Continuing our month-long series of classic horror posts launched here, today we survey several films from the 1930s and 40s that are centered around mad scientists. Here we will find a certain amount of overlap with our previous posts on mad magicians and serial killers. It’s not unheard of for some villains to be all three!
It’s a funny coincidence that today’s post comes on the birthday of Friedrich Neitzsche — it often seems like his writings inspired the screenplays to these films, which almost always include the rantings of a madman who places a low value on the average human life and is bent on charting a course into the great unknown — a place where man “is not meant to go.” This is a big theme in horror — fear of knowledge (at least the wrong knowledge). Certain mad scientist movies have had such success that they have formed their own franchises and subgenres; see our previous and upcoming posts on Dr. Jekyll, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Ape movies, transplanted body parts, and even The Mummy (centered on archaeologists going where they don’t belong) and King Kong (film-makers discover a new species and transport him where he doesn’t belong).
Here is an assortment of other mad scientists from classic horror:
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Yes, it’s “based on the Poe story” but, on the other hand, no, not really. The only thing the film shares in common with the story is the event of a body being stuffed up a chimney by an ape. This version concerns Bela Lugosi as one “Dr. Mirakle”, who appalls the people of Paris by exhibiting a “gorilla” which is alternately portrayed by an actual chimpanzee and a guy in a gorilla suit, often in different angles during the same scene. Even worse, he preaches the heinous doctrine of evolution! And did you notice how he happens to resemble an ape? Worse than all of this, he is performing an evil experiment, kidnapping maidens and injecting them with ape blood, which kills them. Then he very shockingly dumps them into the river. Instead of following the detective (Dupin) as he gradually solves the unexplained murders (the template that would come to be used by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and a million others, we know from the outset who the murderer is. Dupin is a medical student, who eventually solves the mystery with a microscope—and the next victim, in an amazing coincidence, is his girlfriend. Still, the movie is as beautiful to look at as the other Universal horror films of the time, if you can forgive the absolutely daffy element of how the ape itself is represented.
Dr. X (1932)
I saw this on one of my first dates with the Countess at the Film Forum, so it will always hold a special place. (This fact no doubt reveals much about us both, including why we’re together). The plot: there is a bizarre cannibalistic serial killer on the loose, who always kills on the full moon. Police track him to a scientific institute, where every one of the employees is a mad scientist. Each one is a suspect, and each one is disfigured in a different way. The purported hero (Lee Tracy), a reporter, is a goofball, a Jimmy Olsen type, and seems more like comic relief than a hero. The head scientist (Lionel Atwill) brings everyone back to his Gothic castle in Long Island and wires everyone to a giant Frankensteinian machine that will somehow tell us who the killer is when they react to elaborate re-creations of the crime featuring actors and wax figures. Eventually (spoiler alert) the killer turns out to be the guy we haven’t suspected because he happens to have an artificial hand. When the moon is full, he creates a real hand with artificial flesh and turns himself into a monster. The nightmarish climax has all the scientists including Atwill handcuffed and forced to watch the villain attack his daughter (Fay Wray). Tracy rescues her at the last moment and throws a lit kerosene lamp at the monster, who tumbles, burning and screaming to his death in the ocean below.
The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Wonderfully spooky and atmospheric—definitely the best version of this H.G. Wells story (not hard to beat the Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando ones). The movie gives off a vibe as scary as that of White Zombie, which I consider the gold standard. You need those torch lit nighttime black and white scenes. Charles Laughton chews the scenery as Dr. Moreau, who doesn’t care how many creatures he tortures, makes miserable, or kills in his experiments. He rules them all as a God, and one can’t help think Wells is making a comment on British Imperialism. A furry faced Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. (Devo used his phrase “Are Not Men?” in their theme song). The monster rebellion at the climax of the film is one of the most nightmarish scenes ever put on film).
The Vampire Bat (1933)
The tale: villagers in a rural European hamlet are mysteriously dying, their bodies drained of blood, apparently by vampires. A mob mentality prevails. Suspicion falls on the village idiot (Dwight Frye), who happens to love bats. Police detective Melvyn Douglas tries to make people see reason but it is no use. They eventually chase Frye’s character into a cave and over the rim of a deep pit to his death.
Unfortunately he wasn’t the culprit! It turns out that the smooth and aloof Lionel Atwill, who lives in a large castle, is both a mad scientist and a somnambulist. At night, he uses his mental powers to order one of his servants to kill victims, then brings them to lab, where bodies are drained of blood to feed a blob of tissue he keeps in a tank. His assistant (and Douglas’s love interest) Fay Wray stumbles onto him in the act, and Douglas turns the table on him. After a brief struggle Atwill and his assistant kill each other. Very funny comic relief in the film in the form of Wray’s hypochondriac aunt (Maude Eburne.)
This movie very unlike the other described in this series of posts. The film is way ahead of its time in being extremely low budget and technically incompetent in the extreme. It was originally called Sex Maniac and was purportedly “educational” but really an exploitation film by Dwayne Esper. Written by Esper’s wife and based on several Poe stories (yet somehow also supposed to teach us about several psychological abnormalities), the plot nevertheless has possibilities, despite the amateurishness of the realization. A mad scientist needs a human heart for his experiments. He dispatches his assistant, a fomer vaudeville impressionist, to the morgue—disguised as the coroner. Later the heart is destroyed before the operation can commence. The scientist hands his assistant a gun so that he will shoot himself and be reborn in the experiment. Instead, the assistant shoots the doctor. And then he goes insane and HIMSELF becomes a mad scientist. He bricks the doctor’s corpse up in a wall, eats an eye ball, makes another guy go insane with an adrenaline injection, and many other gross things. Finally the police come in and catch him. This is cool film to watch for its documentary aspect…the low budget means lots of location shooting (rare in narrative films at the time), street clothes, real people’s houses, etc.
Mad Love (1935)
An exquisite remake of the silent classic The Hands of Orlac. Peter Lorre is a mad doctor obsessed with the female star of a Grand Guignol theater in Paris (Frances Drake). This theater is to die for (no pun intended), with staff dressed in Halloween costumes, and a wax museum as part of the set-up. The mad scientist goes to the theater every day and stares at the wax figure of the star actress, then watches her in the show. It is a sick obsession to begin with, but amplified by the fact that in the play her character is cruelly, horribly tortured. The lady thanks him for all this attention, but informs him she is retiring to live with her husband, a concert pianist (Colin Clive). Lorre doesn’t care that she’s married; he’s happy to rape her all the same, until he is interrupted by a stagehand.
Later, Clive is in a train accident in which he loses his hands (in Hollywood films, if someone loses his hands, it is axiomatic that he will be a concert pianist. And how does someone lose just his hands in a train accident? Was he sticking his hands out the window? Mama warned me about that!) The mad doctor saves Clive, of course – but now gives him instead the hands of a murderous knife thrower. Here, the story gets a little muddled. It seems like the producers felt that our star hero couldn’t be a murderer even with someone else’s hands. So, despite the fact that the hands do have an uncanny will to pick up knives and considerable skill in throwing them…Clive doesn’t actually do the knife murders attributed to him. Lorre does them, and then gaslights Clive into thinking he did them. Meanwhile, Ted Healy (awesome!) plays the semi-comical fast talking reporter who helps get to the bottom of all this.
A great climax—Lorre has taken the wax figure of the heroine back to his castle to talk to…the Galatea to his Pygmalion. The girl has snuck in and accidentally broken it. In order not to be caught, she stands and pretends to be the statue. When she screams, he thinks she has come to life. Then, ironically, the voices in his head tell him to kill her. When the heroes come to the rescue, they cant get through a locked grate. But Clive now has amazing knife throwing skills. I wonder what will happen?
The Raven (1935)
Bela Lugosi plays an insane but brilliant surgeon, who is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. He keeps a stuffed raven on his desk, and has built replicas of all the torture devices from his stories in his basement. Retired from practice, he is devoting all his time to research until he is called on by a judge to save the life of his daughter who has had a bad car accident. Lugosi wants to marry the daughter and won’t take no for an answer, even though the girl is engaged to be married to someone else. Fortuitously, Boris Karloff shows up as a common criminal seeking plastic surgery so he can escape the law. Lugosi purposely mangles his face so he can control him, dangling the promise of restoration so he’ll do his bidding. Then he invites a small party including the affianced couple and the judge for an overnight party. Don’t go, you stupids!! Before the night is out, he has the judge strapped to a Poe-like ax-pendulum, and the couple locked in one of those rooms where the walls move in to crush you. (The house is amazing…a lever that turns off all the phones. Another lever that makes metal shutters go over all the windows. A bedroom in an elevator that takes the girl to the basement.) In the end, Karloff breaks ranks and attacks Lugosi, throwing him in the wall-crusher and ending his career of madness. And the girl is left with her husband, an empty twit with a pencil thin moustache.
Murder by Television (1935)
A very bad, low budget murder mystery from an outfit called Cameo Pictures. The only real horror elements are a death ray, and the presence of Bela Lugosi as a suspicious scientist and his FBI man twin brother. Essentially several people gather to watch demonstrations of experimental television. The main guy dies, and we watch the inspector try to solve the crime. Hattie McDaniel plays a comical maid.
The Invisible Ray (1936)
A perfect movie. Boris Karloff is a scientist in Carpathian mountains living with his blind mother and wife, who happens to be the daughter of his former mentor. His observatory is of course located in a castle. He invites skeptical colleagues (one of whom is Bela Lugosi in a rare non-villainous role) to show them something. His special telescope looks deep into space, able to look back on earth millions of years in the past. They witness a meteorite hitting Africa. As a result, they mount an expedition there to look for a special element, the most powerful in the universe, known as Radium X. Several scenes in the jungle, with stereotyical African native porters. Karloff finds his element, but it poisons him. He now glows in the dark, and kills whatever he touches. Lugosi makes him an antidote, but he has to take it every day. Meanwhile, his estrangement from his wife causes her to fall in love with the young explorer from the scientific society. When they return to London, Karloff gets the Nobel Prize but it isn’t enough. The radiation has affected his brain, he is paranoid, jealous of everyone. While his ray cures blindness, he also has visions of destroying cities. He pretends to be dead, allowing his wife to marry his rival. Then he plots revenge, killing those who went with him to Africa, one by one. He finds himself unable to kill his wife however. Then his mother destroys his antidote, dooming him. He burns up in a fire, and tumbles over a balcony to his death.
The Man Who Changed His Mind a.k.a The Man Who Lived Again (1936)
A British horror film. Boris Karloff as a top brain surgeon who has gone, well, mad. He has developed a means of transferring the mind wholesale from one brain to another. He does it first on chimps. Then when the entire community laughs at him, and his funder vows to confiscate his research, he transfers the mind of his cynical crippled servant into a millionaire publisher. Conveniently the crippled body of the servant now dies with the publisher’s soul in it. In the end, the scientist tries to switch his own soul with that of the young blade who is going to marry his lab assistant. Until…the last minute rescue.
The Walking Dead (1936)
A mash-up of the crime/gangster flick and a Gothic horror mad scientist premise. Edmund Gwenn is a scientist who revives the unjustly executed Boris Karloff using Frankensteinian electricity. (In contrast with many films in this genre, the experiment is done with complete official approval, is sanctioned by the state and his success is well publicized. It is no secret) Karloff seems compelled to seek out the men who framed him for the murder of a judge (including his own defense attorney, played by Ricardo Cortez). Karloff doesn’t seek vengeance against them, he just asks them why they did it. And they all die in hideous accidents, as though he has brought death with him. He seeks return to the grave himself literally though — and eventually he does.
Black Friday (1940)
This is more of a gangster picture than Gothic horror, but it has certain horror elements. It stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the former as a mad scientist who saves the life of his dying friend, a mild-mannered professor, by transplanting part of an injured gangster’s brain into his. When Karloff hears that the gangster has $500,000 hidden, he gets greedy, and begins to control the man in order to find out where it is. The guy keeps shifting between his two personalities….professor and gangster. As the latter, he begins bumping off his old colleagues (one of whom is Lugosi) as well as policemen. Eventually it all comes to light and Karloff gets the electric chair.
The Devil Bat (1940)
This movie is unspeakably awesome…down in the Ed Wood category of Grade Z films. Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who has not only artificially grown a bunch of super-sized bats (through radiation of course) but has also trained them to attack whoever wears a certain cologne. (His ostensible job is inventing colognes). One of my favorite exchanges in cinema: Innocent victim: “Goodnight, doctor!” Lugosi: “GoodBYE, Jimmy”. The bat of course is shown is separate shots which give no idea of scale (a real bat), or presented as a big plastic swooping kite-like prop on a wire. I have seen this film perhaps ten times.
Dr. Cyclops (1940)
This movie is a bit irritating, definitely second or third tier, if that. It contains no stars. The titular Dr. Cyclops is not the one eyed giant as the title promises, though he is definitely near sighted, and BECOMES a giant, when he shrinks his meddlesome colleagues and the Mexican comic relief to the size of dollikins. The “shrunken” actors never speak in the composite shots that show them in the full sized world, indicating a cheap-o avoidance of some technical problem. All they do is cringe and cower and scamper from place to place. Eventually they trick their tormentor into falling down a hole.
The Mad Monster (1942)
An interesting picture, mixing elements of Jekyll and Hyde, The Island of Lost Souls, and The Wolf Man. George Zucco is a mad scientist who injects a local mental defective with a serum that turns him into a murderous werewolf. His ultimate dream is to build an invincible army, but first he uses the creature to kill all the scientists who previously scoffed at him. (The backstory done in a clever way…he imagines a conversation with them, but they are translucent hallucinations). A mob of local hillbillies eventually get justice. This movie may contain some of Zucco’s best acting — he’s rather terrifying in it.