I love me a villain.
Whether it’s in a movie, TV show, book, or in pro wrestling, the bad guys are where it’s at for me. They might be smarmy or terrifying or downright inexcusable, but they’re a vital part of any narrative that adds colour to the story and to the heroes, or at least the protagonists they stand against. GI Joe’s Cobra Commander, The Stand’s Randall Flagg, AEW’s Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF), Transformers’ Starscream, and the pantheon of horror villains – Pinhead, Leatherface, Freddy, Jason, and Big Mike – that are far more well-known than its protagonists in those narratives, are all near the top of my list.
But chief among them for me, a villain among villains, is Frank Booth.
Portrayed by Dennis Hopper in an all-timer of a performance in David Lynch’s 1986 suburban nightmare, Blue Velvet, there’s no other villain that’s as terrifying to me than he is. What he lacks in ostentatious costuming or makeup effects (though his gas-huffing mask is right up there with Freddy’s glove and the various masks worn by Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees) he makes up for with sheer deranged charisma. The unpredictability of what violent thing he’ll say and do next makes him as frightening as the dark shape around the corner in any horror movie, perhaps more so because he’s right out there in front of you. When Frank Booth is onscreen you can’t look away, and when he’s off-screen you’re riveted in terror for the next moment he’ll appear. It’s that command of the screen, both in the context of Hopper’s performance and Booth’s character, that keep you looking at him even though your involuntary stare would definitely make him incensed.
And then what?
“Don’t you fucking look at me” is Frank Booth’s terrifying refrain, causing Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffery Beaumont’s eyes to quickly avert away. There’s an echo of it in another horror movie Frank, Frank Cotton in 1987’s Hellraiser, whose pleas of “don’t look at me” seem to come more from a place of shame about his ruined body and the ghastly acts he needs to perform in order to restore it. At the risk of pathologizing, I think there’s probably some shame behind Booth’s screamed command as well, the knowledge that even he knows that there’s a level of depravity in his actions that no one wants to see or experience. But all that is masked, not only with the appliance he uses to huff an unnamed gas that sets him off even further, but with his manic persona that seems to change from second to second, a taught tripwire just ready to snap.
David Lynch’s work is notoriously resistant to interpretation, but Frank’s gas mask sure makes him look like a bug, which is a major motif in Blue Velvet. Bugs in Blue Velvet are a reminder of the dark, scary, and unseemly underworld that lies beneath the veneer of polite society and candy-coloured suburban living. Frank represents a kind of ‘right hand’ of evil, the one who does all the dirty work for the rotten-to-the-core establishment of corrupt characters in Blue Velvet. He’s the one you call when you need to maintain a veneer of civility, because he’s the dictionary definition of incivility. He’s the bug skittering across your carpet, or that drops unexpectedly into your food. Distasteful, disturbing, certainly, but always true to his nature. There’s an honesty there. It might not command respect, exactly (though Hopper’s performance certainly does), but it at least fosters obedience in his henchmen and anyone – like Dorothy and Jeffery – that he needs to keep under his thumb.
It’s that chaotic energy that makes Frank so scary to me, and it’s amplified by his dramatic shifts into a childlike mode that, infuriatingly, inspires the tiniest bit of sympathy for him even as it scares the hell out of me. He seems to cower into Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini)’s bosom, almost subservient until the moment he isn’t, slapping and lashing out like an animal. Her performance of the eponymous Blue Velvet at The Slow Club brings Frank to tears, cuddling into a piece of blue fabric like he’s Peanuts’ Linus with his blanket. Somehow, you feel bad for the guy, even for a second. That leaves you vulnerable for one of his abrupt tonal shifts.
There’s few things in horror or in real life that are as scary as the potential for one of those shifts. It plays into the pervasive and persistent fear of the unknown, the mood change that, when applied to Frank Booth, could – and let’s be honest, almost always does – mean an explosive, violent outburst. This is compounded with the knowledge that Frank, once that switch is pulled, is relentless. It’s clear that even he can’t stop himself when the mysterious gas enters his body, just as it’s clear that even without the effects of the narcotic, he’d still lack the self-control to pull back on his rage. In the text of Blue Velvet he’s willing to remove any obstacle, real or perceived, between himself and Dorothy by any means necessary.
Villains come in so many forms, especially in horror. Whether brash and charismatic like Freddy Krueger, stoic like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, esoteric and haunting like Pinhead/The Hell Priest, or frighteningly unpredictable like Leatherface, they’re amplified funhouse mirrors of what brings a chill to us in our daily lives. Frank Booth is a little bit of all these things, cobbled together like the monster of yet another horror Frank, Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein. Inscrutable in his motivations but scarily simple in his machinations, he’s a perfect villain, drawn by one of the greatest directors to ever live and performed perfectly by an actor in his absolute prime.
Frank Booth is my favourite performance in my favourite movie, Blue Velvet, and it’s because even though I know every beat of the movie by heart, it never fails to entrance me with fear. It’s my high water mark for villainy, and for an actor and writer/director working in perfect synchronicity to create what is, for my money, the best movie performance ever. I don’t scream much these days, but Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, even 36 years later, is sure as hell worth screaming about.