Ah, the mad scientist. Though they vary in size, shape, and ability, they always seem to have that perfect combination to cause trouble:
- Plenty of hubris
- A desire to change the world, often for the better (that, of course, goes dramatically wrong)
- Some serious intelligence and drive
- A heaping spoonful of insanity
- (Usually) An awesome/bizarre sense of style
Today, we wanted to highlight some of our favorite examples of the classic mad scientist in film. They may not always appear in the best films, but their personality, drive, and (especially) creations will linger long after the final credits roll.
“I’m working on something that will change the world.”
The Fly is one of David Cronenberg’s finest works, and a big part of why it is so successful is because of Jeff Goldblum’s awesome performance as Dr. Seth Brundle. He perfectly encapsulates everything we want from a mad scientist – his telepods would change the world for the better, and yet he understands far too late just how wrong things have gone with his experiment.
Watching mad scientists fall to pieces due to their arrogance and insanity is always one of the most exciting parts of the genre, and Brundle’s transformation in The Fly is aided by some absolutely astonishing creature work. At first, Brundle truly believes that his teleportation is even more successful than he thought it would be, changing him for the better. As his mental state deteriorates, his physical state does as well. Watching the totally game Goldblum go all in on body horror and gross-out scenes still holds up, and Cronenberg’s “Brundlefly” is still a wonderful bit of special effects magic.
9. Herbert West – Re-Animator (1985)
“Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!”
Jeffrey Combs may not quite have the mainstream acting pedigree of someone like Jeff Goldblum, but his turn as Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator is every bit as effective in the world of mad science. Watching Combs absolutely chew up the scenery as he becomes more and more unhinged is extremely entertaining, and his performance is definitely what makes the film work.
Re-Animator‘s mix of good practical effects, some absolutely skin-crawling scenes, and a totally unhinged performance from Combs helped transform it from a forgotten, low-budget chiller to the cult classic we all know and love. It even spawned two sequels – Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator.
8. Dean Armitage – Get Out (2017)
“I would have voted for Obama for a third term.”
The newest addition to our list, Dean Armitage does a pretty good job of disguising how evil he truly is for quite sometime. Played with true dorky dad-ness by Bradley Whitford, Dean and his wife Missy (Catherine Keener) welcome their daughter and her boyfriend, Chris, into their WASP-y retreat with open arms. Things are weird, but Chris assumes that’s just because he feels out of place as a black man in a very white community. There is much more going on than that.
Get Out is masterfully paced and written, but it could have fallen a bit flat without the perfectly disguised menace of Whitford and Keener. Their characters truly see nothing wrong with what they are doing, and when Chris listens to exactly what Dean has in store for him… It’s one of those awful moments where you can’t imagine much worse. Whitford has always played smarmy and conniving extremely well, and Dean Armitage is a wonderful addition to his resume.
7. Edward Praetorius – From Beyond (1986)
“Humans are such easy prey.”
Another Stuart Gordon directed, H.P. Lovecraft adaptation (also starring Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton!), From Beyond never quite achieved the cult statues of Re-Animator. However, Dr. Edward Praetorius, played by Ted Sorel, is a menacing and powerful figure, and his “Resonator” machine, similar to what we see in the Hellraiser series, opens up new dimensions of suffering and erotic pleasure.
It’s a weird but successful film – famed critic Gene Siskel called it a “funny, horrific grossout” in his review, giving it three out of four stars. However, he also said he could “do without the film’s leather sex scenes”. Speak for yourself, Gene! The mad scientist being completely consumed by his work – literally – is always a blast to watch, and seeing Sorel ham it up as he becomes even more grotesque is always a treat.
6. Frank-N-Furter – The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
“I see you shiver with antici…”
We’re getting a bit outside the realm of horror here, but if The Rocky Horror Picture Show weren’t a comedy musical about a cross-dressing alien, Dr. Frank-N-Furter would be pretty horrible. Tim Curry is always game to turn it up to eleven; he struts around as the “Sweet Transvestite,” wrecking lives, creating his version of the “perfect man,” and even murdering someone before serving them for dinner.
Essentially, Rocky Horror would probably be an epic disaster if it weren’t for Curry’s turn as the good doctor. He’s absolutely electric on the screen, and his presence helped turn a silly little musical into one of the most impressive cult classics ever made.
5. Henry Frankenstein – Frankenstein (1931)
“Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
Fun fact: his name is Henry! Victor was his name in Mary Shelley’s book, but the black and white film features Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, struggling to maintain his sanity as he invents a solution to that unsolvable problem: death.
Most people remember Boris Karloff’s iconic monster in the film, but Frankenstein would not be remembered so fondly without Clive’s wide-eyed intensity. The decision to change the monster from the source material to a lumbering, unstoppable force, the slow build up of suspense of the film – without Clive’s energy, the film would lose the urgency that makes it hold up almost one hundred years later. You might even say that Henry Frankenstein is what really… brings the movie to life?
What’s truly impressive about the character of Henry Frankenstein is that he really became the mold for the “mad scientist” in film ever since the film was released in 1931. It’s one of the most iconic films ever released, and it’s not just a green-skinned Boris Karloff that does it.
4. Josef Heiter – The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2009)
“I don’t like human beings.”
Most of the mad scientists on this list have at least some plausible explanation for why they do they things they do. Even if it’s flimsy reasoning, many can claim that their work would make the world a better place. I’m not sure Josef Heiter, the antagonist behind The Human Centipede, can make that claim. It would be tough to argue that “three human beings sewed together and sharing a digestive tract” could improve the world in any conceivable way.
Played with sadistic glee by Dieter Laser (which is, without a doubt, a cooler name than his character’s), Heiter throws ethics and taste by the wayside in order to create his imagined creation. He sabotages innocent bystanders, murders police officers, and shouts in glee as he sees that his ideas are (sort of) working. Those mirrored sunglasses, too – yikes.
3. Dr. Moreau – The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
“I’ve seen the Devil in my microscope, and I have chained him.”
It’s too bad there hasn’t been a great movie version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, as the titular character has never quite received the treatment he deserves. He is played very well by Burt Lancaster in the 1977 version of the film, and… not quite as well by Marlon Brando in the infamous 1996 version, but both films leave something to be desired.
It’s a shame, because Dr. Moreau, as a character, is so darn impressive. He takes one of those classic childhood games (If you could have powers of different animals, what would you choose?) and actually makes it happen. Like the best mad scientists, he plays God in his own little kingdom. Like the best mad scientists, he is taken down by his own creation. And, like the best mad scientists, he recognizes that he has a spark of madness in him. He either doesn’t care or he sees that madness as the very thing he needs to succeed in his vision.
2. Robert Hoak – Piranha (1978)
“People eat fish. Fish don’t eat people.”
You don’t get much more mad scientist than “I bioengineered a super predator to invade an enemy country to help us win a war, then continued working on the super predator long after the war was over.” Which brings us to Robert Hoak, the brains behind the overly ravenous fish that populate Piranha. Played by Kevin McCarthy (who has an insane amount of credits to his name), Hoak may not completely fit the bill of the stereotypical mad scientist, but anyone who invents a super predator that chows down on co-eds is fair game.
What’s so great about McCarthy’s take on Hoak is that he realizes the error of his ways and tries to make amends. He actually dies saving someone from his own monsters – but he is devoured by the fish he created, in true mad scientist fashion. For a schlocky Jaws knockoff, Piranha has withstood the test of time (and spawned quite a few sequels). It’s a razor-sharp horror comedy and will give you plenty of goodness to sink your teeth into.
1. Krank – The City of Lost Children (1995)
“The one who created us made us all monsters!”
Let’s end on a real bizarre one – Krank, played by Daniel Emilfork in 1995’s The City of Lost Children. The surreal French film showcases an over-the-top performance from Emilfork, who gleefully stretches his face and chews the scenery enough that the film could be a comedy if it weren’t so terrifying.
Krank has a tragic backstory – he was created by another scientist and does not have the ability to dream. Rather than learning to cope or by creating some sort of alternative, he decides (deep breath) to bribe a gang to kidnap children so he can hook them up to a machine that extracts their dreams and allows him to experience them.
What follows is a bizarre story with tons of surreal imagery, strange makeup, and outrageous set design. Holding it all together is Emilfork’s Krank, whose menacing presence is never forgotten or strayed from for too long. He looms large over the entire film, and watching him go down in flames due to a combination of his own arrogance and the quick thinking of the film’s other characters is extremely satisfying.
Did we leave any of your favorite mad scientists off the list? Which of these gave you the chills? Let us know, and check us out on our Twitter, the official NOFS subreddit, and our Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook for more horror features and news.