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Top 10 Screen Villains of the 80’s

October 17, 2008

This is the second of only two pieces that I managed to contribute to the, now discontinued, Naptown Cine-Files blog (the first being No Sex Please, We’re Peevish). Anyone interested in reading more from that blog can follow the link provided. Once again, the wonderful images in the article below were sourced and shaped by Josh Eckert.

In compiling this list I find it prudent to mention that this represents a very personal take on 1980s cinema. This is a collection of characters that left an indelible impression on me as a young lad in the early stages of being dazzled and enthralled by the magic of movies. Or some such piss. As such, you might think that this list is quite frivolous, disposable, un-authoritative and intended purely for a mild laugh before being discarded. And you’d be right. You may find yourself wildly disagreeing with the choices below. You will, most likely, be thinking to yourself “I can’t believe he overlooked X bad-ass from Y movie” and that’s fine.

Put simply: don’t take the below too seriously. Read in the manner it was compiled, with tongue firmly in cheek.

Having made that disclaimer I feel I should also say with some pride that the below represents quite a fine menagerie of screen villains. I searched the vast wasteland of the internet for similar lists and found what other people regard as the “best” 80s villains. Fortunately, what I found there was quite unsatisfactory and therefore not worth plagiarizing. I came across lists containing the two high school principals from Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club and the bullying brother, Chet, from Weird Science. Amusing and colorful characters certainly, but somewhat pedestrian and unimaginative in my view. In contrast, I can herein promise appearances from a steroid-enhanced Soviet boxer, an immortal Russian barbarian, a genocidal dictator from outer space and the deformed, hulking leader of a gay, sadomasochistic biker gang in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Oh, and another disclaimer: I’ve never liked a lot of 80s horror/slasher/splatter flicks so you will not find characters like Freddy Krueger here. Freddy Krueger is terminally unfunny crap. That’s what I meant by my own personal take on the subject. I’ve also largely went for personality and comedy value (ironic or otherwise) in my characters so you won’t find The Terminator here. I love that film but Arnie’s iconic character doesn’t make the cut.

Right then. To business.

#10. Arnold Toht Knows You Will Tell Him Everything

Toht (played by Ronald Lacey) was the name of the little Gestapo bastard in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Granted, he wasn’t the main villain in that movie but he was easily the most memorable. Who can really claim to retain any traumatic childhood memories of Colonel Dietrich or Rene Belloq, the arch-villains of Raiders?

My reason for including him is this: when I first saw Raiders Of The Lost Ark I was much too young to know anything about the Nazis and their evil ways but one look at Toht and I was fucking creeped out. The little piggy features, the menacing specs and the fact that he was German all added up to a thoroughly terrifying experience. You just knew this guy was bad news. Ronald Lacey was allegedly cast in the role due to his resemblance to creep-meister Peter Lorre which should give you an idea of the pedigree of villainy on display here. Looking at Toht was akin to contemplating a large bug crawling over your naked body. Plus, you know, his face melts at the end of the movie.

#9. Ivan Drago Must Break You

Like our number 10 above, big russkie Ivan didn’t say much and relied on presence alone. But goddamn it if the villain from Rocky IV wasn’t the living embodiment of Soviet Russia as rather hysterically imagined in the jingoistic eyes of the Reagan era. Drago was huge, superhumanly strong, merciless and inhumane. His lack of humanity was reflected in his technologically elaborate training methods and his ingestion of steroids (contrasting Rocky’s back to basics, mountains and log cabin, wholesome, all-American approach). He beat Apollo Creed to death for fuck’s sake, what more do you want? Some may argue that Clubber Lang from Rocky III was the more memorable villain from this franchise but I disagree. He was just angry and hungry for success (and he didn’t mean to kill Mickey).

Drago was the super punch of the Superpower, out to bury the free world. He also conveyed his badness via a big black gum shield, which looked quite intimidating.

#8. Biff Tannen Wants To Know If There’s Anyone Home

The bad guy from Back To The Future makes this list for different reasons than probably every other entry. Whereas most memorable villains are larger-than-life, quasi-pantomime arch-fiends with a penchant for mass murder and other unspeakable crimes, Biff Tannen was just your common, garden variety arsehole. Precisely what makes him so memorable is that everyone knows or knew a Biff Tannen. Every school, college, neighborhood, etc. had the indefatigable prick of a bully who got his kicks giving smaller people a hard time. Although this character was eventually inflated and warped into a grander and literally timeless, malevolent threat in the sequels, it was his initial incarnation as the overbearing 50s thug that proved the most effective.

The quintessential schoolyard bully, Biff was essentially weak, cowardly and hugely ignorant. In an attempt to overcome this he fucked with the outcasts and sci-fi geeks around him as a means of compensation. In other words, a complete cunt.

#7. Bennett Laughs At Your Pissant Little Soldiers Trying To Sound Tough

The antagonist from Commando is an important entry here as he encapsulates that somewhat homo-erotic style common to many movies and videos of the 1980s. Bennett (Vernon Wells) was the ultimate queer-core sadist, decked out in a chain mail vest, leather fingerless gloves and sporting a big gay ‘tache. He remains pretty ice cold and relaxed when John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) isn’t around but as soon as he’s squaring off against the hero, Bennett starts going batshit crazy. He starts quivering, a huge manic grin spreads under his bold moustache and it’s not long before he’s shrieking at Arnie “I can beat you! I don’t need no gun!”

It’s hard not to interpret Bennett’s obsession and hostility towards Matrix as being borne from some hyper sexual tension, he even lures the hero into a final confrontation in a dark boiler room basement away from prying eyes. The motive that the viewer is given though, is that Bennett is out for revenge after being previously tossed out of Arnie’s commando squad for his misdeeds. Given that John Matrix is shown murdering and maiming the living shit out of anyone that crosses his path in Commando (including driving an ax into a random henchman’s balls) we can only wonder what hyper-atrocities Bennett committed to be considered too excessive for the group.

#6. General Zod For Your Obediance You Will Enjoy His Generous Protection

Like many of the best screen villains of yesteryear, General Zod was portrayed by a British actor. Terence Stamp brought a performance to Superman II that was equal parts refined menace and maniacal camp. Again, the homo-eroticism cannot be ignored as General Zod sported one of the fruitiest costumes ever to grace the big screen.

Watching Superman II, it’s hard not to conclude that Zod chose to arrive on Earth in the American mid west precisely so that the alternative lifestyle implied by his bizarre clothing would provoke outrage and ridicule amongst the blue collar, rural denizens of the area and thus give him an excuse to massacre them all. He strutted about in hick towns dressed like a disco queen so that rednecks would start some shit and he would kick them into orbit. Eschewing any strategic advantages afforded by subtlety and guile, Zod simply flew through the roof of the Whitehouse in order to make the President “kneel before Zod” and proclaimed himself the fucking daddy of the whole world. He was as powerful as Superman (with the extra bad-ass edge of being a soldier) and when I first saw him, with the aid of his henchmen, beat the living shit out of The Man Of Steel I hid behind the couch crying until my mum reassured me that Superman wasn’t dead. Bad, bad dude.

#5. Lord Humungus The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!

The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2) was one mental flick that boasted an established hardcore anti-hero in the form of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson, in the days when he was still young, drunk and cool as fuck). It needed an extra special kinda maniac as it’s villain and so we got Lord Humungus, a huge, muscled dude in a steel hockey mask wearing studded leather briefs and little else. Humungus was so bad he commanded an entire militia of complete pyschopaths that he referred to in a highfalutin manner as his “dogs of war”.

Here, the homo-eroticism was off the charts which is unusual given that this film was Australian and not part of the “high-octane” Hollywood 80s that had deliberately taken the look and style of gay disco culture for it’s movies. It should be noted, however, that producers like Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer employed this style in a playful entertaining way in Hollywood, an effect quite in contrast to the alarmingly sociopathic, homosexual threat of the Humungus and his cadre presented in Mad Max 2. This gang had their own sub-factions going by such thought provoking names as the “Smegma Crazies” and “Gayboy Berserkers” (no…really). The Humungus’ right hand man, Wez (played by Vernon Wells who was also Bennett in Commando…co-incidence?) was the ultimate post-apocalyptic punk here shown running around in ass-less chaps with a young, blond sissy boy on a chain riding behind him on his motorbike.

The viewer is left to gasp in awe at the famed Australian lack of subtlety running through every moment of this film. In Mad Max 2 we see Lord Humungus grandiloquently addressing his besieged victims in order to explain to them how merciful he is. He later proves this point by crucifying the same victim’s companions on a hillside. Marvelous bastardry.

#4. The Kurgan Will Cut Off Your Head and Rape Your Woman Before Your Body Is Cold

Before he played memorable villain Captain Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption, Clancy Brown was the immortal Russian barbarian in Highlander that hacked, slashed and growled his way across centuries in pursuit of “The Prize” (mortality, fertility and the telepathic ability to influence great men’s minds). Let’s state this clearly; anyone who has the definite article as their honorific ain’t fucking around. The Kurgan was one category-A, evil motherfucker. Unlike the other villains here who wrecked their respective havoc for mere decades at most, The Kurgan was at it for nearly 3000 years. The guy’s look said it all, no dodgy camp to his leather, he was a fucking heavy metal war machine with a low growling voice (the result of almost having his head cut off by Sean Connery’s character, Ramirez).

The Kurgan was the kind of dude who would approach you in a church whilst you’re mourning your dead wife to boast and laugh about how he decapitated your best friend and then raped the very wife you’ve just lit some candles for. Guy was fucking wild. Even when he gets his own head chopped off by Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) at the end he laughs throughout. He’s still grinning and chuckling as his head slowly falls off implying that, despite the destruction of his physical form, the force of crazed evil that was The Kurgan endures.

#3. Hans Gruber Is A Very Exceptional Thief

If you’re looking for one main reason why the Die Hard sequels have never measured up to the original it’s this: Alan Rickman’s awesome master thief isn’t in them. Jeremy Irons got to play second fiddle as the character’s brother in the third installment and poor Tim Olyphant had nothing to work with in the piss-weak script of the recent, fourth film. Here’s the thing, Hans was a classy guy. Suave, educated and with great fashion sense, you could almost overlook the fact that he was German.

When you watch Die Hard you have to concede that Gruber is so much fucking fun you actually want him to succeed. You long for the dual solution at the end to be McLane rescuing his wife and Hans walking safely away with his $640 mil in negoitable bearer bonds. For all his ruthless professionalism, Hans wasn’t even that sadistic. Alright, so he blew old man Takagi’s brains all over the window (providing hours of fun for me and my friends with the “pause” button when we were kids) but he also greased that coked-up, yuppie bastard Ellis and who wasn’t itching to see that slimy fuck dead? By executing Ellis, Gruber symbolically destroyed all that was most contemptible about the 1980s except, uh, monumental amoral greed (since that was pretty much his gig).

There is a vast and young generation that won’t be aware of Rickman’s towering achievement here, unaware of anything beyond his Severnus Snape in the hulking boy wizard franchise, and that is truly tragic. Die Hard is rightly regarded as an 80s classic and half the experience is Hans Gruber. You feel the lack of him in every Die Hard sequel and every other actioner that employed the ‘Die Hard’, one-man-against-all-odds formula (pretty much every action movie from 1988 – 1995).

#2. Clarence Boddicker Doesn’t Like Cops And Cops Don’t Like Him

There are bad motherfuckers, there are badder motherfuckers and then there is Clarence fucking Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Serial cop killer Clarence ran around the Old Detroit of Robocop murdering, looting and throwing his own friends out of vans at pursuing cops (“Can you fly Bobby?”).

The guy was a balls-to-the-wall lunatic made all the more freaky for the fact that he looked like an accountant. Bald, bespectacled Clarence ran around with a crew of coked-up, heavily armed sociopaths that seemed more interested in creating mass carnage than pursuing any meaningful organized criminal activity. His slow, brutal murder of the hero, Murphy (Peter Weller) at the outset of Robocop fucking traumatized me when I first saw the movie (as a 9 year old waaaay out of his depth, though I’ve since learned that I was not alone in this respect).

Robocop was a trial by fire for me, I view it as the movie that single-handedly marked my desensitization to screen violence. Boddicker was the high-octane 80s answer to the Ford Sterling villain of the silent era. The dude in the top hat that tied the damsel to the railway tracks. Based on the way in which Boddicker is seared on my psyche, I very much wanted to make him my #1 villain from the 80s but there was one guy I simply couldn’t overlook…

#1. Frank Booth Don’t You Fucking Look At Him

Not so much a man (nor alien, demon, immortal, etc.) as a force of nature, Frank Booth should easily be included in the top 10 screen villains of all time (although the AFI managed only to give him a paltry #36 in their Top 50 movie villains). Dennis Hopper’s raging, vicious madman from Lynch’s Blue Velvet is quite simply off the fucking hook. Of this list, Booth was the only character I encountered long after my initial childhood viewing experiences in the 1980s and thus hasn’t been included for quite the same nostalgic reasons.

When I first saw Blue Velvet I was about 16 years old and I had a genuine knot of terror in my gut watching Frank Booth. He scared the piss outta me long after I thought I’d outgrown such an experience from films. The energy Hopper displayed in the role of Booth was incredible. He’s simply never been better (worse?). Frank was like an aggregate of every sadistic male abuser in existence. He was the quintessence of every abusive husband and father, raw malevolence distilled into one pure son of a bitch. To experience this character was to be taken on a wild ride that veered from areas of dark comedic mayhem to places that truly disturbed. Whether he was threatening people by whispering Roy Orbison songs to them through gritted teeth (”In dreams I walk with you”) or heartily huffing some nitrous oxide prior to raping and beating someone, Frank Booth was, for my money, the most intense and memorable screen villain of the 1980s.

Honorable mentions: Daryl Revok (Scanners), John Ryder (Hitcher), Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction), Gordon Gecko (Wall Street), Leonard Smalls (Raising Arizona).

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