The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #5

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


“Knowledge is more important than life.”

With few exceptions—mainly hand-wringing Asiatic menaces such as Killer Kane from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon’s Ming The Merciless—classical science fiction films are shy of truly memorable villains. The threats that challenge the protagonists in these films can usually be categorized as:

Despite a lack of true villainy, there exists a type of character in classic science fiction that functions as a catalyst for whatever is threatening the protagonists. These characters fulfill the role of the villain by pushing aside what the other characters hold precious in pursuit of their own goal. Having an antecedent in Dr. Frankenstein, these characters take the mad scientist label and push it even farther. They do not just open Pandora’s box, they turn it over and bang on the bottom, becoming enablers to the film’s science fiction menace.

These characters exhibit many perfectly villainous traits: they are pro-active in that they seek out what the other characters in the film might be trying to run away from; they are stylish because they stand out from the rest of the cleft-chinned, corn-fed heroes that surround them; and, most importantly, they are far more intelligent that any one else involved in the picture—including the monster, being, or force they are aiding. Their malignancy is their intelligence, and more often than not their pursuit of knowledge or love of science over mom and apple pie, is depicted as evil, perhaps more so than the threat they have unleashed.

Unlike the mad scientist who drops the wrong beaker, dies, and leaves his giant fill-in-the-blank to terrorize the protagonists, these enablers of villainy are in for the long haul. They are to be hated because they assist the science fiction menace, approve of it, and support it despite the resulting death and destruction. In this way they become the humanized version of the threat, someone to be reviled, assaulted, and sometimes even killed when the danger itself appears unassailable (but usually is defeated anyway). The anti-intellectualism these characters evoke is laughably broad. They care only for science, for the Things We Are Not Meant to Know, at the cost of other funny, sexy, young, or brave characters. They are often stripped of any empathic, street-level humanity and are usually depicted as clumsy, pompous, humorless, even possibly homosexual professor types (with or without lab smock and briar pipe badges of office).

In this role of enabler of the threat, these characters come the closest to true science fiction villains, because every threat in a science fiction film is science and these characters care more for the pursuit of knowledge than for any humans who might happen to get in their way. In the pursuit of their goal they match every other form of melodramatic villainy, even though they come from the ranks of the protagonists.

The vitriol these enablers generate among the protagonists is often more vehement than that expressed towards the threat itself. The restraint the protagonists exhibit in these situations only reinforces their heroism, making them appear stalwart in the face of the enabler’s betrayal. A pragmatic solution to the discovery of someone aiding and abetting the menace would to be simply dispose of them, but the heroes (being heroes) cannot or will not cross that line. This reinforces their position as bastions of rational, anti-intellectual thinking. They may not be smart, but they are noble. They may not be geniuses, but they know that people come before knowledge.

The enablers, however, are literally too smart for their own good or anyone else’s. Their intelligence elevates them above the ‘common’ morality of the protagonists, and their desire to understand the horrible mystery makes them more sympathetic to the cause of the danger than their fellow men. They care more for the monster knocking at the door than the human beings cowering in the cellar.

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Howard Hawks’s The Thing From Another World (1951) contains a perfect—if unappealing—portrayal of the villainous enabler in Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). While Carrington is a fascinating character, the disgust with which he is painted makes him totally repellent; he is rivaled in this only by the Thing itself (James Arness).

The production itself is arguably one of the best science fiction films of all time. Directed mostly on paper by cinematographer Christian Nyby, the direction is obviously Hawks’s and exhibits most of his trademarks: overlapping dialogue, stalwart heroes, and the like. The script by Hawks, Charles Lederer, and an uncredited Ben Hecht from W. Campbell Jr.’s story “Who Goes There?” is razor-sharp, full of brilliant dialogue and masterful characterizations. No one in the film is without a complete (and mostly endearing) depiction. No one is wasted, and everyone—from Kenneth Tobey’s Captain Patrick Hendry to Dewey Martin as “Bob” the crew chief—has a say in the story. In fact, Hendry in many cases finds himself superfluous to the actions of his more than capable crew and can only stand and try not to look too dumb as they come up with solutions to the threat of the Thing. Even Hendry’s love life is not immune to the capabilities of his crew, as in a subplot they become active yentas in his wooing of base physician “Nikki” Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan).

The story is elegant in building tension, and still manages to chill the bones even fifty years later. The staff of a remote arctic outpost, staffed by a team of research scientists and military personnel, spots the crash landing of ‘something’ from deep space. In a thrilling scene, the team sent to investigate finds the object deeply buried in the ice and, trying to determine its shape, slowly spread out until—with a crash of music—they realize they’re looking at a flying saucer.

The attempt to free the saucer using thermite explosive goes disastrously wrong, however, and the ship is destroyed, leaving the crew to find the completely frozen body of its occupant. Taking the block of ice back to base, Hendry—unable to establish communications with his higher-ups— decides to leave well enough alone and let the ‘thing’ in the ice stay frozen, despite the protests of the scientists, especially the haughty Dr. Arthur Carrington.

The Thing is a treatise on fear: an unknown menace lurking about, very limited resources, an outside environment as lethal as the monster, and then, to top it all off, betrayal from within the ranks. The cast is a charming array: Hendry is the low-key voice of authority; Ned “Scotty” Scott (Douglas Spencer)—a reporter tagging along—provides sarcastic narration of the scene (“So few people can boast that they lost a man from Mars and a flying saucer all in the same day! What if Columbus had discovered America, then mislaid it!”); Lt. Eddie Dykes (James R. Young), Lt. Ken McPherson (Robert Nichols), and Corporal Barnes (William Self) are heroes-in-training; and Carrington is the villain, with ample help from the Thing.

When the creature is accidentally thawed from the ice and immediately goes on a rampage—hungry for the basic need of any good monster, blood —the heroes take charge and Carrington, naturally, pleads for compassion for the murderous Thing. Several times Carrington spouts lines that could be put on the tombstone of every mad scientist: “ There are no enemies in science, only phenomena to be studied” and “Knowledge is more important than life.” If there is any doubt that Carrington is the enabling villain of the piece, this is dispelled when he explains that the creature is a form of vegetable matter (Scotty: “An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles”). As he expounds he seems to fall in love with the Thing, waxing poetic about its non-sexual form of reproduction (seeds): “Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.” Carrington stops being just another egghead and becomes a person with a sexuality that is the polar opposite of the established, heroic order. He might as well come out of the closet to the rest of the characters.

Early on, Carrington acts covertly, hiding the creature’s crimes and trying to derail the military and the ‘good’ scientists (who are portrayed as more home grown than Carrington) as they plan to destroy it. It’s only later, when the claustrophobia of the base and the rampage of the Thing has escalated, that he takes an active role misguided by his scientific passion. Returning to his lust for the creature’s sex life, he takes blood from the base’s medical supply and starts to grow his own little family of Things, furthering the Thing’s quest to conquer the earth.

Still, there are enough pro-scientific elements in The Thing to balance the anti-intellectual slant personified by Carrington. When the creature escapes a spectacular trap of gasoline and flareguns—an attempt to roast the vegetable—it is the brains of both the scientists and the bright military men who come up with a possible solution, the ultimate science fiction motivator and destroyer: electricity. In one of the funniest scenes, Hendry can only stand and scratch his head as his men and the more “human” scientists start brainstorming their electrical trap. Scientists might be weird, they might even on occasion be villainous enablers of creatures from beyond space, but they also can be very handy, even if the average guy can’t understand what the hell they’re saying.

Carrington’s own personal defeat comes moments before the trap is sprung. As the switch is about to be thrown, Carrington pushes past the heroes and tries to reason with the Thing. His desperation is evident as he pleads with the creature to be anything other than a brutal solider. Reality smashes his egghead dream with a brutal backhand, leaving the Thing to be thoroughly cooked. In that scene, his behavior is shown for what it really was. He was not just evil, but mistaken; he didn’t add up the facts correctly, which is the worst kind of revelation to any driven scientist. At the very end—when the world is saved and Hendry and Nikki are together—the last cruel nail is driven into Carrington’s coffin as Scotty gets to broadcast his story of the battle. He begins by praising all those who fought this terrible evil from beyond the earth, even Carrington, who, he lies, was injured in the battle with the Thing. Injured, scientifically discredited and, humbled by his colleagues, at the very end he’s given a final, humiliating insult—pity.

Despite the obviously slanted portrayal of the scientist motivated to act malevolently by intellectual passion, The Thing From Another World remains a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Scenes and lines stick with you for months, if not years; characters feel like they could walk off the screen and buy you a beer, and the score (by Dimitri Tiomkin) chills to the bone. It’s a film that endears almost as much as it terrifies, a balancing act that deserves applause. It’s just unfortunate that Carrington couldn’t have been as rounded as the rest of the characters, so he could add more to the greatness of the production.

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Another perfect example of the hunger for knowledge blinding a scientist to a horrifying destructive force is the ground-breaking, visually stunning 1956 film, Forbidden Planet. One of the true classics of science fiction, Forbidden Planet was arguably the first film to be treated “seriously,” and it shows. Elegantly directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, carefully (for the most part) written by Irving Block, Allen Adler, and Cyril Hume (with a bow to William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”), superbly acted, and fantastically realized by some of the top art directors of the time, Forbidden Planet unfolds like a dream—and a terrifying nightmare.

Set in 2200, the story follows the crew of United Planets Cruiser C57-D, captained by the very strong-chinned Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) as they arrive on a planet in the distant system of Altair. The planet was the landing site of a research colony that has suddenly stopped reporting. Arriving in orbit, the crew is met with spectacular grouchiness by Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who warns them that he cannot guarantee the crew’s safety if they land. Intrepid in spades, the crew obeys their orders and lands anyway, and the fun/horror begins.

Met on landing by one of the best characters, a wonderful robot “monitored to respond to the name ‘Robby’” (performed by Frankie Carpenter and Frankie Darro with Marvin Miller providing the voice), Adams and his main staff—Lt. ‘Doc’ Ostrow (Warren Stevens), Lt. Farman (Jack Kelly), and Chief Quinn (Richard Anderson)—are brought to Dr. Morbius. Morbius maintains his gruffness and insistence that they leave immediately but also proves himself to be a charming host, showing off his 1950’s modern home and all of Robby’s tricks, including a version of Asimov’s law against harming humans.

According to Morbius, the entire research colony, with the exception of himself and his childlike daughter Altaira (Alta) Morbius (Anne Francis), was exterminated by some kind of “dark, terrible, incomprehensible force” —“torn literally apart limb from limb,” according to Morbius. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Adams and the rest of the crew decide to remain, despite Morbius’s continued warnings of doom.

Morbius is a handsome, enchanting character—owed in equal parts to the smart script, Pidgeon’s performance, and the character’s origin in Prospero—who, despite being the cause of the terror, is truly blind to his role in it. When he finally realizes the source he is almost destroyed by horror and guilt; and yet what caused him to become linked with the horror is a prime example of an enabler. A overwhelming need to ’know’ pushed him until he couldn’t, or simply wouldn’t, face what really killed the crew of the original expedition. His arrogance and his abstract lack of consideration for other human beings (aside from Altaira) literally gives life to the murderous ‘force.’ In Morbius’s case, his fanatical pursuit of science didn’t just enable the horror, but was the direct cause of it.

With clumsy irony, Morbius reassures the visiting heroes that he isn’t “the mad scientist of the taped thrillers”; but that’s exactly what he is, though he isn’t consciously aware that he his enabling the destructive power. Yet Morbius is more than a scientist without the common sense to come in out of the rain. While at times he might appear arrogant, he is infused with humanity. He appears to like, and possibly respect the other characters. He clearly adores Altaira. But his work is more important in his life than any of them; and that work is what starts killing them off.

Before Adams can contact earth for instructions on what to do with Morbius and Alta, their equipment is mysteriously smashed. Determined, the equipment is repaired, and in the background the romance between Adams and Alta continues on its predictable (and boring) path.

Determined to find out what the hell is going on, Adams and ‘Doc’ Ostrow finally confront Morbius, and the secret comes out. It seems that Altair 4 was the home of an alien race called the Krell. In Morbius’s words:

In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty, noble race of beings who called themselves the Krell. Ethically and technologically they were a million years ahead of humankind, for in unlocking the meaning of nature they had conquered even their baser selves, and when in the course of eons they had abolished sickness and insanity, crime and all injustice, they turned, still in high benevolence, upwards towards space. Then, having reached the heights, this all-but-divine race disappeared in a single night, and nothing was preserved above ground.

Something survived below ground: a massive machine 20 miles on each side, that Morbius discovered and is completely driven to understand. The scenes of Morbius showing Adams and Ostrow the wonders of the Krell machine are pure techno-fetishism, and Morbius all but drools as he points out the incredible details of Krell technology. But what’s disarming is that Morbius enjoys revealing these wonders. Discovered, he wants someone—even these two military men—to share the joy he feels at discovering, and playing with, the Krell machine.

The highlight of the tour is a gizmo that Morbius used to boost his intellect high enough to give him the ability to create Robby. There’s a cost, though; the last person to try the machine, the captain of the colony ship, had his brain crisped.

At the end of the tour, Morbius’s hoarding of the Krell wonders is called into question by Adams, who rightly insists that control of such power is a responsibility too big for one man. The question of whether or not to remove Morbius and Alta from the planet is answered, and definitely not to the satisfaction of a very annoyed Morbius.

Even after erecting a force field fence to keep the whatever-it-is away from the ship, Chief Quinn (the only man who could handle the repairs) is killed off-camera in that infamous “limb from limb” manner. Completely invisible, the monster leaves behind only spectacular and very puzzling footprints.

The next night the crew boosts the juice on the fence. They are terrified by—and we are treated to—the sight of a invisible monstrous “it” that only partially becomes visible as it fights to get through the force field. The scene is brilliant. Given life with help from Disney animators, the creature is frightening even today. Roaring, flickering in and out of visibility, it’s a monster out of a nightmare; in this case, the nightmare is Morbius’s.

Realizing that he doesn’t have the gray matter to deal with the situation, Adams heads off to use the Krell brain machine but finds that Ostrow had beaten him to the punch, and gotten his brain pan-fried. Before he dies, he manages to utter crucial words to Adams: “Monsters from the Id.”

In that moment, what has been occurring becomes clear, as does the enabling villainy of Morbius. By playing with the Krell machine he had boosted his will, and his murderous subconscious. Tied to Krell technology, Morbius’s Id was free to act on every dark impulse. Morbius was the creature, the creature was Morbius. Yet Mobius refuses to face it. His intellectual lust blinds him from facing what destroyed his idealized Krell, and what (given nuclear flesh) killed so many: the dark subconscious. Even Robby understands, refusing to kill the “Creature from the Id” because he recognizes, even if his master doesn’t, that the being is Morbius—or at least a part of him.

In a thrilling scene, Alta, Adams and Morbius flee the creature, hiding out in the Krell machine. There Morbius’s guilt finally annihilates him. Accepting his own responsibility for the monster—“My evil self is at the door, and I have no power to stop it!”—Morbius’s guilt and self-loathing destroy him, at the hands of the creature from his own Id.

Before he goes, Mobius instructs Adams to destroy the machine as well as the entire world. In the end, Alta and Adams get together, Altair 4 has a new sun, Robby gets a new job- piloting the space ship, and the horrible knowledge of the Krell is gone forever.

The anti-intellectual message of the film is broad, painted with Krell-sized strokes: Morbius opened Pandora’s box. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s the substory of Alta: how she was raised by the book-smart Morbius and yet doesn’t know what a kiss is, a poster child for being-too-smart-for-your-own-good, as were the Krell. Adams is portrayed as tough, determined, but not spectacularly bright. As Morbius says: “all a Commander needs is a good, loud voice.” Yet he survives, and even gets the girl. Even Ostrow, arguably the second most intelligent man in the film, is killed, pretty much for the same reason that Morbius was destroyed: pursuit of knowledge. Had Ostrow lived, one wonders if he, too, would have generated his own monster from the Id and would he, too, have been destroyed by it?

Unlike The Thing, where the villainous enabler is humiliated by being attributed false heroics, at least Forbidden Planet acknowledges the fundamentally good-hearted Morbius, if only partly. Adams gives a speech at the end where he says that one day, when we’re as powerful as the legendary Krell, they’ll remember and honor Morbius. But—and isn’t there always a ‘but’?—he’ll also serve as a reminder not to play God. Morbius ends up not being honored as a great scientist but rather as a grand blasphemer. No wonder he was torn apart by the depths of his own dark mind.

Both films posit that science is an evil seducer. It’s all around us, just waiting for the right person who believes that knowing is better than not knowing, someone willing to put aside their humanity to solve a puzzle. In other words, someone who will be an enabler in death and destruction.

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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 © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.