Old horror movies, when they’re bad, are really bad, with cheesy acting, unbelievably fake special effects, plodding plots. But when they’re good, they take overblown to a whole new level. The jagged, shadowy sets of German expressionism, mixed in with suspicious scientific experiments, the corrupted powers of the scientist who has gone mad, mad, mad! What poetry it is! Sure, science in the movies has a humongous range, from documentaries such as Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time, based on the book by Stephen Hawking, to the entire genre of science-fiction, from Isaac Asimov adaptations to the truly groundbreaking but ever-geeky Star Trek. But for me, these old mad-scientist movies really capture the fear and the horror of scientific possibility, and the concerns of scientific responsibility
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Perhaps the first true horror film ever made, made in an era of German Expressionism which, need I say, remains influential to this day!
2. Metropolis (1927) and 3. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) – Fritz Lang masterpieces.
4. Frankenstein – the famous 1931 version that introduced Boris Karloff to the screen and spawned a legion of sequels and imitations, from the campy and comedic (Andy Warhol’s, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman) to the over-serious (Kenneth Branagh’s melodramatic embarrassment). Though none of these have ever come close to truly adapting the book, Karloff’s is the most iconic.
5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – 1920 silent version with John Barrymore in the lead role,
1931 by director Rouben Mamoulian, & 1941’s big Hollywood production by Victor Flemming, starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner!
6. The Body Snatcher (1945) – Based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, this film explores the practice of using real cadavers in medical science, and how those cadavers were sometimes procured. Features one of Karloff’s greatest and truly chilling performances as a cabman turned graverobber and murderer.
7. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), 8. The Black Cat (1934), 9. The Raven (1935) – This trio of films, “inspired” by Edgar Allen Poe in taking the titles but little else, all star Bela Legosi as, respectively, a mad scientist, a good doctor (battling Karloff as a Satanist), and a mad doctor.
10. The Fly – The original 1958 version with Vincent Price features the famous ending of a tiny fly/scientist caught in a spider’s web (Help me! Heeeeelllllp me!). And David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake is memorable too, especially for its vivid fly-goop special effects.