[10 September 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sometimes, they are pure evil. In other instances, they are nuttier than a squirrel’s sauna. Usually, they are a combination of both, the better to match the whole “mad scientist” label. But not all inventors have world domination on their mind. Some even believe in bettering mankind with their sometimes insane ideas. Of course, when the final ‘solution’ is unveiled, the true purpose is often more awful than first imaged. From the first Gothic horror novels to our flawed ‘50s ideal of science and experimentation, the crazy doctor, determined to do something mere mortals shouldn’t be capable of, has been a media given. In books and film, TV and theatrical extravaganzas, the unhinged inventor has been a genre go-to, and as a result, a bit of a cliche. That’s why coming up with a list of our 10 favorites is so tough. In looking over the possible candidates, one usually ends up coming to the same set conclusions.
So let’s address the 800 elephant in the room right now. Yes, we left off Dr. Frankenstein. We also avoided Dr. Henry Jekyll, Dr. Evil, and Dr. Moreau. These are too obvious, too completely in sync with standard mad scientist thinking to warrant a space here. Sure, they’re great, but they’re also what you expect. We wanted to travel a bit outside the box and these are the choices we came up with. Similarly, we steered clear of entries like Dr. Julius Kelp, Seth Brundle, and anyone else whose invention worked, but then got sidetracked by other story concerns. Indeed, we wanted our 10 choices to be indicative of the type as well as the temperament—crazy with a clue, so to speak. Batspit is batspit, no matter how you realize it, however. Perhaps it’s this very unpredictability that makes mad scientists so loveable.
His plan was relatively simple - build a time machine because, well, that’s what inventors do. When his contraption ends up fudging with the reality of Marty McFly’s life, our hero goes back to the days of his parents’ courtship to set things right. While definitely more in the ‘crackpot’ category when it comes to scientists, Doc Brown was definitely mad, especially when you realize he was working with Libyan terrorists to get the nuclear material necessary to run his physics defying device. While Marty gets to have all the fun with said souped up DeLorean, Doc earns kudos for solving the space time continuum conundrum in the first place.
As the first of two loosely based on Lovecraft legends on this list, our scientist here is convinced that there is an unseen world filled with monsters and menace constantly swirling around us. We are just too blind, not tuned into the proper visual wavelength to see the scourge we’re surrounded by. Once he makes a machine to produce said pitch, the fiends retaliate, taking Dr. Pretorius back with him. In the meantime, his device causes the user to develop a “third eye” (read: overactive pineal gland) which can only be calmed by feasting on human brains. Yummy!
Talk about weird ass ideas - our scientist here wants to steal the dreams of children (are you paying attention, Paul Weller?) so that he can experience what he’s now too old to have himself. From a decrepit oil rig in the middle of a mist-covered sea, he sends out his minions to gather together subjects that he can “suck” dry. Unfortunately, he picks on the little brother of a carnival giant (Ron Pearlman), leading to the entire enterprise being uncovered. With his rat-like features and lack of patience or real purpose, Krank is the worst kind of crazy - driven without purpose or plan.
It takes a lot to impress the cynical horror community. After all, they thrive on the “been there, done that” seen it all mentality of the modern genre fan. Yet the minute Tom Six unleashed this stupefyingly sick story of a scientist (a terrific Dieter Laser) wanting to join together three victims, ass to mouth, as proof of his surgical skills, all bets were off. Meticulous in his procedure and heartless in its aftermath, he’s the dictionary definition of demented, Hellbent on proving himself though there really is no need for such a medical approach. And around the world, fright fans gagged in unison.
Now here’s a madman with more than just evil and hate in his heart. All this alien from the planet Transsexual Transylvania wants is a beefy muscle man to cuddle with. Using various body parts and the brain of a dead biker named Eddie, he creates his humble hunky meat and wouldn’t you know it, the stud heads off with a girl! Yeech! Anyway, as one of the classic musical comedy characters of all time, Frank is fab-u-lous, and Tim Curry does such an amazing job with him that it’s hard to imagine the actor as anyone else.
He’s secretive and shy. When confronted, his hyperactive presence lead his roommate and his gal pal to suddenly start worrying. But Herbert West, another classic Lovecraft creation, is perhaps one of the greatest scientists the world never knew. You see, he’s developed a reanimation formula that brings the dead back to the living. Granted, it doesn’t always work correctly and his recent subjects have turned into blood thirsty killers, but that’s the price one pays for being on the cutting edge of immortality. Of course, as with anyone with the potential for playing God, West himself goes a bit wonky after a while.
John Lithgow proved there was more to his talent than impressive stage work and a few supporting roles in some high profile films. Here, he’s a scientist trying to discover the doorway to the fabled Eighth Dimension. What he unlocks, instead, is a race of angry aliens who “inhabit” his body, turning him into the prototypical psycho medico. After escaping an asylum and desperate to get the parts necessary to travel back to his home planet, “Lizardo” goes on a supervillain rampage that tests the mantle of hero Buckaroo Banzai and his sidekicks, the Hong Kong Cavaliers.
While he was only in the one film, the maniac behind Deep 13 and the abuse of his co-conspirator, TV’s Frank, spent much broadcast time interested in only one thing: the mass hypnosis of the planet’s population via a constant barrage of bad movies. His trial subjects (Joel Hodgson at first, Mike Nelson after that) don’t offer up the kind of compelling raw data he needs, so he spends countless hours retrying his experiment just to make sure it’s not viable - a clinical definition of the word “mad” if ever there was one…and Trace Beaulieu is terrific in the role.
Peter Sellers was, and remains to this day, a genius of careful characterization. When a rogue General sends a US bomber on a suicide mission into Soviet Russia, fully functional nuke at the ready, the President calls upon his ex-Nazi advisor to solve the planned Apocalyptic dilemma. Strangelove’s response? Build a bunker, stock it full of sexually alluring women, and then add those in power. The government and the species continues. It’s win/win. Of course, none of this is at the ready, and while the plane continues on its path of ultimate destruction, Strangelove descends into post-WWII hysterics.
As the scientist which started it all, cinematically speaking, we have one of the most insane mastermind ever to grace a piece of celluloid speculative fiction. After the death of his beloved, our madman builds a robot to replace her. When the government wants a way to subvert an uprising amongst the masses, they call on Rotwang to turn his automaton into a traitor to the people’s cause. As part of Fritz Lang’s stunning visualization of the shape of things to come, actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge is appropriately wild-eyed and obsessed as the driven scientist. He literally set the standard for all portrayals to come.