Sony Pictures Classics
What defines a horror movie villain? Someone (or something) that is emotionless, relentless, haunting and makes you bleed. By this definition, Whiplash gave audiences one of the most terrifying villains released in the horror month of October, but it may not be the character you expect.
There is no question that J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher is relentless as he pushes Andrew (Miles Teller) to excel at his chosen instrument. But it is the instrument itself that is the true villain of this story – the drum set.
It’s emotionless, relentless, constantly haunts Andrew and (as you can see) makes him bleed. Andrew is drawn to the drums in a way that has him constantly coming back for more – no matter how much pain and anguish the drums cause him. Andrew cannot keep himself from the pull of playing, but he’s not simply in it for the love of the music; Andrew wants to be the best.
No matter what Andrew does to fight against the drum set – sweating on it, bleeding on it, punching them out – it survives. If he destroys it, there is always another set, taking its place for him to play. Like a guy in a William Shatner mask, Whiplash’s drum set can never truly be killed.
It may seem strange to consider an inanimate object like a drum set a villain, but the way writer/director Damien Chazelle (who, having written The Last Exorcism II and Grand Piano, is no stranger to horror) depicts how the set tortures and hurts Andrew throughout Whiplash causes the drums to become less of an instrument and more of a torture device. Andrew is playing jazz on an iron maiden.
It’s also not nearly the first time an object has been featured as the villain in a horror film – there’s the car in Christine, the vending machine in Maximum Overdrive and, of course, the Death Bed (the bed that eats). Obviously the difference here is that those objects can run you over, throw cans at you or swallow you up, but the lack of motion is what makes Whiplash’s drum set all the more terrifying – it does not need to physically harm you itself; it will get you to do it. It is the Jigsaw of the musical world.
And similar to Saw, Whiplash toys with the idea that fear and pain are not always enough to deter a person if they are properly motivated – whether motivated to save their family, themselves or simply to prove they are the best. If the motivation is strong enough, they’ll keep pushing no matter what the cost.
Plus, the blank slate villain is well-established concept in horror. While some of the most memorable villains got their prestige from their terrifying looks – Michael’s emotionless white mask or Freddy’s knife hands and burned face – sometimes it is the villains whose faces you never see that are the most unsettling. Films like The Fog, The Mist, and Evil Dead introduce their villains as faceless foes making them all the more terrifying because you don’t know who (or what) you are running from. This approach allows your imagination to run wild, and sometimes that can be scarier than putting a face to the fear.
Andrew’s drum set does not have a face, but you can almost hear the “dun dun dun” whenever it comes into view because you know it means something terrible will face Andrew the moment he sits down to play it. As an object, the drum set (like other faceless villains) never shows emotion. It is simply there. Always there. Forever there. And it will be waiting for you.
Even after Andrew gets rid of the photos of drummers he looks up to, CDs of their music and charts of compositions whose tempos only get faster and faster, he never truly escapes the draw of the drums. Not completely. The drums have – Freddy Krueger-like – anchored themselves into their victim’s unconscious mind.
A drum set may not seem like something akin to some of horror’s scariest villains, but Whiplash proved it can torment, maim and destroy with the best of them. The film turned a percussion instrument into a villain that can stand up to Michael, Freddy, Christine and Jigsaw.
And this villain can keep a mean beat.