Movie Villains: Annie Wilkes vs. Noah Cross




Annie Wilkes

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Misery The possibility that we could be seriously injured in a car wreck is something each of us faces. And what if we did have a wreck? Hopefully, some good soul would come to our rescue. We'd be saved — unless our rescuer happens to be a murderous, psychotic "dirty bird" like Misery's Annie Wilkes.

Wilkes (Kathy Bates) is a combination of seemingly good characteristics: She's a nurse, she's religious, she loves — not hates — her victims. But through a warped inverse of these qualities, Wilkes becomes one of the best movie villains.

She uses her role as a nurse to murder dozens of babies and hospital patients — and scrapbooks it. She tortures the object of her affection, writer Paul Sheldon, because she admires him so much. So when he does anything she disapproves of, she punishes him with a healthy dose of righteous discipline: she thinks the manuscript he has written is immoral, so she forces Sheldon to burn his only credible work.

Making her character all the more chilling is Sheldon (James Caan )who doesn't pull the typical scary movie stupid moves. He's smart. He does everything the audience could think to do and more — but Wilkes still outwits him. He figures out how to escape his locked room and hide a knife in his mattress, but Wilkes finds it. As punishment, she smashes his ankles against a block of wood with a sledgehammer. Yikes. Plenty of movie scenes more violent than this one, but few as effective.

Maybe the most terrifying thing about ol' Annie is that she's so human. She's just like a hundred people you've met before — cheerful, friendly, and caring. You never see her violence coming.

Psychologists have actually studied the character and declared her a breeding ground for psychosis: bipolar disorder, severe personality disorder, sadomasochism to name a few. You can't reason with that type of crazy, and you sure can't anticipate its actions. That kind of torture is physical and psychological.

And after all her villainous fury, is there any fight scene more satisfying than when Sheldon slams his typewriter into her back, takes the pages of the insipid novel she forced him to write and stuffs them down her throat? Or that final blow to her deranged head with her tacky pig statue? Such sweet poetic justice can only happen when you have a truly great villain like Annie Wilkes.

— Alicia Buxton

Noah Cross

Chinatown

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In Chinatown, the bad guy wins. Great Hollywood director and actor John Huston plays Noah Cross, the man behind the mystery that drives the neo-noir classic and its private detective protagonist, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). The film imagines a villain worthy of all contempt, and, in letting him get away with it — in triumphant, terrifying glory — suggests that he might be the rule rather than the exception.

Among Cross' crimes are murder and corruption in a conspiracy to make gain out of others' misery. Cross is a study of evil as it exists in the real world. He's cloaked in respectability, with a masculine charisma. As he tells Gittes, "'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

His sins are homebound, too. He's both father and grandfather to a teenage girl. Cross says, "Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything." Cross has faced it — and found it enjoyable and profitable.

Cross only gets a few key scenes on the screen, but in those, he develops such a presence that the entire film swirls around him like he's the plug hole at the bottom of a dirty wash basin. That gurgle you hear at the end is the sound of his laughter.

If Chinatown were a typical whodunit, the answer would be "Noah Cross," and he'd be brought low by his own hubris in the finale. The actual climax is shocking. The woman Gittes is fighting to protect is horribly killed. The insidious Cross takes possession of his ill-conceived daughter. Things have gone dreadfully wrong, and quickly. The horror at this turn of events is pervasive; even the panning camera filming it can't contain it, coming to an ungraceful shake of a stop as it falls on Gittes' miserable mug, startling even the viewer. There is no happy ending. And there's nothing you can do about it.

I like watching a good sledgehammer thwack as much anybody, but it doesn't come close to the creeping tentacles of villainy put forth by the man at the center of Chinatown.

Is it more terrifying to be under the pain of death — as your typical slasher movie might suggest — or to be so defeated by all of the grim, soul-crushing realities of evil that you'll just wish you were dead? Chinatown presents a compelling case for the latter.

There's no question: Noah Cross. Worst villain ever.

— Greg Akers