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The Temperature of Terror


How hot or cold should a baddie be? Hitchcock claimed that a great thriller needed a great villain – “the more successful the villain the more successful the picture”, he says in Hitchcock, a book of interviews with Francois Truffaut. William Martell, a scriptwriter who has also written a manual on action cinema, Secrets of Action Screenwriting, insists it is the baddie that motivates the plot. In each instance, the significance of the villain concerns narrative purposefulness. What interests us here though is less the coherence of the storyline than the incoherence of the antagonist: the degree to which their hot or cold state impacts upon the film. This is in some ways an article in answer to Stuart Fischoff’s piece on ‘Villains in Film’, where motivation is the thing. Here we would argue that in certain instances of no less importance is the temperature of the villain and the proximity of the villain to the hero in relation to that hotness or coldness.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the recent The Dark Knight is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. He would seem to be the opposite of the villain as Martell proposes in that he doesn’t really motivate the plot. While everyone else in Gotham City schemes and has plans, what so confuses everybody is that The Joker works off contingencies. As he says at one stage; what interests him is to scupper the plans and motivations of others, without having a plan or motive of his own that others can credit to him. He wants people to acknowledge the chaos of existence rather than its grand design. Yet, of course, a big blockbuster like The Dark Knight isn’t going to allow the film to be plotless and so, though The Joker may be without apparent purpose, the film sets in motion a plot through the scheming of everyone else; indeed perhaps even though The Joker proclaims his innocence of motive, he is as purposeful, finally, as others in the film. What he lacks it seems is an interest in money, sex and power, as though there is some impulse within him that cannot be matched to the symbols of status other human beings live by. This is if you like a semiotic emptiness: an absence of the sort of symbolic language that gives meaning to an action. Thus when a hero, a cop, or a psychologist tries to find a motive for a villain’s actions, is it not really their semiotic code that they are searching for; the symbolic structure that gives purpose to their behaviour? In a film like Ransom, Gary Sinise’s arch villain invokes H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine as the gap between the rich and the poor seemingly motivates this former cop to extract a fortune from the multi-millionaire hero. This is the baddie at room temperature, a figure whose impulses and semiotic code of conduct are aligned, and that needn’t cause too many problems for the narrative progression, nor for the hero’s scheming faculties. When Gibson decides to play hardball with Sinise’s character by refusing to hand over the ransom in return for his son, everybody’s shocked by Gibson’s willingness to put into jeopardy his son’s life, but Gibson knows what he is doing because he understands the motives of his nemesis.

But what if the villain plays too hot or too cold; what happens if he doesn’t work off the same temperature as the hero? What is so often central to the heroic figure is not that he lacks the characteristics of the villain – as David Bordwell notes in The Way Hollywood Tells It, critics may often praise a film that proposes there isn’t much difference between the protagonist and the antagonist, but that this is a mainstay of the action genre. No, the challenge lies elsewhere, and yet perhaps a challenge even greater than that proposed by Friedrich Dürrenmatt in his novel The Pledge which  has a character say to the narrator who is a crime novelist: “You build your plots up logically, like a chess game; here the criminal, here the victim, here the accomplice, here the master mind. The detective need only know the rules and play the game over and he has the criminal trapped…” Later he adds, “our criminological tools are inadequate, and the more we try to sharpen them the more inadequate they become.” The character goes on to talk about “chance, the incalculable, the incommensurable…our rules are only based on probabilities, on statistics, not causality; they apply only in general and not in particular.”

This is still chiefly an issue of mind games, but what about body games? Has cinema not created antagonists who have too much or too little feeling not because they are sociopathic, per se, in the sense they are devoid of certain feeling structures, but that their feelings are inconsistent with the semiotics of the event? Think of the way Tony Montana reacts to his sister playing around with a guy in a club in Scarface, how Tommy De Vito overreacts in Goodfellas when he shoots a waiter’s toe off, how in Blue Velvet Frank Booth asks Jeffrey Beaumont if he would like to go for a ride as he offers chumminess alongside a hefty punch to the stomach. Think of Begbie as he throws a glass to start a fight in Trainspotting, the main antagonist in Funny Games who reckons he may let someone live if they can recite a prayer backwards, or even the absent villain in Zodiac, whose killing spree proves enigmatic and unsolvable as detectives and journalists become obsessed by the killer’s motives, a killer who even offers them clues to his identity.

Now obviously the half a dozen characters we’ve mentioned here are not all villainous in the same way, and indeed only the baddies in Funny Games, Blue Velvet and Zodiac are what we could narratively instigative, taking into account Martell’s idea that the “most important element of the action film is the villain’s plan”, and, to a lesser degree, his insistence that it be a well-motivated one. Also, none of the movies is strictly an action film in the Martell sense of the term – the way Die Hard, Speed, Ransom, The Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace happen to be. One reason why they might not be, though, isn’t because the villain is any the less significant in Funny Games, Good Fellas, Trainspotting etc. but that his importance lies less in his motivated actions, à la the action film, than in what we might call the film’s ‘thermo-chemical investigation’. That is, the manner in which the film is interested in the character’s feelings in relation to the event as it tries to extract from the event an understanding of thermo-chemical evil over the narratively coherent action.  Some of the films are no more ambitious in their exploration than the action film, but the characters don’t function as villains, first and foremost, but as chemical states. They possess a dimension that cannot be contained by plot logic, nor even the chance element Dürrenmatt explores, but a chemical imbalance that leaves their behaviour unpredictable in ways that have little to do with the machinations of the plot.

Does the Joker’s significance as a baddie in The Dark Knight reside in that he isn’t only a social anarchist as he claims – which might imply a political incoherence – but also a chemical one? This could even affect narrative event if we take into account Kim Newman’s observation in a Sight and Sound review that certain key moments would seem to be left dangling. When Batman leaves a roomful of people at the mercy of The Joker, after he disappears out of the window and saves his former lover who looks certain to fall to her death, we have no idea what The Joker does to the people he is busy terrorising. Is this the film’s narrative incoherence, or a reflection of The Joker’s? He is so unstable a character there is no reason to assume he will do anything with the guests except disappear back out of the building. That we aren’t told later of any misdeeds there leaves us assuming that this is what has happened.

This isn’t too far removed from Begbie’s actions in Trainspotting when near the end of the film he starts a fight and our protagonist Renton scarpers. We don’t know exactly what takes place in the pub after Renton exits. What counts is that Begbie is a loose cannon who’s gone off yet again: his target doesn’t concern us. Well motivated villainy, however, would seem to demand the cannon in relation to its target – the motivational and the cause and effectual are, taking into account Martell’s comments, what the action film is about. But there is potential within the thermochemical to assume that the narrative question is less pressing than the characterisational one. In Trainspotting, no matter the general superficiality of Danny Boyle’s characterisations in adapting Irvine Welsh’s more textured book, the question of character choice is vital. What we need to know of Begbie is what Renton needs to know: to accept that though they’ve been friends for years, this is one friend he can afford to lose. When he takes off to Amsterdam at the end of the film it is to escape the terrors of Begbie as much as anything else. In such an instance, understanding the temperature of a character is more important than comprehending his motivational psychology. In these examples, as in Scarface and Goodfellas, the problem doesn’t lie in the issue of heroes and villains, but the hot and the cold. Whether it is Renton, Henry Hill in Goodfellas, or Manny Ray in Scarface, while none of them are heroic figures, they are room temperature ones – characters who observe the high-temperature fugues of their friends and must decide how to deal with them. If the villain/hero contrast relies often on mind games, the friend/thug relies more on bodily comprehension.

This is not, of course, to say that such hot villainy is new. Dickens for example created in Sikes an horrifically threatening figure of rage, and we may recall the way Fagin tries to placate him. But recent cinema seems increasingly interested in exploring a violence that is greater than the situation, and whether the violence is hot or cold is less important than the inexplicable aspect. In Funny Games, for example, the two killers have no reason for committing the atrocities they do, and we may more fruitfully try to comprehend their actions in relation to their thermo-chemical coldness rather than their psycho-logical upbringing. It’s almost as though they are looking for the ultimate in thermo-chemical contrast – the family is petrified and utterly adrenalised, while the killers are coolly removed from the emotional messiness of the situation they have created. Director Michael Haneke offers a couple of reversals here that go beyond simply inverting the intruder sub-genre that he plays with. One of the elements of the intruder film that differentiates it from most thrillers or action films is the proximity of antagonist and protagonist. Many an action film plays up the gap between villain and hero, not only or more especially through moral difference, but through a spatial distance that keeps the hero and villain removed in space until the climax which brings them together physically. But in such moments the subtlety of bodily temperatures proves irrelevant, as both figures are adrenalised towards the purposes of their goal. Central to the chase sequence is the equivalence of adrenaline pumping through the hero and villain’s bodies, no matter which one happens to be doing the chasing.

But the intruder film, which also belongs to the action and thriller genre, nevertheless plays up the contrasting bodily temperature of villain and unassuming hero as the intruder believes he is in a comfortable position and the put-upon family in a very dangerous one. The intruder film – whether it be set in a house or on a boat, whether it be Dead Calm or The Voyage, The Edge or Cape Fear– in this sense resembles the friendship films we’ve invoked above: films like Trainspotting, Scarface and Goodfellas. It isn’t about catching the baddie, but trying to accommodate the temperature of another. Haneke takes this especially far partly by playing up the social rules before inexorably following their complete breakdown. The intruder film, partly because it deals with physical proximity, also utilises the rules of social engagement over the rules of physical engagement. This is a genre less of parallel montage than the wariness of shot/counter-shot. But Haneke plays up European cinema’s genius for proximity over American cinema’s gift for spatial logistics; as if he wanted to explore a sub-genre within the thriller and action film that would be closer to European notions of ontology than America’s, and found it in the intruder film.

This is the European notion of hell being other people not kinetically but ontologically, and so Haneke offers a world where the violence is all the more pronounced because the kinetic enters the ontological – the physically violent collides with the emotionally violent. This was of course always present in the intruder film due to the proximity we’ve mentioned above, but Haneke works it much more completely by assuming the domestic space is not simply a site for intrusion, but a space oblivious to intrusiveness on a representational level. Many an intruder film announces this intrusion through a combination of elements: a beautiful house, vaguely voyeuristic tracking shots and music that announces the possibility of a threat to come. This is less the violation of a domestic space, than a domestic space set up for violation. It is a canny space – a generic space. Haneke would seem to want to use genre to generate an uncanny space, the ontological problem of hell being other people in close proximity as part of the immediate issue. The early stages of the film play on domestic sound as one of the intruders comes in asking for eggs, and we watch as the mother fusses around in her kitchen. Instead of the canny soundtrack warning us of trouble to come, Haneke offers an uncanny soundtrack of domestic sounds that takes for granted the domesticity of the space whilst also calling it into question without the cues of generic expectation. This is cold villainy met by a cold cinematic staging, as the static camera positions and the absence of a music track in these moments leave one unsure of what we are about to receive, but this is the film’s portent at work.

Haneke’s killers, especially the lean ‘Paul’, are about as cold as killers can become, and we should never underestimate that even someone grotesquely violating social norms may nevertheless have their own sense of appropriateness. The question worth asking is how broad a range of villainy can cinema offer. How willing will cinema be to offer ‘bad behaviour’ in ever more expanding filmic environments? From this point of view cinema is a physiological lab exploring and expanding upon codes of human behaviour, and thus a new perspective on villainy, or even an old perspective of villainy within a new context, can open up fresh pathways of exploration.

If we find Haneke’s antagonists so fresh it resides in the combination of their cold temperatures, Haneke’s exploration of antagonist/protagonist proximity, and the domesticity that isn’t a generic space but an uncanny mise-en-scene. From this point of view The Joker in Dark Knight is fresh chiefly within the context of the action film, as he pushes beyond the boundaries of genre. It is as though in some way he is not the kinetic baddie of distances, but the villain of proximity as he wheezes and wheedles his way into the intimate space of another while he offers varying pasts to whoever wants a convincing account of his damaged origins when he threatens to dispatch them.

But one still senses the thermochemical is secondary to the action movie exigencies, and The Joker seems finally a villain of novelty rather than part of an exploration of the temperature of evil. Indeed, central to this piece is the degree to which film has usually created the space for an exploration of taking the pulse of villainy, but that narrative expectation, sympathetic exploration and moral binaries have still held up. For example in Trainspotting, Goodfellas and Blue Velvet, the hot villainy has been contextualised from the perspective of those who are even-tempered enough to provide a context for the baddie’s actions. None of the films explores the temperature of antagonism in and of itself. If Blue Velvet remains the most challenging of the three, it rests on the sense that by the conclusion Jeffrey Beaumont has found his own temperature is not necessarily as consistent as he might wish. After sadistically slapping Isabella Rossellini’s character, and masochistically receiving a beating by Hopper’s Frank, it is as though by the end of the film he is not the even-tempered boy next door, but a young man capable of less mood swings than temperature swings. When the film ends on Jeffrey and his girl-next-door girlfriend sitting in the garden, central to the uncanniness is that we can’t quite believe Jeffrey will be able to adjust to such a mundane life after the temperature shifts he’s been part of. As with Funny Games, the film works less because it has been psychologically plausible, than because it has taken us into a different temperate zone. In Blue Velvet it is hot as hell, reflected in Lynch’s tonally hyperbolized mise-en-scene; in Funny Games it is cold as hell, by virtue of the naturalistic locale offered. In Blue Velvet the hero survives but we’re aware of the infernal underbelly of normal life; in Funny Games the villains survive and domestic normality continues, but with the presence of abnormal human elements within it. In Blue Velvet detrital villainy infects small town life; in Funny Games the surgically clean killers leave spaces all but untouched, though take out various lives. In each instance the uncanniness of villainy is achieved, and partly through working with hot and cold temperatures.

We’re perhaps flying in the face of psychological expectation here, and one writer on villainy that we’ve alluded to at the beginning of this piece, Stuart Fischoff, quotes Kurt Lewin’s formula for comprehending motivational forces. B=f((P,E): “behaviour is a function of personality factors interacting with environmental forces”. For Fischoff, vital to villainy is justifiable motivational elements. “The simple truth is less often what he does than why he does it.” What we are proposing is that motivational forces are potentially less interesting than the unmotivational forces: the thermochemically inexplicable, over the psychologically plausible. However, where Fischoff frets over the problem of Hollywood laziness in relation to implausible behaviour, what about the flipside of the motivational resting not in the motive but in the body? Where Fischoff defends Scarface and attacks King of New York, a writer like Nicole Brenez who is fascinated less by psychological plausibility than what the body is capable of, will regard Ferrara’s film, in Abel Ferrara, as a masterpiece partly because of its over the top nature. While Fischoff sees a comic book dimension, sees a “drug szar cartoon”, Brenez would claim Ferrara as a filmmaker interested in exploring “the obscure and vital zone of bodily feeling.”

Now this might sound highfalutin, but while it is true that, to paraphrase Hitchcock, great motivation makes a great villain, indiscernible motivation can make equally impressive villainy. When Michael Brooks online lists his top ten creepiest villains, amongst them are Mr Blonde from Reservoir Dogs, Frank Booth, The Joker, Anyon Chigurgh from No Country for Old Men, Max Cady from Cape Fear, and Tommy De Vito from Good Fellas. Obviously, the key word here is creepy, and yet this suggests that many of the finest villains aren’t motivationally significant, but proximately and thermochemically of import. Though Fischoff dismisses many Hollywood filmmakers because they “tirelessly opt for portraying villains motivationally no more complex than marionettes”, one may argue that an apparently poorly motivated character on the page requires richer motivation on the screen – in the mise-en-scene. If for many viewers Halloween works it is not because of Michael Myer’s motivations – he’s dismissed as pure evil by his doctor – but by the mise-en-scene that his unmotivatedness demands. John Carpenter worries not about Myers’ motivations but creates a vivid sense of his victims’, and by extension the audience’s sense of threat.

Now let us propose that motivation is equivalent to Hitchcock’s notion of suspense, and lack of motivation to Hitchcock’s idea of surprise. In suspense we have a couple lying in bed, and the film cross-cuts with the husband coming up the driveway and then entering the house, coming up the stairs and finding the couple naked. As the film cuts back and forth between the couple and the husband, so the film builds ‘knowingness’ into the viewing experience. But in surprise this is not the case, as the husband suddenly bursts open the door, and that is the first we know of his presence anywhere near the house. This needn’t be too far removed from the difference between motivated and unmotivated villainy. It isn’t that one is necessarily better than another, but that they are serving different functions. Halloween needs to create an atmosphere of evil; a film like Marnie requires a comprehension of kleptomania. If Hitchcock wanted to focus on terror in Marnie he may have made more of Mark Rutland’s threat and lessened Marnie’s mental trauma. In this sense Marnie is epistemologically psychological; Halloween is physiologically terrifying. There may be moments in Marnie where Rutland comes across as creepy, but in Halloween Myers’ purpose is to be a constant threat. The sort of questions we have concerning him are not ones of character, but of spatial proximity – a key element of course in horror villainy where the viewer tries to second guess the filmmaker in understanding where and when the villain might strike.

Fischoff’s article is a psychologically focused piece as befitting someone whose career is that of an academic psychologist. But should all villains be psychological? Let us look again at his use of Lewin’s formula: behaviour is a function of Personality factors interacting with Environmental forces, and see it cinematically. Behaviour is a figure moving through film space; Personality is characterisation, and environmental forces would be the mise-en-scene. In many films figures moving through film space and the mise-en-scene are secondary to characterisation – the behaviour is motivated by personality, and the mise-en-scene a functional space to understand what the drives and motives of the characters happen to be. The environmental force is explicable, and the behavioural actions coherent. It would seem it is this combination that can reveal the character of villainy in the plausible, rounded terms Fischoff expects. As Fischoff proposes, “ordinary people in extraordinary situations battling ordinary looking antagonists.”

Yet we can hold to Lewin’s general formula yet play with the filmic hierarchy. Halloween may be a shallow exploration of character, but it is potentially an interesting exploration of the problems of filmic space. If John Carpenter’s reputation is high, then central to it is his use of filmic space not for characterisational goals, but atmospheric revelation. As Kent Jones proposed in Film Comment, “one of the glories of Carpenter’s oeuvre is watching the thrill he gets out of adapting the Scope frame to a variety of topographies and climates…” The opening few minutes of The Thing is about the wide blue yonder of the frame, containing a mystery much greater than the action within it. The Fog is a film that announces its atmospheric priorities in its very title. Sure we may find Carpenter’s psychological insight un-evolved, but, in our continuing allusions to Hitchcock, we can say great villainy is often great atmosphere. The environment isn’t an environmental factor in the psychological sense of the term, but in the physiological sense of creating a world of fear rather than a fearful, plausible figure the audience needs to be scared of.

Carpenter is however what we’ll call a conservative physiologist – he creates an atmosphere not because he wants to comprehend complex behaviour, but that he is so uninterested in complexity that he creates objects as readily as subjects of suspense. It’s a point Jones makes, admiringly. “Much of Carpenter’s cinema is close to a realization of the dream of directors in their dotage like Fuller and Fellini, who wanted to make films about objects, devoid of people.” But a radical physiologist won’t be interested in the conventions of suspense contained by the generic atmosphere (as is so often and skilfully the case with Carpenter), but in the complexity of being that goes beyond the limits of both genre and character. In a short article by Nicole Brenez called ‘On The Subject of Regrettable Searching – Body to Body, the Filmed Body’, she says “cinema could have the almost anthropological function of reminding us of what is possible for the body, of sending us image constructions which make it impossible to limit the organism to its determining factors.”

Brenez is interested in the number of questions the body raises. We’re concerned for the moment only with what sort of questions can be aroused through the nature of villainy. Where Fischoff seeks psychological plausibility; we’re musing like Brenez over what sort of emotional range a villain is capable of, even if that range goes beyond the boundaries of plausibility within the Lewin formula. This is the radical physiology we’ve been invoking in relation to Funny Games, Trainspotting, Goodfellas, Scarface, Blue Velvet and The Dark Knight.

What we’ve offered is a continuum from the hot to the cold, and how that plays into a conventional psychology (the sort of movie villains Fischoff admires), the conservative physiology of the generic picture where villainy is a product of genre space, and the radical physiology hinted at to varying degrees in the films we’ve invoked. Perhaps most of the films are still too tied to genre and conventional psychology to offer the truly radical physiology we’re proposing, the type of body Brenez believes she sees in the work of experimental filmmakers like Carole Roussopoulos, Sylvain George, Mounir Fatmi, Slim Ben Chiekh, Olivier Dury, Stephen Dwoskin, Stan Brakhage, Robert Fenz and others. This is obviously a world away from actors like Dennis Hopper, Robert Carlyle, Joe Pesci and Heath Ledger, but the mainstream actor pushing into areas of experimental behaviour, of creating new thermochemical relationships within the body of mainstream, film is itself potentially radical. Perhaps this article will do nothing more than make someone less inclined to talk about Hopper’s ‘over the top’ performance in Blue Velvet, of seeing the killers in Funny Games as too cold and under-motivated. When we think of creepy villains, maybe we can think not only of the creepy, icy and chilling – which implies cold villainy – but also find a vocabulary for hot antagonism as well. After all cold terms seem to fit villainy so much better than hot terms – blistering, scorching, fiery – and this no doubt says something about the heart of the villain: that cold terms fit much more accurately than hot ones. But this is a moral villainy that allows for such language. Would a reappraisal of antagonism not from the point of view of morality and psychology, but from physiology, from the thermochemical, allow us to look at villainy from different perspectives? Indeed, perhaps the final logic of such an approach would be to get rid of the term villainy altogether.


©Tony McKibbin