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Article – Non-Conventional Villainesses


Posted August 13, 2014 by

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Non-Conventional Villainesses

Black is back. After the surprising success of Disney’s dark foray into Sleeping Beauty’s infamous villain Maleficent this spring, it appears that wickedness is what audiences hunger for. What with Hollywood’s patriarchal ways, it is no doubt refreshing to watch a cold hearted and wrathful (or so we thought) villainess dominate our screens for a couple of hours, the final humanisation and empathy created for her throughout the movie, whilst emotive and lovely, did detract what razor-sharp cheek-boned menace Jolie could emanate.

With upcoming film Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson as the titular Lucy as she rampages through Paris, cold and calculating thanks to the side-effects of a miraculous new stimulative drug, can audiences hope once more for another unsettling, perhaps even merciless, femme fatale?

This had me pondering – what makes a villainess truly scary? With filmmakers ever tempted to rely on tired narrative devices such as allure, a broken heart or sibling rivalry – often all topped off with a redemptive or sacrificial finale to validate their bloodcurdling beauties’ frightful deeds, what about those that don’t fit the mould? Those unconventional individuals that are genuinely delusional, stonehearted and conniving and yet, often completely aware of their actions. These are the characters that invoke the most emotive response from audiences of all ages, from a variety of films from all genres. In no particular order, here are my top 5 unconventionalvillainesses, and just what exactly makes them so unnerving to me.

Mortianna –  ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’

Mother of the spiteful Sheriff of Nottingham, this sorcerous old woman struck fear into many a fan of this 1991 adventure; myself included. Gazing through the screen with her unsettling wall eye and squeakily dragging her filthy talon-like nails through hideous mixtures to divine meaning in their patterns…everything this character did was creepy. Using engraved bones and potions containing foul ingredients – including her own saliva and blood – this is one lady whose screen time, albeit brief, stays with you forever.

With her only desire being to ensure her son’s securing of the English throne, Mortianna provided the sheriff with knowledge through nefarious means, resulting in both their deaths at the hands of those very individuals she foresaw. Power hungry from the beginning, one thing that labels Mortianna as unsettling, besides her monstrous appearance and practices, is her contentment to lurk and simply wait years in the depths of the castle, watching her plan fall into place, just as she predicted….well, until a certain outlaw returned to town, that is.

Annie Wilkes – ‘Misery’

Annie Wilkes is perhaps the most frightful villainess on this list. There are no paranormal forces at work here. Annie’s flaws are entirely human. In this 1990 adaptation of the Stephen King novel, starring Kathy Bates, Misery follows celebrated author Paul Sheldon as he is nursed back to health after a car crash by nurse, Annie.

It is revealed that not only is Annie a fan of his work, but is his number one fan, one who would do anything to maintain this sudden vulnerability and dependence on her from her idol. Cue flinch-inducing scenes of purposely broken ankles, fanatical and downright violent outbursts, and maybe the creepiest of all; the utter good-willed devotion that goes along with these horrendous acts.

Jennet Humfrye – ‘The Woman in Black’

Now this whole list could be comprised of horror films – The Grudge, The Ring, The Blair Witch Project; all of these star frightful female characters, but it was The Woman in Black who first popped to mind. Whilst the 1989 outing has its scares, here I’m focusing on the 2012 remake (there’s just something stagnant about watching a horror film in your English classroom as I did with the ’89 version!) For those who don’t know the tale, Arthur Kipps, employed to organise the legal paperwork of the recently deceased Mrs. Alice Humfrye, owner of the majestic yet isolated Eel Marsh House, instead runs into the lovely lady pictured above – Jennet, the vengeful Woman in Black.

Her sister deeming her mentally incapable of caring for her son Nathaniel, Jennet hangs herself after witnessing the young boy’s death in a carriage accident. Filled with wrath, Jennet’s spirit roams the house and causeway. For every time she is seen, she swiftly and grotesquely kills a child from the nearby town. Of course, Kipps witnesses the apparition on multiple occasions; a number of local children dying as a result. Convinced that the only way to sate the woman’s wrath is to reunite her with her son, Kipps risks his life to pull the little corpse from the muddy depths of the causeway.

Now, here comes the most chilling element of the Woman’s psyche. Unlike The Grudge or The Ring where the wronged ghosts seek only justice or a ‘passing on’, it is revealed that The Woman will never forgive nor forget. Her rage is eternal. The thought of there being no end to the hauntings, to the death of infants, I find extraordinarily creepy. Do we pity the character? Yes. Is that enough for her? Think again.

Agatha Trunchbull – ‘Matilda’

Going down an entirely different road here…but you would be hard pressed to find many children of the 90s who don’t pale at hearing those dreaded words “the chokey”. Yes, this exceedingly horrible headmistress from the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, used to lock naughty children in her very own home-made iron maiden, lined with rusty nails and broken glass.

On top of this, she would humiliate and abuse her pupils, going as far as to physically throw them out of the window. All of this would be traumatic to young viewers, especially Trunchbull’s boast of being “glad that she was never a child or had fun”. Throw in her Olympic level skill with a shot put and her complete intolerance of sniffley noses and you have one extremely menacing character whose motivation was purely her hatred for children. The chokey is the traumatic cherry on top of this empty-hearted antagonist.

Joan Crawford – ‘Mommie Dearest’

A dramatized exposé of a biopic, Mommie Dearest revolves around famed Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, and her tumultuous journey through motherhood. With her hold on audience’s hearts starting to loosen, Crawford adopts two infants – not, she insists, for publicity, but to fulfil her maternal instincts thwarted by a number miscarriages years before. Things all start innocently enough, yes there are a plethora of reporters at the birthday parties and household staff to dress, feed and bed the children, but you can see Joan’s goodwill is there. But then the darkness gradually creeps in as her star power continues to drop and her children become ever more crucial to her appearance.

The façade turns bitter; birthday presents given away to charity (the press present, of course), hair chopped off for being sticky, Joan mercilessly and repeatedly besting her children in games to show them the unfairness of life, pushing them to the point of exhaustion and, as pictured above, the infamous fit over wire coat hangers– the saccharin sweet family life escalates into hysterical beatings, melt-downs and total alienation of her and these poor kids trying to have a normal childhood whilst in the limelight. The film spans the childhood of eldest child, Christina ending with her a grown woman, with her own blossoming acting role. Just as you think Joan has accepted defeat, and perhaps has, at long last, made a connection with Christina, the calculating Hollywood beauty strikes once more in astonishingly cruel fashion.

Whilst her continuing of this chilling obsessive behaviour, despite her good intentions and true affection for her children, is truly chilling, the real frightful thing about the character of Joan Crawford is just that – she is not a character. These traumatic events actually happened in some form or another. This film is based on the book of the same title written by none other than Christina Crawford. And that is both thought and fear provoking. Sometimes the scariest villains are closer than we think.

And we thought our mothers-in-law were bad! – Which other nonconventional villainesses make it onto your best baddies list?


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Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 20.58.44

Becca Spackman
Freelance Contributor


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