What creates an enduring villain? Is it an over the top personality? An uncanny desire to tap into personal and societal fears without having to try very hard? A penchant for one liners? Speaking softly and carrying a big stick, machete, razor glove, or puzzle box?
There isn’t really a set template for fear, and Todd Brown from Twitch aims to show a wide range of iconography with his TIFF Bell Lightbox hosted series Birth of a Villain (starting up just after Halloween and running every Saturday from November 10th through December 29th). Brown looks to take audiences on a journey through modern horror movie history starting in the mid-1970s through the late 80s to look at the origin films of some of the silver screen’s most enduring baddies.
In their time, these films weren’t looked at with the same sort of critical or academic reverence that they are today, a point that the writer, producer, and programmer Brown made quite clear during a recent phone conversation about the series.
“When you work in genre films, these movies are always a big deal. I program genre films, and I write about genre films, and now I’m producing films where you have to know all about them, and some people have just such a disdain for these films. Maybe it’s not as prevalent as it used to be in North America, but it’s still there. It’s still definitely there to some degree, though. There’s the thinking that these films are disposable and that they don’t matter, or that it’s okay to watch them if you immature and childish, but when you grow up you have to watch things that actually ‘mean’ something.”
“I mean, sure, these things were often produced cheap and often made for commercial purposes that were just designed to make money, but at the same time, I don’t think that there is any possibly way that you could argue against the fact that the main characters of these movies are the most iconic figures in the history of American cinema of it’s era. other than possibly Gone With the Wind. What I mean by that is that most people can remember the image of an actor, but they don’t necessarily remember the name of a character. I mean, look at someone as iconic of an American actor as James Dean. I probably couldn’t tell you the name of the character James Dean played in Rebel Without a Cause, but you show anyone a picture of a hockey mask and they know it’s Jason. If you show them the glove, they know it’s Freddy. They have a sort of iconography that’s burned into the psyche of the audience. That’s really interesting in and of itself, and it’s intriguing to go back and see where they all started.”
The series might not start with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (December 1st, 10:00pm), but it certainly gives rise to the baddies that permeate the series. Tobe Hoopers legendarily chilling and perennially controversial film about several teenage friends getting lost in the Texas back country and being menaced and killed off one by one at the hands of a deranged family of cannibals, really has the wrong sort of reputation to it. With very little gore and a slower pace designed to lull the audience into a false sense of security before the iconic Leatherface starts to menace his unwilling houseguests with a true sense of veracity.
“It’s something that its reputation has taken on a lot of connotations that aren’t necessarily correct when talking about it.” Brown said. “What’s said about it is truer of its sequels and the films that followed it than is appropriate here. It’s always been seen as a sort of one of the films that birthed the traditional slasher genre, but it really doesn’t set out to do that.”
“It was just so shocking at the time because didn’t know what to make of it, so there’s this sort of immediate reaction to it right off the bat, and then after this entire new wave of slasher films happened, producers kind of reverse engineered the title to make the sequels, which is something that I think you can say about quite a number of the horror movies in this series. When you can back to movie one of most of these franchises you see that they were really driven a lot by character. Things kind of changed after the fact once people realized how marketing could work and how you can make money off of it every time.”
The next film in the historical outline of the modern slasher film, also manages to be more of a suspense thriller that what one would normally call a horror film, and much like Texas Chain Saw several years earlier, John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (November 17th, 10:00pm) wouldn’t fit the mould of the films that came in its successful wake until the sequels of the franchise.
“Halloween was very, very much the model to follow. I think that for something to stick it was the one to follow. You make the first one, then you make a second one, and people start to realize that these films weren’t made for a lot of money and you start to get good enough returns on it that people want to replicate that.” Brown said.
Featuring one of the most iconic opening sequences of all time where a young, clown mask wearing Michael Meyers brutally butchers his babysitter from a first person point of view, the future exploits of Freddy and Jason likely wouldn’t have existed if not for the slow, methodical menace of a killer often simply referred to as The Shape.
Often seen as little more than a Halloween rip-off, 1980s Friday the 13th (December 29th, 11:59pm) would spawn the longest running horror franchise of the decade, but the ideology at work was taken to a different sort of extreme. There’s an almost alarmingly conservative viewpoint to the films of the Sean S. Cunningham crafted series that makes them truly feel like a reflection of the “family values” based political climate they were a part of. For all its strengths and faults (and it might be the least of all of the films in the series aside form a nifty twist ending), Friday the 13th solidified the 80s horror clichés that dictated that if characters smoke or drink or have sex, they will face immediate consequences. It was a theme that ran through the first Halloween film, but one that wasn’t really as widely exploited until Jason came around.
In the waning years of the more filmmaker friendly era at the end of the 1970s, two cult horror movie franchises that relied more on dark humour and surreality began their lives on the big screen. Former Roger Corman disciple Joe Dante would unleash the sexualized werewolf odyssey The Howling (December 22nd, 10:00pm) in 1981, and cult filmmaker Don Coscarelli would produce his mortuary based horror Phantasm (December 15th, 10:00pm) in 1979. Both by Brown’s own admission can’t really be judged as much on the weight of their sequels which go in completely different directions than the original films.
“Well, maybe not Phantasm, because those just got progressively weirder and weirder.” Brown said about his favourite film in the series to watch with a crowd. “Then again, that one starts in a pretty strange place to begin with.”
Coscarelli’s film features the almost larger than life presence of Angus Scrimm playing the only character in the series that doesn’t need to hide behind a mask or make-up to be terrifying. As a villain known simply as The Tall Man, he commands an army of flying orbs that can often replicate numerous different bladed weapons as he make the lives of some meddling kids investigation some local murders a living hell. It would establish Coscarelli as a bit of a counter culture mainstay, as with the exception of Phantasm’s first sequel, he would eschew working within the major studio system unlike almost all of his contemporaries. He was a filmmaker that liked doing things his own way; a tradition that remains to this very day with his upcoming film John Dies at the End or the equally cultish Bubba Ho-Tep.
The Howling, on the other hand, has a bit more input from cinematic royalty and possibly the most interesting pedigree. While directed by Dante – who was no slouch to blockbuster filmmaking in the ensuing years following this film that he would follow up with the Spielberg produced Gremlins – the real treat here is the script from mater screenwriter John Sayles that looks at a traumatized newscaster (Dee Wallace) becoming indoctrinated into a world of sex obsessed werewolves. It’s almost hard to believe now that such a film would open to wide acclaim thanks to its off-beat humour and heavily eroticized subject matter during a prudish decade, but it was successful enough to spawn what is sadly one of the worst franchises to still be running. Seriously, there isn’t a single good sequel to The Howling, and there are about a billion of them. This film is well worth checking out, but the rest can be forgotten about and just never watched. Ever. For any reason. Period. It’s also the only film of this series to not feature a central, steady villain for the entirety of the franchise.
The sexual nature of The Howling, which often mixed the pleasure of intercourse with the painful transformation of Rob Bottin’s stellar make-up effects would be taken to even darker extremes by Clive Barker in 1987’s Hellraiser (December 8th, 10:00pm), a film that even younger genre fans from the era would have to wait until much later in life to even begin comprehending. Unquestionably bringing S&M sexuality to the big screen like it never had been before, the film’s iconic villain doesn’t have a huge role until the sequels. Doug Bradley’s Pinhead merely appears every now and then as the leader of a group of ghosts known as Cenobites, keepers of a mysterious puzzle box that offers the user pleasure by way of extreme and graphic pain.
It’s not a film set in Middle America like many of the other films in the series, but rather in almost idyllic looking London, as one of the Cenobites victims returns to Earth without any skin and in need of human blood to become a person again. It’s a film equally of its time in terms of showing the dark underbelly of an ideal that no one likes to think about, but despite studio interference blunting Barker’s ultimate vision of the film overall, there isn’t another film from the decade that made this much money off of perceived sexual deviancy. That it didn’t case more of a stir is somewhat amazing. Maybe it’s because the right was having too much fun picking on Freddy and Jason to focus on anything else.
In 1984, with the release of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (November 10th, 10:00pm) – my own personal favourite horror film of all time – and with Tom Holland’s Child’s Play (November 24th, 10:00pm) in 1988, the series also explores a very real fear of the time that children could be harmed in the places they feel the safest. Both films deal quite heavily with children and teens that don’t have adults that will listen to them when they say things are amiss.
Brown personally thinks that a lot of that ties into the cultural circumstances that these films were originally watched under in the first place.
“Especially when you talk about something like Nightmare and I think you talk about the ones in the series from the 80s and that becomes even more true. I think that’s part of why these films fundamentally endure as well as they do. They captured something that happened and created something that people can remember.”
“In the 80s I was about 10 or 11, and I was one of those latchkey kids. Both of my parents worked, and every day after school I was on my own. Now I’m at the point where my own children are getting to be that age and there’s an obvious difference between then and now concerning how you’re supposed to raise children. The circumstances are wildly different from when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I would come home, lock the door, and I would watch anything that I would find on TV. That would happen every day. I never had a babysitter, and that’s just the way it was, and I was a part of that first generation to have that really happen where films like these could be easily accessed. It’s never really happened that way since.”
“Another thing is that if you look at all of these slasher movies and why they really spoke a lot to their time is that a lot of them are movies about childhood at heart. Either the main characters are younger children or the villains had something terrible happen to them when they were younger, or they were neglected, or they preyed on children.”
Both films come with a certain basis in reality, with Craven’s film coming from true accounts of traumatized survivors of war related atrocities in Southern Asia literally dying in their sleep from vivid nightmares, and Child’s Play comes borne from numerous rich, cultural traditions from both the East and the West that show how dolls can literally carry a human soul after a person is deceased.
In the world of razor gloved pedophile Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund in easily the most iconic portrayal of a big screen villain since the 1940s), a teenager’s imagination – something parents encourage their children to use – becomes a battle ground for a victim of vigilante justice to exact revenge on the parents who put him in the ground. The series would become far more imaginative as it goes on, but Craven’s original might be the only one to feel almost unbearably like a real dream world instead of the later fantasy based entries in the franchise.
In Child’s Play, a serial killer by the name of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) places his soul into an innocuous looking Good Guy doll named Chucky to buy him some time after dying in a shootout to find a body to house his dark heart. Easily the least threatening – if admittedly the most technically marvellous – villain of the series (seriously, you can just punt this thing across a room before it even has a remote chance of harming you) Brown still makes a valid point as to why the film ultimately packs a punch as much as it does.
“Anyone who plays with dolls always ascribes that doll with a particular personality, and what makes Child’s Play so interesting and so endearing in spite of the killer doll premise is the psychological implication of what that truly means to a child and to a parent at the same time.”
No matter what can be said about the perceived nature of Child’s Play’s baddie, it’s the only film that could reach the fourth instalment of its franchise and take it in a new and interesting direction. It’s a distinction that Brown could easily echo.
“I definitely wouldn’t disagree with you there. You know most of the criticisms against these films are things you can really only get to once you start talking about maybe sequel three or sequel four. That’s when it really becomes obvious to both the viewer and the people behind the camera that the franchise has become a business and not so much about making something that’s even that great of product.”
In that sense, it’s pretty great to be reminded where these somewhat unjustly derided franchises came from. After all, can all those billions of dollars at the box office be all that wrong?