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Eleanor Ringel Cater

In honor of new Spider-Man and Dark Knight, a look at movie Gods, monsters and mad scientists

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Having rather enjoyed “The Amazing Spider-Man,” I was thinking of a different way to write about it instead of a straight-on review or the usual superhero comparisons.

So I came up with this — focusing on the notion of Mad Scientists. As in Welsh actor, Rhys Ifans as the unfortunate scientist who turns himself into Spidey’s nemesis, The Lizard. Like most scientists in movies (especially the mad ones), he starts out with good intentions. But, well, best laid plans and all that.

I didn’t really think about Ifans as a “mad scientist” until he left behind his spotless corporate-looking lab and ended up underground in pretty much the Standard Issue Mad Scientist Laboratory. You know, with the test tubes and the beakers and the bubbling something or other and the dry ice…or is that CGI’d vapor these days?

Anyway, if you’re inclined toward comic-book movies, with “The Dark Knight Rises” on the horizon (this Friday, July 20), here’s my advice: check out Spider-Man and wait until the Batman crowds clear.

Or, check out some of my favorite Mad Scientist movies.

Let’s begin with the ultimate Mad Scientist—Dr. Henry Frankenstein as played by Colin Clive in the original “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein,” released in the early 1930s. “Bride” is actually the better picture. Plus it offers two mad scientists: Clive and Ernest Thesinger who plays the crack-brained Dr. Pretorius.

One very noticeable thing about Frankenstein’s lab— it runs on electricity. Thus the Monster, memorably played by Boris Karloff, is born during an operatic thunderstorm. And Clive delivers one of the most famous lines in movies: an ecstatic “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”

Others who have played Dr. Frankenstein: Basil Rathbone, better known as Sherlock Holmes, Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks parody, “Young Frankenstein” and Peter Cushing, probably better known as Grand Moff Tarkin in a little movie called “Star Wars.”

Much less well known than Frankenstein or Grand Moff Tarkin are the diabolical twins played by Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers.” Leave it to Cronenberg, that most perverse of humanists, to take twins far beyond Doublemint Gum and “The Parent Trap.”

In this shivery psychological thriller (loosely based on a true story), Irons plays twin gynecologists. Their symbiotic relationship is so impenetrable that, when one twin falls in love, their delicate balance becomes dangerously tilted — leading to madness, drugs and far worse.

Now, if you don’t already enjoy Cronenberg’s pitch-black sensibility — “Scanners,” “Videodrome,” “A History of Violence,” — it’s pretty likely this movie won’t change your mind. Still, you won’t find mental deterioration as harrowing as this in any other film unless…

You check out my next Mad Scientist. He’s Jeff Goldblum as the unfortunate Seth Brundle in Cronenberg’s (yes, again) chilling remake of “The Fly.” The director doesn’t just re-do the campy late-1950s classic about a man who gets his atoms mixed up with a housefly. He eviscerates it.

Reaching inside the original’s hoary gut, the filmmaker pulls out something vital and repulsive and universal. Forget about a guy hiding his transplanted antennae under a napkin, as happened in the old version. This “Fly” is fused to Kafka and Quasimodo — a meditation on mortality itself and how this too, too solid flesh melts.

And mutates.

Since it came out in the mid ‘80s, the movie can easily be read as an AIDS parable. But it reaches beyond a single plague. Cronenberg has created a deeply disturbing exploration of everyone’s fear of disease and decay. How we’re all caught in the web of our own mortality, crying, “Help Me!”

Which, as it happens, are the final words in the original. At the very end (sorry for the spoiler), we see the mutated housefly with Vincent Price’s head, caught in a spider’s web, screaming, “Help me!!!!” as the arachnid approaches.

Finally, I’ll give you a choice. Same plot (courtesy of H.G. Wells) or close enough.

Very different movies.

The first, “The Island of Lost Souls,” made in the early ‘30s, stars Charles Laughton as the mad Dr. Moreau, who is doing unspeakable experiments on his private island. Essentially, he’s trying to play God by creating a new species — part animal, part human. He accomplishes this via harrowing and painful experiments on animals (Wells was an ardent anti-vivisectionist).

“Lost Souls” is a haunting piece with a nightmare ending. “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (Wells’ original title) is the madhouse remake starring Marlon Brando. At the time it was shot, in the late 1990s, Brando weighed about 400 pounds and the joke going around was, which is he going to play? Dr. Moreau or the island?

It’s hard to explain how head-over-heels insane this film is. Basically, Brando and Val Kilmer (with an appalled David Thewlis looking on) get jungle fever-ish to the max, as Brando’s Moreau lords it over what appears to be the cast of a stranded road-company of “Cats.”

Director John Frankenheimer, whose credits include classics like “The Manchurian Candidate,” tries to hold things together and he manages to do so…for about 20 minutes. Then it all descends into a Grand Guignol rampage. Think “Apocalypse Now: The Next Generation.” The picture is like something the mad Dr. Moreau himself might’ve created: a mutant creepshow-comedy, laced with pure lunacy.

Finally, well, not finally, but there are so many Mad Scientists I have to stop somewhere… here’s a quote from the merry mad scientist played by Steve Martin in “The Man with Two Brains.” Accused by authorities of trying to play God, he retorts, “Well, somebody has to.”

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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