The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #2

They Only Wanted to Rule the World:
A Celebration of Cinematic Villainy, Part II  

M. Christian

“I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, a doctor of law from Price College, a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me ‘Doctor’.”

Antagonists who are far more intelligent than their protagonists dominate the cinema. Some have seen this as evidence of a common societal distrust of vast knowledge or envy towards expertise, while others have pointed to it as simple marketing—having a protagonist who is readily accessible to the majority of entertainment consumers, versus an intellectual elite, is simply better business.

Whatever the cause, the result adds a definition to what makes a memorable and potent cinema villain: the ability to conceive and execute elaborate strategies, exquisite perils, world-threatening inventions, and enigma-in-mysteries-in-puzzles intrigues. In short, a villain’s gotta’ have brains.

Rarely does a hero face an opponent who is easily out-smarted. Using that other facet of villainy, pro-activity, the villain constructs imaginative plans and sets them into motion—seemingly unstoppable on their way to a horrifying conclusion. That the plans are perfect is never questioned—for if there were a flaw in the calculations the hero would simply have to put up his heels and have a smoke in order to save the world.

The threat of the villain’s success—a terror that speaks much of the politics underlying the story and the particular fears of the time—is such that the hero has no choice but to oppose the villain and his plans. Even before the advent of the atomic age—the time most Americans really started to harbor fears and suspicions towards intelligence run amok, symbolized by the mushroom cloud—villains were symbols of knowledge without conscience. Even in cases where they were equipped with a solid moral core—such as Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (particularly Disney’s adaptation in 1954)—they must fail due to their unwavering pursuit of justice at all costs. It is as if they are “tainted” by science, that their brilliance must be struck down, even if their heart is in the right place.

This kind of moral bedrock is rare however, and when it is present it usually tips the scale, changing the villain into an anti-hero. At the end, Nemo is not struck down, but rather sacrifices himself—a heroic redemption that grays any suspicion of a purely black heart.

True villains, however, have little, if any, concern for anyone or anything save their plans and their own satisfaction. While part of their doom is their intelligence—their gall in letting fly their horrible imaginations without a moral compass—until relatively recently it was required that a villain’s fatal flaw be their sadistic enjoyment in carrying out their fiendish plans, their arrogance and their cruelty opening far more doors to their defeat than any flaw in the mathematics of their machinations. The plan is perfect, but the executor is so wrapped up in the sadistic joy of their brilliance that they underestimate his or her adversary. Thus, while their intelligence and their imagination are integral to set the story in motion, it’s the villain’s hubris that primarily causes their downfall.

There are exceptions, of course, but even these rare cases prove the point: intelligence is a factor of the villain. Pretty much universally, the cinema villain either arrogantly hands the hero the tools of the villain’s own downfall, or the antagonist is so completely unearthly, so completely beyond the understanding or the ability of the protagonist that their success is foretold. The horror of this form of villain isn’t that he almost succeeds, but rather that he does succeed, that there was never anything the protagonist could do about it. The villain in these films becomes an invisible maze the hapless hero must scuttle through, failing at the end not because of the purity of his heart or his lack of strength, but simply because he cannot understand; he is doomed by the brilliance of his adversary before he even started.

Whether it’s because humans are suspicious or envious of aptitude and imagination, or because the average member of a studio audience can’t comprehend an intelligent solution to a complex dilemma, the fact remains that villains are smart. Their success hinges on whether or not they view their adversaries as stupid, and thus under-estimate them, or understand them perfectly and simply add them to their brilliant plans. Villains, it could be said, either arrogantly hand the hero the knife to cut his bonds or to slice his own throat. In either case, the villains are the ones with the brains.


Two films that perfectly demonstrate both the self-destructive hubris of the brilliant antagonist as well as the villain as unstoppable intellectual force are The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and Dr. Mabuse (1933). The first is a perfect example of how a villain will set the stage for his own defeat through his lack of respect for the protagonist’s determination, strength, or simple dumb luck.

Today it’s difficult to look at The Mask of Fun Manchu without being repulsed by its racism. The archetype of the “inscrutable”, “barbaric,” “perverse” Asian, Fu Manchu was painted to be every Caucasian’s worst nightmare. During the picture—as well as Sax Rohmer’s many novels—Manchu and his cohorts express every Asian stereotype with hand-wringing glee.

Yet it’s still possible to look on the film as a perfect example of how many cinema villains have become puppets for anti-intellectual bigotry. Indeed, while Fu Manchu relishes in the perversity of his “Eastern Race” it’s his intelligence that truly makes him a figure of terror. The picture is, in fact, his. The heroes (and there are quite a number of them) only exist to give the audience a focal point. None of them are as interesting, smart, clever, or even in some ways noble, as the legendary Doctor. True, none of the actors were of Boris Karloff’s caliber or volume, but when the doctor is on-screen he fills it. The best the heroes can do is puff up their chests or swing their fists—the equal of little kids who respond to an insult with “oh, yeah?”

First directed by the uncredited Charles Vidor, Mask of Fu Manchu was at first so ill received by test audiences that MGM ordered it reedited and reshot by Charles Brabin. Still, even with such a poor pedigree, it is a stylish and impressive picture. Cedric Gibbons’s art direction gives the film deco magnificence, with such great set-pieces as an opium den, a grotto, as well as the gleaming horrors of Fu Manchu’s various torture devices.

The plot is pure pulp. Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) is about to mount an expedition to the Gobi desert to search for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, triggering a race between the forces of good—Caucasian imperialism led by Fu Manchu’s perpetual nemesis Sir Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) with the help of Sir Lionel’s daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and stalwart beau Terry Granville (Charles Starrett)—against the forces of Asian cruelty—Fu Manchu, various dacoits, and his perverse daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy)—to recover the sword and mask of the legendary conqueror with which the evil doctor will unite Asia and rule the world.

In a stylish but pointless scene the dacoits, dressed up as mummies, kidnap Sir Lionel and whisk him off to Fu Manchu’s lair. There—in perhaps the best scene bringing up the differences between the heroes and Fu Manchu and perfectly highlighting the concept that villains are more indicative of unaway intelligence than true malice—Sir Lionel addresses Fu Manchu, in shock at being brought into his presence. The doctor coolly corrects him: “I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, a doctor of law from Price College, a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me ‘Doctor’.” In one line Dr. Fu Manchu states that not only is he better educated and more intelligent than the British knight, but also that he is a greater threat. If he were just a Chinese warlord, an Asian madman, he could be bested with fist or gun, but as a doctor of several disciplines, he has placed himself strategically and intellectually far above his protagonist. It is a racist’s ultimate nightmare: a lesser being having all the foul qualities of his race, with all the supremacy and resources of ‘proper’ culture, as well as the destructive power of advanced science.

Not pleased that Sir Lionel will not listen to reason and simply hand over the artifacts, even after the offer of Fah Lo See (Loy), Fu Manchu (Karloff in all his scene-chewing glory), puts the hapless Brit through the “Torture of the Bells” to force him to reveal the location of the tomb. Like all of the torture scenes, the bell is pure camp, but there’s also an affable quality to Karloff’s portrayal of the Caucasian nightmare—Fu Manchu does not bellow, or even barely raise his voice. Like any good torturer he appears to almost befriend his victim—even as he slyly gives him a drink...of salt water.

Meanwhile, with Sir Lionel having his brains turned to jelly by the ceaseless ringing of a massive bell, his daughter, her staunch beau and Nayland Smith manage to acquire the artifacts and hole up in an abandoned oriental mansion. Determined to save Lionel, Terry steals the mask and sword to try and bargain for his release. The scene is telling, for various reasons: first Terry’s pitiful naiveté. Even if Fu Manchu were not the embodiment of Asian stereotypes (and he visually drives home the point by posturing in front of distorting mirrors with beakers of fuming chemicals), it would still be a stupid thing to do. What is more telling is that even though his motives are noble, Terry is doomed. Not by the villain, but rather by a betrayal by the hero, Nayland Smith, who has replaced the real artifacts with phonies. Maybe it is equal naiveté that Fu Manchu would have spared Terry and freed whatever remained of Sir Lionel, but it really is a tragic scene: Terry, good-hearted, trying to save a man’s life only to have his plans foiled by someone he trusted. Against this betrayal, Fu Manchu’s open hostility seems reasonable. With him you are expect the worst, and he is true to his nature, while Nayland masks his treachery in false heroics.

Directly following this scene is another that could provide a whole new definition of villainy: pleasure. The only characters that seem to exalt in physical pleasure in both Mask of Fu Manchu and the previously mentioned Island of Lost Souls (see MonsterZine Issue #1) are the villains or their creations/cohorts. Terry, for instance, is given to Fu Manchu’s belittled (in true Asian-bashing fashion) “unattractive” daughter for her enjoyment—including a whipping during which she is sexually enraptured (a performance that has often ended up on the cutting room floor in various versions of the film for Myrna Loy’s ecstatic portrayal). Later—in a delightfully perverse and stylish laboratory scene—when Terry is given a potion, he literally becomes her sexual plaything, a role that Terry seemingly relishes far too much.

The film then travels down a very familiar path: Terry rebels against Fu Manchu and his sexually exciting daughter’s control and our heroes and various other protagonists are led to their assorted horrible fates. In fact it is Manchu who proclaims the ultimate essence of this, cackling, “If it were not the easy way out, I would kill you now,” thereby confessing that his cruelty has overridden his intelligence and education.

The Mask of Fu Manchu’s conclusion is a perfect example of how intelligence is a defining element of a cinematic villain, while loudly proclaiming prejudice against intelligence itself. A hero needs only to embrace the popular morals of the time and dumb luck. With all the major protagonists at the mercy of Fu Manchu and his various devilish appliances of torture, it is Nayland Smith who manages to escape by simply chewing through his bonds. Not genius, but rather dentures save the day. Once free, he then frees the rest of the heroes and uses Fu Manchu’s own electric ray to slaughter those Manchu has gathered for his coronation as the incarnation of Genghis Khan. Manchu himself is cut down by Terry using Khan’s sword. In fact, Karloff’s Manchu is not even given a protracted death scene or even last words of dialogue. Manchu dies by a single stroke...a stroke several other films determine was either impossible or not fatal.

The very last scene, though, is one that brings closure. Safely away from the Master of the Orient on a freighter, the deep boom of a gong shocks our protagonists. Expecting for a moment the return of their brilliant nemesis, they laugh in discovering that it is simply a coolie summoning them to dinner. “You aren’t by any chance a doctor of philosophy? Law? Medicine?” Smith gloats to the hapless Chinese, obviously overjoyed that the Asians are back in their place and intelligence and inventiveness are once again held in check. Brute force and appropriate morals are relegated again to the shadows.


If there is a cinematic archetype of the villain as pure intellectual power, it has to be Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse. Based on the character created by Norbert Jacques, Mabuse first appeared in Lang’s four-hour Dr. Mabuse der spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) in 1922. While some consider this ground-breaking, stylish production to be the definitive appearance of the character, his continuation of the saga in 1933 is a much more direct interpretation of the power of Dr. Mabuse, demonstrating perfectly a character whose evil brilliance is so commanding that he transcends the walls of an asylum and far beyond. In short, Mabuse is pure mind—a consciousness as free of the limitations of time and space as it is of common morality.

The film also bridges fact and fiction. Fritz Lang brought down the ire of the Nazi government by having his evil criminal genius spout phrases borrowed liberally from their own propaganda. Banned by the government, Lang took the hint (but only after Goebbels offered him a job) and fled the country. His wife and collaborator, Thea von Harbou, remained behind to become a screenwriter for the Nazis: a surreal example of fiction used to draw attention to, and then ending up supporting (at least incidentally) evil.

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) is an orchestra of visual images and brilliant movie storytelling, a perfectly executed work of noir. It is Faust: a tale of seduction, a warning against the voice that whispers in your ear telling you things you want to hear.

In a wonderful opening scene, silent save for a pounding soundtrack of heavy industrial machinery, disgraced policeman Hofmeister (Karl Meixner) is feverishly trying to escape an gang of crooks. Barely escaping with his life—including a spectacular attack with an exploding oil barrel and a cascade of burning fuel—Hofmeister calls the hero of the film, Kriminalkomissar Lohmann (played with relish and yet refinement by Otto Wernicke). Before he can get out who is behind the methodical and hideously organized criminal organization, he screams in terror, having been “robbed of his reason,” rendered insane.

Cut to an asylum, where Professor Doctor Baum (Oscar Beregi Sr.) is explaining to a massive theatre of doctors and students that the criminal genius, Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge in intense portrayal), had his mind—which was “delicately balanced between genius and madness”—shattered during his previous arrest. Comatose for a long time, Mabuse is only able to frantically write pages upon pages of detailed notes on all aspects of crime: blueprints for mayhem, instructions on terror.

The film is truly a masterpiece not only of cinematography, direction, and art direction but also of theatrical tension and inventiveness. Viewing the film will permanently burn scenes and characters into the mind: Hofmeister’s madness; the individual characters of both the police and the crook; the frightening image of “the doctor” behind a gauze curtain as he gives orders to the gang; messages scrawled backwards on a window with a diamond ring; a murder at a traffic light in full daylight; a booby-trapped room....The film constantly shocks and surprises with details both cinematic as well as literary. While it is unclear that Baum has been either been using Mabuse’s notes, is so obsessed with the evil genius that he believes himself to have actually become Mabuse, or that he has literally become possessed by the doctor, the film still retains a gripping tension worthy of the best of mysteries. Even without knowing German (though I wish I could enjoy the nuances), the viewer cannot help but be immediately caught up in the characters, the images, and the story—the true sign of a truly exceptional filmmaker.

Visually, the film is more than striking. The word “haunting” is too perfect not to use: scenes such as Hofmeister sitting behind a grotesque and spectral manifestation of his home desk, caught in a delusional loop of the time before his madness; Baum looking up from reading Mabuse’s will to see a monstrous image of criminal mastermind, eyes hideously large, calmly reading along, “...when mankind becomes rules by terror then it is the hour for the mastery of crime...”; or, later, during the frantic concluding car chase, when Mabuse appears, standing ghostly beside Baum on the passenger seat, pointing the way for the Doctor Professor.

Mabuse, the flesh and blood character, does not speak in the film. In fact, he dies halfway through, a puzzle for Lohmann who has managed to decipher Hofmeister’s scrawled windowpane message as “Mabuse.” But Mabuse is the villain of the film, a force of pure evil intelligence. Several times Mabuse is painted as brilliant, his plans not so much cruel as inhumanly detailed. It is the information,—the systems—of Mabuse that define his character, that infest Baum. In fact, the true motivations of Mabuse are never stated: he is intellectual power for power’s sake.

The reasoning behind his possession of Baum is even in question. Is Mabuse present? Or are the ghostly figures that appear around Baum a manifestation of something that had always been dormant within him? Baum is aware that he is acting as Mabuse, for he takes too many precautions (including an ingenious 1933 device to make sure his office is never entered), and almost exposes himself when someone he assumes he’d had been executed reappears very much alive and he reacts in shock.

The film is surprisingly well-rounded in its approach to crime and to criminals, refreshing today, let alone when the film was made. While some of the crooks are nasty characters, none of them are cardboard. Lang takes special care to paint them as people. For instance, in an exceptional move, Thomas Kent (Gustav Diessl)—a convicted murderer who later becomes a very interesting protagonist—bravely decides to leave Mabuse’s organization after falling in love with Lilli (Wera Liessem). Kent is not a hero in the abstract: he risks everything not because it’s the right thing to do, but because Lilli—and more importantly what Lilli might think of him—is at risk. Kent hates what he was before, and hates even more that Mabuse wants him to return to that murderous self. After Kent and Lilli escape from Mabuse’s trap, they go to Lohmann who doesn’t question Kent’s loyalty—he recognizes that Kent wants to change, wants to see justice served and his crimes finally put to rest through the capture of Mabuse.

While memorable, the final scenes are disturbing in their ambiguity. Finally having proof that Baum is acting as Mabuse, Kent and Lohmann pursue him after Baum burns down a chemical factory. As they chase Baum, Mabuse—as previously noted—appears, pointing Baum back to the asylum. In fact, the spirit opens the gate for him. It’s easy at first to suppose that the figure of Mabuse is simply a manifestation of Baum’s delusions, but not after Kent and Lohmann arrive and have to ring for someone to unlock the gates.

In his office, the translucent Mabuse hands Baum his will, his book The Mastery of Crime, and then points him into the depths of the asylum, appearing again to open the door to Hofmeister’s cell for the somnambulistic Baum. Standing in the doorway, Baum proclaims to the terrified Hofmeister, “Greetings, I am called Mabuse”.

The final scene has Kent and Lohmann arrive, only to find Baum in the cell, methodically tearing the will of Dr. Mabuse into strips. Did Baum finally thwart Mabuse, unseat his own mind by overthrowing Mabuse’s control? If so, then why did the spectral Mabuse lead Baum to Hofmeister’s cell? Did Mabuse leap from Baum to Hofmeister? If so, then why does Hofmeister appear more or less normal, without even the slightest cinematic hint of possession?

Whatever the resolution, the film remains a testament to the villain as unstoppable force, as pure intellectual power. His ideas, his will, are what reaches out and possesses Baum. In Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse the villain has literally transcended flesh and become mind, a perfect expression of uncontrolled aptitude, a seducer of the intellect.

By having clever and/or inventive villains, the hero can win only through his unwavering beliefs and nobility of purpose. If this weren’t so, the protagonists would have to be stronger—victory through muscle mass. Heroes need to be strong in their hearts and strong in their purpose to defeat their adversaries. And if there’s any lesson to be learned in cinematic villainy, it’s that the rival of the heart is the mind.

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M. Christian is the author of over 100 short stories, editor of seven anthologies, columnist and, in general, a really busy guy. His first collection of short stories, Dirty Words, is out now from Alyson Books—with a second volume, Speaking Parts, coming out next year (also from Alyson Books). For more information, check out his website.

Copyright © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.