Part 2

The Dark Side

by PopMatters Staff

27 July 2009


These are the men who confronted, made, or actually were monsters in one way or another. Some are villains, others were just born bad, some still are just misunderstood or a little disturbed, but each actor listed here intrepidly confronts some form of evil.

Carl Boehm Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)

It is now accepted with some historical certainty that Peeping Tom destroyed director Powell’s career. The theater rows like pews were crop-dusted with disgust and vitriol from the film establishment, eager to distance themselves from the film’s transgressive equation of both erotic and violent titillation with the cinema’s inherent voyeuristic gaze. But perhaps the major culprit in the death of the respected British auteur’s career is the killer he cast in the lead, the Austrian-born actor Boehm. Boehm’s performance as quietly disaffected serial killer Mark Lewis was so polite, so gentle, so reserved, and so convincing that it still unsettles today after nearly 50 odd years of three-dimensional villains.

Perhaps what’s so disturbing is how Mark’s dashing Aryan good looks and his shy-schoolboy social anxiety make the audience root for him. The audience’s hope is not for him to succeed in murdering red-headed women, but for him to get away with murder in the hopes that he may one day get away from murder. His suggested, albeit naïve, path to transformation through Moira Shearer’s Vivian, Mark’s stand-in mother figure and a compassionate alternative to his cruel and clinical father figure (played by Powell), seems at times palpable as he desperately attempts to find a connection through Vivian to a humanity not dominated by fear and hypnotized by a life lived through images. In moments with Vivian, Boehm’s Mark appears tortured by his decisions and exuberant at the new possibilities of creating children’s books with her, inventing a new narrative. The fantasy of a second chance is a defiance of typical revenge fantasies, which demand Mark’s corpse at the end. His end then is deeply unsatisfying, particularly in the ways that it perfectly completes the film Mark has been directing his entire life. Though Boehm went on to do some fine work, notably with Fassbinder, his Mark Lewis was his most iconic and perhaps one of the best career-killing performances of all time. Timothy Gabriele

Bruce Campbell Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987)

“Groovy”—that’s all you need to know. As Sam Raimi’s retrofitted Stooge, Moe, Larry and Curly all collected in one marvelously manic fake Shemp, lifelong friend Campbell became the physical embodiment of horror comedy. Flashing a jaw-line that just wouldn’t quit and a machismo that masked a lothario’s longing to cut and run, Ash would become a fright flick icon for a demographic of disaffected youth who wanted a far more outlandish superman fighting off demons and the diabolical. Campbell’s performance goes beyond the call of cinematic duty. Required to bring Raimi’s ridiculous ideas to life, we believe the undead chaos in the Evil Dead films for one reason and one reason only—Big Bruce MAKES us believe. In a genre that frequently gets maligned for less than stellar acting, Campbell creates the most unrealistically real champion ever. Groovy, indeed. Bill Gibron

Robert Englund A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

“This is God”, says dream-invading slasher Freddy Krueger, raising a razor-fingered hand, in his first appearance in the popular Nightmare on Elm Street series. Suggesting the primacy of fear and the subconscious over rationality, the Nightmare films provided a dark and much needed tonic to the ascendant 1980s view of adolescence as traumatic but safe. Here the everyday loci and accoutrements of teen life that figure as the backdrop for romance and healthy competition among peers in popular films by John Hughes like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club become the site of surreal life and death struggles: the teenager’s room, the hot rod, the bathtub, the telephone. Neighborhood teens all start to have the same horrific dreams in which they are terrorized by the burn-scarred Krueger, who has the ability to enter children’s dreams and cause them real harm.

Freddie so dominates the film that it’s surprising to discover how little screen time Robert Englund has as the villain. Add to that the fact that Freddie is more conglomeration of effects (heavy facial makeup, elongated arms, sepulchral voice altered in post-production) and metonymic paraphernalia (the crumpled fedora, the striped sweater, and of course the finger-razor gloves) than character, and it’s all the more striking that Englund makes the role cohere as the embodiment of all teenage fears. Part Lucifer, part Pee Wee Herman, Englund delivers Krueger’s simultaneously murderous and lecherous dirty-old-man taunts so they play for sick laughs, but also resonate as the fodder of the teen subconscious. “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy”, he says to the heroine through a phone that has morphed into a lolling, lascivious tongue. Englund has reprised the role many times since, most effectively in New Nightmare (1994), but never with the same primal terror of this initial performance. Michael Curtis Nelson

Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

Fincher’s unwieldy Se7en slices at your sensibilities like a bayonet, in no small part due to the fantastic coupling of Freeman and Pitt. Freeman’s William Somerset steps into each scene with an intellectual rigor that counterbalances a jaded perspective on life. He is the perfect foil to Pitt’s Detective David Mills, a young, cocky, impetuous cop who has just transferred into hell. Seven days before Somerset’s retirement, he and his new partner catch a case in which serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) begins to kill his victims based on the biblical seven deadly sins. Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Detective Mills’ homesick wife Tracy, who seeks out advice from Somerset’s character on how to deal with the misery inflicted upon her by the soulless city that she has been forced to move to. And indeed the city is soulless. It’s a quagmire of misery that will pull the weak and weary into a black hole of desolation. Freeman and Pitt struggle with each other, John Doe, and even the city itself to defeat it.

But alas, that is not the case as Se7en ends with a doozy of a finale—- with a surprising twist and a head in a box. The audience is then left to try and reconcile a devastating sense of gross alienation and perversity. Grossing over $300 million dollars worldwide, Se7en‘s existential horror-fest was no doubt rendered more profound due to the extraordinary talents of both Freeman and Pitt. Both actors have an enviable array of films that showcase their unique abilities as leading men, but their shared responsibility for this film laid the foundation for its success. Freeman’s subtle ferocity and Pitt’s blustery bullheadedness ground the outrageous proceedings and succeed in immortalizing of one of the greatest thrillers of the last 30 years. Courtney Young

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