Sir Lionel Barton: “You're Fu Manchu, aren't you?”
Fu Manchu: I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, I am a doctor of law from Christ College, I am a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me doctor.
Sir Lionel Barton: “Oh, I beg your pardon. Well, three times doctor, what do you want of me?”
—The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Since the premiere of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1908, the use and abuse of power obtained by science has been a reoccurring theme in horror and science fiction films. With the early century’s ‘quantum leap’ of the understanding of the universe (Einstein published his special theory of relativity in 1905), and with the huge advances in medicine and surgery, it was clear to everyone that scientists and doctors had assumed positions of power and ethical decision-making that in the past had been given to such men as priests and religious figures. Now this power had shifted into the hands of scientists, and with this came the promise of a new age…but also the potential to misuse this power in frightening new ways.
The idea of one’s grasp exceeding one’s reach isn’t new—stories of inventions gone wrong have been with us since Icarus became enamored with his father’s creation of artificial wings, flew too close the sun, and perished in a fall to a sea. The ‘great thinker’ plot—the tale of a man whose search for a great truth is so absolute that he loses sight of his own humanity—has been given a scientific setting since at least 1818, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, a story about a doctor who creates life, only to find it a force impossible to control. But it took the coming of the 20th century, and the rat-a-tat delivery of four major developments—telephones, airplanes, automobiles, and motion pictures—to make clear to everyone how radically the application of scientific principles was going to change the world. And since any powerful invention can be exploited, who was better to do the exploiting than the men who understood how they worked? Those of us who like movies have a more colorful (if less kind) description of ‘great thinkers.’ We like to call them ‘mad doctors.’
In the last hundred years, ‘mad doctors’ have become a common and overused plot device for thousands of television episodes and movies. Find any story involving an invention or an investigation of technology, and an overreaching or delusion scientist is usually behind it. So in trying to come up with a list of mad doctors that stand out from the crowd, a sort of ‘Mad Doctor Hall of Fame,’ one must consider the rules of inclusion and exclusion. Of course not all mad doctors are equal—some are ‘mere’ PhDs, and more than a few have bona fides that any medical institution would be hard pressed to credential. Let’s remember that even Victor Frankenstein dropped out of medical school—at best one could describe him not as a doctor, but as a ‘former medical student.’ In mulling over the many worthy candidates found in movies over the years, I’ve decided that this Mad Doctor Hall of Fame has many, many rooms, and each room has its own set of honored characters.
While Fu Manchu may have the record for the highest number of doctorates, he clearly was not a practicing physician—nowhere in Sax Rohmer’s novels, or any of the film adaptations, do I recall him ever having to reschedule a patient. So for this initial entry to the Mad Doctors in the Movies Hall of Fame, I am making a clear, if often arbitrary, distinction between mad doctors, and mad doctors, that is, mad doctors who were also active physicians. As if solving the mystery of creating life, or finding a miraculous cure wasn’t enough, these doctors also managed to find the time to make rounds, write prescriptions and treat the wounded and the sick. In other words, this group of doctors is a special breed—even while genius called, they stubbornly stuck to their duties according to the Hippocratic Oath. A special place in our hearts must be found for these doctors who could violate all the natural laws of God and man, and still find time to treat little Tommy for a cold.
So the first entry in this Mad Doctor’s Hall of Fame is the physician’s edition. Here are four standout films that feature doctors who rose above and beyond the call of diabolical duty:
1) Batting leadoff in this group of films is Mad Love (1935), starring Peter Lorre, who plays the brilliant but monstrously insane Dr. Gogol. We first see Gogol watching a performance at the Grand Guignol, a theater in Paris that specialized in producing plays with gore and extreme violence. Dr. Gogol has a crush—okay, let’s call it ‘way beyond a crush’—for the lead actress in the play, Yvonne (Frances Drake), who is the wife of the pianist Stephen Orlac (played by Colin Clive). Gogol is so infatuated with Yvonne that when her husband loses his hands in a train accident, he uses his superlative medical skills to demonstrate that he would do anything—anything at all, to win Yvonne’s favor. In Maurice Renard's original novel, the focus of the story was on the pianist, who after the accident is operated on by Gogol, and receives a pair of new hands recently amputated from a murderer. The surgery is an amazing success, with one small snag—after the wounds have healed, the pianist finds he has an urge to kill. In this film, which was designed as a vehicle for Peter Lorre, the story’s focus shifts to Gogol, and his fanatical attempts to force Yvonne to love him. When instead, she turns away in disgust and revulsion, this is only a minor setback, for in Gogol’s imaginative mind there are other, more forceful ways to attack the problem.
Watching the opening scenes of Mad Love, as Peter Lorre ogles Yvonne performing in the Grand Guignol play, it’s clear that Gogol is barely holding it together even as the film starts. And who can blame him, since he has clearly overextended himself—while he is discovering revolutionary surgical techniques in the operating room, he’s also attending nightly Parisian theater, and in an odd moment or two, has even found the time to assemble a collection of waxwork figures that Madame Tussauds would be proud to own. Add to this an insatiable lust for a girl who almost faints from fright at a mere glimpse of you, and it doesn’t take long for Dr. Gogol to progress from mildly addled to complete bonkers. And was there ever an actor better equipped to show us all 31 different flavors of crazy than Peter Lorre? Lurching from Grand Guignol to Expressionism to melodrama, the film doesn’t quite make sense, and after a gradual build up, the climax comes much too quickly—this is one of the few films you’ll see that you wish had gone on longer. Still, Lorre’s performance is so powerful that Mad Love is still one of the landmark horror films from the 1930s.
2) Another surgeon who is clearly a first ballot Hall of Famer can be found in the French horror classic, Eyes Without a Face (1960). Surgeon Dr. Génessier (played by Pierre Brasseur) has it all—a successful surgical practice, a beautiful home, a lovely daughter, and a mistress who can double as a capable and discreet surgical assistant. But it all comes crashing down when he is responsible for a car accident that horribly disfigures his daughter’s face. Most people in his position would suffer horrible guilt, and place her care in the hands of other doctors, knowing that it would be impossible to maintain an objective distance in handling the medical care of a loved one.
But our doctor is full to the brim of the hubris that dreams (and good stories) are made of, and in the best tradition of a magnificent obsession, he works to find a way to graft a new face onto his daughter, thus restoring her beauty. And if a few innocent girls have to die in order to find the right face to transplant—well, sometimes you just have to break a few oeufs to make an omelette. Unfortunately, his daughter’s body rejects her grafts, and as each face sloughs off, Dr. Génessier finds he needs more girls on which to experiment, and eventually the mad scheme behind his pioneering experiment in transplantation starts to spiral out of control.
The list of famous French horror films is very short; some would argue the list begins and ends with Eyes Without a Face, which is a film unlike any other, combining the poetic fairytale feeling of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with the gory frankness of director Franju’s own documentary about an abattoir, The Blood of the Beasts. Holding the film together is a creepy but endearing ‘hurdy-gurdy’ musical score by Maurice Jarre, who would soon become famous with his music for Lawrence of Arabia. If you like blood-splattered horror served to you on the most tasteful platter possible, this is your film.
3) The standard that all mad doctors are judged against is Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. Since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the novel in 1886, the story has been filmed more than 120 times. Most mad doctors in this Hall of Fame are surgeons, so it’s a relief to find at least one doctor in the ranks who would call himself a general practitioner. While various camps favor one version over another, most Hollywood movie buffs consider Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version as the best. Mamoulian had the advantage of working in what is called the ‘pre-Code’ period, where sexual politics and situations could be far more explicit, and as we follow Dr. Henry Jekyll (Frederic March, in an Oscar-winning role) to Ivy Pearson’s room (Ivy is played by a wonderfully coquettish Miriam Hopkins), we are allowed to watch a very erotic ‘doctor-patient’ strip tease, and share his reluctance to leave her. Jekyll’s sexual frustration is diverted into his research for a drug that separates one’s good self from one’s evil nature, and in a dangerous experiment he drinks a potion that turns him into an evil creature. Now using the name of Mr. Hyde, he wastes no time in finding Ivy, physically beating her and making her his sex slave.
Eventually Jekyll finds he is turning into Hyde without the aid of a formula, and he is found and killed by the police, but not before he brutally murders his fiancé’s father, who has kept the two from marrying. Those of you who are not used to watching movies from this era will be shocked by the tone and violence of this film, which clearly makes the point that repression of sexual urges causes neurosis and violence. The film is so open with its subject matter that it’s no surprise to learn that it, and others like it, would soon cause the creation of a list of rules and guidelines of what a film could and could not talk about. Starting its enforcement in 1934, this ‘Production Code’ was enforced so strictly that it would take decades before a film so daring could be made in Hollywood.
4) But the Best of Show is The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). Of all the adaptations of the famous Frankenstein story, this version is one of the oddest. A sequel to the enormously successful Curse of Frankenstein, (filmed the year before), Peter Cushing reprises his role of Dr. Frankenstein. Escaping the guillotine that seemed his destiny in the first film, Frankenstein travels to Carlsbrück, Germany, and starts a new life with the name of Dr. Stein, a name that barely conceals his identity but appears to satisfy everyone. In a few years, Dr. Stein rises in stature to become a beloved physician, and if his unorthodox methods of surgery alarm a few timid souls, he does so much good that villagers are willing to overlook his eccentricities, such as the amputation of a healthy leg or arm here or there to add to his collection.
There is a monster somewhere in this story, and there are the expected scenes of the creature running amuck. But frankly, you won’t care what happens to the monster, because this is Peter Cushing’s show all the way. For large portions of this film, it feels like you’re watching a special Hammer Horror edition of All Creatures Great and Small, with the kind but gruff doctor bringing his gristly version of hope and joy to a small German village.
If there ever was a movie designed to display talent, this is it, a showcase for Peter Cushing all the way. Oozing an endless amount of sangfroid charm, and striking some impossible balance between bedside benevolence and cold-blooded evil, Cushing strides from scene to scene, daring you to hate him. But you can’t, mainly because he always so certain that whatever he is doing is right. Cushing’s performance in this film is the ultimate expression of the motto for the physicians honored in this edition of the Mad Doctor Hall of Fame: I may be wrong, but I’m never in doubt.
Lokke Heiss is a physician and film scholar who writes fiction and nonfiction. His special interest is in the history of the vampire film; he narrates the commentary track on Kino’s version of the German film Nosferatu.