Growing up in the 1970s, I had a healthy skepticism about the awesome power of science. I lived in a town in Texas that was, at the time, developing the stealth bomber at the local 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.” Yeah.
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 giant insects on an unsuspecting public. And for what, I ask you?
Science is still scary to people. Instead of irradiated mutants, we’re concerned about genetically-modified organisms. 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 whackjob zombies, or any number of Worst Case Scenarios.
I tend to watch mad science movies with my disbelief mostly already suspended. It’s mostly because these films trend science fiction-y to begin with, and years of bad Star Trek and worse Doctor Who have taught me to just swallow the Kool-Aid and go along with it, because the trip is not as important as the destination. And with one noteworthy exception on this list, deal with personal consequences 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. 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.
4. The Brood (1979)
You had to know that director David Cronenberg was going to make the list. Well, this is the first of two movies in the Top 5, because Cronenberg is a creepy guy and his movies are almost all about the corruption of the body and the loss of control over same. Big theme in Cronenberg’s work, and here he bends it into a terrifying allegory about his own divorce.
I know, it sounds like a car crash, but it’s truly a freaked out car crash. Oliver Reed plays a psychologist who runs a clinic for mentally disturbed people and his methods involve changing their bodies to help heal their minds. Our hero’s ex-wife is one of the good doctor’s patients, and they are using their five-year old daughter like a hockey puck between them. As dad starts investigating Dr. Raglan’s practice, he leaves his daughter with his mother. 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. It’s messed up. So very messed up. But that’s Cronenberg, man. 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.
3. 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.
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. Re-Animator single-handedly jump started the new movement to get more Lovecraft movies made. That the director and producers were still the only people doing it for years afterward is beside the point.
West’s failing as a scientist is his inability to back up and see the moral and ethical implications of his experiments. He also refuses to back off of his initial successes with the formula. Sure, the subjects come back from the dead mindless, but hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, am I right?
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 holder. 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.
2. Godzilla (1954)
Before Kaiju movies were a thing, and while the genre was flailing around trying to define itself, there was the first, original Godzilla movie, a film that personifies the wrath of a planet scarred by radioactive bombs and testing; our own technology revisited upon us in the form of a mutated dinosaur that wantonly destroys without conscience or consequences.
The fledgling effort, even with American actors inserted, is a sobering denouncement of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There’s no guesswork, no subtlety to the message of the movie; it clearly spells out, “This is happening because we played God.” So, while there’s not one specific mad scientist responsible, the movie is still an accounting of science run amok.
The suit and the miniature work is good in the movie, and Godzilla moves in darkness for several scenes, which adds to the believability. Of course, we get to see all of the old standbys, such as the atomic breath, but in this movie, it was the first time for everyone. Still an effective film, very different in tone from the Godzilla movies most of us grew up with.
1. The Fly (1987)
The remake of the 1958 sci-fi classic The Fly may have well been the critical apex of David Cronenberg’s obsession with body/personal control. It’s certainly one of his best, most watchable films, and yet, it pulls no punches in the script or in the horrific visual effects.
Seth Brundle, played with his usual quirky flair by Jeff Goldblum, 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 original movie was based on a short story by George Langelaan, and the movie 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. 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.
(bonus) The Invisible Man (1933)
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, varying more than somewhat from the H.G. Wells story of the same name, contends that the process of invisibility is what makes Griffin insane. Wells was still alive at the time and thought the ending was rot, but we’ve had a cackling, insane Invisible Man ever since, and that is a frightening concept because we all know what we would do if we 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. Who wouldn’t, right? 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 creepy 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.
This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!
My Top Five Horror-Comedy Movies
My Top 5 Monsters on the Loose Movies
My Top 5 When Animals Attack Movies
My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies
My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies