Doctors, they are the ones we entrust with our lives and hope that they have the answers most of us are unable to provide. They spend their professional careers dealing with the gruesome details of life, which so often is about as far from glamorous as possible. We treat them with trepidation and hold them in the highest of regards.
It is only natural then, that this kind of treatment would lead certain personalities to start thinking of themselves as gods. Being entrusted with life itself and having the ability to alter the very course of nature can play tricks on the fervid mind of the unstable, the one who longs for grandeur in the most sinister way.
Recent developments in the world of research and medicine have been focused on ethics and the reduction of pain and suffering. We are now questioning the very philosophy of medicine and weighing up the value of life itself against new discoveries, be it animal or human. However, this was not always so. The history of science and medical research is a long and bloody one. Through many atrocities committed in this world, science was able to progress at a very high cost.
Only a few hundred years ago operations were performed without anaesthetic, in some cases just to observe the effects of pain and shock on the body. Ancient Egyptians used slaves as live anatomical models in order to study life processes. Some of the most innovative and revolutionary medical developments we owe to unimaginable pain and suffering.
Some of the following characters are doctors in training, some already established, some of them are even self-appointed. What unites them all is their use of medicine for unconventional and often even baleful means.
This list is compiled in chronological order.
1. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) – Robert Wiene
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is the first film to come out as part of the German Expressionist movement. Due to Germany’s isolation and ban on virtually all foreign films after World War I, art there took on a life of its own. The lack of funds meant that artists had to become even more creative with the resources they had and this gave birth to a unique style.
The film begins with two men sitting on a bench sharing stories about the past. The younger man, Francis tells a tale about an intriguing sequence of events that took place in his hometown, Holstenwall. It concerns a man named Dr Caligari who brings an exhibit to the town fair.
It is a somnambulist (sleep walker) named Cesare who rises out of a coffin-like box and tells people about their futures, especially concerning their deaths. Following the exhibit, a number of mysterious and grisly murders occur in the town. This prompts Francis to conduct his own investigation into what is really going on in Holstenwall.
So often, political unrest and economic failure bring out the best in a country’s art world. It becomes a direct reflection of the issues faced by society as well as one of the only outlets where views can be expressed surreptitiously to avoid persecution.
During the post-WWI era in Germany, during which time it temporarily became the Weimar Republic, domestic film production rose rapidly and most of the movies became “intellectual” in nature. They explored the inner world of characters and sets became outward expressions of it.
Both writers of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari were pacifists at a time when their country was at war. Hans Janowitz was an officer in the army while Carl Mayer claimed insanity to avoid military service. The events caused both men to distrust authority and the theme features heavily in this film. Dr Caligari represented the government and Cesare the unquestioning public. Some even suggested that the movie foreshadowed the impending doom of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
2. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) – Rouben Mamoulian
This is one of the many adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. At the time of its release, there was no official moral code for motion pictures in the United States. This meant that it had notable sexual overtones and almost 8 minutes of the film had to be removed upon its re-release in 1936 by which time such standards were put in place. The cut footage was eventually restored for home video releases.
Fredric March stars as Dr Jekyll who is interested in the very nature of being human. He is convinced that each of us harbours two identities, one we present to the world i.e. our civilised selves and the other hidden primal side.
The primal part of us is only concerned with the base instincts and pleasures of life. He creates a drug that allows him to turn into Edward Hyde, a simian looking man with an abundance of body hair and overly exaggerated ghoulish features. As Hyde, the doctor gives in to his deepest and darkest desires and destroys his life in the process.
It is apparent even before Jekyll’s transformation that he has conflicting personalities within him. He is suffering from sexual frustration due to his delayed marriage to Muriel and almost gives into the advances of a bar singer, Ivy even before Hyde is revealed.
A variety of different filming techniques, including a first-person narrative and split screen are used throughout the movie. The secrets of the make-up used in Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde were not revealed for years after the film’s release. This involved a complicated use of a combination of different make-up hues and camera filters in order to achieve the look of Jekyll gradually changing into Hyde.
3. Frankenstein (1931) – James Whale
One of the original Universal Monster films, Frankenstein is widely considered to be one of the best horrors of all time. Not only that, but it has secured a place in history as a cinematic feat unconstrained by genre. It is loosely adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel of the same name.
A scientist called Henry Frankenstein along with his hunchbacked assistant Fritz, are in the process of creating a human with body parts they steal from graves and laboratories. Frankenstein has a plan to bring his creation to life using electricity and chooses a stormy night for the procedure. As a massive bolt of lightning hits a contraption on the roof of the tower, the monster comes alive.
Through a series of misunderstandings and misplaced fear from his creators, the terrifying but innocent monster escapes the laboratory. He goes wandering through the countryside and accidentally causes the death of a young girl, which causes turmoil among the peasants. Eventually, playing God catches up with Frankenstein and he has to face the horrific consequences of experimenting with the creation of life itself.
Director Robert Florey originally intended the role of Frankenstein’s monster for Bela Lugosi. After a series of disastrous attempts at make up and rehearsals, both Lugosi and Florey get kicked off the project. It is important to note, however, that Robert Florey is still somewhat involved but goes by uncredited in the final feature. James Whale arrives as the new director from England and the movie’s production kicks off.
A number of horror movie tropes feature in Frankenstein for the first time. There is controversy over who exactly came up with the make up design for the monster but credit largely goes to Jack Pierce. Kenneth Strickfaden’s use of electricity during the scene where the creature comes to life has since been used in every movie about the Frankenstein Monster. The equipment he utilised for the scene has earned the nickname “Strickfadens” and it is rumoured that he even had a Tesla Coil built by Nikola Tesla himself.
Just like so many classics, Frankenstein was subjected to some scrutiny over allegedly controversial content. The scene where the monster throws little Maria in the lake has been edited heavily and did not appear in its entirety until the 1980s.
A number of states in the US objected to Frankenstein’s exclamation of “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”, deeming it blasphemous and thus completely missing the point of the scene. It is not until the modern times that we get to see Frankenstein as it was intended to be seen, daring and tragic, pointing the finger directly back at us as we condemn the monster.
4. Corridors of Blood (1958) – Robert Day
This movie was completed in 1958 but not officially released until 1962. It was marketed as “Tops in Terror!” and shown as a double feature along with Werewolf in the Girls’ Dormitory. Although this is one of only a few times Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee have acted together in a film, the two have played three of the same characters in other productions at different points in time. These include Frankenstein, Dr. Fu Manchu, and The Mummy.
Boris Karloff plays Dr Thomas Bolton who is obsessed with performing painless medical procedures. He experiments with anaesthetics and during a demonstration to his colleagues, a patient wakes up in agony.
The doctor is dismissed from his prestigious position and develops an addiction to the anaesthetic gases. He becomes deeply involved with a gang of ruthless criminals whose leader is Resurrection Joe (played by the legendary Christopher Lee) in order to obtain the chemicals he needs to continue his research. The two parties develop a partnership which puts Dr Bolton is a very compromising position.
Despite its name and advertising at the time of release, this is hardly the hideous gore fest audiences were hoping for. This is a sad tale of a doctor whose passion to achieve something great for mankind has instead lead him down the path of destruction. He is so preoccupied with creating the perfect anaesthetic, that in the process indirectly contributes to murder.
5. Eyes Without a Face (1960) – Georges Franju
This French-Italian production was released in the United States under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr Faustus. This would lead one to believe that this is a gory blood-fest orchestrated by a mad doctor in league with the Devil. The true nature of this poetic tragedy couldn’t be further reduced to banality.
The film follows Dr Genessier who is a well-recognised and respected surgeon working on bettering the outcomes of skin grafting and transplants. He is called to a morgue in order to identify the body of a young woman who the police think may be his missing daughter, Christiane.
The face of the corpse is disfigured much like Christiane’s after a terrible car accident that Dr Genessier is responsible for. He confirms that this is, in fact, his daughter and a funeral is held. We soon realise that the reality of the situation is far more sinister and twisted as we encounter an ethereal and melancholy masked Christiane still living at the mansion.
Eyes Without a Face managed to transcend all the themes making censors uncomfortable at the time. By making this film a character study of Christiane as opposed to her father, the writers were able to avoid some major censorship issues.
It is said that mad scientist type characters were not at all favoured in the heavily censored art world of post-war Germany. Dr Genessier is portrayed in a more favourable light than originally intended although it does not take long to realise that the man is both directly and indirectly responsible for his daughter’s anguish.
Complemented beautifully with a score by Maurice Jarre, this is a tragic tale of the intrinsically selfish nature of grief. We can see in Christiane a beautiful kind of sadness perpetuated by her father’s inability to let go.
Genessier is convinced that his procedure will be successful, with a complex mix of guilt and ego at the center of this obsession. He is unable to see how this directly contributes to Christiane’s agony and existential crisis. By giving her hope every day, he is making it impossible for Christiane to come to terms with her plight.
6. The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) – Robert Fuest
This British horror has long been a cult favourite due to its art deco sets and overly dramatic kitschy atmosphere. Morbidly humourous and featuring a solemn and vengeful Vincent Price, this has prominence among treasured campy classics for many fans of the genre.
Vincent Price stars as Dr Anton Phibes who is presumed dead from a car accident but reappears some years later terribly disfigured and unable to speak. He sets out to cast revenge upon the medical team who was unable to save his wife on the operating table shortly before his accident. He chooses the Ten Plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament as inspiration for the murders. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues as Phibes, with the help of his mysterious assistant Vulnavia, tries to complete his task while avoiding the police.
As well as having at one point been a medical doctor, Phibes is also a skilled organist. His lavish art deco lair is fitted with a spectacular pipe organ as well as a mechanical band called “Dr Phibes Clockwork Wizards”. Anton Phibes and Vulnavia do not utter a word to each other but instead swan around the oversized ornate ballroom in the most dramatic manner.
There really is no other movie like The Abominable Dr Phibes to date and it really is a visual feast. The murders are ludicrous but fun, and it is a credit to Price that he was able to play this role with such a stoically straight face.
Considering that in the film, Price’s real face is supposed to be the expressionless mask he wears over his disfigured head, his complete restraint is impressive. Price’s heavy make up did have to be reapplied a number of times during shooting as there were moments when even he couldn’t control his laughter.
7. Re-Animator (1985) – Stuart Gordon
Originally intended to be a half-hour television pilot for a show, Re-Animator went on to become a genre favourite. Stuart Gordon was already an avid H.P. Lovecraft fan when the novella Herbert West – Reanimator caught his attention. After being introduced to some people working in the horror movie industry at the time, he decided to make Re-Animator into a feature film and shoot it in Hollywood.
The film features a young Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, a brilliant and eccentric medical student. With a shady past of using unconventional methods and conducting unsanctioned experiments at his previous university, Herbert arrives in New England in order to continue his studies. There he meets Dan Cain and the two embark on a gory journey of bringing the dead back from the other side.
Re-Animator is laden with special effects as well as dark tongue-in-cheek humour. The crew used photos of dead bodies taken at a morgue as well as books on forensic pathology as inspiration for the over-the-top gore and realistic depictions of corpses. Whereas the average horror film used around two gallons of fake blood, by the time this production was over, 24 gallons had been used up.
8. Little Shop of Horrors (1986) – Frank Oz
This film is based on a successful off-Broadway musical, which in turn was inspired by a low-budget 1960 film of the same name. It boasts a plethora of appearances by a number of well-known actors, as well as an impressive soundtrack.
Seymour and his friend Audrey work at Mushnik’s Flower Shop in the heart of “skid row” in New York City. They dream of a better life and each harbour their own troubles from which it seems there is no escape. When Seymour purchases a peculiar plant from a Chinese flower shop, his life changes rapidly as the plant turns out to have a mind of its own. Audrey II is a carnivorous being requiring human flesh and blood in order to survive and compels Seymour to commit grisly crimes.
Possibly the most memorable character in this musical is Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. His simultaneously humorous and terrifying depiction of a nitrous oxide addicted man who gets off on the pain of others is one for the books. We really get to see the best of Steve Martin here. A combination of body comedy and his wonderfully twisted theme song simply titled “Dentist!” make this one of his best performances to date.
Among the cameos we also have the pleasure of seeing Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, James Belushi and John Candy. Little Shop of Horrors is an 1980s treat on par in popularity with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and similar due to genuinely enjoyable music.