True fear in cinema seems to be lost, and if not completely lost, incredibly rare. South Park smartly skewered the trend away from scare and towards startle with the 11th episode of their 12th season, "Pandemic 2: The Startling." I don’t blame audiences for wanting to spend two hours jumping. It’s a catharsis. With everything happening in the world that presents us with constant fear, the catharsis of an axe murderer jumping out from behind a door is candy. The adrenaline courses through you, your brain briefly enters into flight-or-fight mode, and then you can immediately laugh it off. You’re safe. I don’t like feeling that moment of safety. I want it to follow me as I leave the theatre and get into bed. I want that feeling that comes with the thought: maybe I will cover up my feet with a blanket tonight. After countless disappointments at the cinema in recent years, I was surprised to find a new fear on television in Starz’s Outlander.
Captain Black Jack Randall, as portrayed by Tobias Menzies, is the most downright frightening personification of evil I’ve seen in a long time. He’s a perfect synchronicity between actor and character that reminds me of Anthony Hopkins supping his way through Hannibal Lecter. Outlander is a period romantic drama about an ex-British WWII combat nurse, Claire Randall, who when visiting the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank Randall, is sent back in time to 1743. There, she meets and falls in love with Jamie Fraser - though her first interaction isn’t with Jamie. Her first interaction is with someone who looks exactly like her husband, Captain Jack Randall, a British Captain who - without hesitation - sets out to rape her. Claire is rescued and her story continues, but Captain Randall becomes more than just a thorn in her and Jamie’s sides.
Season one culminates in a sequence that finds Jamie imprisoned under Randall’s watchful eye, but Randall doesn’t want to simply kill Jamie. He wants to break him. He wants to destroy his soul and his heart. He tortures him, he induces pain, then he promises a way to take away the pain…through pleasure. Jamie, our dashing hero, is taken apart piece by piece to the point of which he allows Randall to make love to him just to ease the pain. Menzies doesn’t play this sequence as malicious or vengeful. He doesn’t smirk or wink at the camera. He plays it with compassion. In that moment, he becomes Claire, he makes love to Jamie as you would to a lover. Why? Because when he once tore apart Jamie’s back with one hundred lashes, Jamie wouldn’t scream. As much as a sociopath like Randall can, he fell in love with Jamie in that moment of torturing him.
Spoiler done! For me, one of the scariest promises of pain and torture I’ve seen in cinema is in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, when Maleficent threatens the prince to imprison him until he’s too old to do anything about his love for Aurora. It’s pure evil. Captain Black Jack Randall represents that kind of evil to me. That evil that permeates our culture even today. He doesn’t care about sex or pleasure. He doesn’t love, he doesn’t even hate. He wants to have power over you. He is a pure form of animalistic id. Menzies empties his face showing a sort of detached amusement at everything. He switches from cordial to monster without a thought. He’s the worst kind of frat boy; he’s a frat boy with power. He’s the kind of monster that you could run into in a parking lot, that could be your boss, that could even be a friend and you wouldn’t know it, because he can be charming. With Captain Black Jack Randall, you don’t have that safety buffer from reality like when the villain wears a hockey mask or swings a chainsaw in the air. When Captain Black Jack Randall sits down to face Claire and Jaime, it feels like he’s sitting down in your living room. There’s no escape. There’s no catharsis. He has control. You’ve given it to him. That’s just what he wants. And that’s scary as hell.