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Mad Scientists and Monstrous Creations:
The Continuation of the Frankenstein Myth in
Modern Science Fiction and Horror Films


           Artificial human beings and their creators have become a standard ingredient of modern science fiction/horror films and literature. In the horror genre these creatures are usually not very different from those in various Frankenstein movies, although bearing no direct reference to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. In science fiction the artificial beings often lack the monstrous and scary features of the Frankenstein monster and appear in mechanised form as robots, androids and cyborgs (= cybernetic organisms), most prominently in the stories of Isaac Asimov and Stanislav Lem.

            Generally regarded the earliest fully realised cinematic robot is Maria from Metropolis (Germany 1927; dir: Fritz Lang). Lustful mad scientist Rotwang creates Maria to reflect his vision of the perfect submissive woman. But Maria rebels against her creator and provokes a worker revolt that threatens to destroy the entire city. At the end, she is burned at the stake as a kind of witch. Apart from being the first movie with a robot, Metropolis also proved to be a major stylistic influence on James Whale's Frankenstein movies.

            Just as Mary Shelley's novel influenced many other writers or inspired them to write continuations and adaptations, the huge number of Frankenstein movies spawned an even greater number of films about mad scientists and their human creations. Most of them are forgettable and can easily be dismissed as trash. Still, there are a few films worth mentioning that adapt aspects of Victor Frankenstein's story in a very intelligent way, yet without naming their source or making direct references to Frankenstein.

Maria, the Robot from Metropolis

          In fact most cinematic variations of the Frankenstein/mad scientist theme, including many Hammer and Universal Frankenstein films, can be reduced to the simple formula: "Scientist creates monster - monster runs berserk - justice is done to the scientist by the hands of his own creation". Many film producers and screenwriters have adapted this formula with varying degrees of success, including the following examples, which have at least added interesting original ideas to the simple basic plot. 

A distinguishing feature of more recent - and also seemingly more serious - "mad scientist" movies is the fact that the artificial being is no longer stitched together from dead body parts. Some of these tales are far removed from the Frankenstein story in that they even abandon the concept of a human-like monster. The 1950s and 60s were flooded with radioactive monsters and mutated giant insects (Them!, Formicula), the 1970s saw the advance of computers and out-of-control artificial intelligence or frightened cinema audiences with eco-horror in the form of rampaging insects or giant sharks. In the 1980s the obsession with technology, an enormous advance of computer science and a general atmosphere of technophobia found its cinematic mirror in robotic monsters and cyborg killer machines. The best known examples are the Terminator movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the indestructible, merciless killer from the future. 

With the advance of genetic engineering and first successes in cloning, Hollywood needed a new breed of monster, where  tampering with human DNA replaced the lightning bolt and stitching needles from James Whale's films.

However, at all times, more "traditional" adaptations of the Frankenstein plot featuring re-animated corpses and body parts, mostly B movies and direct-to-video fare, still managed to attract the horror audience.

Blade Runner (1982)

            One of the best films about artificial humans is Blade Runner (USA 1982), a science fiction movie directed by Ridley Scott and written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on Philip K. Dick's (1928-1982) story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (1969). It is set in the future Los Angeles of 2019, a huge polluted megalopolis with continuous rainfall, billboards hundreds of feet high and towering skyscrapers of unimaginable height. The plot centers around so-called "replicants", genetically engineered human beings designed as cheap labour force in outworld (planetary) colonies. After an uprising five replicants return to earth because they do not want to live a life as slaves anymore. Since they only have a limited life span of four years they seek out their "maker" Doctor Tyrell, the president of a huge hi-tech corporation. Their aim is to force Tyrell to improve them and to give them more life. When Tyrell reveals to them that this is technically impossible, Batty, the leader of the replicants, kills him.

          Blade Runner shows some remarkable parallels with Frankenstein. The film's artificial humans, the replicants, are thrown into a society that does not want them. Because people are afraid of the replicants' superior physical powers, a special police unit was established: the Blade Runners, whose sole aim is to eliminate - the film calls it "to retire" - replicants who have returned to earth. When Batty, the leader of the renegade replicants, is not granted his wish for more life, similar to the Monster's wish for a bride in Frankenstein, he destroys "his Victor Frankenstein", Doctor Tyrell, the man who created him and whom he accordingly addresses as "father".

Monster (Rutger Hauer as the replicant Roy Batty) ....

...and hunter (Harrison Ford als Rick Deckard, the Blade Runner)

Like Victor Frankenstein, Doctor Tyrell is far from being a benign father figure, but rather treats his creations with cruelty. First Tyrell gives the replicants life but then he abandons them, releases them into human society and refuses to care for them anymore. The viewer's sympathy is rather on the side of the replicant Batty than on Tyrell's or the Blade Runner's side. Like the Monster in Frankenstein, the replicant Roy Batty only acts violently because he is rejected by a paranoid society and left alone by his father. He is victimized by human society simply because of his status as an artificial being, as someone who is different from - and in many aspects superior to - other human beings.

But not all replicants in Blade Runner are like the Frankenstein Monster, who is aware that he is not human. Blade Runner confronts us with a far more disturbing utopia: the Tyrell Corporation's latest and most advanced replicant model is a female who does not know that she is artificial due to her possessing the implanted memories of an actual human being. The film also raises the question whether Deckard, the Blade Runner, is such a replicant or not. There are several theories confirming or denying Deckard's replicant status, although director Ridley Scott has repeatedly stated that he sees Deckard as a replicant.

Star Trek - The Next Generation (1987-1994)

            One of the main protagonists in the popular science fiction TV series Star Trek - The Next Generation is an android named Data. Despite his somewhat monstrous appearance (pale skin, life-less eyes), Data, an artificial being like Frankenstein's Monster, is fully integrated into the society of the 23rd century as the commander of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise. But not only in this aspect Data is a reversion of the Frankenstein Monster. In Shelley's novel the creature is endowed with human emotions but lacks knowledge of the society and culture it is thrown into. Data, on the contrary, has all the knowledge of mankind stored in his brain's computer memory banks, but is incapable of showing human emotions and feelings. Therefore his main goal is to learn emotions and to become more human.

The android Data (Brent Spiner, right)
and Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes, left)

In Star Trek, a sometimes very naive utopia, many of the questions raised in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are finally answered. In the interplanetary society of the 23rd century every being is accepted, no matter how strange or horrible they look. Scientific progress, in Shelley's times "promethean transgression", is acceptable because it is pursued with responsibility and only for the benefit of mankind.

Star Trek contains yet another parallel with Frankenstein: In the episode "Brothers" (1990; directed by Rob Bowman, written by Rick Berman), Data's creator, Professor Noonian Soong, is destroyed by his own creation. But it is not the benevolent Data, who is responsible for Soong's demise. Data's evil twin "brother" Lore kills Soong after stealing an emotion chip originally designed for Data. Just like in the novel, the aggressive attitude of the creation causes the death of its creator (cf. Specht-Jarvis 1994: 141). Of course not even the society of the 23rd century could have accepted a being like Frankenstein's Monster with such a capacity for evil. Therefore the authors of Star Trek had to split up the Monster into two persons (Data and Lore), like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or, more adequate, like the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel.

Robocop (1987)

          Another "Frankensteinian" monster appears in Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987), a hyper-violent, yet marvellously satiric science fiction film. Robocop, "the future of law enforcement", is a cyborg, part man, part machine, with the head and brain of a murdered police officer attached to a virtually indestructible metal torso. While on the surface Robocop is no more than a cheap B-movie spiced-up with over-the-top violence, it is also the story of a monster searching for its identity. One scene, in particular, is reminiscent of Mary Shelley's novel: when Robocop puts off his helmet for the first time he sees the reflection of his face in a mirror - just like Frankenstein's Monster saw his face in a pond. At that moment, Robocop, whose memories of his former life have been erased by scientists, realises that in fact he is still a human being, the police officer Murphy.

Robocop also contains one of the most important basic plot elements of Frankenstein: the Monster is finally responsible for the demise of its creator.  After finding out that the president of OCP, the hi-tech company that built him, is a corrupt and murderous villain, Robocop returns to his "birthplace" and kills him. Here the Monster is practically made the executive organ of poetic justice; the Monster is judge, jury and executioner in one person. 
Cop-in-a-can: Peter Weller as Robocop/Murphy

Re-Animator (1985)

            Re-Animator (USA 1985; dir: Stuart Gordon) is based upon a short story by American horror and fantasy writer H.P.Lovecraft (1890-1937). The story of Herbert West (both in the short story and in the movie), a medical student who invents a serum to bring dead bodies back to life, is surely influenced by Mary Shelley's novel. Like in Frankenstein, Herbert West's creation turns against him when he has to face a horde of blood-thirsty undead beings re-animated by his serum. Both the original short story and the film remain on a very superficial level because none of them give a clear explanation of why the re-animated become aggressive killers. Some simply wake up and instinctively kill like animals, while others retain memories of their former life. One of them is Herbert West's rival Dr. Hill, who continues his plan to destroy West once he is re-animated.
Herbert West ( Jeffrey Combs)
injects life in Re-Animator

The sequel Bride of Re-Animator (USA 1990; dir: Brian Yuzna) was intended as a homage to James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein. Having improved his serum, this time Herbert West experiments with the re-animation of body parts and grotesque creations such as flying head with bat wings. Herbert West finally creates a bride for himself out of dead body parts but the female monster falls in love with West's assistant Daniel Caine instead. When she realises that she is just a collection of dead parts rather than a human being, she destroys herself by tearing herself to pieces.
Frankenstein enters the age of splatter films:
Kathleen Kinmont in Bride of Re-Animator

The third film in the series, entitled Beyond Re-Animator (Spain 2003, dir: Brian Yuzna) is set thirteen years after the events of Bride of Re-Animator. Herbert West is now incarcerated in a maximum security prison, where he is able to continue his experiments with the assistance of a young doctor, Dr. Howard Philips. In addition to re-animating dead bodies with his green liquid, West also injects them with "nano-plasmic energy", basically the soul of a being captured at the moment of death. The experiments, however, go awfully wrong and West ends up fighting dozens of rampaging inmates, some of them chopped in half, others disemboweled.
Another unfortunate victim meets 
his demise in Beyond Re-Animator

The idea of putting someone else's soul into a human body was previously used in Hammer's Frankenstein Created Woman. Beyond Re-Animator plays like a homage to this Hammer classic, when West injects a gorgeous woman with the nano-plasma of her murderer, the prison warden. Consequently, both souls then struggle in the woman's body, alternately taking possession of her and turning her into a bloodlusty monster. Therefore it owes much more to old Hammer movies (and the prison riot scenes in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers) than to any other Frankenstein adaptation. In fact, all three Re-Animator films don't borrow a lot from their literary source, which producer/director Brian Yuzna repeatedly admitted when he stated that they "are not really Lovecraft".
West and his new assistant (Jason Barry) fill up their syringes.

The horror in both Re-Animator and its sequel Bride of Re-Animator surely cannot be compared to the  tame frights (by today's standards) of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein or Peter Cushing's experiments with dead bodies. The Re-Animator series perfectly fits into the sub-genre of "splatter" movies, basically for the extensive use of images of extremely gory, over-the-top violence. Instead of leaving the gruesome details to the viewer's imagination, splatter movies frighten and disgust the audience with explicit details of mutilated bodies and gaping wounds. Their main shock value lies in showing the biological side of horror and in demonstrating the vulnerability of the human body. Therefore it does not quite come as a surprise that the Re-Animator films were censored in many countries and heavily cut by censorship boards such as the "British Board of Film Classification" and the MPAA when they were first released. This is a fate the Re-Animator films share with the early Frankenstein films, which due to their controversial content often caused censors to act and cut.
However, the Re-Animator films lighten up their Grand Guignol-esque gore escapades by mixing the violence with elements of dark comedy. The sheer excess and exaggeration of on-screen violence paired with dark humor intends to make the viewers rather laugh than cover their eyes in terror, just like in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, where characters are disemboweled and cut into slices for humorous effect.

The plot device of "mad scientist + monster on the run" has long been a standard ingredient of horror movies and is exploited in numerous cinematic works, often in the low-budget range, but also by A-list Hollywood productions.

In Roger Donaldson's Species (1995) scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) creates a female monster by crossing human and alien DNA. This creature, named Sil, is not only exceptionally good-looking but also has the unpleasant habit of killing men after having sex with them. After the female monster has undergone a horrible metamorphosis  into a tentacled beast (courtesy of Swiss painter H.R. Giger) she brutally slays her creator Fitch. 

Natasha Henstridge as Sil, before becoming an abomination from H.R.Giger's imagination.

In acclaimed horror director Wes Craven's The Deadly Friend (1986) 15-year old science wiz kid Paul (Matthew Laborteaux) creates an intelligent robot named BB, which is shot to pieces on Halloween by an elderly woman. Soon after, Paul's girlfriend Samantha (Kristy Swanson) is killed by her abusive father. Paul decides to resurrect Samantha by implanting BB's computer brain into her head. Unfortunately she comes back as a completely different person: a vengeful femme fatale endowed with superhuman strength, yet mute and displaying robot-like movements. Samantha then goes on to take revenge on all those who mistreated her in her former life: She breaks her father's neck and burns his corpse and later kills the old woman, who destroyed BB, by smashing her head with a basketball. Before she can kill more people Samantha is eventually shot by the police.
What could have been a successfully modernised take on the Hammer Frankenstein formula - in particular Frankenstein Created Woman and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed -, turns out a silly 1980s trash B-horror. Although Deadly Friend has several good moments (suspenseful killing scenes, atmospheric music and a couple of scenes, where Samantha finds out what she actually is), it is ultimately ruined by too many ill-conceived elements: the screenplay and direction are mostly incoherent, the cutie robot BB rather belongs in a kiddie movie, most characters are too stereotypical. Worst of all is the sheer unbelievable fact that the movie's hero is a school kid, who can single-handedly create a robot with artificial intelligence and knows more about brain surgery than any scientist at university. With a more adult target group in mind, the screenwriters could have created a far better movie.

Samantha (Kirsty Swanson) has a smashing argument with
her elderly neighbor (Anne Ramsey)


Paul shows Samantha how to walk again

Gorgeous face: Patty Mullen as 
Elizabeth in Frankenhooker
A similar plot is the basis of Frank Henenlotter's (creator of low-budget splatter movies such as Basketcase and Brain Damage) black comedy Frankenhooker (1990). After his girlfriend is killed in a freak accident involving a lawnmower, mad medical student Jeffrey Franken blows up a couple of street hookers with hyper-charged crack crystals. Using their body parts, he brings back his girlfriend, who then goes on a rampage and kills off several men during sexual intercourse. Although crude, silly and badly written, the movie has some funny moments, especially those involving the re-animated hooker, who takes on one of Karloff's most famous lines from Bride of Frankenstein: "Pretzel - good!"


Two Frankenstein monsters: Ripley (Weaver)
and the android Annalee (Ryder)
The fourth part of the Alien series, Alien Resurrection (USA 1997, dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet), starts off with the premise that heroine Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is getting cloned by a team of military scientists and genetically blended with DNA from the aggressive Aliens. The result is a fairly monstrous Ripley, endowed with superhuman strength and acid for blood, who is constantly torn between her human and Alien side. Being both a threat and a rescuer, Ripley delivers death to her corrupt makers - a team of mad scientists and army members - and saves a band of humans. Among these humans is the movie's second Frankenstein monster, an android (Winona Ryder) whose self-imposed mission is to save mankind from the deadly Alien race created in the Army laboratories. 


  More mad science!

© 1999-2007 Andreas Rohrmoser