Growing up in the 1970s, I had a healthy skepticism about the awesome power of science. I lived in a city in Texas that was, at the time, developing the B-1 stealth bomber at the nearby air force base. It’s common knowledge now, but obviously, no one knew anything about it at the time. They just had all of the elementary schools practice “disaster drills,” which was a polite euphemism for “in case of nuclear bombing.”
So, thanks to The Cold War and my fear of a Nuclear Holocaust, watching old monster movies from the fifties with mad scientists made perfect sense. Here’s what happens when you fully fund a guy for his research without doing your due diligence. Pretty soon, they are teleporting their own head onto insects and unleashing chaos on an unsuspecting public. And for what, I ask you? Science is still scary to people, moreso now than ever. Instead of irradiated mutants, we’re concerned about genetically-modified organisms, man-made viruses, and worse. Science keeps trying (at least, in our fevered imaginations) to improve upon nature, and in doing so, usually bungs it up so badly that dinosaurs get loose in San Diego, or people come back to life as whack job zombies, or any number of Worst Case Scenarios.
I tend to watch mad science movies with my disbelief mostly already suspended. It’s because these films tend to invoke a lot of science fiction conceits to begin with, and years of bad Star Trek one-offs and worse Doctor Who one-ons have taught me to just swallow the Kool-Aid and go along with it; after all, the trip is not nearly as important as the destination. Also, these stories frequently deal with the personal consequences of Mad Science’s actions, rather than public ones. In attempting to control something beyond their grasp, these tortured geniuses lose control over their lives, their bodies, their sanity. Thus, the moral of these stories is always something along the lines of “Dare to Dream, but for God’s Sake, Quit Toying With Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.”
5. The Invisible Man (1933)
Dr. Jack Griffin checks into a remote country inn, swathed in bandages. When he falls behind on his rent, the landlord confronts him and Griffin attacks him for his trouble. When the local constabulary are called in, Griffin unwinds the bandages on his face, laughing maniacally, to reveal—nothing! He’s invisible, and eludes his debtors by disrobing completely. Griffin’s fiancée and his daughter are worried about him, but Griffin, driven mad by his own concoction, conscripts an agent to orchestrate a reign of terror that includes a few murders, derailing a train, and more.
Ah, the Invisible Man…one of the early Universal monsters who is frequently (if not ironically) overlooked because he’s not monstrous enough, I suppose. The movie script varies more than somewhat from the H.G. Wells story of the same name and Wells, who was still alive at the time, thought the ending was rot. Nevertheless, we’ve had a cackling, insane Invisible Man ever since, and that is a frightening concept because we all know what some people would do if they could turn invisible.
That’s how the movie gets you. There’s freedom in invisibility, but also the urge to stop behaving like a civilized person. It’s a weird thing to consider, and also, fairly easy to address, so I don’t know quite how “amok” an invisible man could run. However, Griffin is one of the great movie mad scientists, and this early sci-fi thriller still has some unsettling bits to it, including some still impressive special effects for the time. The Invisible Man makes a good “intro to mad science” movie to spring on people who don’t like a lot of grossness and goo in their horror movies. You’ll be able to appreciate it even though it’s not particularly scary.
4. Altered States (1981)
William Hurt plays a scientist who is convinced that our place in consciousness is subjective and capricious. He goes from studying schizophrenia to chasing down native hallucinogens and combines everything into a sensory deprivation tank, and, well, guess what? It works. It works a little too well.
There’s some really creepy imagery, circa early 1980s and a clearly-alcoholic but still on the rails Ken Russell in the director’s chair. In fact, this is the most watchable Ken Russell movie out there. Everything else was downhill from this one. Newcomer (at the time) William Hurt does a great job of being fascinated by his own work and put off by everyone and everything around him, including his family.
Dick Smith was brought in to help with the make-up sequences, and as usual, his work is so subtle you don’t even realize you’re looking at it. There’s some wicked, interesting ideas in Altered States that helps elevate the film past its uneven screenplay and pacing problems. When the crazy stuff finally starts breaking out, the film gets very interesting and more than somewhat disturbing.
3. The Brood (1979)
Oliver Reed plays Dr. Raglan, a psychologist who runs a clinic for mentally disturbed people and his methods involve changing their bodies to help heal their minds. Nora is one of the good doctor’s patients, in an acrimonious divorce with Frank, and they are using their five-year old daughter like a hockey puck between them. Convinced that the doctor is screwing with his soon-to-be ex-wife and influencing her, Frank takes their daughter Candice from Nora. She and Raglan intensify their sessions.
As Frank starts investigating Dr. Raglan’s practice, he leaves his daughter with Nora’s mother so he can track down former patients and devotees of the good doctor. And that’s when the creepy killer monster kid shows up and kills the grandmother. Things go downhill from there very quickly. Everyone doubles down on their position, which only cranks up the tension, and when you find out what the creepy killer monster child really is, you’re going to freak out.
You had to know that director David Cronenberg was going to make the list. None of his scientists and doctors ever come to a good end. He loves change, but for Cronenberg, it’s a violent, hostile process that always leaves scars. Cronenberg’s movies are almost all about the corruption of the body and the loss of control over the body. In The Brood, he turns his transformation into a terrifying allegory about his own divorce. I know, it sounds like a car crash, but it’s a spectacular, if somewhat freakish, car crash.
2. The Fly (1987)
Seth Brundle is working on teleportation. He’s almost got it licked, except that the computer isn’t so good with living tissue. Geena Davis is the science reporter covering the story—and quickly enough, the scientist, too—as they knock boots and send stuff across the room with the telepods. Of course, Brundle gets impatient for results and teleports himself. And it would have worked perfectly, too, except for the pesky fly that gets into the pod with him at the last moment. Soon thereafter, the changes start to occur.
The gory and gruesome remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic The Fly may have well been the zenith of David Cronenberg’s obsession with the human body and the loss of control of said body. It’s certainly one of his best, most watchable films, and yet, it pulls no punches in the script or in the sustained use of horrific visual effects. The original 1958 movie was based on a short story by George Langelaan, and the screenplay is pretty faithful. The scientist gets a fly head and a fly hand. That’s it, that’s all, nothing else; a quintessential 1950’s idea and somewhat iconic image. Cronenberg makes the fly DNA more invasive, more sinister. Brundle’s speech about “insect politics” and his concluding statement are horrible to comprehend, especially from Geena Davis’ point of view, as she is now carrying Brundle’s unborn child. Truly disturbing implications abound throughout this effective and influential film.
1. Re-Animator (1985)
Herbert West really has the best of intentions: he wants to conquer brain death—the time at which the brain, without oxygen, expires. In the movie, this is a six to twelve minute window of time. Plenty of time, in fact, for West to shoot up a fresh corpse with his bioluminescent green goo and turn them into mindless, thrashing super zombies. When his straight-laced roommate Dan finds out, he goes to the dean to convince him that West is a genius. The two students sneak into the morgue to reanimate a corpse, and that’s when Dean Halsey shows up and it killed by the zombie they just brought back to life. West reanimates Dean Halsey, it only drives the dead man crazy. When West’s nemesis, Dr. Hill, realizes that something is wrong with the Dean and suspects that West has stumbled onto a re-animation serum. He confronts West and gets a shovel upside the head for his trouble. Then West decapitates Hill with the shovel, and in a moment of inspiration, injects the serum into Dr. Hill’s body and his head, separately.
That’s the basic premise of Re-Animator, a film that is as faithful to the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name as Conan the Barbarian resembles the collected works of Robert E. Howard. That both movies are cheerfully irreverent towards their literary roots doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, however.
Some people find this movie hilarious, and I think it’s funny in a darkly unintentional way. The actors and director are on record as saying they weren’t trying to be funny, but some things just developed organically throughout the course of the movie, such as the wonderful scene involving a freshly hewn-off head and a letter spindle. This film introduced us to Jeffrey Combs and his quirky delivery and squirrelly intensity certainly helped the Wham-O-bouncing-ball tone of the film. One of my favorite mad scientists of all time.
Herbert West is a man of singular vision, and the witty, if darkly so, script, along with Combs manic acting, makes you care for him even though you know he’s doing horrible things in the name of science. Good Lord, what a movie. Re-Animator, with director Stuart Gordon at the helm, jump started the trend in Lovecraftian film making, ironically, by leaving most of the things that make an H.P. Lovecraft story out of the film entirely. What’s left is a one-on-one exploration of man’s quest for knowledge with no thought as to the consequences of that quest, what it will cost, the morality and ethics of what’s involved to achieve those answers, and whether or not we should be asking them in the first place.