We typically think of horror films as being about young people, stranded in a situation they have no control over. Even many science-fiction/horror films, like Alien, follow this basic model. But there are also plenty of movies out there that focus on scientists who, whether by accident or on purpose, create a situation that becomes a larger threat.
There are the classic mad scientist flicks and those that just happen to be about scientific research crews trying to uncover the truth. Both can make for genuinely horrifying situations.
Not all sci-fi horror movies actually involve science, of course, but it’s certainly not unusual to see that element present. Horror movies about scientists often deal with the dangers of discovery, of doing something solely because it can be done and not because it should.
For this reason, it’s an often exciting and generally underrated sub-set of horror that deserves a closer look.
Both versions of The Fly certainly qualify, but I’m going with the 1986 Cronenberg film here. Jeff Goldblum is eccentric at the start with an obsession that quickly turns into addiction. It’s an ultimately, tragic, and genuinely sorrowful film. It is also one of the best sci-fi horror flicks of the past 40 years.
In many ways, this is kind of the ultimate mad scientist flick, possibly even more than some adaptations of Frankenstein. Because Herbert West never learns any kind of lesson, never has a moral revelation about his work. His obsession completely defines him and drives him.
Ken Russell’s Altered States is so stylish, so deeply philosophical, that it can be easy to forget that it’s basically just about William Hurt turning into a monkey. Of course, there’s a bit more technobabble to it and it has a lot to say about inherent primal instincts. It’s kind of the thinking person’s Encino Man.
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Prince of Darkness
Prince of Darkness is an awesome and underrated John Carpenter film that deals with spiritual concepts like God and the Devil, but on a purely science-based level. It’s about shedding away classical reality. And even if it’s pseudoscience, it’s so neat to explore these religious concepts through the lens of quantum physics.
Even more than Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond is about scientists and the obsession that comes with uncovering something new. This film also explores head on the repression that comes with the stereotypical movie scientist and mixes sexual liberation with inter-dimensional monsters in a way that manages to be smart, funny and sexy, all at the same time.
Day of the Dead
Romero’s Day of the Dead, which is the most underrated but also the smartest of his original trilogy, is basically about soldiers vs. scientists. It’s the people working to solve the problem being undermined by the people desperately trying to cling to control. Ultimately, as it’s a Romero movie, both sides fail and everyone dies.
James Whale’s Frankenstein is still and will always be the ultimate mad scientist movie. The story needs no introduction. This is a man who is so driven to create that he never questions the moral or ethical implications of what he’s doing. More than that, he never stops to think about what he’s actually creating, that it’s a living being and not just an experiment. He doesn’t think of the impact it could take on his own life and the lives of those around him.