We are celebrating March Break Month here at Nightmare on Film Street with a celebration of broken minds (along with broken bones, broken rules, and just about anything broken!) The concept of insanity has come a long way as our understanding of mental health has thankfully evolved. Yet in the early decades of the horror film, a more antiquated form of madness menaced the world from a laboratory. Once a staple of horror, the lab-coated crew has since fallen more into the realm of cartoons and Halloween season spoofs. My theory as to why is that the archetype of the scientist driven to the edge by a lust for knowledge is simply out of touch with the reality of the modern age.
We now know the value of science in discovering the truth, saving the planet, putting humans in space, and curing diseases. If anything, the past year has demonstrated the importance of believing in science. But in the 1920s and 30s, much of the public was still skeptical of science. At the same time that technological advances seemed to be moving at a breakneck speed, theories like evolution came up against more traditional beliefs. Social tension always begets horror. And in the pre-code era of the 20s and 30s, before the rules of the Hayes Code really kicked in, that horror got pretty weird and wild. All of this paved the way for the golden era of that stalwart horror icon, The Mad Scientist. So let’s take a look at the top ten mad scientists of pre-code horror!
10. Henry Frankenstein in Frankenstein (1931)
Let’s start at the very beginning. Mary Shelley invented the mad scientist and the horror/sci-fi genre in one go with her 1818 novel, and Universal Studios brought the mad scientist into the horror movie forefront with their 1931 adaption. Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein was more of a tragic, idealistic alchemist than a mad scientist. But in the ‘31 film, the doctor had a new first name (Henry) and a new distinctly unhinged style. From the buzzing electrical doodads of the lab, known as “Strickfadens” after the set and effects designer Kenneth Strickfaden, to his surgical garb, to his famously elated cries of “It’s alive!” Henry Frankenstein set the blueprint for just about every mad scientist to come.
Credit is due to Colin Clive’s performance as the delusional doctor. The famously tormented actor brought his trademark intensity to the role and made you really believe he was capable of raising the dead. It’s easy to forget that the details of Dr. Frankenstein that we take for granted today, like his electrical lab and harnessing of lightning, originate in the film. The novel is notably vague on how Frankenstein achieves his reanimation, yet the narrative of the scientist hovering over corpses and buzzing coils has entered the forefront of our concept of the tale. That’s powerful filmmaking at work, and one hell of a mad scientist to kick off our list.
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9. Dr. Ziska in The Monster (1925)
Lon Chaney brought his horror chops to the role of the mad scientist in The Monster, a silent entry in the old dark house subgenre of horror. Chaney’s Dr. Ziska is a mad surgeon who has taken over the abandoned asylum that once held him. Now he reigns over a collection of former inmates and preys on anyone who dares to enter the premises of the sanatorium. When a group of love-struck young folks stumbles upon the ruins, Ziska thinks he’s found the ideal candidates for his soul swapping experiments. Old Dark House films of the 1920s were an odd mix of horror and romantic comedy, which means that Ziska is a little out of place as the indirect matchmaker of this list. Nonetheless, he couldn’t be left off by virtue of being played by the man of a thousand faces himself, Lon Chaney.
8. Dr. Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man (1933)
We first meet Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) after he has become the invisible man of the eponymous Universal Horror classic. While he was supposedly an upstanding scientist prior to his experiments, I’m not so sure. He seems just a little too evil and maniacal to blame it all on the invisibility-granting drug monocane. Are we sure he wasn’t already a jerk pre-bandages and murder? Claude Rains has a grand old time and James Whale adds his trademark dark humor to this brilliant effects show, earning our train derailing doctor a spot on this list.
7. Dr. Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) is a unique mad scientist due to the shaky reality that he inhabits. Is he mad or does he reign over madmen? Is he a window into a broken mind or is he the route of escape? The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a brilliant film because it doesn’t offer clear answers, yet it invites the audience into the murky reality of its characters. Caligari is a mad scientist that invites the viewer to question their own perceptions, a feat far beyond puttering over test tubes.
6. Dr. Mirakle in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Despite being an often overlooked universal horror film, Murders in the Rue Morgue features one of the most twisted Mad Scientists of pre-code horror in Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle. Mad scientists of the 1920s and 30s were often concerned with fields of study that bordered on blasphemy, and to the minds of the time, the theory of evolution certainly seemed to fly in the face of upstanding morality. The evolutionary scientist Dr. Mirakle certainly doesn’t do much to advance the soundness of his beliefs. Instead of proving Darwin’s theory with facts and evidence, he decides to kidnap French prostitutes and attempt to inject them with the blood of an ape in order to create a human mate for his chimpanzee. It makes for a wild retelling of the Edgar Allen Poe mystery, but the scenes of Mirakle menacing Parisian women are genuinely brutal and disturbing.
5. Rotwang in Metropolis (1927)
The villain of Fritz Lang’s dark sci-fi epic Metropolis, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is the grandaddy of many a mad scientist in pop culture. He has a castle-like lair, a lab full of huge electrical machinery and tesla coils, and even a mechanical hand. Rather than the purely scientific motivations of his successors, Rotwang is initially driven by heartbreak. After his love chooses another man over him and then dies, he decides to create a robot replica of her. Yet he eventually pivots to a plot to use his android woman to sow chaos among the ruling and working classes of the city. His motivations are as murky as the movie’s plot, but who cares when the visuals are so impactful! Rotwang influenced the design of the lab in Frankenstein, the creation scene in the same film, and even many characteristics of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic black comedy.
4. Dr. Gogol in Mad Love (1935)
Peter Lorre brings every ounce of weird he can muster (a lot!) to the bizarre pre-code horror film Mad Love. The story begins with the besotten surgeon professing his love for a Grand Guignol actress played by Frances Drake. When she rejects him in favor of Colin Clive, he becomes even more unhinged. Poor Frances Drake, when your choice is between Peter Lorre and Colin Clive, your going to get in some crazy trouble either way. As revenge for the slight, Dr. Gogol replaces his rival’s hands with that of an executed murderer and lets chaos ensue. Mad Love has possessed hands, wax figures, and even a set that influenced Citizen Kane! If that’s not crazy enough to earn a spot on this list, I don’t know what is.
3. Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
After cementing the image of the quintessential Mad Scientist in Frankenstein, Universal was challenged with a follow-up act in the 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein. Luckily they had imaginative director extraordinaire James Whale on the case. Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) is just one of the reasons Bride of Frankenstein is the rare superior sequel, but what a reason he is! He’s an entirely different breed of mad scientist from Henry Frankenstein, yet the two play off each other’s energy spectacularly. They are in fact the mad scientist soulmates of this famously queer-coded classic. Pretorius brings quips, camp, miniature humanoid creations, and memorable lines aplenty to the pairing. As the character who deliveries the legendary line, “To a new world of gods and monsters!” Dr. Pretorius has earned a top spot on this list.
2. Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932)
No look at classic mad scientists would be complete without Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells’ iconic engineer of human/animal hybrids in his 1896 novel. And while the character has been depicted in everything from a Treehouse of Horror Episode to a Van Halen song, the 1932 film adaptation is still the quintessential on-screen version of the famous mad scientist. Charles Laughton gives it his all (as he always did!) and embodies the evolutionarily minded vivisectionist with his trademark intensity. The Island of Lost Souls was so shocking that it couldn’t even pass the famously lax standards of the pre-code era. While it got general approval from The Hayes code, the film’s depiction of evolution (gasp!), gruesome vivisections, and the scantily clad Leopard Woman (Kathleen Burke) lead to the film being banned in 14 states and throughout England. The twisted ambitions of Dr. Moreau may have lost some of their philosophical weight in the transition from page to screen, but there’s no way our island-dwelling doctor wouldn’t land near the top of this list.
1. Dr. Xavier and his Team in Doctor X (1932)
Taking the cake for one of the most twisted horror films of the pre-code era is Doctor X. Warner Bros’ wild attempt to cut in on Universal’s runaway success in the horror genre is also the first color horror film (two-strip technicolor that is.) The orange tones and acid greens of the early color process suit horror well, especially with such a stomach-turning film as Dr. X. The film features not only the titular mad scientist but a whole squad of them, each with their own bizarre field of study. The plot is a whodunnit in which each scientist is the potential perpetrator of a series of murders and acts of cannibalism. The story gets weirder from there, complete with scalpels to the brain and some seriously gross n’ goopy body horror that would make Cronenberg proud. Nobody did mad scientists like pre-code horror, and in Doctor X, Warner Brothers was not messing around! By delivering not just one mad scientist but a team of five, Dr. X gets the top spot on our list.
That’s our round-up of the top ten mad scientists of pre-code horror. Their sprockets and sparks may have long since gone silent, but their laboratory legacy lives on. Let us know your favorite classic horror mad scientist over on Nightmare on Film Street’s Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages!