robbed me of the joy of your demise by revealing this sudden, pathetic concern for the one person in life who cared about you. You did what you did, and probably told yourself there was nothing wrong with it, but in the end, past the point when the revelation could have hurt you, you wanted to avoid hurting your grandmother’s feelings with the awful truth about yourself. For that, I salute you.
And shed a tear.
If any other bloggers out there have similar reactions to the demise of the bad guys, I would love to hear them.