Establishing Villains – Part 1: The Unknown Principle

Search your movie memories. Do you remember a character that just scared to crap out of you? You might have to go back to your childhood, a time of full imagination, when suspension of disbelief wasn’t just a concept brought on by good storytelling, it was all you knew. I myself have very clear memories of fear brought on by certain villains of the cinema. I’ve always wondered why they affected me so much, and so much more than others. I decided to study these villians and find out why they were so scary.

This will be the first of a series of posts I’ve been working on for some time. Before I dive in, I think a little specificity is in order here. I’m not just talking about your obvious evil mofos here. It’s blatantly obvious why The Witch King of Angmar is scary.


The same is true of Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park (1993). They all have one pretty identifiable characteristic in common, they all look scary.

I think the scariest bad guys are the ones that don’t. They could easily be you or me, except somehow we know they are actually sadistic, pyschopathic, murderous S.O.B’s that are pure evil to the core. How do we know this? Acting is a big clue, more on that soon, but let’s look outside of acting. Dramatic music is also popular, most villains even have their own theme or sound effect, but let’s scratch that off the list of indicators as well. What else makes them evil? For example, through what techniques of cinematography can we identify a badass? Ah ha! Now we are talking in strictly visual terms, strictly film grammar.

When I was a kid the real baddies, the ones that scared the snot out of me, were characters like Hannibal Lecter, Max Cady, or Eddie Dutton from Unforgettable (1996). Now acting is without a doubt the biggest part of creating a successful villain. When I first started this research, it was hard to get past the magnificant acting. Villains really are the juiciest parts that require the best talent (Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Jack Nicholson to name a few). Animators are always after the villains too. To excell at creating a villain puts you in talented company (On a side note I’d recommend you pick up a copy of Frank and Ollie’s book, The Disney Villain, if you don’t have it. In the back there’s a list of all the Disney villains, and the talented men behind them). But a lot of the time, acting doesn’t even come into the equation before we already realize how scary some characters are. Usually a word isn’t even spoken before were aware of their threatening presence, and it all has to do with the way they’ve been introduced.

So how do you introduce a bad guy? Easy, don’t show him. The reason this works so well is because everyone has a natural, instinctual fear of the unknown. If we can’t fully see them, we are more alert and cautious, and the longer this plays out, the more badass they seem because we are naturally painting our own picture of how evil they are in our own minds. It’s a great way of letting the audience do the work for you. And when you add elements like great acting, and dramatic sound effects/scores, you’re in business. Here’s some examples:

Cape Fear (1991) opens on Max Cady doing dips in his cell. It starts with a tatted up guy working out, and zooms out to him being framed by the bars of his cell. Immediately we know he’s bad news.






This is the day he’s getting out of prison, which judging by the ominous thunder clouds and his intimidating walk off the prison grounds and right into the camera, is not a good thing for someone. Watch the movie to find out what happens.

Panning up from the feet is another way of not showing your bad guy right away. In Gangs of New York (2002) this is how Bill “The Butcher” is introduced:





Now this doesn’t always mean you’re looking at an evil character, but with the addition of quickly cutting between long, medium, and extreme close-up shots, the menacing quality of Bill the Butcher is established.




You can also use lighting to hide your villain, keeping him in anything from very low light to complete silhouette. In the first four minutes of The Departed (2006), we barely see Costello’s face:














At this point Costello is obviously a bad guy. Nobody in the audience or the film wants to mess with him. It isn’t until the main character, Colin, sees him as otherwise, that we see him in another light (pun intended):



But establishing a character as a villain doesn’t always happen in their first scene. In this situation, you are revealing a different side of a character, and you can do that in the same way visually. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Warden is introduced as a disciplinarian along with Captain Hadley in a couple of harmless medium shots. This doesn’t mean he’s evil, that’s his job.



Here’s the Warden’s second encounter with Andy, same thing:


But as his relationship with Andy sours, and we see how evil he can be, the shots change. Notice the slight up shots here. This is when Andy first steps out of line, and locks the Warden out of his own office:


This is when the Warden sends Andy to solitary for a month. A close up, slighty up shot, with a three quarter view. An angle we haven’t seen on him yet (Something is changing).


When the warden shows his true colors, we get a series of conventional extreme up/down shots that establish power. Andy is completely lit (good), while the Warden is in shadows (evil).




Now let’s bring acting back into the mix, because it’s often an extention of the unknown principle. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Dr. Hannibal Lecter is all about the unknown. He’s so creepy because nothing riles him up. He’s way too calm, and collected. Way too expressionless, and rigid. Here’s his introduction:

He barely moves:


He doesn’t blink:


He’s extremely focused, and is observing Clarice’s every move. He’s picking up so many details about her, while she knows next to nothing about him (outside of her dossier on him). We empathize with her, because that is just plain scary.



When he does emote we get this (Yikes!):


Go back and look at all of scenes I’ve mentioned, and you will notice how still and rigid the characters are. They are all devoid of any expressions, and they barely blink (Somewhere Michael Caine is smiling). They are all blank slates, and that’s intimidating.

The unkown is scary, whether it is achieved through acting or cintematography. It immediately gets our attention, and we have our emotional guard up until we know more. Until we are safe.

Marcellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction (1994)

To be continued…