The Inessentials: The Fearless Vampire Killers

Confession time: I totally love Roman Polanski.  I don’t mean that I love the man — I don’t know him and there are certain issues that I’m not exactly sympathetic towards.  What I mean is that I love the director, the public artist.  As far as I’m concerned, there are three great living directors: Polanski, Scorsese and Herzog.  Everyone else is secondary.  I also happen to greatly enjoy Polanski’s screen persona in the few films he actually appeared in, like Innocent Sorcerers, Chinatown, The Tenant and the subject of this article, The Fearless Vampire Killers.  I often wish that he’d actually gone ahead and cast himself as the lead in Knife in the Water, just to have the pleasure of watching him act.

Right, so that’s out of the way.  Now, onto what is perhaps my favorite Polanski film (although not, in my estimation, his ‘best’ work): The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth are in My Neck.  As the title suggests, this is one of the few unabashed comedies that Polanski has made.  All of his films have some element of absurd or grotesque humor — even the incredibly disturbing and nihilistic Macbeth.  But Vampire Killers is pretty much a horror-comedy.

The plot comes right out of a Hammer film: Professor Ambronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski) arrive in a small Eastern European village in search of vampires.  They find, naturally enough, buxom barmaids, wiley innkeepers, and well-dressed gents with long sharp teeth.  The film floats along with a series of comic mishaps.  Professor Ambronsius is the most useless vampire killer imaginable; he’s far more interested in proving the existence of vampires than he is in actually killing them.  MacGowran gives Ambronsius a wild look, the very picture of an out-to-lunch academic and a far cry from Peter Cushing’s elegant and rational Van Helsing of Hammer Studios.  Alfred, while far more gallant, is quite obviously a coward.  The one opportunity he has to defeat the vampires he blows because he’s incapable of actually driving a stake through anyone’s chest.

The film in many ways is a send-up; the spurting, garish blood and heaving bosoms recall the films of Hammer Studios, as does the extreme costuming of Ferdy Mayne in the role of the Count, complete with rolling eyeballs and massive plastic teeth.  All of the requisites of vampire movies are here: the elegant gentleman vamp, the promiscuous barmaid, the naive and lovely innkeeper’s daughter.  As Shagal (Alfie Bass) states when Abronsius asks him about a castle in the neighborhood:

“A castle? No, no castle.  There’s no more a castle here than there is a windmill.  Are there any windmills in the neighborhood? … You see? No windmills, no castles.”

The Count looks a bit the worse for wear.

But Polanski, never one to be outdone in his social critique, also teases out the ancient notion of Jews as vampires.  The innkeeper Shagal is transformed after the abduction of his daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate, more on her in a minute) by the Count.  And he’s a ridiculous caricature; a vampire who, because he’s a Jew, is not permitted to sleep in the same crypt as the Count and his son; who is not repelled by a crucifix because, as he says, ‘Oy, have you got the wrong vampire!’ The whole subplot involving Shagal is a beautiful send-up of European notions of vampirism: Jews having been accused, in medieval times, of drinking the blood of infants; the use of Jewish caricature in films like Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula.  That the victims of the vampires are primarily Jews and the vampires are all characterized as decaying Old World Teutons makes plain the project underlying this otherwise innocent, comic film: Polanski sends up, with characteristic viciousness, the very basis of the vampire genre.

What is adorable about The Fearless Vampire Killers is how marvelously innocent it is.  And, oddly enough, that innocence comes straight from Roman Polanski himself.  As Alfred, he’s a small, boyish figure, dressed in short pants and a cap that accentuates his youth.  While Tate doesn’t have a great deal to do, her few scenes, imbued with a playful innocence, give the film an extra dimension. The scenes between Alfred and Sarah have a sexual charge, but there is a sweetness to their relationship, making it the kindest, gentlest romantic relationship in any Polanski film.   It’s difficult to watch Vampire Killers without recalling that this the film that the couple met and began dating on.  Anyone aware of Tate’s life and death cannot help but feel a level of sadness watching her on screen, and the two of them together.

The Alfred/Sarah relationship drives the second half of the film, where Sarah is

abducted by the Count.  Alfred and Ambronsius go to great lengths to save her.  Arriving at the castle, they become acquainted with Count von Krolock and his son Herbert (Iain Quarrier).  In a sharp twist on the usual, Hammer-style vampire/damsel relationship, but quite in keeping with the shifting sexuality of vampires, Herbert is overtly gay … and thinks Alfred is pretty cute.  The scene between them recalls films like The Brides of Dracula (Quarrier is a dead ringer for David Peel in that film), only Polanski (not for the last time in his own features) is placed in the position of the damsel in distress.  It’s a weird, uncomfortable, funny scene.

I’ve called this my favorite Polanski film and it is.  But it is far from his best.  It drags quite a bit in the middle, dwelling on the meanderings of Alfred and Ambronsius through the castle as they search for Sarah.  Certainly the most fun are the beginning scenes in the inn, the final scenes during the dance of the vampires (the original title of the film), and the haphazard, slapstick escape.  Alfie Bass should get some serious credit for the characterization of Shagal, a role that could easily have become offensive.  Polanski also removes much of the attractive sexuality of the vampires that is so typical in vampire movies.  They are represented as decaying, decadent creatures, literally falling apart.  They are, after all, the undead, and it certainly shows.

In some ways (and this is odd), The Fearless Vampire Killers is Polanski’s most hopeful, most playful film.  While not shying away from some very trenchant commentary, it mostly delights in its own comedy.  The tenderness of the love story, even with the tinge of sadness attached to it, from a director not exactly known for warm and fuzzy films, is something of a revelation.  Which is not to say that this is not a Polanski film.  It is.  When watching it, there’s no possible way to forget that.

The Inessentials: Jamaica Inn

I watch way too much TCM.  Being without a regular 9-5 job, I have that luxury.  And I’m grateful to TCM, I really am.  They’ve kept me interested in classical films.  But I’m a tad bothered by the nightly show they call The Essentials.  Because watching it the other night, I was struck by the fact that they were showing Some Like it Hot for the umpteenth time.  Not that I don’t love Some Like It Hot — I do, it’s hilarious and thoughtful and one of the first films to make it acceptable for a man to marry another man — but rather that there are other films I would consider ‘Essential’.  How about some love for those movies that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of play? The movies that TCM shows at 2:00 a.m. and only the truly die-hard would, say, actively set their VCRs for when they were fifteen years old and madly in love with Basil Rathbone?

So here we go.  I’m going to start posting about films that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of love.  Yes, I’m into classical cinema, but I’m not ruling out contemporary films that I feel have been passed over.

Let’s start with one of my favorites.  Alfred Hitchcock’s criminally (probably a strong word) underrated Jamaica Inn.  

First, a little history.  Jamaica Inn is based (very loosely) on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, and is the first du Maurier adaptation Hitchcock attempted (the other two being Rebecca, and The Birds).  It was also Hitch’s last British film before he departed for America and what many consider to be his glory days of Notorious, Rear Window, and Vertigo.  I may be among the few that am more interested in Hitchcock’s British period than his American one.  While many of the films do not stack up against the sheer brilliance of Psycho or Notorious, they are largely a charming, fascinating set of pictures.  They exhibit Hitchcock’s intimate understanding of Britain and British life.  His secondary characters are better painted and there is a sense of affection and critique that runs through films like The Thirty Nine Steps, Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes.  But back to Jamaica Inn. 

The movie stars Maureen O’Hara (in her first major role), Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks and Robert Newton.  The plot is fairly basic: O’Hara is Mary, going to Jamaica Inn on the Cornish coast to live with her aunt Patience after the death of her parents.  Little does she know that Jamaica Inn is a den of smugglers and wreckers (men who drive ships onto the rocks and then plunder them), run by her uncle Joss (Banks).  In the process, Mary meets the Squire Pengallen (Laughton), who is just all kinds of charming creepiness, and saves the life of Jem Trehearne (Newton, swoon-worthy), one of the smugglers.  All hell breaks loose as Mary attempts to escape the wreckers and help her aunt.

Charles Laughton's eyebrows, with Charles Laughton.

The plot deviates entirely from that of the novel, so we’ll leave the differences aside.  Laughton is the big name here, so he’s the one that takes center stage.  Pengallen, we very quickly learn (so this is not spoiling a damned thing), is the true leader of the wreckers, living off of them to keep himself in the pink as befits landed gentry.  Laughton plays him as a grotesque; a massive, trundling gentleman in overdone 18th century garb, with the most magnificent set of eyebrows ever committed to celluloid.  He’s frightening, fascinating, and just this side of hammy.  His weird obsession with Mary rapidly becomes disturbing, particularly when we reach the denouement.  He’s a grand Hitchcockian villain, equal parts fascinating and repugnant.  What I like most about Laughton’s performance (which some feel is way too over the top to be believable) is how humorous he is, right up to becoming sinister.  It’s easy to laugh at this overweight peacock, with his leering gaze and posh accent, until his more violent, cruel nature comes out.  He’s threatening but, like Mary, we never quite know it until it’s too late.

Maureen O’Hara wins the award for being one of the toughest Hitchcock heroines, and a perfect argument against those who believe that Hitchcock only let women be victims.  She’s one of two women in the entire film.  When she arrives at Jamaica Inn, alone and in the middle of a storm, she is immediately set upon by her uncle Joss.  But Mary, far from being threatened, responds in kind.  She refuses to be cowed, not by Joss, not by Pengallen, nor the nasty smugglers, nor even the charming rogue who ultimately turns out to be not so roguish.  She’s quick spoken and pro-active, and although her and Newton don’t get nearly the amount of charming banter that, say, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave have in The Lady Vanishes, she holds her own against Laughton quite nicely.

Robert Newton takes unfair advantage of being passed out.

Which brings me to Robert Newton, whom I personally find incredibly appealing as Jem Trehearne.  He’s a hero that only makes an appearance nearly half an hour into the film, and then in not the most flattering of lights: he’s a member of the gang, appears to be stealing from them and nearly gets himself hung as a result.  Only through Mary’s timely intervention is he saved.  Newton has a swash-buckling air that would serve him well in his elder years when he played Long John Silver; but the difference between the handsome young man here and the swaggering old pirate in Treasure Island is night and day.  He acquits himself well in the developing relationship with Mary, and seems to be positively giddy when he’s in the same room with Laughton (they were friends in real life and it shows).

The secondary characters exhibit Hitchcock’s usual flair for the grotesque.  The wreckers are a band of nasty, amusing cutthroats, all played by excellent British character actors.  Emlyn Williams (there’s no reason you should know him unless you like old British films, but he’s a dandy) is Harry, one of the more charming, swaggering and dangerous of the band.

The problem with Jamaica Inn is mostly due to Charles Laughton, who struts in and takes over just about every scene he appears in.  Jamaica Inn is, at base, a melodrama and Laughton at times seems to be making it into a farce.  It has been argued that much of the tension of the film vanishes when we realize that Pengallen is the head of the wreckers.  However, in its defense, I would argue that Hitchcock deals with this aspect quite well.  By revealing Pengallen as a nasty piece of work almost from the beginning, the viewer is placed in a position of knowing more than the characters, a favorite device of Hitch’s.  This allows the viewer to focus on the development of the adventure, the relationship between Jem and Mary, and the danger they are placed in by not possessing this piece of vital information.   Far from disabling the film, this knowledge expands the tension as we watch the machinations of Pengallen to conceal his identity, as well as his gradual descent into madness.

I would never argue for the inclusion of Jamaica Inn in a best-of Hitchcock list, and it is certainly not his best British feature, or even close to it.  It has great difficulties as a film; some of the scenes feel weirdly short, and the characters at times seem to be talking past each other.  But it is entertaining for what it is, an interesting development of the thematics of Hitchcock’s British work (the wrong man motif, the powerful woman, questioning of authority, etc.), and some excellent performances.  For my money, it’s a better way to spend your afternoon than trying to sit through Under Capricorn, which has received more critical attention and is duller than a dust mop.

*The entirety of Jamaica Inn can be watched here.  Watch out for any DVD versions besides the Kino edition.  The Laserlight one cuts out about 8 minutes of pretty essential exposition.

I don’t know what that is, but it’s not a Vampire

Add me to the long, long list of annoyed geeky bloggers with a serious chip on her shoulder over the Twilight franchise.  Add me also to the long, long list of hipsters who, like, totally was into vampires before vampires were cool.  And I’m talking PROPER vampires.  The ones with fangs and bloodlust; not the sparkling vegetarian high school ones (what the fuck is a vegetarian vampire, after all?)

Back in the long, long ago, vampires were scary as well as sexy.  Apparently True Blood is attempting to fill that void, as it were, but even those Bayou vamps are more the descendants of Anne Rice’s sexually confused dandies than Bram Stoker’s creation of pure evil.  And you gotta admit, Bram Stoker gave us the world’s greatest vampire, the King of Vampires,  evil incarnate.  Stoker’s Dracula was not sexy; he was not tortured over his vampire-ishness.  Despite a fairly pronounced death drive, what he really wanted to do was drain everyone’s blood and create an empire of the undead.  You know, a good, old fashioned  take over the world kind of villain.  He had fangs.  He turned into a bat and a wolf and assaulted Victorian womanhood, manhood and childhood.  He brought out the evil in the staunch Victorian middle-classes, making them turn on each other, forcing them into deeper and deeper depravity in their attempts to annihilate him.  He was one evil sonofabitch.

Vampire

Dracula has been a lot of things over the years, and has been progressively defanged since Browning’s 1931 film made him into  a foreign gentleman.  Time passed, Christopher Lee gave us a sexier Dracula, then a Dracula who rides the number 7 bus.  Finally, Frank Langella gave us disco Dracula.  And that was sort of the stake through the heart for ol’Drac.  Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000 proposed that Dracula was actually Judas (!); Gary Oldman in Coppolla’s inappropriately named Bram Stoker’s Dracula definitely had the tortured romantic thing going on, but then he also did some raping and pillaging.  At least Dracula never really lost his fangs, or the whole ‘I want to suck your blood’ mentality.  Until now.

Vampires have typically represented the sexual confusion and mores of their time periods.  It’s no accident that the most memorable vampire showed up nearing the end of the Victorian era, a time characterized by excessive sexual repression, two very ugly occurrences involving sexuality (Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde) and the escalating debate over the rights of women.  That Dracula transformed over time into a tortured lover, a gentleman, a man not quite as evil as he initially seemed, seems to reflect the changing desires of the culture he comes out of.  Dracula began to stop being scary when sex stopped being as scary.  But today, something very weird has happened.

Not a vampire. Get it?

Twilight has enacted a sort of double repression.  The vampire, rather than being an eruption of the chaos world, an embodiment of the darkness at the heart of middle class society, becomes instead fully integrated into that society.  A misunderstood, not terribly dangerous celibate, continuously repressing natural desires (in the case of a vampire, blood and sex) in favor of asceticism: being a ‘good’ vampire.  Sex is not to be indulged until marriage, at which point it becomes violent and bruising, resulting in a rather Cronenbergian pregnancy and C-section.  And that’s romantic.  The books and films present Edward as the ultimate romantic lover, but the entire romantic relationship is a reinforcement of the very patriarchal norms (men are animals, sex is evil and painful, etc.) that the vampire was originally a reaction against.  By making the vampire the hero, the Twilight franchise has managed to invert the purpose of the monster (the return of the repressed) and make the monster himself into a romantic symbol that reinforces that repression.  The Victorians couldn’t have accomplished it better.  Vampires have ceased to be scary.  They’re now pale young Englishmen with sparkling skin who resist the passions of the flesh … until, of course, they beat the hell out of their partners in the marriage bed.  How romantic.

It saddens me to see Drac and his brethren fall so far from grace.  I hope that we someday regain some of the kinkiness that has always characterized vampire lore (True Blood is the one hope for the future of the bloodsuckers).  I don’t know what Edward Cullen and the rest of those sparkly Mormons are, but they sure as hell aren’t vampires.

You call that a vampire? THIS is a vampire:

Geek Love #2: I LOVE Frasier Crane. And Niles too.

Actually, especially Niles.  Ahem.

I did not used to be a big television watcher.  I blame this on my parents cruel denial of cable television from the time I was about six until I was eleven.  By the time we actually got massive numbers of channels, I was not exactly interested in watching TV shows religiously.  There were only a few during my teenage years that I took any interest in: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Friends.  And Frasier.  I loved Frasier.  And this year, I fell in love with it again.

Don’t ask me why, because I certainly don’t know.  It all began when a good friend of mine had to unexpectedly be taken to the hospital.  In order to distract him from some pretty excruciating kidney pain, Roxy and I began talking about anything we could think of.  We covered music, movies, and literature, and finally settled on television.  Every show we’d ever watched was discussed.  And it became clear that one of the shows we all wildly loved was, in fact, Frasier.

The best shows are the ones that make you happy to watch them, that have actual characters, story arcs, plot structure.  One of the things I always loved about Frasier, back when it was on the air and now, was how kind a show it actually was.  There were no acts of cruelty passed off as humor, no vicious back-stabbing, no jokes for the sake of offense.  The closest they came to being mean was when Daphne gained a lot of weight and fat jokes abounded.  But by that point, we had such affection for the characters, for Daphne herself, that a few bad puns (“It took three Cranes to lift you!”) did not turn the whole show into a mean-spirited farce.

I personally was a huge fan of the Niles/Daphne relationship (as are most people, I’ve come to realize).  Unlike the Ross/Rachel combination on Friends, Niles and Daphne’s romance matured, beginning as a puppy love crush and ending with marriage and children.  It was, in retrospect, an actual ADULT relationship between two adult people.  By the time they finally came to terms with their feelings for each other, poor Niles had had his heart broken several times and Daphne had fallen for him of her own accord.  It was handled with a kindness and, moreover, a seriousness that went far beyond its beginnings as a chance for double entendres.

Frasier opened the way for a combination of incredibly smart humor and excellent, old school physical comedy.  The best episodes are the ones that allow the entire cast to flex their muscles.  And the cast really did make it.  For all intents and purposes, it was a cast of five orbited by a few recurring characters.  The falling off of the last few seasons was mostly a result of lesser writing and too much emphasis on the subsidiary characters (we did not need Daphne’s mother complicating relationships, although I did enjoy Felicity Huffman’s brief stint as Julia).  And there were some weird plot twists: Maris commits a murder, Niles randomly gets a heart condition (a plot arc that ended suddenly and was never spoken of again), etc, etc.  But every great show jumps the shark at some point and, by the end of it, I think that Frasier came back around to what they did best: smart humor, physical comedy and real human emotion.

I’ve seen it written that the end of Frasier marked the end of the sitcom.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up for debate, but at least it was a show unembarrassed by its intellectual pretensions, which can sometimes be very difficult to come by.  All I really know is that when I quote it, at least two people laugh.

“She called my show bourgeois.  I said that anything with mass appeal can be called bourgeois.  Then she called my argument bourgeois.  Which I found to be rather jejune.”

24 Year Old Curmudgeon: Why I Hate Harry Potter

Zappy, zappy.

I hate Harry Potter.  Yes, hate is a strong word, particularly to level at a popular series of novels.  But I do.  I thank God that the last movie is FINALLY coming out.  This will be a diatribe.  I apologize in advance.

I do not know why I hate Harry Potter.  How can I? The books are very popular and well-written…to a point.  I will only concede ‘to a point’.  At the very least they have inspired people to read, which is always good, particularly children.  And fandom is something I can get behind.  I love Ghostbusters and I have friends who are obsessed with Lord of the Rings, comic books, video games, novels, etc, etc.  I have no problem with that.  I get obsessed too, usually over very esoteric things.  To object to that would be the pot calling the kettle, as it were.  So why do I hate Harry Potter? What has he ever done to me?

Well, he’s invaded my cinema, for one thing.  I believe that that was the start of my vitriol.  Before the movies began intruding on my life, I simply did not care about Harry Potter.  I don’t know if I was too young or too old or simply more interested in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to care about wizards.  When the first book came out I was eleven years old and obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.  So I never read the books as a child.  But I have seen the movies.  And even my most Potter-y friends admit: those kids Can.  Not.  Act.  They still can’t act.  Daniel Radcliffe has all the personality of a wet towel; Emma Watson has almost as many expressions as Mr. Potato Head; Rupert Grint whines and whines and whines.  This might be a fault of the source material, of course, or of the scripts.  Regardless, it’s positively grating to watch them on screen.

And what of the Aging British Thespians Brigade? Alan Rickman! Maggie Smith! Richard Harris! Gary Oldman! Ralph Fiennes! Emma Thompson! If you weren’t in Lord of the Rings, you got your chance in Harry Potter.  I love all those actors.  Rickman particularly seems to be enjoying himself immensely, but then he always does.  Every time he talks with one of the kids, I only hear ‘I’m Alan Rickman.  And you’re not.’  Which is fun.  It cannot carry a movie, much less a franchise, but it is fun.

The fact is that the movies are really only supplements to the books.  It’s impossible to follow them without having a serious knowledge of each novel in turn.  As I came to the movies first, perhaps that was my problem.  I was hopelessly confused most of the time.  With the possible exception of whichever film was directed by Alfonso Cuaron*, the movies are fairly dreadful, confused and confusing.  I am of the opinion that cinema should be able to stand on its own, and the Harry Potter movies do not.  So perhaps that is the source of my antipathy.  Like everyone else, I cannot divorce the books from the films any longer and the Films.  Suck.  That is my highly thought out critical opinion born of two years at film school.  They suck.

But even this does not suffice.  Because, the truth is, I should like Harry Potter.  I should like the idea of wizards and good versus evil and betrayal and all that.  I might even be persuaded to endure teenage angst.  I was an angsty teenager once.  I once felt like the world did not understand my intrinsic greatness, like I must be a wizard in disguise.  I love outsiders and rebels and grand adventures.  I should really have no problem with Harry Potter.  And yet…

I can analyze some of the sources of my intense dislike.  The books seem derivative, combining elements of Lord of the Rings, Greek and Roman mythology, folktales and old British traditions, not to mention the ever-present Christ story.  But then so do most books; everyone takes their inspiration from somewhere.  Perhaps it’s that the inspiration comes close to simply lifting whole subplots and characters from other places.

The Christ angle bothers me too.  Maybe I’m just sick of the ‘One who will save humanity (or wizardry) by sacrificing himself for…whatever’.  The Christ story has been done, over and over and over, so that whenever I hear those dreaded words (often phrased differently, but with the same purpose) ‘You are the one…’ I actually cringe.  The world is always coming to an end.  A hero must rise.  Again.  For the hundredth time.

Maybe I’m tired of good vs. evil narratives when we’re living in a world where that simply does not cut it anymore.  To separate characters into good and bad nowadays seems dull, simplistic, and potentially damaging.  Rather than understanding differences, we seek to vilify them.  Rather than examining the darkness and the light within every human being, we draw a dividing line.  We still do it, despite all evidence to the contrary in this world.  Despite the shades of grey.

I know that we need those kinds of narratives, if only to keep our faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.  That was one of the sources of my adoration of Sherlock Holmes: he was the voice of reason and goodness in a terrifying world.  But he was also complex, not always nice, and sometimes not even right.  He believed in the rule of justice, not necessarily law.  I would never argue for always turning the world on its head, for always giving the villains the upper hand, for the defeat of the good guys.  I am not really all that cynical when it comes to humanity.  I believe that all human beings are intrinsically good.  I believe that the human capacity for good is greater than the human capacity for evil.  But I find it dull when it is all made so simplistic, so derivative, so easy to define.

I am a hypocrite.  I have not made an exhaustive study of Harry Potter and I am probably glossing over all sorts of complexities that make those books so popular.  So, I will tone down my language: I do not hate Harry Potter.  I  intensely dislike Harry Potter.  I don’t really know why.  Maybe I’m just contrary.  Maybe I’m a curmudgeon at the age of 24.  Maybe I should give the books another chance.  Perhaps it would change my mind.  I doubt it.  Good for Rowling for creating a character that so many people seem to love and identify with.  But I just can’t.

That said, I kind of want to see the last film.  I want to see Rickman sneer one more time.  I’m just not certain if it’s worth an 8 pound ticket.

*I thought it was Guillermo del Toro.  Thanks, Jon Morris, for pointing out the error.  Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part.*

Bad Men and Why We Love Them

OK, a little misleading.  I’m not talking about REAL bad men.  Not really nasty no-good sonofabitches.  I’m talking about fake ones.  Bad boys.  Bastards.  Assholes.  Villains.

There’s just something about them, isn’t there? They’re not anti-heroes; they’re just the bad guys.  You know that at the end of the movie, or the book, or the play, they’re going to either be dead, or heading to jail, or at least punished for their misdeeds.  Most of the time.  Not always, anymore, but at least in mainstream media the bad guys still tend to get it in the end.  And we don’t really want it any other way.

Effing Mice Not Gonna Sing No More.

I have a fascination with villains.  My favorite character in Disney was I was a little tyke? The cat Lucifer in Cinderella.  He was mean and fat and wanted to eat all those annoying little mice and I loved him.  Not that I wanted him to win in the end; no, not at all.  But I enjoyed watching him be bad.  I enjoyed the fact that he just did not care.  He was a jerk, and I loved him.

Many years on and my fascination with villains has not waned.  Best Shakespearean character? Iago.   And he’s listed as literally ‘A Villain’.  Not a soldier, a commander, a husband, a lieutenant, a friend … nope.  Just ‘A Villain’.  That’s what his character is and he fulfills it, better than any other Shakespearean villain.  He’s mean and evil and hates everyone, including himself.  He murders his own wife, he destroys his own friend, he drives Othello to destruction, he gloats and grimaces and makes the audience complicit in his nastiness.  He’s hateful and cruel.  He has no real motivation, no reason to do what he does … except that he’s a villain.  And he’s delightful.  He’s far more interesting than Othello, at least to me.  He’s defined by his villainy.  At the end of the play, does he beg for forgiveness? Does he confess to all the terrible things he’s done? Nope.  He refuses to say a word.  He’s responsible for the untold destruction of almost all the other main characters and he does not care.  He just doesn’t give a shit.

So, why villains? What makes them so fascinating that they sometimes even overshadow the heroes? John McClane is a badass in ‘Die Hard’, but where would he be without the sneering, sexy Hans Gruber? We all hope Robin Hood saves the day, but Guy of Gisbourne is pretty fucking cool (and he’s Basil Rathbone).  George Sanders made his career out of being an erudite, purring villain.  And he’s more delightful to watch than most of his antagonists.

"In movies I am invariably a son of a bitch. In life, I'm really a dear, dear boy." --Sanders

Part of it, I think, is simple sex appeal.  Villains, often because of their villainy, get to be sexy in ways that heroes simply don’t.  The hero has to fulfill all these stereotypes.  He must be pure, intelligent, gentlemanly.  If he has flaws, he must overcome them.  He never gets to do bad things because he’s the hero.  We’ve got to root for him.  When he does something nasty, he must justify it in the end.  Otherwise we won’t accept his triumph.

The villain has no such difficulties.  Shoot innocent people? Done.  Kidnap the heroine? Sure, why not.  Cancel Christmas? You don’t get any presents.  He gets to sneer and make snide remarks (Rickman, Irons, and Oldman are heirs to Rathbone, Rains and Sanders in that department).  He’s often erudite, urbane, an aesthete, an intellectual.  He tends to get the best lines, in books, in movies and in plays.  He can be mean and sarcastic and do horrible things, and at some level we forgive him, we’re not bothered by it, because he’s the villain and that’s what he does.  The villain, in other words, does not carry the moral weight of the world on his shoulders.

"Why, yes, this beard is natural. Why do you ask?"

Hitchcock understood this.  His villains tended to be likable, complex individuals, while his heroes tread the lines of hypocrisy.  Consider the lackadaisical All-American boy detective (more or less the ‘hero’) in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’.  A duller romantic figure never existed.  The battle of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ is really between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, the Old and Young Charlies.  And Cotten is charming, funny, frightening but incredibly enjoyable to watch.  Then there’s the sociopathic Brandon in ‘Rope’, while Jimmy Stewart find himself descending deeper and deeper into a hypocritical netherworld.  The dedicated lovesick Alexander Sebastian in ‘Notorious’, versus the cold and even cruel hero Devlin.  And the charming Johnny of ‘Suspicion’, who gets to be both hero and villain in one.

The most distressing of these villains in the Hitchcockian oeuvre is Bob Rusk in Frenzy.  He’s a rapist, a murderer and a psychopath.  He’s also more interesting, funnier and more charming than the supposed hero.  We follow him throughout the film, having seen him murder a woman in one of the most terrifying and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever had to sit through.  And what is really disturbing is that we actually begin rooting for him.  He scares the hell out of us, but as soon as he’s caught, the movie’s over.

Rusk is an extreme example of charming villainy, but he makes the excellent point that part of what we like about villains is how easily they charm us.  The villain forces us to examine a dark side of ourselves.  Half the movies we see and books we read (detective stories, thrillers, adventures) are directly wrapped up in the darkness.  We want to see the murder, hear the screams, laugh at the one-liners.  We want to see good triumph, but there’s something delightful in evil getting its day.  Hitchcock always pushed us closer to discomfort, making us shift in our seats as we realized that the man we like the best is also the man doing the worst things.  He reminded us that the good guys aren’t always so hot, that there’s something attractive, fascinating in the bad.  It’s disturbing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s … dark as hell.  But it’s true.

Oh, besides that, villains also look like this:

A Female ‘Hangover’? Sorry, boys, it’s all our own.

 Long ago, in the Before Time, there were funny women.  Or rather, women were allowed to be funny.  Their names were Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Shirley Maclaine, Thelma Todd, Mae West, Lucille Ball … and those are just the ones that I can think of at the moment.  And they played opposite men in comedies and were allowed to be just as funny, sometimes even funnier, than the boys.  They were ‘dizzy dames’ and ‘madcap heiresses’ and ‘newspapermen’.  They were powerhouses of screwball comedy.

Somewhere along the way (I think it really started in the 90s), it became taboo for girls to be funny.  Men were funny.  Men were gross and ridiculous.  Men got to be childish, get drunk, get high, get laid.  The Apatow Factory has produced girls that aren’t allowed to be funny.  They have to calm, sedate, the sober counterparts of those wild and crazy guys, who would put up with the madness and eventually, inevitably, stand by their men.  And, in those moments when the women got their own films, all they really wanted was a man to take care of, lord over even.  They were foils, straightmen, at the most people to be laughed AT, not with.

But there is hope.  Great hope.  With the release of movies like ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Bad Teacher’, the girls are getting some of their own back.  Girls get to be funny again.

‘Bridesmaids’ is not, as some have remarked, a female version of ‘The Hangover’.  It’s a whole new thing called ‘Bridesmaids’.  And it’s funnier than hell.  Probably one of the few movies I have seen to accurately represent adult female relationships, in all their weirdnesses.  It’s gross, it’s profane, it uses words that us girls are apparently not supposed to know (unless, of course, we’re sluts).  It’s real.  There are no shopping montages, no hair-pulling, no vicious back-stabbing, no battles over hunky men.  The lives of these women are not fixed by a makeover or a marriage.  And these women do not act like men.  They act like women, real women.  I mean, hell, they act like my friends.

‘Bridesmaids’ doesn’t turn the tables on the guys; it goes off and gets its own table.  Marriage, although it is a central concern of the film (much like ‘The Hangover’, let’s be honest), is not the end game.  Love, friendship, companionship, the trials of being an adult, regardless of sex, are the complications that run through the movie.  There are no easy answers and everything does not get wrapped up in a neat little package.  But the women of the movie — and there are many, of all ages — hold together, fighting, swearing, destroying, rebuilding.  Growing up.  The men are not excluded by a long shot, but it is adult relationships that are celebrated in the most hilarious way possible.  Everyone flounders and everyone, in some measure, perseveres.  ‘Bridesmaids’ gives me hope for the future of comedy, and for the future of gender relations.  The girls get to play as much as the boys, and they do it without being sluts, fashion plates, or that hilarious class of unmarried female who just needs a man to loosen her up and make her life worth living.

Nearing the end of ‘Bad Teacher’ (another recent case of women getting to be profanely hilarious), Jason Segel makes a very *ahem* lewd gesture at Cameron Diaz.  Her reaction is not to get 1) offended or 2) secretly turned on.  She just smiles.  She smiles because she’s found a person, a friend, a man, to be herself with.  A man that won’t save her, or change her, but simply be with her.  A man just as disgusting as she is.  And really, isn’t that all we’re looking for?