.:. mad science & brainfarts .:.

Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 3)

Determined to pursue his research, West is in desperate need of space for his experiments. Therefore, he asks Daniel, who  has “access to certain authorities,” for help (Gordon 28:27).  For a successful reanimation, a fresh specimen is required because otherwise the side-effects of the serum cause uncontrolled violent outrage. Hence, West needs access to the hospital’s morgue which only Cain can provide. But instead of granting him assistance, Cain approaches dean Halsey and tells him about West’s efforts. The dean does not believe him and gets upset when he learns about his daughter being involved in Cain’s “insanity” (Gordon 31:05). Cain’s admission does not have the desired effect, but eventually gets him and West expelled from school. Daniel Cain never intended to rebel against the hierarchy of Miskantonic University, yet his attempt of “getting along with people” gets him in trouble (Whyte 205). Herbert West is the personification of a revolt against corporate subordination, whereas the character of Daniel Cain depicts the consequences of Whyte’s theory. “Cain wants to follow the rules; West never does,” and as a result of his subordination, Cain falls by the wayside (Newitz 79). Having lost his place at university, Cain ends up helping West to get access to the hospital’s morgue and resume his experiments. As Newitz concludes, “Cain’s desire to be good and do his low-level work gets him used and manipulated by West (after which he loses his student loans and class status)” (Newitz 80). Now that Cain is assisting West with his experiments on human bodies, his sense of duty is subverted. From this point on, “the film bifurcates the Frankenstein mad-scientist attributes into two characters working in tandem” (Muir 465). West wants to become famous for his research, so he is boasting “the skill and brains” (Muir 465). Cain on the other hand has a “deep-seated personal reason for needing the experiments to continue” because in the end of the movie, he must save his girlfriend’s life by injecting her the serum (Muir 465).

In order to test the serum on a recently deceased person, Cain sneaks West in the morgue. Herbert backs up their intrusion and asserts that “any evidence of reanimated consciousness will justify proceeding” (Gordon 34:57). When they get interrupted by Halsey, the dean gets attacked and killed by a corpse they just brought back to life. West does not hesitate and declares the dean his next human guinea pig since “this is the freshest body that [they] would come across save of killing one [themselves]” (Gordon 41:20). Halsey is reincarnated as a drooling zombie and put in charge of Dr. Hill who keeps him locked up in a padded cell. Dr. Hill seems to realise that West has something to do with the dean’s condition because he is referring to West’s theory about the brain functioning on biological processes when he tells Megan that her “father’s problem is neurological” (Gordon 46:56).

Dr. Hill’s behaviour retains consistency when he tries to arrogate his rival’s discovery. His intention to steal West’s elixir of life and claim it his own achievement once again verifies Whyte’s theory. In this particular scene, Dr. Carl Hill effectively demonstrates his higher rank over the medical student. He blackmails West into handing him out his research results because otherwise he would have him “locked up for a madman or a murderer” (Gordon 52:00). The second Hill triumphantly proclaims that he “will be famous,” he is hit with a shovel by West (Gordon 54:43). Of course, West instantly draws his syringe and injects a shot of his serum into the decapitated head of Dr. Hill and his torso since he has “never done whole parts” before (Gordon 56:01). Few seconds later, both parts “come to life exactly as they were before, insane and hungry for power” (Newitz 79). Although his head and his torso are separated, Hill can still control his body. The interaction of mind and body shadows out “how anxieties about a proletarianized professional class tend to create formal connections between madness and professional success, and simultaneously between routinized mental labor and manual labor” (Newitz 79). Hill escapes West and then uses his mind to control his own body as well as other reanimated corpses on which he conducted a special lobotomy. His experiments have the purpose of establishing a status quo in which his power is ensured by “enforcing a kind of absolute mental hierarchy where Hill will do all the thinking, and his lobotomized zombies will be controlled entirely by his thoughts” (Newitz 81). One of his living dead servants is Alan Halsey. Thus, Dr. Carl Hill has breached the corporate hierarchy of Miskatonic because his “madness has propelled him into a position where he can control the college dean” (Newitz 81). Dr. Hill strives for fame, but his greatest obsession is the “total mastery of the human will” (Gordon 74:18). “Hill, in other words, wants to control the will, while West is only interested in bodies,” concludes Newitz (Newitz 80).

It appears that Hill’s torso does not necessarily need a brain to work because in some scenes it is walking around the hospital with the head hidden in a bag. The body’s ability to operate independently from a brain suggests that “the head truly is just another body part, interchangeable with all other body parts” (Newitz 82). An autonomously working body needs no brain to think for it. At this point, the movie alludes to the fear of a missing “dividing line between professional ‘think work’ and manual labor ‘body work’” which, as a result, “would threaten all . . . privileges [of professionals]” (Newitz 82). In a scenario in which thinking brains “are not so special after all,” the qualities of scientific professionals may be expendable (Newitz 70). This is the case if scientists accept a subordinate role to corporate decision making which intends to restrict their individuality, as formulated by Whyte in his theory. A verification of this anxiety is portrayed in an extreme way in the climax of Re-Animator. When Cain and West face Dr. Hill and a bunch of reanimated corpses in the morgue, West overdoses the headless torso in order to destroy it. Even though Hill’s head is in the meantime crushed by Halsey, the remains of his body are still alive. Due to the overdose of the reagent, the guts of Hill’s torso take on a life of their own. Bursting out of the torso’s chest, Hill’s colon ultimately strangles West to death. Although Halsey has successfully removed Hill from his unjustly gained position, it turns out that his body does not need a brain at all. Dr. Hill’s scientific expertise has hence become redundant since his body can perform manual labour without a thinking brain.

Madness in Stuart Gordon’s movie is presented as a result of frantic struggle for success and power. Although Herbert West declares his reagent “can defeat death,” his true motivation is “to be famous and live lifetimes” (Gordon 28:32). John Kenneth Muir points out that “Herbert West is not truly a thoughtful genius, only a dork and perpetual overachiever” whose pride is not based “on his desire to keep alive the ones he loves, since he loves only himself” (Muir 464). West’s revolt against Miskatonic’s professional chain of command is intended “to prove he is right, that others are wrong” (Muir 464). His status as a student determines his rank at the lowest level of the medical school’s hierarchy. Yet, he is still ahead in terms of scientific knowledge and wit compared to his fellow student. While “mad doctors West and Hill are capable of performing fantastically successful, though immoral, experiments because they are mad,” Cain’s abiding by the rules costs him his status (Newitz 80). His moral constraints are the reason for his failure because when he informs Halsey about his roommate’s secret research, he gets himself and West expelled from school. Thus, Cain’s good intentions turn into a backlash against himself and others. For Megan, the consequences of her boyfriend’s straightforwardness are fatal. Alarmed by Cain’s confession about Halsey being a victim of both, West’s reanimation and Hill’s brain surgery, she tries to rescue her father. When she finds him in the morgue, she gets trapped by Dr. Hill and eventually killed by one of his mind-controlled corpses on her attempt to escape. Cain is the only one who makes it out of the morgue alive—and literally in one piece—“because he is ‘sane’” (Newitz 80). The final scene, however, depicts him with a syringe in his hand and about to administer the serum to Megan. For that reason, “Cain ultimately goes mad too—leaving us with the impression that perhaps he has survived precisely because he has lost his mind” (Newitz 81).

In the end, mad scientist Herbert West becomes a victim of his own experiment which makes him the tragic hero of the film because he embodies “the direct antithesis of the company-oriented man” (Whyte 211). According to Whyte, subordination to corporate interests rather than conducting individual research “inhibits the flow of really good ideas” (Whyte 216). In his view, scientists need to be able to “follow their own interests without direction or interference” (Whyte 211). West’s insubordination is a protest against the restrictions imposed by the administration of Miskatonic Medical School. He unwaveringly refuses to acknowledge Dr. Hill’s theories and even impeaches his credibility as a scientist. Following Whyte’s argumentation, the fear of mental labour being replaced by manual labour due to the restriction of scientific independence, dominated the discourse about work ethics in the 1980s. In Re-Animator, the protagonist’s defiant attitude derails the hierarchy of the facility he is working for. Therefore, Herbert West serves as an example of a mad scientist scattering such anxieties, even though his efforts end up in a disaster for all involved parties. Despite the fact The Organization Man was published about three decades before the first release of Re-Animator, the relevance of Whyte’s thesis still prevailed in the 1980s. In this context, Stuart Gordon’s splatter comedy “bears all the marks of conflicted eighties discourses about professional work,” as Newitz points out (Newitz 80).

Jeffrey Combs reprises his role as Herbert West in two sequels to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, both directed by Brian Yuzna. In Bride of Re-Animator it is revealed that West has actually survived the massacre at Miskatonic Medical School. He teams up with Daniel Cain again to assemble a whole new creature made of body parts from stolen corpses. The central part of their “bride” is the heart of Megan, Cain’s girlfriend who did not survive the events in Re-Animator. Dr. Carl Hill’s separated head also reappears and wreaks another vengeance on his rival Herbert West. Although his sequel released in 1990 “is even closer to the original” Lovecraft story in terms of setting and characters, Brian Yuzna’s Bride of Re-Animator lacks the originality of Gordon’s take on the story since it is, as the title already implies, rather a parody of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (Mitchell 40). Hence, the film “could not duplicate the chemistry and magic that made Re-Animator a unique thriller and black comedy” (Mitchell 36). Junge and Ohlhoff confirm that Brian Yuzna’s Beyond Re-Animator from 2003 marks the transition of the mad scientist into the 21st century (see Junge and Ohlhoff 13). However, the third instalment of the series adds nothing new to the character of Herbert West, who is therein conducting his experiments on prison inmates. In an interview director Stuart Gordon talks about his plans of making House of Re-Animator which was supposed to be set in the White House. Since the movie was intended to be a satire on the Bush administration, which is now history, Gordon considers this project “kind of pointless” (Brown).

Works Cited

Beder, Sharon. “Conformity not Conducive to Creativity.” Engineers Australia April 1999: 60.

Brown, Todd. Fantasia 2010: A Conversation with Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs. <http://twitchfilm.com/interviews/2010/07/fantasia-2010-a-conversation-with-stuart-gordon-and-jeffrey-combs.php> 6 Jan. 2011.

Charney, Mark J. “Beauty in the Beast: Technological Reanimation in the Contemporary Horror Film.” Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastics in the Arts. Ed. Michael A. Morrison. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 161-170.

 Dixon, Wheeler W. The Second Century of Cinema: The Past and Future of the Moving Image. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.

 Hallenbeck, Bruce G. Comedy-horror Films: A Chronological History, 1914-2008. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.

 Junge, Torsten and Dörthe Ohlhoff. “In den Steinbrüchen von Dr. Monreau: Eine Einleitung.” Wahnsinnnig genial: Der Mad Scientist Reader. Ed. Torsten Junge and Dörthe Ohlhoff. Aschaffenburg: Alibri, 2004. 7-23.

 Mitchell, Charles P. The Complete H.P. Lovecraft Filmography. Westport: Greenwood, 2001.

 Muir, John K. Horror Films of the 1980s. Jefferson: McFarland, 2007.

 Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. London: Duke University Press, 2006.

 Nocera, Joseph. Introduction. The Organization Man. By William H. Whyte. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. vii-xvi.

 Re-Animator. Dir. Stuart Gordon. Perfs. Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, and David Gale. 1985. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2007.

 Shapiro, Jerome F. Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film. New York: Routledge, 2002.

 Whyte, William H. The Organization Man. 1956. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

 Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.


Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 2)

In the prologue scene of Re-Animator, Herbert West is shown at the brain research institute of the Zurich Medical University. He has obviously just tried his formula on his mentor Dr. Gruber who is now screaming in agony. The alarmed security personnel can only witness Dr. Gruber’s eyes popping out of his skull. West declares “the dosage was too large,” excusing Gruber’s reaction, but not his own behaviour because in his opinion he “gave him life” (Gordon 1:53). Dr. Gruber’s gruesome demise sets the pace for the further development of the story. Accompanied by a music score that resembles the main theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, anatomic sketches of the human head in radiant colours scroll across the screen as the opening credits roll. The “eerily abstract credit sequence of Vertigo” crosses the viewer’s mind, too (Worland 247). “These Hitchcock allusions serve as a wry distancing device that reiterates the sense of genre history evoked by West the mad scientist, and hint at a witty undercurrent,” observes Rick Worland (Worland 247). It is details like these that account for the movie’s “reflexive humor and intense self-examination” (Dixon 71). Wheeler W. Dixon rates Re-Animator

a genre film that is fully cognizant of its ancestry; it takes the conventions and rules of the horror genre and breaks them into wildly configured shards of thematic material, pushing the normal audience tolerance for gore, and for outrageous plot exposition, past the boundaries that still, even in 1985, were rigidly enforced by audience expectations. (Dixon 71)

The first scene after the opening sequence introduces Bruce Abbott as Daniel Cain, an ambitious medical student at Miskatonic University, trying to save a woman’s life in the emergency room. Even though the electrocardiogram already displays a flatline, Cain continues the resuscitation attempt. Recognising his effort was in vain, he is disappointed by himself. Cain is presented here as caring and dedicated to his profession, even though another doctor calls his optimism “touching, but a waste of time” (Gordon 5:42). When Cain arrives at the morgue, he meets Herbert West for the first time. Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) and Dr. Carl Hill, the remaining protagonists, are presented as well in this scene. When addressed by Halsey, West does not look at the dean. His overt disinterest in being introduced to other people is a first sign of his otherness. While Halsey, Hill and Cain are talking to each other, West turns his back on them. Instead of joining the conversation, West immediately accuses Hill of plagiarising the work of his former mentor Dr. Gruber. Summing up the doctor’s findings, West professes that Hill’s “work on brain death is outdated” (Gordon 8:57). This short dispute is Herbert West’s initial attack on Miskatonic’s corporate hierarchy. He not only puts Hill’s expertise in question, but also his authority when he debunks him in front of the college dean. Additionally, Whyte’s above mentioned fear of scientists relying on other scientists’ discoveries rather than their own research results, is expressed here (see Whyte 205). Dr. Hill is alleged to claim the ideas of Dr. Gruber his own results instead of presenting new facts. West’s “disdain for the protocols of professional hierarchy” continues during Dr. Hill’s lecture (Newitz 81). While the professor is conducting an autopsy in front of the class, West interrupts him by breaking a pencil in order to express his disagreement with Hill’s theories about the human brain. Hill explains “it takes desire, an obsessive desire” to examine its function (Gordon 16:28). Before he can conclude his remark, he is interrupted by West again. In the course of the plot it becomes clear that West is very determined to bring up this particular obsessive desire mentioned by Dr. Hill. However, he is not willing to share his findings with his rival.

Shortly after West has moved in with Cain, his new roommate gets suspicious of the odd student. When Cain discovers his girlfriend Megan’s dead cat in West’s refrigerator, he also notices a small bottle of a fluorescent green liquid. Interrogated about the dead cat and the substance, West becomes nervous and threatens Cain. He signifies Cain that he would be loosing his profession at the medical school if the dean finds out about the relationship between him and his daughter Megan. West’s extortion proves to be successful as Cain gives in. He does not want to take the risk of being thrown “out of the profession on moral ground,” even though West and Cain are students “near the bottom” of the school’s hierarchy (Gordon 24:00; Newitz 81). The same night Daniel finds out about Herbert’s secret research in the laboratory set up downstairs. There he discovers West in the middle of a fight with the cat he just reanimated. “All life is a physical and chemical process,” explains West (Gordon 27:31). His serum can reactivate this process on a dead being and hence he is profoundly convinced he “conquered brain death” (Gordon 28:03). West’s theory contradicts Dr. Hill’s statement about the function of the brain because Hill holds the presence of will and desire in the brain responsible for the sustainment of life. Thus, the struggle between the two mad scientists is based on their conflicting theories, namely “biological process and psychological will” (Newitz 79).

Accordingly, both do not team up and work together, but rather than that each of them does his own individual research. However, Dr. Hill’s ideas are allegedly stolen from Dr. Gruber, and later from West when he takes his serum. Yet, his experiments are conducted by himself without the assistance of other scientists. Thereby, both obtain their individuality and oppose William H. Whyte’s concern. Whyte is anxious about scientists who give up their creativity by working in teams subordinated to corporate demands and thus restricting their talents (see Whyte 205). Herbert West not only breaches the guidelines of Miskatonic Medical School, but he also wants to keep the results of his research his secret. Neither is he one of Whyte’s envisioned “well-rounded team players,” nor does he bow to “organization loyalty” (Whyte 205). Even though Herbert West’s experiment puts himself and others in danger, his efforts express a progressive attitude that takes a stand against rigid institutional hierarchies and debatable work ethics. Conforming to the common stereotype of the mad scientist, “West must subordinate personal feelings for scientific good” (Charney 165). Cain, his girlfriend Megan and her father Dr. Alan Halsey consider West odd at best, but “he calls himself a true scientist willing to accept the challenge of overcoming ethics for the common good” (Charney 165).


Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 1)

An abnormal brain is blamed for the failure of an experiment when it is implanted into a corpse’s skull in James Whale’s classic horror movie Frankenstein. The creature’s violent misconduct is accordingly associated with its brain dysfunction. In Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator from 1985, the brain assumes centre stage again. This time, the focus is on “mad doctors who exist in a world where the mind has become so fetishized that brains are literally leaving their bodies behind” (Newitz 70). Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a medical student who appearantly stops at nothing in order to act out his drive to research. As a result of his reckless efforts to reanimate every corpse he can get hold of, he not only wreaks havoc at the facility he is working for, but also disrupts the hierarchic structure of Miskantonic Medical School. The idea “of returning the dead to life . . . isn’t exactly new territory, but Gordon’s fascination with the flesh and bone mechanics of the process raises the film above the level of a Frankenstein retreat into an area distinctly its own” (Dixon 70). Re-Animator is an adaptation of a short story originally written by American horror novelist Howard Phillips Lovecraft in 1922. In his works, Lovecraft often refers to the fictional place of Miskatonic University located in Arkham, Massachusetts. Although the motion picture considerably varies from Lovecraft’s original story, it is still considered to have a “genuine Lovecraftian feel” (Dixon 70). In regard to its impact on the horror genre, Bruce G. Hallenbeck points out that Stuart Gordon made “the first truly successful Lovecraft film, one that influenced a whole sub-genre that is still prevalent today” (Hallenbeck 142).

Herbert West, an arrogant medical student whose experiments explore the reanimation of dead bodies, is the main protagonist of Re-Animator. Linchpin of his research is a fluorescent green liquid which can bring corpses back to life if injected into the subject’s brain. His serum is not quite mature yet and has some side-effects,  e.g. in some cases it makes the revived bodies turn violent against themselves or others. After some bodies are successfully reanimated, it turns out the substance also works on single body parts. In a key scene of the movie, West’s rival Dr. Hill (David Gale) is decapitated by the mad scientist, just to have his headless body and his separated head reanimated again. In a post-mortem act of vengeance, Dr. Hill’s head uses his hypnotic powers to command a band of reanimated corpses against Herbert West, inciting “an all-out war between brains and body parts” (Newitz 79). The graphic depiction of this scene and similar others is exemplary for the film’s “over-the-top Grand Guignol violence” (Dixon 70). Yet, the separation of brain and body in the movie serves another purpose beyond shocking the audience: it is a metaphor for the replacement of mental labour by manual labour because it portrays how a body can still perform certain tasks even without a brain.

In his book The Organization Man, William H. Whyte criticises the American economy of the 1950s for “systematically stamping out individuality . . . and that this loss of individuality would eventually be ruinous to both the individual and the corporation” (Nocera vii). He therein “described how people not only worked for organisations but how they belonged to them as well” (Beder 60). “Organization men and women subordinate their own values to the needs of the institution or system, and sublimate political impotence with harmless personal enrichment activities,” explains Shapiro (Shapiro 104). The book was a major success when it was released in 1956. Whyte believed “that scientific innovation would be greatly diminished if companies stopped hiring scientists who were free-spirits and even renegades” (Nocera vii). As Sharon Beder writes in her article, Whyte revisited his thesis in the 1980s, claiming “little had changed: ‘The United States continues to be dominated by large organizations . . . The people who staff them are pretty much the same as those who did before’” (Beder 60). In consideration of the social ethic of the “organization life,” Whyte theorises about what would happen if the same ethic was applied to the scientific sector:

(1) scientists would now concentrate on the practical application of previously discovered ideas rather than the discovery of new ones; (2) they would rarely work by themselves but rather as units of scientific cells; (3) organization loyalty, getting along with people, etc. would be considered just as important as thinking; (4) well-rounded team players would be more valuable than brilliant men, and a very brilliant man would probably be disruptive. (Whyte 205)

Whyte’s outlook on the scientific sector depicts a dismal scenario assuming that scientists had to subordinate their individuality—and thus their creativity—to corporate interests in case their mental work is undervalued. As a closer look at the plot of Re-Animator reveals, the mad scientist breaking ranks is a metaphor for the struggle against the fears expressed by Whyte. Herbert West’s disrespect for senior scientists is only one aspect of his revolt against subordination.


Red Scare in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster

Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Bride of the Monster from 1955 includes all the requirements needed for a mad scientist movie: a secret laboratory with bizarre appliances, a mentally dull assistant, and, of course, a mad scientist with ambitions to create a new human race with the help of nuclear power. To top it all off, a giant octopus assuages its appetite for human flesh in the mad scientist’s garden pond. Even though Lenning considers the protagonist’s portrayal in Bride of the Monster “a rather flat distillation of all of Lugosi’s mad-scientist roles,” the film exhibits the genre’s essentials, albeit its poor directing (Lenning 412). The plot is about Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) who wants to transform his forced test objects into his own soldiers equipped with superhuman powers by exposing them to radioactivity. Ultimately, the purpose of his atomically altered army is to take over the world. Vornoff’s experiment has already proven to be successful on his mute assistant Lobo (Tor Johnson), whose physical strength is a result of irradiation. In order to conduct his experiments on the involuntary victims, Lobo is used by Vornoff to capture people who wander around the marshes nearby the mansion. On several occasions, Vornoff slaps his servant in the face or hits him with a lash to bend him to his will. His ruthlessness is not only demonstrated in his evil plans, but becomes even more apparent in his brutal intemperance. A giant octopus, which lives in an adjacent lake, is also claimed by Vornoff to be a result of his research. Referring to the octopus simply as “the monster,” he keeps it as his watchdog and occasionally feeds it unwanted visitors.

Seeking for missing people who are considered victims of Vornoff’s creature, two police detectives explore the swamp where they believe to find evidence, as one of them comments on an upcoming storm: “Maybe all these atom bomb explosions distorted the atmosphere” (Wood, 28:38). Climatic changes caused by radioactivity do not seem to bother them any further, since his colleague is more concerned about the wild animals living in the swamp which he calls “a monument of death” (Wood 28:15). The detective’s lukewarm note on the effects of nuclear tests adumbrates the ignorance of the nonscientific public which was common in this particular decade. “Avoidance of considering the specter of nuclear destruction seemed to permeate the fifties,” elucidates Vieth with reference to various surveys which revealed “that the norm was a lack of concern underpinned by ignorance and apathy about such issues as fallout” (Vieth 60).

In order to find out more about the alleged monster in the swamp, Professor Wladimir Strowski is commissioned by the police to investigate the issue. Strowski calls himself “an authority on this subject of prehistoric monsters” (Wood 21:22). It is later revealed, however, that Strowski is actually sent by a foreign government to take Vornoff back to his home country which he fled in 1948. Strowski’s nationality is not explicitly mentioned, but his name and accent imply his Soviet ancestry. Even though they are suspicious, the police do not scrutinise his real identity. This scene hints to the audience’s fear “about communist invaders and Soviet infiltrators” because it suggests that if the authorities are incapable to detect a foreign spy, a forthcoming invasion cannot be stopped either (Packer 100). Yet, communism was not the only threat to public safety and order in the 1950s. Discussing the reputation of scientists and intellectuals in that period, Vieth argues that the “cultural and social climate, the milieu, of the early ’50s was anti-intellectual to the extend that during the fifties, the term anti-intellectualism had become part of the national language” (Vieth 63). Richard Hofstadter explains how the image of scientists was used in order to humiliate scientific expertise in his study Anti-intellectualism in American Life:

The citizen cannot cease to need or to be at the mercy of experts, but he can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor, the irresponsible brain truster, or the mad scientist, and by applauding the politicians as they pursue the subversive teacher, the suspect scientist, or the allegedly treacherous foreign-policy adviser. (Hofstadter 37)

During the McCarthy era, the harassment of alleged subversives reached a peak in which science also has become a target of discrimination. “Senator Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of academics and specialists in his anticommunist crusade caused many Americans to regard intellectuals as risks to national security,” resumes Chapman (Chapman 27). What could therefore have been more dangerous than a mad scientist from the other side of the Iron Curtain, representing two evils in one person? In this respect, Dr. Eric Vornoff can be considered McCarthy’s worst nightmare. When Strowski meets Vornoff in his mansion, the expatriate explains the reasons of his unwillingness to return to his home country:

20 years ago, I was banned from my homeland, parted from my wife and son, never to see them again. Why? Because I suggested to use the atom elements for producing superbeings. Beings of unthinkable strength and size. I was declared a madman, a charlatan, outlawed in the world of science which previously honoured me as a genius. Now, here in this forsaken jungle hell I have proven that I am all right! (Wood 39:47)

His sentimental monologue outlines the basic pattern of the mad scientist stereotype. Living in seclusion and expelled from social life, the unappreciated scientist now seeks for revenge which includes tampering with the act of creation. In the context of 1950s anxiety, this means nuclear experiments on humans. Vornoff’s experiments, however, do not seem to have any scientific value because he appears to be driven by his bitterness and sadism only. In order to “show the world that [he] can be its master,” Vornoff intends to “perfect his own race of people, a race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world” (Wood 41:49). When he announces his plans are part of his personal revenge, Strowski asks him: “Are you mad, Vornoff?” (Wood 42:39). “One is always considered mad if one discovers something that others cannot grasp,” replies Vornoff, substantiating his superior knowledge. Without further discussion, Strowski is fed to the giant octopus, another “product of [Vornoff’s] genius” (Wood 44:07).

When a newspaper reporter investigates the disappearance of several locals on her own account, she becomes a captive of the mad scientist who intends to maker her “a women of super strength and beauty—the bride of the atom” (Wood 54:13).16 Yet, instead of assisting his tormentor, Lobo releases the reporter and then ties Vornoff to the nuclear-powered apparatus. Vornoff is eventually turned into an atomic monster himself in a painful procedure. During the struggle between Vornoff and Lobo, the laboratory is set on fire. Vornoff escapes, but he is faced outside by the police who try to shoot him. The last scene of the movie includes footage of an actual atomic explosion, suggesting that Vornoff has caused it when he got struck by a lightning. Witnessing the mushroom cloud from close distance, the police chief comments: “He tampered in God’s domain” (Wood 67:58). These final words conclude the film and summarise “the script’s judgemental coda” which implies that irresponsible nuclear experiments result in fatal disaster (Skal 188). According to the logic of the movie, those who are not involved in the matter survive, even though they are only few steps away from the explosion, whereas Vornoff receives a just punishment for his hubris.

Works Cited

Bride of the Monster. Dir. Edward Davies Wood, Jr. Perfs. Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Loretta King. 1955. DVD. Winkler Film, 2006.

Chapman, Roger (Ed.). Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. New York: Sharpe, 2010.

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf, 1963.

Lenning, Arthur. The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.

Packer, Sharon. Movies and the Modern Psyche. Westport: Praeger, 2007.

Skal, David J. Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture. New York: Norton, 1998.

Vieth, Errol. Screening Science: Contexts, Texts, and Science in Fifties Science Fiction Film. London: The Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Post-war Mad Science and Atomic Anxieties

After the drop of the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan’s surrender marked the end of World War II. With a death toll estimated at 90.000-166.000 in Hiroshima and 60.000-80.000 in Nagasaki, the destructive power of nuclear weapons still fuelled fears of atomic experiments in the following decades. Especially in the 1950s, “the bomb’s horrific effects were still being absorbed” (Perkowitz 94). However, nuclear technology was, at that time, also considered to yield positive results. Some people believed that “harnessing the atom would lead to a utopia that included air-conditioned jungles, livable paradises transformed from Arctic wastes, revolutionized transport fuel needs, and world peace” (Vieth 56). Such flamboyant optimism was strongly opposed “by the fear of the Frankenstein of nuclear apocalypse if not from war, then from associated cataclysms” (Vieth 56). Vieth’s Frankenstein allegory already implies that this fear reflects a distrust of science which stems from the events that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Japan. A more positive vision included “a faith in the ability of science to make life better on all levels, from mundane advances in the technology of vacuum cleaners and washing machines, to more seemingly profound improvements in . . . medicine” (Booker 2). Both views reveal the imponderables of nuclear power. It may provide comfortable living conditions by technological advancement, but the greater fear lies in the perils of a nuclear holocaust which may erase all life on earth. In other words, science—and particularly nuclear science—in the wrong hands is an unpredictable menace.

During World War II, American physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb. In one of his most famous quotes, Oppenheimer recites a verse of a Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, to describe his emotions at the Trinity test site where he witnessed the first nuclear weapons test in the desert of New Mexico on July 16, 1945: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” (Vieth 57). His quote typifies the mushroom cloud of the exploding atom bomb which has since become an iconic image. Oppenheimer later uttered regrets about his involvement in the development of the atomic bomb in a statement he made in 1956, declaring “we did the work of the devil” (Frayling 196). “Fear of the apocalypse was the underpinning link for the constructed fear of the decade and was an acceptable and viable narrative to hang a film on,” outlines Vieth (Vieth 61). Or, as Perkowitz remarks, “the potential for nuclear weapons, nuclear accidents, and nuclear terrorism to cause widespread devastation opens imaginative though mostly pessimistic story possibilities” (Perkowitz 94). Similar to the horror genre, which spawned characters like Frankenstein or Herbert West, the mad scientist has become a recurring figure in science fiction B-movies of the 1950s. Cynthia Hendershot believes that “the status of [science fiction] as a degraded genre allowed these films a freedom not possessed by more serious realistic dramas of the time” (Hendershot 2). Accordingly, from an abstract point of view, the relationship between mainstream cinema and B-movies seems comparable to that between professional scientists and mad scientists. While mainstream movies and established science are expected to comply with certain standards, B-movies and mad scientists are not. Portraying the anxieties prevalent in that decade, “the non-realistic qualities of [science fiction] film also provided a forum in which fear of nuclear war and other fears could be explored on a metaphorical level, a level which appealed to and revealed postwar fantasy about nuclear holocaust” (Hendershot 2). Rick Worland adds that “after the war, science fiction became the newest and perhaps most apt genre for what pundits dubbed . . . ‘the age of anxiety’” (Worland 77). Considering the evolution of the fictional figure, it can be observed that mad scientists “absorbed new energy from the atomic blast and in the process gave popular culture of the postwar years its particular mythic intensity” (Skal 167). Hence, it is not surprising that popular culture at that time relied on “anxious images of applied science and technology” which resulted in “mad scientist films [that] . . . provided an safe outlet for diffuse fears about the scientific, technological, military juggernaut” (Skal 167).

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, who both had already gained a reputation for their incarnations of Universal Studio’s classic monsters Dracula and Frankenstein in the 1930s, expanded their repertoire to include roles as mad scientists in a considerable number of movies in the following decades. Particularly Lugosi’s portrayals of the mad scientist “often seemed congenitally sadistic, his experiments rarely involving even the initial pretense of humanitarian concern gone wrong” (Skal 170). Lugosi had his last leading part in Bride of the Monster before he died in 1956 during the shooting of Plan 9 from Outer Space, both directed by “schlock filmmaker” Ed Wood (Skal 188). He therein impersonates a mad scientist who has fled his home country—presumably the Soviet Union—in order to pursue his plan to create a race of superhumans in the United States. “One of the main unintended side-effects of secret atomic research—in low-budget 1950s Hollywood movies at least—took the form of giant ants . . . or spiders . . . which threatened Eisenhower’s America and which required the military (a new element in such movies) to destroy them,” as Frayling points out in consideration of movies like Them! or Tarantula (Frayling 198). While mad science is personified by Dr. Vornoff in Ed Wood’s film, the protagonists in Them! and Tarantula have to deal with the ramifications “conjured up by the very atomic radiation that our scientists had originally created in the lab” (Frayling 196). Being the first movie ever to feature irradiated giant insects, Them! is “the product of a world poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation” (Shapiro 47). Jack Arnold’s Tarantula follows the concept of Them!, except in his film a spider, which has grown to a tremendous size due to the injection of a radioactive isotope, escapes the laboratory it was kept in and then becomes a threat to “postwar peace and prosperity” (Skal 185). The conflict between two scientists—one intending to help humankind while the other goes insane—results in several fatal victims.

Although their plots are different, these particular movies are exemplary for their representation of zeitgeist anxieties because they are “combining post-A-bomb (1945) and H-bomb (1951) fears about lingering radiation, the Red menace and a deep paranoia about hygiene in the home” (Frayling 200). As a consequence, mad scientist movies of that time departed from the archetypical Frankenstein concept and “took a backseat to more up-to-date horrors” (Skal 180). Since mad scientists in the 1950s were primarily featured in science fiction, it needs to be clarified how this genre is different from horror movies of previous decades. Most significantly, the “crucial difference between science fiction and horror lies in the scale of the threat,” exemplifies Worland (Worland 196). Following his remark, the “monster’s danger in horror is usually localized and individual, whereas in science fiction the peril swiftly moves from the immediate area to the nation or even the entire world” (Worland 196). For example, in James Whale’s Frankenstein the horror is aroused by a mad scientist whose misled creature terrorises a village. The plot is centred around few protagonists who are directly affected by the experiment gone awry. In comparison to that, larger than life insects in Them! and Tarantula threaten whole desert towns; the irradiated ants in Gordon Douglas’s film even build their nest in the Los Angeles storm drain system, undermining the foundations of the megacity. Whereas the monster in Frankenstein is eventually trapped by a mob of angry townspeople, only the military is capable to deal with the monster bugs in science fiction scenarios of the fifties. Comparing both genres, Sobchak explains the audience’s perception of science fiction monsters: “Since it does not menace one lone individual, it threatens us all and as a result, the individual viewer does not feel singled out as victim” (Sobchack 37). Besides a shift of genres, there is also an alteration noticeable in the figure of the mad scientist. Jack Arnold’s movie exemplifies this change because “the scientist, who would be held morally responsible for the very fact of the giant spider in a horror film, is instead seen as a victim of a horrible accident, as essentially noble in his desire to create a nutrient which will feed the world’s hungry” (Sobchack 36).

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964. Westport: Greenwood, 2001.

Frayling, Christopher. Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.

Hendershot, Cindy. Paranoia, the Bomb and 1950s Science Fiction Films. Bowling Green: State University Popular Press, 1999.

Perkowitz, Sidney. Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Shapiro, Jerome F. Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Skal, David J. Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture. New York: Norton, 1998.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Vieth, Errol. Screening Science: Contexts, Texts, and Science in Fifties Science Fiction Film. London: The Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.

Theatre of Blood: Shakespearean Allusions in a 20th Century Horror Comedy (Part deux)

In a scene of Theatre of Blood which resembles the murder of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, Edward Lionheart does not commit the crime himself. Instead his daughter, who is dressed like a man, calls Mr. Psaltery, a member of the Critics’ Circle, and tells him in an altered voice that he “might learn something very interesting about [his] wife” if he comes home early enough (Hickox 65:58). Psaltery follows this advice and observes a bearded man wearing a white coat and a white hat entering his house. This scene is largely along the lines of Othello Act III, Scene 3 in which Iago plots a meeting between Desdemona and Cassio in order to raise Othello’s jealousy. In Theatre of Blood it is Edwina Lionheart who plays the role of Iago because she gives Mr. Psaltery a hint to his wife’s alleged unfaithfulness. The fact she is disguised as a man and speaking in a male voice also emphasises this allusion.

Invited to come upstairs by Mr. Psaltery’s wife, the stranger in white starts to give Mrs. Psaltery a massage while she makes ambiguous comments about their previous meetings. The impression of adultery in progress is created not only by Mrs. Psaltery’s lascivious noises, but is already indicated by an old painting in the stairway which depicts a naked woman who is touched by an angel. Mr. Psaltery has meanwhile followed the couple upstairs and witnesses his wife Maisie moaning in the bedroom. In a rage he breaks the door to the room because he assumes that his wife is cheating on him. When he enters the room he is told by the white dressed stranger that Maisie has already had 20 lovers. In a furious irateness Psaltery then chokes his wife to death with a pillow in her bed just like Othello murders Desdemona in Shakespeare’s original play. Shortly after this event the other members of the Critics’ Circle arrive at the crime scene and assert that only Edward Lionheart can be held responsible for the death of Maisie and therefore Mr. Psaltery’s fate. Although Lionheart did not kill the critic, he “destroyed him just as surely as if he’d murdered him” because Psaltery will spend the rest of his life in prison (Hickox 70:09).

Next on Lionheart’s list is Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare. The humiliated actor begins the scene by reading out a review of his performance in Titus Andronicus which was written by Critics’ Circle member Meredith Merridew. He announces the way he is going to carry out his revenge on Merridew by quoting Act V, Scene 3 of the play: “Hark, villain! I will grind your bones to dust, and make two pasties of your shameful head” (Hickox 77:22). In order to illustrate his plan he smashes an egg in a bowl and stirs it like he is preparing a pasty. In Shakespeare’s play Roman general Titus Andronicus seeks revenge for his raped and mutilated daughter. Therefore he kills the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and makes a pasty of them which he then serves their mother. In the film it is the theatre critic who unwittingly has his two dogs for dinner.

When Meredith Merridew enters his house he finds himself in the middle of a TV cooking show which appears to be broadcast from his home. Lionheart dressed up as a chef asks Merridew to take a seat and presents him a dish while his daughter and the group of loafers pretend to be part of the film crew. Merridew does not realise what is actually happening around him and asks where his dogs are because he considers them his children as he explains: “My doggies, you know. I always think of them as my babies” (Hickox 82:44). Lionheart reveals their whereabouts by quoting Act V, Scene 3:

Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred. (Hickox 82:54)

Force-feeding Merridew with a cone stuck in his mouth Lionheart recites another passage of Shakespeare, but this time it is a quote from Romeo and Juliet Act V, Scene 3 in which Romeo is about to open Juliet’s tomb:

Thou detestable maw,
Gorg’d with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food! (Hickox 84:13)

Shakespeare’s original lines are here put into a completely different context. Yet, the quotes match the current action and therefore highlight the movie’s black humour. Lionheart concludes the grotesque image of Merridew choking on a pasty made of his poodles by cynically asserting that the critic “didn’t have the stomach for it” (Hickox 84:50). The representation of Merridew’s bizarre demise is a typical example which defines the film a horror comedy because an actually tragic event is displayed in a humorous manner. Intentional allusions to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus become obvious in Lionheart’s character, who seeks revenge for his damaged reputation like the Roman general does in the original play. Meredith Merridew’s character mimics Tamora. Even though he is male, his appearance features blatant female attributes. He is dressed in a pink suit and wears excessive make-up which makes him look like a drag queen and hence underlines his female traits. He also calls two poodles his babies and therefore puts himself into the role of a mother. Merridew eating his own “children” served by Lionheart in a pasty is thus another reference to Shakespeare’s drama.


Read Part 1 of this article here.

Theatre of Blood: Shakespearean Allusions in a 20th Century Horror Comedy (Part 1)

Most classic Shakespeare movies stick closely to the play they are based on, in Theatre of Blood however, director Douglas Hickox follows a different concept of Shakespearean adaptation. In his film notorious horror icon Vincent Price embodies Edward Lionheart, a theatre actor who seeks deadly revenge on those critics who in the protagonist’s opinion do not recognise his talent as a performer of Shakespeare’s plays. Theatre of Blood focuses on the bloody aspects of Shakespeare’s dramas because Lionheart re-enacts several killings which are key scenes in Shakespeare’s original plays. The comical yet horrific presentation of the murders in the tradition of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Othello, King Lear and others ranks Theatre of Blood among the genre of horror comedy. This article takes a look at these specific scenes of the movie and examines their rendition of the Shakespearean originals.

The plays of William Shakespeare often deal with issues such as betrayal, malevolence and revenge which result in violent outrages. Derek Cohen points out that violence in Shakespeare’s dramas is a product of patriarchal systems. Patriarchal structures are defined by a general rule of men over women and are based on suppression and male dominance. In Shakespeare’s universe violent acts are committed in order to restore social values which predominate patriarchy. Exemplary for this thesis are the tragedies Othello, Titus Andronicus and King Lear because they “are the only plays by Shakespeare in which female protagonists are murdered by men” and thus display the “relations of power and violence within patriarchy” (Cohen, 3). In Othello the male protagonist kills his wife Desdemona because he suspects her of adultery. He considers his status as husband and dominant figure in this relationship in danger and therefore commits a murder not only to punish Desdemona, but also to restore his patriarchal position. This act of violence is hence “produced by a social code which valorizes order as a social value” (Cohen, 1). In Titus Andronicus a Roman general avenges his raped and mutilated daughter. To restore his damaged reputation, however, he needs to kill his child before going after the perpetrators.

In Theatre of Blood it is Edward Lionheart who feels betrayed by the theatre critics who did not grant him the award as best Shakespearean actor. His status as a respected and talented actor is therefore put into question. In order to seek revenge, he stages the murder scenes of several Shakespeare plays in which the critics themselves involuntarily adopt the victim’s role. In the final scene of the movie, for example, Lionheart lures his victim into an old theatre where he threatens to blind him just like the Duke of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear. During this scene and in his other appearances Lionheart quotes passages from Shakespeare’s works. Hickox’s film thus “draws attention to the violence of Shakespeare on the one hand, and ultimately, resists re-creating Shakespeare’s violence altogether” (Cartmell, 11).

When the pioneers of cinema brought Shakespeare from stage to screen, they paved the way for generations of film makers to follow. Director Douglas Hickox reverses this concept to a certain extent in his horror comedy Theatre of Blood. His movie “is a meeting of high and low cultures, but the incrementally horrific scenes . . . bring to mind the violence so often swept under the carpet in discussions of Shakespeare” (Cartmell, 10). The order in which Lionheart chooses his victims follows his last season of Shakespeare. This concept is typical for the slasher film sub-genre in which the villain stalks and kills his victims one by one. In 1971, only two years before Theatre of Blood was shot, Italian director Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood became the blueprint for modern day slasher movies like the Friday the 13th franchise, which started in 1980, or John Carpenter’s Halloween from 1978. Yet influences of Bava’s work can already be recognised in Theatre of Blood. The detailed display of violent killing scenes in Bay of Blood is a stylistic device which is also prominent in Hickox’s horror comedy. Although Theatre of Blood exhibits bloody murders, a comic relief diverts the viewer from the actual atrocity of such a scene.

Edward Lionheart considers himself the best Shakespearean performer who has ever entered a theatre stage. The British Critics’ Circle however has a different opinion and denies Lionheart the 1970 Critics’ Circle Award. In a flashback scene Lionheart enters the conference room of the critics committee and grabs the award statue. While reciting the famous “to be or not to be” passage of Hamlet Act III, Scene 1 he makes his way onto the balcony and finally dives into the Thames River in a suicide attempt still clenching the award statue. The critics watch his performance from inside the conference room separated by a window from the balcony which functions as Lionheart’s stage. The window’s curtain is drawn aside in order to enable the view on the balcony and completes the impression of a stage performance. Shortly after this scene it is revealed that Lionheart actually survived the fall from the balcony when he is pulled out of the river bed by a gang of down-and-out drunks. Lionheart has as a result descended from the level of high culture, represented by the theatre critics, to the level of low culture which is epitomised by the group of loafers.



Works Cited

Cartmell, Deborah. Interpreting Shakespeare on Film. London: Macmillian, 2000.

Cohen, Derek. Shakespeare’s Culture of Violence. London: Macmillian, 1993.

Theatre of Blood. Dir. Douglas Hickox. Perfs. Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Diana Dors and Robert Morley. 1973. DVD. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2004.

Reluctant Metamorphosis: Body Horror in David Cronenberg’s The Fly

NOTE: This article is an excerpt of the final thesis for my M. A. degree in American studies. The paper’s full title is The Figure of the Mad Scientist in Contemporary Fiction. It deals with aforesaid character and his (as he is almost exclusively presented as male) rendering in movies such as Frankenstein, Tarantula, Bride of the Monster, Re-Animator and The Fly. By identifying the mad scientist’s diverse appearances, it can be reasoned that this particular character has another purpose besides alluding to the dangers of science gone out of control. More than that, the figure of the mad scientist serves as an indicator of zeitgeist anxieties. Mad scientist movies reached their peak at a time in which the general population frequently reacted to the emergence of new technologies with scepticism and rejection. Therefore, it is unsurprising to find those sentiments reflected in movies of that time. The following article will exemplify how the protagonist in David Cronenberg’s The Fly is an embodiment of those anxieties.

Since his movies frequently deal with “excessive physical transformation, eruption, or rebellion of the human body against itself,” the term “body horror” is often used to describe the work of Canadian director David Cronenberg (Worland 275; Grant 24). His films create different modes of horror in order to terrify the audience. In its most apparent form, visual horror is inspired by altering the physical form of the human body, explicitly depicting its deformation and, ultimately, its complete destruction. In The Fly, bodies are literally turned inside out: the reversed baboon of Brundle’s first failed attempt of teleporting a living being, the maggot embryo from Ronnie’s womb and, finally, the inner fly which erupts from the protagonist’s body. Psychological horror, on the other hand, is aroused by the metaphorical meaning of the protagonist’s transformation. According to Charney, “Cronenberg insists that these shifts in character serve as metaphors for actual life transformations” (Charney 164). In an interview the director explains how he incorporates the inevitable process of ageing in order to hint at the audience’s anxieties: “If we live long enough we all become monsters. Our hair falls out, our skin changes, and we become a burden and sometimes even a threat to those who love us” (Charney 164). In his movies, this alteration is associated with the protagonist’s loss of personality and identity. Therefore, a common motif in Cronenberg’s films is the conflict between body and mind as the threat comes from within. In addition to that, “physical horror of deformed and dysfunctional materiality is related to another bodily fear upon which Cronenberg consistently plays on in The Fly and elsewhere: the loss of bodily integrity (wholeness, oneness, unity)” (Smith, M. 74). By addressing such primal fears, the themes of Cronenberg’s movies encompass “every anxiety from existential depression to phobic hysteria” (Beard 200).

In his remake version of The Fly from 1986, a gifted scientist gradually transforms into a monstrous insect due to a flawed self-experiment. As the scientist realises the process he triggered by accident not only affects his body, but also shatters his existence as a human being, he desperately tries to revert the metamorphosis. The process of change is dichotomous because on the one hand it evokes connotations of horror, pain and decease, but on the other hand it is also associated in a positive way—at least for a short peroid of time in which Brundle enjoys his newly gained abilities—with the emergence of a new lifeform, namely Brundlefly, as the scientist calls himself in an advanced stage of his transformation. Referring to the “audience’s fear of displacement by a technological society,” Charney sets forth that movies like Re-Animator and The Fly “frighten by suggesting that the monster is within us and can be endlessly reactivated by attempts to improve humanity through technological experimentation” (Charney 162). This trend can be traced back to science fiction movies of the 1950s, as the example of Tarantula shows, yet directors Stuart Gordon and David Cronenberg “create new horror hybrids with complex, recognizable, sympathetic protagonists: films that locate within the victim the potential for villainy” (Charney 162). Other than Professor Deemer in Tarantula, who is portrayed as an unsympathetic loner from the beginning, the protagonist in The Flysuccessfully unites the supernatural and psychotic into a monster whose power stems both from technological supremacy and human sympathy” (Charney 162).

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant scientist who was “an inch away from the Nobel Prize for physics” at the age of 20 (Cronenberg 17:36). He is introduced talking to journalist Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Quaife (Geena Davis) about his new device at a scientific convention. “I’m working on something that’ll change the world and human life as we know it,” proclaims Brundle (Cronenberg 1:28). Since he does not want other scientists to eavesdrop their conversation, he invites Veronica to his laboratory which is also the place where he lives. On the way there, he reveals the motivation of his research which is supposed to revolutionise modern methods of transportation: “I hate vehicles,” justifies Brundle his disdain for cars (Cronenberg 3:03). His workplace is located in an old warehouse which looks run down from the outside, but “cleaner from the inside” (Cronenberg 3:27). Brundle’s remark is a hint to his current mental condition which is reflected in the state of his laboratory; both undergo significant changes in the further development of the plot. Transformation processes and the reflection thereof is a recurring theme in The Fly. William Beard identifies how Brundle’s character and habits correspondent to his outer appearance:

Seth’s changing internal condition is reflected in his clothing. This is clearly seen—indeed it is foregrounded and thematized—when Ronnie discovers his closet full of identical anonymous grey jackets and blank trousers. This wardrobe exactly embodies Seth’s cerebral ‘scientific’ marginalization of the body, as well as the qualities that we understand as giving rise to or growing out of that attitude: his discomfort with physicality and with his own body and his social backwardness, especially around women. (Beard 228)

As soon as Brundle and Ronnie enter the laboratory, the scientist begins to play Love is a Many-Splendored Thing on a piano, a melody which “will echo ironically against the gruesome turns of the love story to follow” (Clarke 142). While Brundle is playing the instrument, the camera pans on sheets of a Beethoven composition, a further clue to Brundle’s looming madness. Beethoven and Brundle both share the gift of genius, and like the composer in his later days, the scientist eventually becomes insane. In a broader sense, the piano also anticipates Brundle’s metamorphosis because “manipulating this particular keyboard, Seth is still in full control, the musical output being entirely predictable from the fingered input” (Clarke 142). Equally apt, Brundle uses the keyboard of the computer which controls the telepods. As the transformation reaches a stage in which Brundle’s fingers become useless, he cannot operate the computer accurately any more. Consequently, his ability to program the computer vanishes and so do his chances to reverse his transformation. These first scenes set the frame for the plot in accordance with the typical patterns of mad scientist movies. What distinguishes The Fly from other films, however, is its self-referential approach. For example, Brundle overtly threatens Ronnie he “can’t let [her] leave here alive” now that she knows about his invention (Cronenberg 4:22). Due to its ironic undertone, his threat is not real, yet it reveals Brundle’s awareness of the mad scientist’s generic concept. Being “resolutely anti-ironic,” however, Cronenberg’s film stands out by its “dour seriousness” and thus completely deviates from self-referential postmodern horror movies, for example Wes Craven’s Scream series which revitalised the genre of slasher movies in 1996 (Grant 24).

Consisting of two cabins which are connected to a control unit, Brundle’s device is supposed to disintegrate objects in one cabin and reassemble them in the other cabin. Ronnie at first confuses the cabins with “designer phone boots,” but is told by Brundle that they are actually “telepods” (Cronenberg 5:10). “The updated substitution of ‘telepod’ for ‘telephone’ marks the amplification of ‘transportation,’” as Clarke reasons: “the extension of the concept and metaphor of transmission from informatic forms such as acoustic and visual vibrations to material substances such as inorganic and organic bodies” (Clarke 140). In order to prove his invention to be functional and working, Brundle asks her for a personal item as a test object. Still not convinced by his idea, she gives him one of her stockings. Brundle places the stocking in a telepod and initiates the teleportation sequence. A look at the control unit’s screen confirms his prediction: “TELEPORTATION SUCCESSFUL” (Cronenberg 7:35). Astonished by the experiment, the reporter is unable to grasp what she just witnessed. “You get it all right, you just can’t handle it,” Brundle reassures her (Cronenberg 8:42). Veronica’s reaction typifies the difficulties of a non-scientific public to understand scientific processes. Whereas Seth is familiar with his research, Veronica is not because she is not an expert. However, since she is a reporter for a science magazine, her assignment is to communicate images of science to a public audience outside the scientific community. Therefore, the relationship between Quaife and Brundle is—besides the subsequent love affair—a dialogue between the non-professional public and the scientific sector. Back in her office, Ronnie reports Brundle’s experiment to her employer and ex-lover, Stathis Borans, who does not believe her story. Denying Brundle’s talent as a scientist, he calls him a “magician” who performs tricks which have nothing to do with real science (Cronenberg 11:28).

Brundle tells Ronnie that he has “been working alone for too long” and that he does not have a life (Cronenberg 12:46). Again, it is Brundle himself who unveils the characteristics of a mad scientist who is all focused on his work and disregards social interaction. His lack of sense for appropriate social intercourse is underlined by the fact he takes her to a uncomfortable fast-food restaurant. Brundle’s invention is not complete yet because its most important feature is still missing, as he makes clear: “I can only teleport inanimate objects” (Cronenberg 13:30). His first test run with a live baboon goes horribly wrong as the teleportation process turns the animal into a galvanic pile of flesh. Veronica documents Brundle’s work with a video camera in order to showcase it to the public. “I’ve gotta do this,” she professes because “the world will wanna know” (Cronenberg 19:54). Reconsidering the failed experiment, Seth assumes the gadget “can’t deal with the flesh” yet (Cronenberg 29:22). “I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I’m gonna have to learn,” continues Brundle to expound the issue. His request is satisfied when Ronnie introduces him to the pleasures of the flesh. “I just wanna eat you up . . . It’s the flesh, it just makes you crazy,” she discloses her sexual desire for him (Cronenberg 23:38). This is when Seth has his eureka moment; in order to study the computer’s ability to interpret organic matter, he lets Veronica compare the taste of a teleported piece of steak to another piece he did not teleport. “It tastes synthetic,” is her verdict (Cronenberg 25:38). To Brundle, this finding is crucial because it inspires him to teach the computer “the poetry of the steak” (Cronenberg 26:14). Soon after, he teleports another baboon and this time the animal survives the process unharmed. Similar to Frankenstein, who gives birth to a creature by replacing a biological mother, the telepods are a metaphor for a new technological method of fertilisation once they are correctly programmed.

In a word, at first Brundle’s invention is sterile; it cannot encompass the living world, and particularly the world of the body, appetite, sexuality. It might be said that the offspring, the invention, is only a success, only really existent, after its ‘fertilization’ by knowledge of the flesh. (Beard 205)

As it turns out Brundle’s ensuing self-experiment engenders unpredictable side-effects, “the introduction of ‘the flesh’ into this abstracting scientific project creates the condition not only for organic ‘birth’ but also for organic mutation, disease, and death” (Beard 206). Seth Brundle experiences a bizarre metamorphosis from an over-intellectual scientist, who has everything under control, into a bestial monster which lacks any human traits. His gradual mental and physical degeneration is reflected in the state of his laboratory; first it is a tidy and organised place, but it is turned into a mess the further his transformation progresses. In the beginning of the movie, Brundle’s life is centred around his research. He has no social contacts and even his sponsors do not bother about his work because his expenses are reasonable. Thoroughly focused on his work, Brundle seems to lack any physical presence since he apparently considers his body merely a shell for his mind. His motion sickness exemplifies the deficiency of his body; he therefore invents a teleportation device in order to abolish mechanical transportation. Another sign of the negligence of his body, and thus his outer appearance, is the way he dresses. He never needs to consider his outfit because he is wearing the same combination of clothes every day, a habit he claims to have adopted from Einstein. His total devotion to his mental labour does not cease until Veronica introduces him to the “poetry of the flesh” (see Oetjen and Wacker 138).

Their romance arouses a consciousness of his corporeality in Brundle which is taken to an extreme after his genes are spliced with those of a housefly. Brundle’s perception of his own body is elevated to another level in the first stage of his transformation. Experiencing his augmented physical potential as a catharsis at first, his newly gained freedom and feigned self-fulfilment soon turn into megalomania. Tired of “society’s sick gray fear of the flesh” restricting physical desires, Brundle strives to satisfy his sex drive with no regard for Veronica’s needs (Cronenberg 48:26). Brundle thus “contributes to his own downfall by combining increasing fascination with technological progress with the need to pursue sexual and/or professional interests” (Charney 163). When Veronica refuses to try the teleportion device herself, he gets mad and denies her loyalty: “Drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring” (Cronenberg 48:31). Entirely focusing on his basic instincts which are his sexuality and the assimilation of food now, Brundle disposes his human traits. According to Oetjen and Wacker, the obsession with his body, his flesh and the renunciation of his mind, is an expression of his mental transformation into an animal (see Oetjen and Wacker 138). In this first period of the conflict between body and mind, his animal instincts prevail. As a consequence thereof, his transformation causes an estrangement not only from himself, but also from others. Hence, “Brundle, like Frankenstein before him, [must] now battle his creation for control” (Crane 57).

When Brundle realises the advancing decay of his body, he begins to document his transformation and asks Veronica to videotape it. Regarding himself as a test object, he painstakingly collects fragments of his decomposing body in a bathroom cabinet which he calls “the Brundle Museum of Natural History” (Cronenberg 76:10). There he keeps his shedded teeth among other body parts he lost, such as an ear, fingernails and his penis. Brundle’s scientific method of documenting his stepwise disintegration escalates in a disturbing scene in which he demonstrates how “he eats much the way a fly eats” (Cronenberg 69:47).

His teeth are now useless because although he can chew up solid food, he can’t digest it. Solid food hurts. So, like a fly, Brundlefly breaks down solids with a corrosive enzyme, playfully called ‘vomit drop.’ He regurgitates on his food, it liquefies, and then he sucks it back up. Ready for a demonstration, kids? (Cronenberg 69:50)

Acting like a host of a TV show, Brundle presents an image of science to the non-scientific audience. Pretending to be talking to children, he makes sure his presentation is easily understood by the broadest public possible. Despite the alleged educational effect, however, the spectacle is rather repulsive and reveals Brundle’s sarcasm. When Ronnie shows the recording of Brundle vomiting on his food to Borans, he is accordingly disgusted. By depicting Boran’s detestation, Cronenberg reflects the audience’s supposed reaction to the scene and thereby confirms the film’s aim to horrify its viewers.

Before the onset of his transformation, Brundle used to ignore his body. When he notices the changes in his physicalness, he begins to explore his alteration from a scientific point of view. However, as soon as he detects his progressing loss of humanity, he warns Ronnie:

Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They are very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician . . . I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake. (Cronenberg 77:03)

Realising the danger emanating from within himself, the scientist has become “a beast that loses most of its human characteristics but still retains memory and affection” (Charney 163). This is also the key scene in which he “understands that the inevitability of [Veronica] being lost to him coincides with his having to confront the further truth of his unbearable exile from the human condition” (Grant 11). Brundle’s dilemma is the presence of both, human values and animal instincts, in his body. In a desperate effort to reduce the proportion of fly genes in his organism, Brundle plans to fuse his contaminated body with Veronica’s in order to become more human again. Due to Stathis Boran’s interference, however, the procedure is interrupted and Brundle’s body merges with the broken telepod which results in “a technological monster, part human, part machine” (Charney 163). Even though there is no visible trace left of the human Brundle, he still demonstrates a final act of human sentiment when he points the rifle in Veronica’s hands to his head, begging her to put him out of his misery. Although he finally comes to realise his hubris, Brundle cannot be saved. His transformation has reached a terminal stage in which the fly ultimately dominates over his human body. Hence, Brundle “is trapped in a seemingly endless cycle, as mutation follows mutation” and if Ronnie did not kill him, he “would otherwise have been condemned to live on as a further appalling combination—of man, fly and telepod” (Grant 1).

Following the pattern originally set by Frankenstein, Brundle’s experiment has produced a new lifeform. However, Cronenberg alters the scheme insofar as his portrayal of the mad scientist places the conflict between creator and creation within the scientist (see Meteling 182). Michael Grant points out how the figure of the mad scientist has shifted over the years by comparing the metaphor of birth in Frankenstein to Cronenberg’s rendering.

It is a womb that is realised externally (and hence metaphorically) in Frankenstein, where the laboratory provides the birthplace of the creature, while its realisation in The Fly is internal, as Brundle gives birth to the man-fly out of his own flesh. (Grant 30)

In contrast to other mad scientist films, “the experimental scientist-inventor is not some distant figure who manipulates people and then stands back to watch, but now is the protagonist himself“ (Beard 199). By visualising this conflict as a gradual metamorphosis, the director responds to primary issues of human life, such as ageing, terminal diseases and alienating. In regard to Tudor’s study, Jonathan Crane assumes that the figure of the mad scientist has suffered “a long period of decline” in the horror genre from the 1960s onwards because nowadays “we more commonly expect the random serial killer or bestial clique, shorn of supernatural trappings, to create horror and havoc” (Crane 52). By “reviving an extinguished, retrograde element—the ‘mad scientist’—and dragging him back into the contemporary arena,” Cronenberg puts new life into the genre. However, Crane’s chain of reasoning is to a certain degree one-dimensional because he presumes that scientists in horror films are in general modelled after the character of Frankenstein. Accordingly, he puts the motivation of Seth Brundle’s experiment on par with Frankenstein’s original intention by asserting that there is “no better way to address the unbearable ties that link Frankenstein and his scion than to sheathe the adversaries in the same skin” (Crane 57). Even though this claim applies to the movie, it is only one aspect in The Fly. While Frankenstein’s creature is deliberately brought to life, Brundle oversees the fly in the telepod by mistake. His telepods were actually meant to supersede mechanical transportation, not to create new lifeforms of any kind—even though they give birth to Brundlefly in a metaphorical sense. A central theme in the film is the protagonist’s progressive downfall which can be interpreted as a metaphor for an accelerated ageing process (see Riepe 84). Other than Frankenstein, who is—at least in the cinematic adaptations of James Whale—presented as mad from the beginning, Brundle’s decline is portrayed in stages. Therefore, Seth Brundle is an incarnation of a reluctant mad scientist who unwittingly gets afflicted with the consequences of his experiment which was originally supposed to have a different outcome.

Works Cited

Beard, William. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Charney, Mark J. “Beauty in the Beast: Technological Reanimation in the Contemporary Horror Film.” Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastics in the Arts. Ed. Michael A. Morrison. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 161-170.

Clarke, Bruce. Posthuman Metamorphoses: Narrative and Systems. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Crane, Jonathan. “A Body Apart: Cronenberg and Genre.” The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Michael Grant. Westport: Praeger, 2000. 50-68.

Grant, Michael. “Introduction.” The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Michael Grant. Westport: Praeger, 2000. 1-34.

Oetjen, Almut and Holger Wacker. Organischer Horror: Die Filme des David Cronenberg. Meitingen: Corian-Verlag, 1993.

Riepe, Manfred. Bildgeschwüre: Körper und Fremdkörper im Kino David Cronenbergs. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2002.

Skal, David J. Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture. New York: Norton, 1998.

Smith, Murray. “(A)moral Monstrosity.” The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Michael Grant. Westport: Praeger, 2000. 69-83.

The Fly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perfs. Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz. 1986. BluRay. Twentieth Century Fox, 2008.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.

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