The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #1

They Only Wanted to Rule the World:
A Celebration of Cinematic Villainy, Part I  

M. Christian

“To a new world of gods and monsters.” ~ Dr. Pretorius

It is said that our enemies define us. Nowhere is that more true than in the cinema, where an elegantly crafted adversary can easily overshadow the heartiest protagonist. The hero might try, but in the end can only be defeated by a character much more extravagant, intelligent, and sometimes even attractive. The battle on the screen might be won, but many times it is the villain who wins the hearts of the audience.

Villains, after all, are pro-active: they take action rather than waiting to react. They have a sense of style, often glowing much more brilliantly than the everyman (or everywoman) heroes who oppose them. While usually doomed to fail or die by their own arrogant hands, villains first narrowly achieve their goals, making the audience grateful for the luck that placed the protagonist in their path.

Villains take risks; they step over the edge. Free from mundane morality, they act on their dreams, something heroes are typically unable to do. Occasionally still held by a sense of honor, they pursue their goals at the cost of whatever the protagonist holds dear, usually a significator of the time and culture that produced the film.

Broadening the focus of the villain to include all antagonists would be staggering. I would have to include nature and man himself, which would cover all of fiction as well as the movies. So, in an attempt to save my already tenuous sanity, I want to take a brief moment to clarify what I mean by a villain, as opposed to an antagonist.

Proactivity is one trait of the villain. They move and the protagonist defends, though in some rare cases the reverse is true. Villains have a morality that intersects with that of the hero. Villains are intelligent, often much more so than their adversaries, and usually they apply their intelligence in devious ways. After all, if our enemies do define us, then a villain who can easily be escaped by the hero is not much of a villain.

The last is more hard to define. Villains curl their mustaches; they sneer; they lurk in fantastic lairs or scowl from the controls of devious machines; they rule nightmarish armies or stone-hearted killers; they have dark dreams of smoke and blood while calculating excruciating tortures for those who dare oppose them. In short, villains have style. A simple adversary might have villainous features, fitting one or two of these criteria, but without that memorable quality of flair, they are nothing but a hard-blowing wind, an avalanche or an earthquake: a force as opposed to a character.

In short, true villains don’t just define their heroes; they relish in the fact that they have someone around to challenge them.

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Island of Lost Souls

A common error is to mistake a monster for a villain. Two classic films of the 1930s are prime examples of the differences between these two cinematic forces.

A poignant example of the differences between the two is in Erle Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933). Expertly adapted by Waldemar Young and Philip Wyle from H.G. Wells’ novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls is both a condemnation of science without barriers and a celebration of man’s base, animal nobility. But more than these broad topics, it really is the story of Dr. Moreau, played with gloriously broad strokes by Charles Laughton.

Though the title steps from the focus of the book by calling Moreau’s world Island of Lost Souls, it is evident on examination that the only really lost soul is Moreau’s. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is the hero, and except for one brief scrape with animal passion (and disguised bestiality), his soul is never in any doubt; nor is that of Parker’s fiancee Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams), or even that of Moreau’s haunted assistant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl).

As if to paint Parker with nothing but the purest of colors, we first see him being fetched aboard a tramp steamer after becoming shipwrecked. There he meets Montgomery, a haunted soul on his way to Moreau’s island with a howling banshee of crated animals. An innocent plucked from the sea without even a ship for us to hang his past onto, Parker quickly dons his shining armor to protect one of the doctor’s beast-men tending the animals from the ship’s cruel captain. The captain repays Parker by marooning him again, this time with Moreau.

On the doctor’s boat, the beasts Moreau has made into a semblance of men are revealed, growling and scampering in the shadow of the inscrutable Moreau (Laughton). At first Moreau appears to simply tolerate Parker, as if he were an uninteresting specimen. But later, after taking the young man into his barred white cement palace, he sees Parker’s presence as a chance to prove that his creations are as perfect as he desires them to be.

The scene is telling, both as the first long appearance of the doctor and as a glimpse into the themes of the film. Laughton’s performance as Moreau is cool, almost lackadaisical. He’s not a strident villain, but rather one almost bored with playing god on his island. He seems smugly satisfied with his creations, perfectly comfortable being the one who makes them and tells them how to live. He never sees Parker as being a threat to his world. But there is something else, something he confides cryptically to Montgomery, a quality that is missing from even his most perfect creation. Without identifying what (or even exactly who) he is referring to, he speaks to Montgomery of Parker being a perfect chance to test her, a chance to see if she really is as perfect as Moreau hopes.

From their first appearance in the film as primitive animals to their later manifestation as almost “human” (especially in the person of Lota the Panther Woman whom Moreau wishes to test with Parker), the beasts can be easily mistaken for forces of malevolence: they growl, roar, and bare their fangs. Yet the force that we really fear is Moreau. Embodied by Lota, the beasts are innocents; they only want to serve their master and to understand what he has made them into.

Parker hates and fears Moreau after he learns the secret of the beasts’ creation in the doctor’s House of Pain. But even after he learns the secret he still looks on Lota least a strong sense of lust, if not actual love. The beasts inspire fear, but it’s a fear of what Moreau has created, as opposed to their inherent nature or behavior. The beasts, after all, have their laws (as stated by Bela Lugosi): “Two legs good, four legs bad”: meat is bad; killing is bad. “Are we not men?” they sadly ask, trapped against their innocent nature in a form they do not understand, with only those rules to define their new identities.

Lota embodies that turmoil in one figure: as a panther in the form of a woman, she aches to understand the lust and love that Parker has brought to her world. A kiss away from consummation, her beastly heritage humiliates her as her fingers revert to claws, and Parker flees into the night.

There is an obvious psycho-sexual message in the film that adds to the idea of the innocence of the beast. Moreau explains to Montgomery that they have failed to take that next step with Lota because she hates and fears them. Could this be because Moreau and Montgomery cannot understand her desire? Later Moreau lounges seductively while Parker—frightened and repulsed—stands rigid as Moreau explains his techniques for transforming the beasts. It’s an exact echo of the profound and disturbing sexual tension between Parker and Lota. We see Parker being seduced again, but this time he is revolted. Moreau is not the an innocent looking for life; he is the lonely god who can’t find love among his creations.

While not an ideal villain, Laughton’s Moreau is nevertheless a powerful screen presence: his cool domination of the island and Montgomery starts to falter when Parker (humanity) threatens to leave. Only then does he stumble and fall. In his Panama suit and thin mustache, Laughton seems miles away from the hand-wringing scientist villain. In fact, aside from one brief scene, the film is bare of equipment or scientific procedures of any kind. It’s as if the beasts had sprung from his bare hands, which only adds to the theme of a falling god.

Indeed, Moreau remains the only truly lost soul in the film. In the end, the humans return to humanity, the beasts abandon their illusions of humanity, and Moreau is killed by the hands he helped to shape.

If the beasts are the monsters, innocents, then how is it that they are the only characters to draw blood? Like many monsters they are guilty only of innocence, the real crime being that they are led astray, manipulated by the evil desires of the villain. The first of these obvious manipulations occurs when Parker’s fiancee, Ruth, joins him on the island. Sensing that Parker and Lota are not going to consummate Moreau’s experiment (not with the very human and very virginal Ruth around). In a further sexual projection, Moreau whispers to one of the beasts, ordering him to further Moreau’s cause with a visit to Ruth’s bedroom. This foreshadows Moreau’s great fall: after all, the beast may have invaded the woman’s bedroom but it was at the command of his creator. In fact, it is an attack in name only, as the beast seems more fascinated than aroused by Ruth, as if she were the pinnacle Moreau would have all his beasts achieve.

It’s the beast’s impotent attack—or puppy-dog like adoration—that prompts Parker, Ruth, and comic relief sea Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst) to try to make their escape from the island.

Despite their growls, howls and even an aborted assault on our “heroes,” the beasts really never wish to draw blood. It is Moreau, unwilling to see his guests leave (perhaps needing their humanity, perhaps in love, perhaps sensing that the couple are what his beasts can never become), who orders one of his creatures to kill. It is only Lota’s interference, and noble death, that allows the protagonists and the redeemed Montgomery to escape. More human than her creator—and even more human than Parker, whom she loved—Lota’s death neatly sums up the film’s theme of animal nobility, and the cruelty of Moreau trying to change them to suit his own divine fantasies.

In the end, it’s Moreau’s passion—his own need for the presence of real humanity versus his forced mockeries that are crippled with pain—that ends him. He does not kill; he never draws blood, but he commits a worse sin: he breaks his own law. The beast that actually does the killing is not punished; instead he points his finger up at Moreau—at God—and proclaims that he did the deed at his behest. In the end, Moreau is carried, in revenge, screaming to the House of Pain. His own beasts try their hand at giving him humanity, his cries a testament to his failure at making them perfect humans, or at least good surgeons.

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Bride of Frankenstein

The second film of this period that highlights the difference between a monster and a villain is James Whale’s classic Bride of Frankenstein. Only in this sequel to Frankenstein does a real villain enter the world of the doctor and his creation.

As with Moreau, Frankenstein seeks to create without morals. But unlike Moreau, he faces his creation and realizes early on that his beast did not ask for creation and is pathetically unable to comprehend it. The monster is evil only because he does not understand the world he’s been brought into and its rules. At the end of the first movie, we could say that it is hubris that throws the doctor from the burning windmill, not the being that he has created.

The second film is very different. Here we find someone who not only seduces Dr. Frankenstein into walking down the same path, but who has already walked it himself. This is a character who, even more than Moreau, sees life as a plaything and has plans beyond simply expanding his hunger for scientific knowledge. As the villain of Bride of Frankenstein toasts proudly: “To a new world of gods and monsters!”

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) knows he has done wrong; yet his pride and the forbidden knowledge of creation claws at his mind. His conscience—embodied by his fiancee, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson)—leads him away from temptation....That is, until the devil appears in the form of Dr. Pretorius, gloriously played by Ernest Thesiger in a deliciously camp performance. Almost cadaverous, and topped with a shocking plume of white hair (and with an enthusiasm for camping that draws your attention every second he’s on the screen), Pretorius is the perfect seducer. However, when his seduction fails to lure Frankenstein, he becomes the perfect blackmailer.

At first Pretorius lures Dr. Frankenstein to his garret where he exhibits his own attempts at creating life: a parade of miniature homunculi including a king, a queen, a mermaid, a bishop, and a devil that Pretorius obviously regards as a reflection of himself. To drive the point home, he muses for a moment to the repulsed Frankenstein that he often wonders if the world would not be more interesting “if we were all devils.”

Yet Pretorius never murders. In fact he never raises his hand against anyone in the film. He is the manipulator, the instigator, pushing and prodding the characters towards their own desires. When Frankenstein backs away from Pretorius’s offer of collaborating to create a woman Pretorius takes it in stride, waiting for things to move his way.

They do. Henry’s guilt appears in the form of the monster (Karloff). Even though in his first time onscreen he kills two of the villagers, the monster is clearly the embodiment of innocence, literally brought into a world he doesn’t understand and that doesn’t understand him. We see this as he encounters a blind hermit who befriends him. These scenes with the hermit (O.P. Heggie) are classic schmaltz, yet they still manage to bring a tear to the eye. The two hurt and misfit beings, comforting each other in a cold world, are incredibly poignant together. In fact it’s only the outside world, in the form of two hunters (one played by a very young John Carradine), that separates them.

The lonely monster walks right into Pretorius’s hands in a wonderful scene in a crypt, where Pretorius is shopping for body parts and enjoying a nice little repast next to a pile of bones. Hungry for understanding and companionship, the monster is more than willing to do Pretorius’s will, appearing in front of his horrified creator as the embodiment of his guilt. Pretorius then gleefully exploits this guilt by pointing out to the doctor that it was only through his experiment that people have died.

Even the presence of the monster isn’t enough to push Frankenstein to where Pretorius wants him to be, and so the monster kidnaps Henry’s conscience, hauling Elizabeth off to a distant cave.

In Bride, Whale almost seems uncertain what to do with Pretorius. The fact that he gleefully crossed the line that so frightens Henry is obvious, as is his glee at being in control of the situation. Yet, again Pretorius’s hands are clean. None of his creations have killed, and under his control the monster doesn’t shed any more blood.

In fact, the only completely evil character is Karl (Dwight Frye), Pretorius’s assistant, who—in a subplot left on the cutting room floor—kills and then blames the killings on the monster. Later, when the two mad scientists need a healthy new heart, Karl is more than willing to strangle an innocent girl to supply one. Yet Karl is a minor character who seems to exist only for the monster to throw from the battlements, or as a way to tie Pretorius, even indirectly, to some kind of bloodshed.

It would be hard to find anyone who has not seen the bride’s reaction to the monster. Elsa Lanchester is magnificent as the transfixed, hissing beast, and she is much more primal than Karloff’s monster. When the monster realizes that love is not to be his, he sends Henry away in a burst of pure humanity, and then condemns Pretorius to die with him in an explosion.

Bride is a perfect example of the difference between a monster and a villain, and also demostrates the attraction of characters like Pretorius. Thesiger’s portrayal is of someone unashamedly brilliant, who sees the world as a plaything, something to be taken apart without a thought for the consequences. As with his little creatures, the people around him are minuscule amusements—things to be pushed and pulled in the accomplishment of his ends. This, and not the simplicity of murder, is what condemns him. The monster, the gigantic child, returns to the peace of the grave; Pretorius, who was saved from any glimmer of a conscience and yet was innocent of even the simplest violence, is sentenced to perish.

The movie belongs to two characters. Colin Clive is excellent, but his character’s breast-beating over his conscience leaves him a shallow, ghostly figure in contrast to the strength of Pretorius and the pain of his monster. The other characters simply exist to either scamper like children or provide a moment of plot development (such as Elizabeth acting as Henry’s conscience). Thesiger towers on the screen, second only to Karloff.

Villains like Moreau and Pretorius emerge as more than characters that simply oppose the protagonists. They are people who have crossed an unacceptable line between desire and morality. Yet their stepping away from the moral position have also left them with a personal power, a presence that has in some way elevated them above the characters they oppose.

In Island of Lost Souls it is Moreau’s need to contact humanity and to understand what he has lost that dooms him by making him break the laws he’s set down for his beasts. In Bride, Pretorius falls because he has committed the sins of pride and passion. In fact, of all the characters in Bride, only Pretorius seems to enjoy the direction in which he is going.

Villains like Moreau and Pretorius light the screen, even more than the heroes who are called on by circumstance to defeat them. They live larger, are more passionate and more intelligent than any of the others. Is it no wonder that when they perish we feel an ache and an anger that they have been pulled off-stage?

Luckily, there is a wonderful tradition of villainy in the cinema, and there are many other characters as wild and vibrant as Pretorius and Moreau, characters whom we love as much as we are supposed to despise them.

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M. Christian is the author of over 100 short stories, editor of seven anthologies, columnist and, in general, a really busy guy. His first collection of short stories, Dirty Words, is out now from Alyson Books—with a second volume, Speaking Parts, coming out next year (also from Alyson Books). For more information, check out his website.

Copyright © 2000 by the author. All rights reserved.