There’s nothing like a good old mad scientist to kick start a horror movie, and if that’s true now then it was even more so back in the 1950s.
Indestructible Man (1956)
Scientists want a cadaver to experiment on, and so they steal that of condemned criminal Butcher Benton, played by a glowering Lon Chaney. Somebody, either the scientists or the scriptwriter, hasn’t thought things through, as a huge electrical charge not only resurrects the dead convict but turns him into the indestructible man of the title, impervious to bullets and just about everything else. Having killed his benefactors, Butcher goes off in search of the crooks and shady lawyer who double crossed him, and also after his former ‘girlfriend’ who works at a burlesque and has a secret map of where the loot from the gang’s last heist is hidden. A police detective called Dick is still hoping to crack the case and recover the stolen property, and to do so has also zeroed in on dancer Eva, though he may have other motives (she is a very attractive young lady, and not above risqué jokes about his name). Eventually everyone ends up in the sewers, with the police calling in men with flamethrowers to tackle the indestructible man, though ultimately it takes a bit more than fire to settle the Butcher’s hash. Need I say that the science behind this is quite, quite ridiculous, and probably would have been even in the 50s, with electricity used to produce a bargain basement Frankenstein monster. Chaney does his best with the role, largely non-speaking after his introductory gaol house cameo, but ends up looking more wooden than Big Arnie on a good day. The climactic chase and fight in the sewers was mildly engaging, and the other highlight was feisty dancer Eva, though her personality was undercut by a crap ending in which Dick lives up to his name by telling her that she has quit the burlesque to be his wife. I think I’ll forget this in a month or so, and that’s probably for the best.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Two years later and those meddling scientists still haven’t learnt their lesson. The setting this time is a US airbase in Canada (no, I don’t understand that either) where the military are conducting top secret experiments. When dead bodies begin to turn up the locals are understandably a bit put out. However, just this once the military are innocent, or only a contributory factor. The real villain is a lone scientist whose experiments combined with radiation from the base have resulted in the creation of invisible thought forms, or something like that, and when they kill, for reasons no doubt known to the scriptwriter but not shared with anyone else, they get bodies made out of the brains and spinal cords of their victims. Cue a final climactic showdown with the slithering monstrosities, who besiege the main characters in an isolated house while it’s up to the solid jawed hero to prevent them blowing up the nuclear reactor to get even more radiation. This almost, but not quite, crosses over into so bad it’s good territory. The plot is ludicrous, the characters clichéd, and the monsters when finally revealed are wholly risible, rather like monsters from the Id reified as rubber snakes with footballs for heads. I won’t soon forget the image of the leading lady and love interest screaming in mock hysteria as she tries to brush off one of the brain-spine monsters. Apparently it created quite a stir on release – I quote from the ever reliable Wikipedia – ‘Questions were actually raised in Parliament as to why British censors had allowed the film to be released and further asked what was the British film industry thinking in trying to beat Hollywood at its own game of overdosing on blood and gore.’ In that context, stories of people hiding behind sofas when the Daleks first appeared seem slightly more plausible.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)
This one actually is so bad that it’s good. A scientist experimenting with transplant surgery kills his girlfriend in a car crash, but manages to preserve her head in a tray. He goes off to find a new body, which involves diversions to various strip clubs and beauty contests, before he can settle on a model with a beautiful body but a scarred face. Meanwhile the girlfriend unsettles the scientist’s assistant, who should be called Igor but sadly isn’t, and bonds with the monster behind the locked door in the scientist’s laboratory. She wants to die, and intends to take her boyfriend with her, rather than let him carry on with his ‘unholy’ experiments. Okay, you could make an argument for this film addressing the subject of morality in science, touching on hubris and whether there should be boundaries to human knowledge – Dr. Bill wants to be a benefactor to mankind (or at least that’s his claim – you suspect his ego plays a role), but in thinking the end justifies the means he’s more Mengele than Christian Barnard – but at heart it’s pretty much a sleaze vehicle, with pretty women in revealing costumes and some hideously deformed monsters. Comparisons with Frankenstein are obvious, though here the doctor wants a mate for himself, and the flaw in his character is not that he loves his girlfriend so much that he simply can’t accept her death, but that he sees her death as an opportunity to prove his theories are correct, not really caring what she wants. I love it that on imdb the disembodied head of girlfriend Jan Compton is referred to as ‘Jan in the Pan’.
So, favourite mad scientist films anyone? Off the top of my head, Reanimator springs to mind.