Sense of Wonder: Shedding a Tear for the Death of the Bad Guy

Twister (1996)
Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes) meets his fate in TWISTER

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)

The cold lunar surface will become Turner's final resting place.
The cold lunar surface will become Turner's final resting place.

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.
Batman Returns (1992)

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)

bridewithwhitehair03Ranking 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)

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)

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)

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.


Lunar Movie Madness: Cinema's Many Trips to the Moon – A Retrospective

A TRIP TO THE MOON: George Melies' 1902 comic fantasy silent film, a piece of special effects whimsy

Our nearest neighbor in the Solar System, the Moon has long inspired the imagination of humanity. Everyone has heard of “the Man in the Moon.” In ancient cultures, lunar eclipses were feared as portents of disaster. The phases of the Moon were thought to have astrological significance, influencing the behavior of people on Earth – a belief that persists to this day (hence the word “lunatic,” derived from “lunar”). In 1935, the Great Moon Hoax convinced many people that life had been discovered on the lunar surface, at around the time that astronomers were establishing that the Moon contained no water or atmosphere – the essentials for life.

Today, the attraction of the Moon still pulls on in our hearts and minds, as evidenced by the literally hundreds of movies that use the word in their titles, usually for romantic and/or poetic purposes (e.g., Mizoguchi’s masterpiece UGETSU MONOGATARI, which translates as “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”). However, thanks to the Apollo landing, every school child knows that the Moon is a barren wasteland, uninhabited by aliens; this undermines some of its potential for science fiction adventure stories (after all, if the place is not the abode of Moon Men intent on destroying the Earth, what good is it?). When it comes to cinefantastique, use of th word “moon” in the title is more likely to represent an excursion into lycanthropy (FULL MOON HIGH, MOON OF THE WOLF, etc) than a journey to outer space. Yet science fiction filmmakers still continue to find occasional use for the orbiting satellite, most recently in MOON, which opens this weekend.
What follows is a look at some of the more memorable examples of Moon-based movies…

The Earth ship on the lunar surface
The Earth ship on the lunar surface

Moon movies really kick off with A TRIP TO THE MOON, George Melies short and whimsical 1902 film. The story combines elements of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells: as in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, the astronauts ride in a space ship shot out of a canon; as in Wells’ First Men in the Moon, the Earth explorers discover crustacean-like Moon Men. But if Melies owes his humorous tone to anyone at all, it is to Edgar Allan Poe for his satirical hoax “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” which describes a trip to the moon in a hot-air balloon. Fantasy rather than science fiction, Melies’ film has a group of men in business – rather than space – suits landing on the lunar surface, where they breathe without trouble about the lack of atmosphere; their umbrellas take root when stuck in the ground; and the annoying moon men go up in a puff of smoke when struck. The primitive quality of A TRIP TO THE MOON date it somewhat (Melies films all scenes in master shots, never cutting to different angles), but the film retains its charm over a century later.
In 1929, the great Fritz Lang gave us WOMAN IN THE MOON, which is probably the first feature film to deal with the subject of lunar travel in a serious manner. The lengthy story (the restored version of the film runs over two hours) involves the rivalry during a mission that takes place following the discovery that large quantities of gold exists on the moon.  Unfortunately, the silent film was drowned out by the clamor of the new sound era of film-making. Although neglected, at least one writer believes WOMAN IN THE MOON is “quite an amazing film” that “shows Lang at the height of his powers.”
With Lang’s WOMEN IN THE MOON overlooked, the first film that earned recognition for offering a believable portrait of space travel is George Pal’s 1950 production of Robert Heinlein’s novel, DESTINATION MOON. A meticulous piece of work that stuck closely to the known science of its day, DESTINATION MOON is a landmark in terms of special effects and production design (including a wonderful panoramic painting of the lunar scenery by noted astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell); it is also, unfortunately, slightly dull. Without a threat of menacing aliens, the moon is not necessarily very interesting, so the film lacks drama, coming across a bit like a psuedo-documentary. Still, you have to give the film credit for the integrity of sticking to reality instead of drifting off into fantasy.
DESTINATION MOON was followed up by 1953’s less well-remembered PROJECT MOON BASE, which was also scripted by Heinlein. Meanwhile, the low-budget ROCKETSHIP X-M(1950) just missed the Moon: its rocket ship (containing Lloyd Bridges, among others) veers off course and lands on Mars instead – quite an impressive accomplishment. Also in 1953 was the immortal camp classic CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON, which is more or less summed up in its title – what more could you possibly need to know?
From the Earth to the Moon (1958)In 1958, Hollywood stars Joseph Cotten and George Sanders went FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. This competent but mostly forgotten film version of the Jules Verne novel suffered a bit from the passage of time between the source material and the adaptation. Verne often made uncanny predictions about the possibilities of air travel and space flight (From the Earth to the Moon predicts that America is the country with the ambition and ability to reach the moon, and based on the fact that the rotation of the Earth would provide an extra boost to any rocket launch, Verne picks Texas and Florida as the likely launching sites.) However, the method of travel – shooting a space ship out of a canon – would instantly kill any astronauts on board.
The same year as FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, Hollywood gave us MISSILE TO THE MOON, about a pair of escaped convicts who are forced by a scientist to pilot the titular ship – the plot twist being that the scientist is actually a moon-man who wants to get back home.
1963 gave us THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, a political satire directed by Richard Lester (who would go on to direct A HARD DAY’S NIGHT). This sequel to THE MOUSE THAT ROARED (in which a tiny country named Grand Fenwick declares war on the U.S. in the hope of being rebuilt with American dollars after being defeated) depicts what happens when Grand Fenwick decides to enter the space race: Not only do they win; they end up rescuing the astroanut teams from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  The film suffers a bit from the absence of Peter Sellers (who played multiple roles in ROARED), but Ron Moody, Margaret Rutherford, and Terry-Thomas do a good job of filling his shoes. The New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther called the result “a blithely outrageous spoof” full of “daffy situations and some very droll dialogue.”
First Men in the Moon (1964)Hercules battled the Moon Men in 1964’s Italian import HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN. Also that year, Charles Schneer produced FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, an adaptation of the novel by H. G. Wells. The film is basically a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects; nevertheless, it retains the Victorian setting and even some of Wells’ ideas, thanks to a script co-written by genre expert Nigel Kneale (best known for his Quatermass serials on British television). With NASA’s real-life Apollo missions only five years away from actually reaching the moon, the film updates much of the science (eliminating the flora on the lunar surface and giving the astronauts space suits made from deep sea-diving equipment), and the story is bracketed by scenes set in contemporary times to help make the period story more palatable to a modern audience (a technique later used in Titanic). Still, for all its virtues, the film feels a bit slow and episodic. Fortunately, Harryhausen’s work is splendid as always, and Lionel Jeffries is quite an amusing incarnation of Wells’ absent-mind professor, Cavor.
If 1967’s ROCKET TO THE MOON feels a bit like FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, the reason is that both films were inspired by the writings of Jules Verne. This time we get stars Burl Ives and Troy Donahue instead of Joseph Cotten and George Sanders, in a story about real-life P.T. Barnum financing a trip to the Moon. Terry-Thomas (of THE MOUSE ON THE MOON) and Lionel Jeffries (of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON) lend their support to the proceedings. This independent production from euro-sleaze merchant Harry Alan Towers (also known as THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS) was meant to rival lavish productions like THOSE MANGIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES. DVD Talk’s John Stuart Galbraith opines that the film is “shamelessly derivative but entertaining,” adding that it “wears thin during its aimless middle section, but has enough amusing ideas and performances to sustain it through to the end.”
One year later, Stanley Kubrick gave us 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Although only the film’s second section deals with the moon, this has to be considered the greatest “moon movie” ever made, thanks to the utterly convincing special effects and the beautiful classical music used to lend a balletic sense of beauty to space travel. Not only do we get a trip to the moon; we also get a tour of the lunar surface, where TMA-1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly) has been discovered – a strange monolith buried beneath the Earth’s surface, presumably for humanity to discover when they have achieved the first step in space travel. The film’s depiction of space travel still ranks as the best and most scientifically accurate ever seen on screen.
As if to offer a contrast between science-fiction-based-on-fact and science-fiction-as-all-out-fantasy, 1968 also offered us DESTORY ALL MONSTERS, in which Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra  fight off an alien race from the Moon. The depiction of space travel is the stellar opposite of Kubrick’s – completely unbelievable but completely exciting, in a boy’s adventure kind of way; if you ever dreamed of being an astronaut flying through space and defending the Earth from aliens, this is probably exactly how you imagined it. Unfortunately, the real lunar landing eclipsed this type of adventure-fantasy, and “Moon Movies” – unable to compete with reality – began fading from the screen.
In 1969, Hammer Films, a company usually associated with horror movies, tried their hands at science fiction with MOON ZERO TWO. Despite opening credits music that deliberately evokes SPACE ODYSSEY, the film is actually more of a melodrama involving a salvage expert on the moon who gets mixed up with some criminals who hijack a mineral-rich asteroid and crash it onto the lunar surface.
Ten years later, MOONRAKER never reached the lunar surface. Instead, James Bond battled bad guys on an orbiting space station. Although the film is pretty much a self-spoof, filled with laser beams and tongue-in-cheek action-adventure, the outer space special effects are pretty stellar, with an eye for as much accuracy as possible.
Another film that tried eat its cake and have it too was SUPERMAN II.Though mostly Earthbound, the film featured an early sequence of escaped super villains murdering astronauts on the surface of the Moon. The comic book nature of the material gave the filmmakers license to ignore reality in order to suit the needs of creating an exciting sequence that would not be filmed with total realism, but the production design and special effects are clearly influenced by the real-life lunar landings, with recognizable space suits and a lunar rover.
AMAZON WOMEN OF THE MOON (1987) is an anthology of comedy sketches, along the lines of  THE GROOVE TUBE, TUNNEL VISION, and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. The film takes its title from one of the longer episodes, a spoof of bad sci-fi flicks like CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON. Stern-faced actor Steve Forrest sends up his tough-guy looks as the leader of the mission, and Sybil Danning makes an attractive Queen of the Moon.
A GRAND DAY OUT (1994) is one of the few “Moon Movies” (besides SPACE ODYSSEY) to earn an Academy Award nomination. The stop-motion film, written and directed by Nick Park, was nominated in the animated short category but lost to Park’s other film, CREATURE COMFORTS. GRAND DAY OUT introduced the world to the delightful duo of Wallace and Gromit, a somewhat dense human and his considerably sharper canine companion. In their debut, Wallace runs out of cheese and gets the bright idea that he can find a ready supply on the Moon; being an inventor, he whips up a rocket ship in his basement, and off they go. Unfortunately, the lunar surface is not as palatable as they hoped, and they encounter a somewhat threatening robot, but everything works out well in the end.  The film’s linear storyline is primitive compared to later Wallace and Gromit films, but the humor and charm make this fanciful excursion a wonderful fantasy in the tradition of Melies A TRIP TO THE MOON.
With the Moon no longer quite so mysterious as it once was, the number of films that focus their attention on the lunar surface has dwindled. Earth’s lone satellite is only humanity’s first step into outer space, and filmmakers who seeking space invaders, alien cultures, and strange new worlds must look further out into space. When science fiction franchises like STARK TREK imagine a future when travel to the far reaches of the galaxy is possible, the Moon starts to lose its lustre.
That may be changing, thanks to the passage of time since Neil Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind onto the lunar surface. For those too young to have been impressionable children during that era, the lunar landing may seem less like a piece of history and more like an incredible legend. As Duncan Jones, director of MOON, said in a Q&A posted here:

The thing about the Moon is that I was born after the Apollo missions went to the moon. For a lot of our generation, it’s something very mysterious and slightly unbelievable. Even if you know that humanity has been to the moon, it feels a bit mythic and legendary; it doesn’t feel like something we can relate to. The fact that all of us can look up and see the moon at night…it’s like this place that none of us gets to visit. So I think there’s a mystery there. Even if we know everything about it from a scientific basis, there’s still something so mysterious about it. It’s the obvious place to set science fiction because it’s the first step….