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Issue #3

They Only Wanted to Rule the World: A Celebration of Cinematic Villainy, Part III Buy now from Movies Unlimited! 

M. Christian

Human error won’t stop him. He’s had years to hide, to plot this damnable thing. He’s compelling himself to follow exactly the classic death pattern of the G’tach. It’s the psychic force that holds the man together, this maniacal precision. If we could just throw it off, interrupt the cycle, then he might be stopped by his own inflexible standards.

At first it seems a contradiction, but the evidence is overwhelming: villains of the cinema are often possessed of a purer, more demanding morality than their protagonist(s). There’s a whole genre within a genre where antagonists are commanded by a exacting form of ethics that strips them of everything save the desire for justice.

On the surface, these characters exist only to inventively terrorize their real or imagined victims. The formula is repeated endlessly: the villain-to-be is seen as brilliant but misunderstood, perhaps crippled by a lack of comprehension of earthly realities—or human frailties. Their world then crumbles around them through the real, or even just mistaken—misinterpreted—injustice of several key characters. In every instance of this pattern, the villain becomes the true lead character, the victims and those trying to save them becoming nothing but shadow puppets compared to the intensity of their adversary.

It doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to dismiss the label of “villain” from these characters. While their actions may, after all, have fatal or cruel results, they see themselves as acting for a greater good—serving justice because of an injustice done to them. They were slighted, hurt, crippled, robbed, raped—and so, in turn, they seek retribution, using their brilliance, their passion, and their own, purer, morality. In very few cases does a film present one of these characters as being completely without sympathy. The horror, the tension, in these situations isn’t that what these “villains” are monsters, but rather that their passion, their genius, is being turned inwards, being wound around an inescapable pattern of retribution. Even in cases where the injustice done to them is simply a matter of misunderstanding, the audience still can’t shake that feeling that the so-called villain is nothing more than someone too fragile, too brilliant for his or her own good.

It’s fascinating how—when these fragile geniuses crack and start on their theme of revenge—their ethics and passion stand out from the rest of the characters. Even in situations where these cannon-fodder for outraged brilliance are more than victims-to-be their emotions are pale imitations of their adversary. They can do little but huddle together and regret, regret, regret, or shiver that they been singled out by someone whose concept of justice is purer than any “eye for an eye” deity. Often to supposedly catch or defend themselves from their adversary they commit further crimes—putting innocents at risk, lying to those trying to help, or never even admitting they could have been at fault in the first place. Against their fear and often pathetic scrambling to avoid the inevitable, their adversary comes across as being brilliant and focused. The villain in these films often lives up to a more iron-clad set of ethics and even nobility than anyone else. They see the way the world should work, if it were a fair place, and when it does them wrong they set out to right that wrong. It is only the thoroughness and degree of their “righting” that makes them seen as villains in the eyes of those on the receiving end. One can’t help but wonder how everyone else expected them to act when these brilliant/passionate characters were wronged—either in reality or through misunderstanding. Shake hands and agree to disagree? Remarry? Allow their work to be taken from them? Turn the other cheek? What would their victims have done when faced with the same situation? The kindest thing would could say about any of the revenge-crazed-geniuses is that they certainly stand up for themselves—unlike those that have done them wrong.

It is this inflexible morality, their unavoidable knowledge that they’d been done wrong, that drives these characters. It becomes them, overrides every other emotion—everything else that makes them human. In some instances, it turns them into mechanisms of terror—their intellect becoming convoluted by fury into a beam of revenge. The outcome of this focusing of retribution usually goes two ways: the first is that is somehow looses focus and the villain falls through their own hand or through a lapse of control (either intended or non) that allows the protagonists a chance to defeat them. This failure of their powers of concentration are usually in the form of some kind of redemption— something occurs in the story to remind them of what they were once, that they are causing far more pain and suffering than what they were originally exposed to. Sometimes it’s facing someone who had once been very close, but who had been sucked into their vortex of revenge. Sometimes it’s an innocent who had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time—a sudden shock that makes the villain realize that now it is they who have done an innocent wrong. Again, the end in these cases is usually a form of accidental or intended self-sacrifice—often with a predictable twist where the villain becomes the victim of his own devices. This last element is particularly interesting as it reinforces the idea that the basic execution of the villain is fine—because in the end it still serves justice: by taking out the last perpetrator—the villain.

The other way these tales of brilliance-as-tool-for revenge films go is where there is no redemption, no reminder or basic, simply (often too simple) humanity. These last righteous geniuses have given up every last trace of their previous existances—they are the embodiment of justice, and nothing else. Their ends also end in sacrifice, but not for the sake of the pain they might have caused, but rather to the mission itself. Their work of revenge completed, they have no other reason to continue. In fact, it could be argued that they never really existed—their humanity ending the day they emerged from the depths of their pain and injustice. A corpse held together by revenge, they crumble to dust when the anger animating them has been played out, their plans perfectly executed. There is no chance of defeating—or redeeming—these adversaries as they are machines of vengeance, clockwork horror, and nothing else.

Villains are too often used as nothing but tools for heroes to be heroic, but in these cases, where a good character is pushed into villainy by injustice or their own inflexible standards, the protagonist pales against the purity of the emotions facing them: they might be in the right, but against these characters who burn so brightly that they burn everyone around them, and then eventually themselves, they are nothing but shadow puppets. The real life in these films comes not from the cleft-chinned stalwarts but rather who they are facing—someone who’s concepts of right and wrong are ten times ten more powerful, and sometimes even more noble, than their own.

* * *

Lambert Hillyer’s The Invisible Ray (1936) is a remarkably well executed study of villainous, scientific revenge. Equipped a surprisingly tight and articulate script by John Colton from a story by Howard Higgin and Douglas Hodges—Hillyer, working with George Robinson (cinematographer) and Albert S. D’Agostino (Set Design)—created a visually fascinating world out a wide range of seemingly disparate devices: of a mysterious new element (“a thousand times more powerful than radium”), a castle in the Karpathian mountains, an expedition to the depths of backlot Africa, a murderer haunting the streets of Paris, an eerily glowing Karloff—and much more.

While it has the elements of a dozen other films, The Invisible Ray flows very well—jumping from its various locations with ease, methodically building its case for Dr. Janos Rukh’s (Karloff) breakdown and subsequent homicidal pursuit of justice. Beginning in Rukh’s Karpathian laboratory, the deck is already stacked against our curly-haired, broad-shouldered scientist: he is viewed as a charlatan by the scientific community, his accomplishments dismissed by those he feels are his intellectual inferiors; his pretty young wife, Diana (Frances Drake), is lonely—always second to his work; and his Madonna-like blind mother (Violet Kemble Cooper) is forever spouting cryptic warnings of doom and foreboding—just what a egotistical, driven scientist needs in his life.

Things begin to look up when a gaggle of “respected” scientists respond to his invitation and are subsequently blown over by Rukh’s demonstration of recovering a view of the past caught on a light beam from the galaxy of Andromeda. Touched by their praise (in a rather endearing scene) Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi), Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), and Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi) invite Rukh to join them on their expedition to Africa, where Rukh can search for his Holy Grail: element X. Naturally Mother Rukh spouts that nothing good will come of the voyage—but as the alternative is to simply stay home in his draft Karpathian laboratory and fume about being ignored by the scientific world there simply aren’t that many options.

Africa, naturally, doesn’t go well. Discovering his sparkling, fuming new element, Rukh’s ego runs wild: he refuses to share his findings with the rest of the party, and threatens his native porters with radioactive annihilation when they threaten to desert him. Then comes the Big Fall. In a poignant scene, Rukh extinguishes a lantern and, in the depths of an African night, his body glows. Realizing that he’s somehow been fatally contaminated by his new element he’s desolate—even more so when he pets his loyal Great Dane and discovers that not only is he phosphorescent, but that his touch can kill in an instant.

Desperate, he appeals to Dr. Benet (Lugosi—in a stylish but cardboard performance) who manages to provide a temporary cure for his condition. The scene is interesting as, at least when I view it, it builds an emotional case of Rukh’s subsequent breakdown: Benet helps but is remarkably cold and distant—showing no sign of sympathy that this man he supposedly respects has been exposed to a fatally radioactive substance, and that Rukh is insanely driven to unlock the secrets of this new element. Benet never tries to really understand or reason with Rukh —sure, he makes the motions, but there is no real contact behind it, no real attempt to with the renegade scientist. Later, things deteriorate further when Bent returns to Ruhk’s camp—and gives him even more bad news (1, 2, 3) that his wife Diana has run off with young, handsome Ronald Drake (as Diana mistakenly believes Rukh no longer lovers her—when he was simply driven, and then trying to save her from the pain of his new disorder), and that Benet and Sir Francis Stevens have made their own announcement about the discovery of Element X. Thus, Rukh learns that he is radioactive, his wife has run off with someone else, and that people he thought he could trust have “stolen” his discovery. There are bad days and then there are BAD days.

The movie jumps to months later: Rukh has miraculously used his new element to restore his mother’s vision—but in response all Ma Rukh does is spout another dire warning, but Rukh is committed—he has been wronged by people he thought he could trust. He stepped out of his distant castle, looking for respect and acknowledgment of his precious scientific work, and lost everything he held dear: his wife, life health, and his discoveries.

The film tries to stack the deck against Rukh several times, to paint him as a deranged madman, but the scenes set in Africa—and Lugosi’s cold performance as Benet—make Rukh appear not so much as insane as not appreciated for his brilliance and passion. None of the other characters care about anything as intensely, purely, as Rukh. Even the romance of Diana and Ronald comes off across as shallow and childish. Rukh is the only one in the entire film who feels about anything—and when his discoveries are tainted by the interference of Benet and the others, he turns this passion to righting the wrong he believes has been done him.

Even a Nobel Prize is not enough to make him hesitate in his pursuit of vengeance—because for him the work is all and he sees it as “charity” from Benet and Sir Francis Stevens. Methodically, Rukh kills an innocent to fake his own death (rather clumsy, as it doesn’t take the authorities more than a few minutes to figure that out) and then sets out to stalk the six members of the expedition—intentionally going off his medication to restore his unearthly glow and deadly touch. In a beautiful touch, Rukh looks up at a Paris church and superimposes the members of his expedition on the statues of six saints—not realizing that the last of them is also himself: foreshadowing that if he wills all of them to die he must include himself in the performance of his vengeance.

Vengeance is what concludes the film, as Rukh proceeds to—one by one —kill the members of the expedition. For each act of “retribution” he melts a statue. Rukh is a fascinating specter, in his great black hat, cloak, and eerily phosphorescence he haunts the rest of the cast—using his radioactive curse to kill, leaving glowing hand prints on their throats.

The remaining party members—Diana, Benet, and Ronald—concoct a morally reprehensible plan to catch Rukh. Inviting the cream of the Paris scientific community to a special midnight “lecture”, and therefore luring Rukh into their midst, they will extinguish the lights, allowing Rukh’s glow to expose him. Only once does anyone raise the potential for disaster at having Rukh and his immediately fatal-to-touch-body in a crowd of stuffy scientists—and their concern is quickly dismissed.

Rukh manages to side-step this well-thought-out strategy and kills Benet. The scene is interesting in many ways, the first being that Rukh confesses that his mind is not his own, that he felt the madness “creeping into his cells” from his very first exposure to the dangerous new element. Yet Rukh shows compassion when it comes time to finally kill Benet, extending his hand in a last gesture of humanity. “It’s painless,” he says, trying to be reassuring. Benet, though, shows a remarkable coldness to his insane comrade, saying—basically—that he was wrong to cure Rukh in Africa. Faced with that kind of callousness it makes Rukh’s gesture of a fatal handshake almost merciful.

Yet Rukh is not quite what Benet had earlier labeled him, a “machine of death”, as when he faces his ex-wife, Diana, Rukh is unable to complete his vengeance. Resurfacing into humanity—at least for a moment—he is shocked to run into his mother, who Benet had brought to Paris. Needing his medication to live just a few days longer, he pleads with her to allow him to continue with his retribution—but has willing redemption taken away when his mother smashes his medicine case with her cane. Literally burning up, Rukh bids a final farewell to his mother before flinging himself off a balcony—bursting into flame and vanishing before he even hits the street.

The Invisible Ray is a fascinating film, even today—visually it is hardly outstanding, but it does have an appealingly persistent, almost Lovecraftian, flow. The characters, while not always engaging—Lugosi’s Dr. Benet is cold to the point of being inhuman, save for one scene in Africa—are more fully realized that many other genre films of the period. The film’s true power is in its depiction of the haunted, passionate Rukh. Karloff infuses the Karpathian scientist with an intensity that lifts him beyond everyone else in the film—he lives, abet on the edge, while everyone else around him are simply shallow bundles of neuroses and bad character devices.

Rukh wants to pull aside the veil of everything, to look where no one else has dared to look before. He succeeds but for his hubris the universe only partially strikes at him—he is more harmed by those he thought he could trust, who understood his passion for science and discovery. The universe, it seems to Rukh, is excusable, for it doesn’t posses understanding or will—so Rukh strikes back at those who had the capability for understanding and compassion: other humans. In the end, while it is cold physics that turns him into ashes, it’s more Rukh’s reconnection with that compassion and humanity—and revelation of his own inhuman vengeance—that blows his bright flame out.

* * *

If there’s a film that perfectly embodies the concept of the villain as engine of unshakable revenge, it has to be Robert Fuest’s 1971 film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (with a script by James Whiton and William Goldstein). Laying the cinematic groundwork that would to be repeated for decades, Phibes is a gloriously stylish film that features a character who has becomes—literally—inhuman in the pursuit of what he views as justice. For all his inhuman precision and cruelty, Phibes however is the only character (with one exceptional exception) who seems to be capable of—and the victim of—pure love.

Set in a mythical 1930s London, Phibes is a visually fascinating work. Simple (some would say “cheap”) art nouveau design mixes with typical drawing room Britain to create a kind of hallucinatory world that in no way reflects reality in any way shape or form. Even the characters’ names seem dreamlike, intentionally convoluted and dramatic, bringing the film further into pure fantasy: Dr. Anton Phibes, (Vincent Price) Vulnavia (Virginia North), Dr. Vesailus (Joseph Cotten), Dr. Kitaj, Dr. Dunwoody, and so forth. The firm is remarkably streamlined, featuring nothing save the actions of Phibes and the reactions of the police, headed by Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey in a wonderful performance). In fact, the other characters in the film serve only two purposes: to die in very baroque manners (based on the curses against Egypt from the Old Testament) or explain why the murders are being committed. Phibes, though he appears in the very first scene, as he executes death by bats, doesn’t speak—the first line coming in the morning as the police explain the horror of the first murder.

The film is fully a dark comedy, verging onto the obviously comic on only a few occasions. The humor comes from the completely stymied attempts of Trout and the rest of the police to understand what is occurring, though in an elegant touch Trout is hardly the fool—he is simply unable to battle with Phibes, whose singular mission has stripped him of everything human, save his brilliance and the pain of his loss.

The story is remarkably simple: beginning with the first death (bats) Phibes is killing off the doctors he believes responsible for the death of his wife, Victoria, after she dies on the operating table. Between murders, we see Phibes ritualistically preparing for the next—only resting to dance to clockwork musicians with his mute (and possibly artificial herself) assistant, Vulnavia. Phibes is a strange figure, pieced together after nearly dying in an auto accident as he rushed to his injured wife’s side, he speaks only through a megaphone electrically plugged into his neck—and in one especially surreal scene sips champagne through an unseen orifice at the base of his skull.

Only once does Phibes’s “maniacal precision” fail—when he drops a ritual medallion during one of the murders—an act that serves only one purpose, to allow the police to realize the theme of his vengeance: a reenactment of God’s ten curses upon Egypt—the G’tach: boils, bats, blood, frogs, hail, beasts, rats, locusts, the Death of the First Born, and Darkness. The police and the head surgeon, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), never have a chance of stopping his vengeance—even when they have deduced Phibes’s identity, the theme of his murders, the potential victims, Phibes always succeeds. Never once does Phibes fail—and in this is the horror of both his murders but also in the character himself, that Phibes is no longer human—merely a force set into motion by his terrible loss.

Vesalius states it perfectly, if naively believing in a possible failure of Phibe’s mechanism: “Human error won’t stop him. He’s had years to hide, to plot this damnable thing. He’s compelling himself to follow exactly the classic death pattern of the G’tach. It’s the psychic force that holds the man together, this maniacal precision. If we could just throw it off, interrupt the cycle, then he might be stopped by his own inflexible standards.”

The murders are inventive, grotesque, but pleasantly abstract: a woman is devoured by locusts, a man is methodically drained of his blood, a man’s head is crushed by a frog-shaped mask—yet while there is blood, there isn’t enough of it to turn the stomach. The horror of the crimes is that they are executed without any chance for failure.

Some view Phibes’s final G’tach as a failure in his mechanism for retribution. Yet it proves his point. He proclaims—convolutedly—that he blames the doctors for Victoria’s death, even though they were trying to save her “with a knife in your hand?” Phibes counters to Vesalius. The point is that the doctors could have saved her and to prove his point, Phibes uses Vesalius’s son in the Death of the First Born: to save his son from having acid splashes onto his face, the surgeon must remove a tiny key placed near the boy’s heart. If he succeeds, the boy will be saved, but if he succeeds Phibes has proved the point of his own, personal G’tach—that Vesalius had the ability all along to save Victoria on the operating table.

At the conclusion of the film, with Vesalius saving his son and proving Phibes’s point, things again appear to fall apart for Phibes: Vulnavia falls victim to the acid intended for Vesalius’s son—yet it could be argued that Vulnavia had to perish, as she was just some form of extension of Phibes, just an extra pair of his hands. Many have also supposed that she was in fact the ultimate creation of Phibes—just a more elaborate form of his clockwork toys.

With the police on the scene, all that remains is the execution of the final curse, Darkness. But the execution is not against another, but against Phibes himself: mission accomplished, he joins Victoria—slowly exchanging his blood for embalming fluid, at last resting after his mission of divine retribution.

As Phibes, Price is elegant and haunting—more so for his never directly speaks his lines. Removed of facial expression, Price moves through the film will all the skill of a silent film star. The other actors—especially Terry Thomas (Dr. Longstreet), Joseph Cotton, and Peter Jeffrey—are superb, with just the right sense of terror and comedy. The film might lack the budget and scope that would have made it truly awe-inspiring, but it is unique, haunting, and disturbing in its darkly comedic universe.

More, though, it is the perfect visualization of a brilliant man pushed beyond humanity by tragedy. Phibes was once as human as his victims, but then he loved too greatly, too powerfully—and then had that love shattered by the death of his precious Victoria. Robbed of her, and the brilliant glow of what makes humanity so special and precious, he reaches out to avenge her passing by taking the lives of those he feels—knows -- to be responsible. Looking at the other characters that inhabit Phibes’s world it’s hard to see any of them feeling as passionately for anything or anyone as Phibes felt for Victoria—save Vesalius for his son, which only serves to bolster Phibes’s point: that had Vesalius cared, he could have saved Victoria.

These villains, Rukh and Phibes, are only so because they were more than human in their passions—Phibes for Victoria, Rukh for his work—and then the subject of their desire was taken from them, or ruined. Devastated, with nothing else in their lives to replace them, they crumbled, died, leaving nothing else behind but an emotion equal to their previous love—vengeance. In the case of these two films this inability to simply let go of what had given them so much purpose, happiness, is what condemned them to destruction: Phibes dying with his Victoria, Rukh’s work being taken from him. They were villains, but not out of a desire for domination or control, but rather because they had what no one else around them had—a love, a passion greater than themselves—and when it was gone, only their hunger and anger remained.

* * *

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 © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.