This week, the first season of J.J. Abrams' terrific television series Fringe comes to DVD, and if you haven't seen it yet, well, this is a great chance to catch up on what you missed before the new season starts on Sept. 17. The most intriguing character on the show is Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), once a brilliant, acclaimed scientist whose work in the area of "fringe science" made him the father of any number of ethically questionable, highly dangerous, and flat-out weird innovations that now seem to be popping up all over the place. In the tradition of the great mad scientists of literature and film, Bishop's brilliance and the nature of his work drove him bugnuts crazy, leading to his being institutionalized for 17 years.
Going back to Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse, science has long been a force that drives gifted men insane, often with violent consequences. The underlying message is that we mere humans shouldn't play God, and the mad-science industry really boomed once we started testing atomic warheads in the 1940s. The later crop of science-based masterminds, like James Bond's nemesis Dr. No, Buckaroo Banzai's Dr. Emilio Lizardo, and Wild, Wild West's Dr. Loveless, were more interested in global domination than the usual areas of obsession like genetic mutation, robotics and bringing the dead back to life. But deep down inside, they're all mad scientists, and here are just a small handful of favorites:
Dr. Cyclops (Dr. Cyclops, 1940) -- Albert Dekker embodied the epitome of Mad Science in the eponymous film, playing a bald, creepy genius who takes his jungle experiments with radiation very, very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that when he thinks rival scientists are attempting to steal his work, he shrinks them to the size of dolls. The film has great special effects for the time, and classic mad science dialogue, as when a fellow scientist tells Cyclops, "What you're doing is mad. It is diabolic! You are tampering with powers reserved to God!"
Dr. Phibes (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, 1971) -- Mad science meets Phantom of the Opera in this first of a series of films about Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), a disfigured organist and former doctor. Thought dead from a car crash on his way to his ailing wife's side, he covers his disfigured face with a mask and speaks by attaching a tube from his windpipe to a gramophone. Blaming his wife's doctors for her death on the operating table, he goes on a gruesome killing spree inspired by the ten plagues of Egypt, accompanied by some really trippy musical choices (example: Paul Frees, one of the voices of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion attraction, performs "Darktown Strutters Ball"). Even though he replaces his own blood with embalming fluid, climbs into a sarcophogus and disappears at the film's end, Phibes later reappears in Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
C.A. Rotwang (Metropolis, 1927) -- One wrong move that mad scientists often make is to create artificial replacements for their dead wives, who usually die in childbirth. No matter how many times they try, it always goes poorly. The brilliant inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) -- who has a robot hand! -- uses his creation, a feminized robot called the Maschinenmensch ("machine-man"), to exact vengeance against the master of Metropolis, and against his son, whom he blames for his wife's death. A confusing-yet-visually-arresting parable about capitalism ensues.
Dr. Herbert West (Re-Animator, 1985) -- Based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, writer/director Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator introduced the world to fey, ferret-eyed Jeffrey Combs, who'll be forever pigeonholed by his disturbing, hilarious portrayal. West's a great success at Mad Science 101, developing a serum that can bring the dead back to life. Of course, once you re-animate corpses, putting 'em back down's not so easy, resulting in West's reanimated-then-decapitated colleague/archenemy carrying around his own head, sexually assaulting girls in an exceptionally creepy manner, and creating a private army of re-animated minions. Like Phibes, Herbert West somehow miraculously cheats certain death to return in the sequels Bride of Re-Animator, Beyond Re-Animator and the upcoming House of Re-Animator. (WARNING: The clip below is probably best avoided if you're squeamish.)
Syndrome (The Incredibles, 2004) -- Having started life as red-haired superhero-wannabe Buddy Pine, in classic mad scientist fashion his deep-seated insecurities led him to become Syndrome, with a fabulous secret island, a wealth of high-tech weaponry, and a serious grudge against supers. His plan, following the notably Objectivist stance of Pixar director Brad Bird, is to give everyone on Earth superpowers because "when everyone's super, no one will be."
Dr. Seth Brundle (The Fly, 1986) -- In David Cronenberg's remake, the director expands on the lesson that a "clean room" is a really good idea if you're engaging in mad science. When Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) begins his mutation into a half-man, half insect Brundlefly, it all starts out swell with an increased sexual appetite and superhuman strength. But soon he starts sloughing off body parts, craving vast quantities of sugar, and twitching like a meth addict. Oh, and vomiting up corrosive goo. Ick.
Dr. Edward Morbius (Forbidden Planet, 1956) -- In this Cinemascope adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) finds his Freudian feelings about his lovely daughter (a pre-Honey West Anne Francis) all churned up when a a trio of hunky astronauts (including a way, way pre-Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen) visit his planet. Unaware that he's creating a "monster of the Id" with his creepy suppressed emotions, he unleashes an electrical beast -- animated by Disney studios -- that almost kills them all. In the process, Morbius gets one of the best lines ever granted a cinematic mad scientist: "The fool, the meddling idiot! As though his ape's brain could contain the secrets of the Krell!"