Here’s the thing about movie scientists: most of them are crazy. To be fair to the movies, the mad scientist stereotype far predates not just cinema but the term “scientist,” as the latter is a 19th-century invention while the original archetypal mad scientist, Doctor Faustus, dates back to the 16th-century. In the movies, the mad scientist can often be visually identified by his unkempt or generally bad hair, worse manners, white lab-coat, which is either of the open-front or shoulder-buttoned variety (though a leather smock might substitute on occasion), non-existent social life, glasses, and sex, which is, generally speaking, male. (They are also predominantly white.)
To merit inclusion in this list, the doctors, engineers, technicians, and research scientists (movies are overall pretty fuzzy on the differences between various fields and degrees and careers when it comes to things in the general vicinity of science) merely had to be mad, as in expressing thoughts and/or behaviors that one would not describe as neurotypical, and do experimental science and/or technology things (i.e. laboratory research, invention, etc.). They did not have to be bad, as in evil, though admittedly many of them are that, too.
From lovable weirdoes to murderous madmen, the following 50 characters embody a representative survey of one of the most enduring movie archetypes: the mad scientist.
Emmett “Doc” Brown
Mad, as mentioned, does not always equal evil, and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is a prime example. He’s lovable in his wacky way, with his Einsteinian hair, endearing catchphrases (“Great Scott!”), and amusingly weird verbiages (“rhythmic ceremonial ritual” for “school dance”). In 2008, Empire magazine even ranked him as the 20th greatest film character of all time. That said, he is absolutely bonkers. He shows no hesitation about engaging in criminal activities in order to obtain components for his inventions not available for purchase through legal means. The plutonium needed to power his DeLorean time machine, for instance, is stolen from Libyan terrorists. And sure, everything might work out okay in the end, but given Doc’s total lack of anything resembling either self-preservation instinct or caution, this is entirely a matter of sheer dumb luck.
Emma Russell (The Saint)
Electrochemist Emma Russell (Elizabeth Shue) is yet another example of how mad scientist does not necessarily equal evil scientist. Instead of destroying or threatening to destroy the world, she saves it by finding an answer to the energy crisis via the discovery of “cold fusion,” which she promptly submits to the public domain so that all may benefit and none may hoard the profits. That said, not only is she absent-minded to a degree rarely seen outside of a flat-out satire, but she also keeps her cold fusion reaction formula in her bra on tiny squares of paper that she spends a great deal of time staring at and rearranging as if discovering and balancing a chemical reaction works like a jigsaw puzzle. Most concerning of all, upon being approached by a stalkerish “Thomas More”—Val Kilmer in ill-fitted leather pants with Fabio hair—Russell’s immediate response is “sexy” instead of “beware, creepy stalker.” The film tries to posit this as Dr. Russell being a diehard “romantic,” but… no. Just no.
Sidney Stratton (The Man in the White Suit)
Brilliant young chemist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is obsessed with creating an everlasting textile fiber—something that will repel dirt and never wear out. Considering that movie scientists usually wear exactly one outfit, even underneath the requisite lab coat, the appeal of clothing that requires neither washing nor replacing in Stratton’s mind is self-evident. When Stratton actually manages to invent such fabric, however, the textile industry is quick to realize that they are far less thrilled by the idea as it will ultimately destroy their profits, while the many workers in its employ are similarly incensed upon the realization that it will almost certainly cost them their jobs. However, he obstinately refuses to sell the rights to his invention. Flat-out bribery and threats prove equally ineffective, culminating in Stratton running for his life from an angry mob in his glowing miracle suit because movie scientists, on the whole, lack the common sense that is prerequisite to self-preservation instincts. Unfortunately—or arguably, fortunately, in the sense of living to science another day—Stratton’s super-fabric proves to be rather unstable (it includes radioactive elements, thus the glow) and begins to disintegrate. Realizing the flaw in the loathed creation, the mob proceeds to tear off pieces of Stratton’s suit until he’s left standing in his underwear. And then comes the moment of truth: has Stratton learned anything from his experience? No, not even a little. The very next day he’s back to the drawing board, reading through his notes before rushing off, presumably to a laboratory, with a delighted “I see!”
Tony Stark (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
While Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) eccentricities are clear from early on in the first Iron Man, it’s the Ultron fiasco in the second Avengers film that really solidifies Stark’s placement on this list. In an attempt to make the world a safer place through a technological development he instead destroys a major city, which is pretty much Mad Science 101. Sure, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) helps, but in spite of his incident with gamma radiation, Dr. Banner is too much the voice of reason within the Avengers to be labeled a mad scientist. Particularly by comparison.
Dr. Janos Rukh (The Invisible Ray)
Somehow, “unorthodox” astronomer Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) invents a telescope with the power to peer into deep space, which someone also reproduces “vibrations from the past” and leads him to suspect the existence of a previously undiscovered element hiding somewhere in Africa, brought to Earth by an ancient meteor. A demonstration of his telescope inspires fellow scientists Dr. Felix Benet (Béla Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) to fund an expedition to hunt down this mysterious element known as Radium “X”. Following some parting words of encouragement from his mother—”You’re not used to people, Janos, you never will be. Your experiments are your friends, leave people alone”—Janos and the others head off to Africa, where Rukh eventually finds his Radium X.
However, exposure to Radium X has not only left him with a fluorescent glow but also liable to kill anything he touches, as discovers upon attempting to pet a dog. Dr. Benet manages to craft a “counteractive” for Rukh, but notes that he must take it every day or suffer dire consequences. Rukh’s estranged wife leaves him and the other scientists start investigating Radium X themselves, which he sees as infringement on his intellectual property, but the scientist plays it cool for a surprisingly long time before suddenly faking his own death and proceeding to go on a killing spree. What sparks this drastic course of action is largely unclear, though he does tell Dr. Benet shortly before killing him that the Radium X, even with the counter-active, has been slowly corrupting his brain. Ultimately, he is stopped by his mother, who destroys his supply of counteractive. Rukh, concluding mother does know best, proceeds to jump out the nearest window, spontaneously combusting mid-fall—just in case the viewer had any doubts about dead he is.
Dr. Finklestein (The Nightmare Before Christmas)
While The Nightmare Before Christmas is largely about subverting expectations, with a friendly skeleton hero and other such lovable creepy characters, as is Tim Burton’s usual shtick, it plays the evil mad scientist trope straight with Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey). Wheelchair-bound and composed of mechanical replacement parts than organic tissues, Finkelstein, while not wholly evil, is entirely unpleasant in both appearance and character. Looking like a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Finkelstein terrorizes his creation, Sally (Catherine O’Hara), in a manner equal parts overbearing father and controlling husband, which of course makes the whole thing even creepier.
Herbert West (Re-Animator)
Some mad scientists think they are going to fix the world. Others seek to destroy humanity for one reason or another. And yet another faction simply do not care. This is the faction to which Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) belongs—the faction of giving zero fucks about anything besides research. Forced to relocate his studies to Miskatonic University following the untimely death of his mentor, Dr. Hans Gruber, he promptly clashes with professor and medical researcher Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale)—and practically everybody else he meets, but Dr. Hill most of all.
West also finds lodging with fellow medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who happens to have an unfinished basement just waiting to be transformed into a laboratory. In this laboratory, West pursues the development of his life-restoring reanimation reagent which he promptly tests on Cain’s dead cat (without permission or even letting said owner know that the cat died). His research is soon discovered by none other than Dr. Hill, who determines to steal West’s serum and pass it off as his own. West responds by decapitating him with a shovel. Looking over the carnage, West comments, “yes, parts, I’ve never done parts,” and proceeds to inject his reagent into Hill’s severed head. This proves to be an even worse plan than one might imagine, as not only does Hill’s head come back to life, but it does so with new telekinetic powers. Oops.
Dr. Wells (Doctor X)
While most movies have one or maybe two mad scientists, Doctor X has five. And, as the film is quick to inform, one of them is a murdering cannibal. Instead of a typical investigation involving questioning, search warrants, and the like, the police hand over the investigation to Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) after tracing the instrument of cannibalism to the medical institute he runs, meaning he is one of the suspects. But moving on. Anyway, being a scientist, Dr. X decides that the best way to go about finding the murderer is via experiment. Basically, on a weekend trip to Dr. X’s Long Island estate for some R&R—that is, research and (more) research—the scientists will all participate in an experiment in which they are all hooked up to heart rate monitors and made to watch re-enactments of the murderer’s crimes, which is somehow supposed to force the culprit into confessing.
The suspense is on. Will it be pervy voyeur Dr. Haines (John Wray)? The grouchy wheelchair-bound Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford)? Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe) with his villainous scar? Dr. X himself? The group reaches a scientific consensus that cannibalism expert Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) must be innocent due to the fact that the killer had two arms and Wells is an amputee. As you might be guessing from the fact that Wells ultimately beat out his colleagues for inclusion on this list, it turns out (plot twist!) that the cannibalism expert is the cannibal after all. Through the use of “synthetic flesh,” Wells has been constructing an artificial limb and horrific flesh-mask to commit his crimes—as the film reveals in a genuinely disturbing transformation scene in which he slathers himself with the substance, which looks like either mousse or perhaps canned tuna, while muttering “synthetic flesh” repeatedly.
Dr. Wells attempts to murder again, but of course, is stopped, and dies a proper villain’s death—falling from a cliff while on fire. Released in the so-called golden age of Hollywood horror that took place in the 1930s (specifically, 1932), the film gets very little attention since it’s considered artistically inferior to films like Frankenstein and Island of Lost Souls and also less influential than the likes of Dracula. Still, it’s still worth a watch, if only for how genuinely weird it is, especially considering it’s one of the relatively few films shot in the understandably short-lived two-color Technicolor, which gives everything a sort of greenish and/or sepia tinge.
Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)
Some mad scientist movies show a descent into madness. Others start off full steam ahead. The Invisible Man is a wonderful example of the latter. Young chemist Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) experiments with monocaine, a compound derived from a rare Indian flower, in secret and develops an invisibility serum which he promptly tests on himself, unaware that said compound had previously been shown to drive dogs crazy. An unfortunate oversight, but one that pales in comparison to Griffin testing this invisibility serum on himself without having even the slightest idea of how he might be able to make himself visible again.
Anyway, since the film starts off with Griffin already invisible, one can’t actually say with any certainty how much of the craziness is the monocaine and how much is really just Griffin, but either way, it’s 100% good content. Rains gives an amazingly dynamic performance as either a disembodied voice or a veritable mummy, depending on the scene, and tyrannizes the townspeople with genuinely infectious glee. You never want his “reign of terror” to end—though considering it’s a 1933 Hollywood film, it obviously will, and he’s going to have to say that he was wrong and he feels bad about it shortly before dying. But boy, is it fun while it lasts.
Paul Carruthers (The Devil Bat)
Nothing in The Devil Bat is even vaguely convincing. Not the plot, not the dialogue, not the sets, and certainly not the Devil Bat itself, which attacks its victims with a decidedly un-bat-like “Ahhhhhhhhh!” The film begins with an introductory prologue that claims “All Heathville loved Dr. Paul Carruthers,” which is really the only genuine mystery in the film, as Dr. Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) so clearly hates all Heathville. The “why” is more obscure—a voice-over monologue indicates that Carruthers somehow feels he’s been screwed over by the town’s elite, but this seems distinctly counterintuitive considering he has these thoughts shortly after receiving a surprise bonus check from these individuals. The chip on Carruthers’ shoulder seems to be largely of his own invention, much like the giant killer bat he sets loose on the town. Going above and beyond the typical mad scientist call of duty, he specifically conditions the bat to target individuals wearing an after-shave lotion he designed. Cue him gifting after-shave lotion to all his enemies, who are all dispatched in short order by an enormous killer bat—and yet, it still takes the whole movie for the townspeople to solve the “mystery.” Carruthers, of course, gets killed by his own Devil-Bat (after being doused in his own after-shave lotion), because 9 times out of 10 that’s how this whole mad scientist story plays out.