Of the many tropes of horror, one of the most endearing is the “mad scientist,” the unhinged doctor who plays God or tempts fate in what he or she may consider a beneficial endeavor for mankind but, in reality, turns out to be a terrible, and usually fatal, mistake of deadly proportion. Of course, not all mad scientists are so noble, but they’d have you believe they are, no matter how despicable or dangerous their experiments may be. In this list are the five worst, or perhaps best, of the cinematic mad scientists seen in horror films, and the circumstances surrounding their experiments that ultimately lead to their downfalls…or worse. And strangely enough, each mad scientist in the list is from a movie based on a literary source…imagine that. Here we go.
Dr. Frankenstein “Frankenstein” (1931)
Perhaps the most infamous and most commonly associated doctor of mad science, Mary Shelley’s literary creation is likely a progenitor of the mad scientist character, though the character of Victor Frankenstein in the novel is anything but. Portrayed as more of a tragic figure who attempts to play God, it wasn’t until Universal’s 1931 film “Frankenstein” that the doctor, here named Heinrich, or Henry (Colin Clive) was molded into his mad persona. And while there have been many interpretations of the character (as with a few others in this list), for the sake of keeping things short and in an attempt to pick the most memorable, this version of Frankenstein is the top choice here. Henry, working with his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), has been searching for the secret of life and immortality, devising a way to create life from dead body parts stitched together. He’s called “crazy” by his friends, colleagues, and even his fiance, but his determination never wavers, and during a violent electrical storm, he allows his creation to be struck by lightning in an apparatus he’s built in his laboratory…and he succeeds. The creature (Boris Karloff) lives, and though it has a grotesque appearance with stitches, bolts in its neck, and a flat cranium, it seems relatively harmless. But, due to a careless mistake by Fritz early in the film when he attempts to steal a brain for the monster (he steals an “abnormal” violent brain as opposed to a normal one), the creature is anything but harmless. Henry soon becomes horrified by his creation, hoping to keep it hidden during his wedding party, but the beast escapes, killing Fritz and a young girl, and it goes after its master, ultimately carrying him up to a burning windmill to escape the lynch mob following them in the film’s climax. Thankfully though, unlike Victor Frankenstein, Henry isn’t ultimately destroyed by the creature. Henry returns in the sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein,” pushed by Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) to create a mate for the creature, finally building and bringing life to the lightning-haired “Bride” (Elsa Lanchester), but thankfully, he escapes death when the creature is rejected by the Bride and destroys her, Dr. Pretorius, and itself. In these films and the many sequels, remakes, and versions of the story, Frankenstein carries varying degrees of the “mad scientist” ideal, and becomes the primary warning tale of what could happen should Man try to play God.
Dr. Henry Jekyll “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (1932)
Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal story about the duality of man’s personality became perfect fodder for the realm of horror, taken literally as a scientist who experiments with chemicals to explore his darker side. And as with Dr. Frankenstein, there have been many versions of Dr. Jekyll, but one of the most memorable is the 1932 film that sees the good doctor played by Frederic March, and is not totally faithful to its source material (though it is based on a play version, as was “Frankenstein”). Henry Jekyll is a kind doctor in Victorian London with a fiancee, Muriel (Rose Hobart), and he’s driven to discover the essence of good and evil he believes to be dwelling within all people. Developing a powerful drug, Jekyll uses it to unleash the evil side of himself, an identity that causes Jekyll to develop simian-like features such as thick hair on his head and hands, and sharp teeth, and the personality takes on the name Edward Hyde. Hyde develops an abusive relationship with a woman named Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) and Jekyll soon begins transforming into Hyde without the drug, the dark personality slowly taking over his own and driving him to commit murder as the vile Mr. Hyde, killing Ivy and others out of anger and, in some ways, for the sheer enjoyment of it. Ultimately, the police pursue Hyde and corner him, fatally wounding the vicious killer only to watch him change back into Henry Jekyll as he dies. Though few of us likely have evil within us the magnitude of Hyde, we all have dark sides that are likely kept from those closest to us, and Jekyll, a scientist with a good heart, but poor intentions and terrible curiosity tampers with something he doesn’t understand and that ultimately ends his life in misery; a good man whose madness showed itself with devastating results.
Griffin “The Invisible Man” (1933)
The idea of “the invisible man” has long been a trope in stories of science fiction and horror, obviously brought about in H.G. Wells’ tale of the same name. But it wasn’t until 1933 that the mad scientist who renders himself invisible was brought to cackling life by the excellent Claude Rains and we were presented with a scientist whose intriguing yet deadly experiment drove him past the brink of sanity. Here, Griffin (known as Jack Griffin in the film; he never had a first name in the novel) arrives at an inn dressed in bandages and goggles, performing strange experiments in his room. When confronted, he removes the bandages and all clothing to reveal he is completely invisible to the human eye. It seems that Griffin developed a serum using a dangerous drug called “monocane” that has allowed him to turn invisible; however, monocane has a side effect that causes madness in the subjects injected with it. Having lost his mind, Griffin decides to cause as much chaos and death as possible just because he can get away with it, forcing a former colleague, Kemp (William Harrigan) to help in a deadly plot to spread fear throughout the world by murdering anyone in his way. However, a manhunt is eventually initiated to catch the invisible man, and Griffin murders Kemp when he feels he’s been betrayed; the insane scientist is eventually found while sleeping in a barn to take cover during a storm, and he’s mortally wounded by gunfire. As he dies, Griffin, in a moment of lucidity, admits to his love, Flora (Gloria Stuart), that he has tampered with things that should never be touched, his experiments that caused his invisibility, and his psychosis, destroying everything he was and all he loved. This idea has been dealt with in a number of films, of course, as have the previous two doctors, but in this case, none were as tragic and bewildering as the case of Dr. Griffin and the chaos wrought by the freedom of being able to move about and commit any crime totally unseen. We all know we might do some bad things should we suddenly turn invisible, right?
Andre DeLambre/Seth Brundle “The Fly” (1958/1986)
This may come across as a cheat, but both of these scientists are lumped together because both men attempted a similar experiment, but both had differing, yet equally destructive, results. In both films, each adaptations of George Langelaan’s 1957 short story, the scientists are working on teleportation devices for the good of mankind. As with all scientific endeavors, there are mistakes and problems that have to be corrected as they attempt to transfer objects through space, but when each scientist, Andre DeLambre (David “Al” Hedison) of the original and Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) of the remake, decides to send themselves through the teleporters, they each make a tragic mistake. In both scenarios, a common housefly finds its way into the device with each man, but with different results. For Andre, he emerges with the head and leg of the fly, human-sized, on his body and the fly has his head and arm, insect-sized, on its body, leaving his wife, Helene (Patricia Owens) to hunt for the “white-headed fly” in an attempt to return himself to normal by recreating the experiment…an attempt that ends in failure and leaves Andre to make the ultimate sacrifice when all hope is lost, leaving Helene to confess the story to Andre’s brother, Francois (Vincent Price). For Seth, he emerges from the teleporter in normal condition…at least at first. He realizes he’s now sexually potent, stronger, and has a strong taste for sugar. But as time goes by and he begins to deteriorate, parts of his body falling off, he learns that he’s slowly becoming a terrifying amalgamation of man and fly, much to the horror of his girlfriend, Veronica (Geena Davis), or Ronnie for short. But the question is, who’s the worst of the two scientists? My bet is on Brundle, who not only dooms himself to a disgusting transformation due to being jealous and drunk, but also has his machine horrifyingly (and skillfully) merge him with a housefly at the genetic level rather than merely mixing atoms like DeLambre’s teleporters. And unlike DeLambre, Brundle actually causes harm to those around him, nearly killing Ronnie’s ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans (John Getz) with corrosive insect vomit and then, in one last psychotic attempt to desperately save himself, tries to throw Ronnie into a teleporter and merge with her. Apparently desperation and insect genes can drive anyone to madness. And worst of all? Both films had sequels in which the scientists’ children suffered similar fates.
Dr. Herbert West “Re-Animator” (1985)
Ah, Dr. West…how driven, how calculating…how insane. Herbert West, based on the lead character from short stories by H.P. Lovecraft and played brilliantly by B-movie icon Jeffrey Combs, is essentially a spiritual successor to Dr. Frankenstein. Intensely driven Herbert is a young medical student who’s recently come to Miskatonic University in the fictional Arkham, Massachusetts (fans of Lovecraft should get the references) and, once there, makes an enemy out of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) by condemning his theories, calling him a plagiarist, and forces his way into the life of student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). You see, Herbert has developed a glowing green serum that’s capable of reanimating dead tissue…and the good doctor plans to prove its success by any means necessary…means that quickly become chaotic and destructive in gruesomely hysterical fashion, though the events around him rarely discourage Herbert’s twisted optimism. So when Dr. Hill, himself revealed to be a cruelly despicable man, tries to steal Dr. West’s serum, how does the mad doctor react? Why, by decapitating and later reanimating the severed head and headless corpse of his enemy, ultimately provoking a showdown of maniacal proportion between Herbert, Dan, Dr. Hill, and an army of the undead. Thankfully, Herbert survives the climax which sees him in a compromising and dangerous position, and returns in two sequels that sees him trying to continue his experiments and their disastrous results, but Dr. Herbert West brings truly gleeful insanity and devotion to his cause, and usually at the expense of others…maybe one day, West will meet his untimely end as in the stories…but for now, he can count himself lucky as one of the few mad doctors to survive his misguided research, even if he kills so many accidentally.
Sound off in the comments below!