From Frankenstein to Lecter: The Best Hollywood Documentaries

From Frankenstein to Lecter: The Best Hollywood Documentaries

Masks can be scary on Halloween, but even more so when paired with scrubs, scalpels, and god complexes. In March, Medscape readers chose their favorite characters and performers in Hollywood’s healthcare system. As a Halloween treat, we follow a dozen of our favorite Evil Doctors from bench deep (and no, Dr. Evil didn’t go to medical school; neither did Dr. No, for that matter. ). Before seeing these people who would rather haunt than cure, we invite you to seek a second opinion.

george harris (Richard Widmark, “Come”, 1978)

“Medicine is now a great social force,” says Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark), chief of surgery at Boston Memorial. Because the public trusts doctors, “we will make the hard decisions” – like choosing healthy young patients to put into an irreversible coma to harvest their organs. Harris’s audience here is Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold), the upstart who uncovered her plot, and whom Harris has just drugged to groom her as his next unwitting donor. “Coma” was based on a Robin Cook bestseller and directed by Michael Crichton, who left Harvard Medical School for a career in popular books and movies, including “The Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park.” Although Harris started out as a reassuring friend and mentor to Wheeler, older moviegoers won’t forget he shot to fame throwing a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs in 1947’s “Kiss of Death.”

Christian Szel (Laurence Olivier, “Marathon Man”, 1976)

He may seem harmless, but Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) is a sadist with a secret, a hideout, and cutting-throat skills. Szell, a dentist known as the White Angel of Auschwitz for his war crimes, will stop at nothing to protect the diamonds he stole from his victims in the camps. In one of Hollywood’s most infamous torture scenes, Szell attempts to extract information from innocent graduate student Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) who uses the tools of his trade. When Szell asks, “Is it safe?” he’s not curious if Babe’s insurance covers anesthesia.

Orin Scrivelo (Steve Martin, “Little Shop of Horrors”, 1986)

Sticking with Deranged Dentists, Orin Scrivello, DDS (Steve Martin) sings and dances his way into your nightmares backed by hearty helpings of nitrous oxide. Orin’s overly supportive mom told him to turn his sadistic tendencies into a career “where people will pay you to be inhuman”. Sonny listened. Moviegoers were treated to shrill sound effects of a tooth being pulled during an Elvis-esque musical number shot partly from inside a patient’s mouth. Martin makes a scary scene more fun than a long, slow root canal.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, “Frankenstein”, 1931)

His alarming need for fresh corpses forced Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) to drop out of medical school and experiment solo in a castle. He insists to his fiancée that he hasn’t gone mad when she arrives as he brings a corpse back to life during a severe thunderstorm. When she and Henry’s mentor Dr. Waldman see him succeed, Waldman warns Henry that the previous owner of the stolen brain was a notorious criminal. When Henry exclaims, “It’s alive, it’s living ! he had no idea he had created the face (Boris Karloff) that would launch a thousand sequels, spectacular satire and untold Halloween masks.

Dr Gogol (Peter Lorre, “Crazy Love”, 1935)

A few years after playing Doctor Frankenstein, Colin Clive himself became the patient of a mad doctor. A concert pianist whose hands were mutilated in a train wreck, Clive’s wife turns to Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre, in his Hollywood debut), who promises to surgically reattach the musician’s hands. Unfortunately, Gogol is so obsessed with the woman, a star of the gory shows, that he created a wax figure of her. He plans to gain her in the flesh by tying the hands of a murderer to Clive, then frame him for committing murder with those hands. Gogol utters the madman’s lament: “I have conquered science. Why can’t I defeat love? A modern remake would surely have him asking, “Why are they swiping left?”

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, “The Silence of the Lambs”, 1991)

The FBI, on the hunt for a serial killer, sends intern Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to seek insight into the murderer from imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant psychiatrist with a penchant for murder – and a taste for the flesh of his victims. Lecter proves to be a threat from their first meeting; the bars and glass surrounding her cell offer Clarice no protection from her gaze and her ability to read her mind. In his own way, the courteous and pathologically charming Lecter takes an interest in Clarice, helping her with the case while embarking on another round of murders against men who have recently wronged her. When he escapes, his plans don’t include having dinner with – or from – Clarice, but others, well, they aren’t so lucky.

Henry Jekyll (Fredric March, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, 1931)

Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) is a jumble of personalities. By day, he’s a nice doctor from Victorian London with an American accent. But he’s so determined to separate good and bad personalities that he designs a potion to outsource his identity. As he watches himself transform into Mr. Hyde – a hairy, conical-headed dude in serious need of an orthodontist – he exclaims, “Free! Free at last!” Free, that is, for her simian side to indulge in debauchery, abuse, self-hatred, rape intimations and ultimately murder – all of which are explored in this pre-Code film, the first talking version of the story by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton, “The Island of Lost Souls”, 1932)

“You’ve got some strange-looking natives here,” shipwreck victim Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) told his host, white-suited, whip-wielding Dr. Moreau. Soon we learn that Moreau’s evil veterinary talents have created an island population of human/beast hybrids who are forced to follow his laws, especially one that forbids them to eat meat or walk on all fours. Violators are taken to the House of Pain, a medical facility which, as its name suggests, lacks adequate pain relief. Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando took on the role of Moreau in later versions, but Laughton is scariest when he asks, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” The film was banned for years in Britain, and HG Wells despised this version of his anti-vivisection tale.

Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbé, “The Fugitive”, 1993)

Richard Kimble, a vascular surgeon from Chicago, arrives home to find that a man has just brutally murdered his beloved wife. The killer escapes and Kimble falls into the frame-up. Convicted of the murder and headed to prison, Kimble breaks free in an epic escape scene. He spends the rest of the film giving only his right arm to find the murderer, while being pursued by a stubborn US Marshal played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones. Kimble eventually discovers that his colleague, Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbé), isn’t quite the best friend a man could have – or the most ethical of clinical researchers.

Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons, “Dead Ringtones”, 1988)

“You gotta try movie stardom,” fertility specialist Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) implores to his identical-but-sweet twin brother, Beverly (also Jeremy Irons), speaking of an actress patient (Genevieve Bujold) as if she was a menu item. Beverly shares a practice with Elliot, as well as an easily gratified soul and addiction. Beverly is unaware that Elliot is seducing patients before passing them on to her brother, including the actress. Beverly is in love with the actress, which upsets the balance of their common soul. It aims to solve this problem, but not without trauma involving bizarre and unsanitary operating tools.

Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford, “Get Out”, 2017)

Neurosurgeon Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) was such a big fan of President Obama that he would have voted for him a third time if he could. At least, that’s how he introduces himself to Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an African-American photographer and the new boyfriend of Armitage’s white daughter. The Armitage estate has many people of color — staff, anyway — but Chris finds them strange and distant. It turns out that a gathering of wealthy white people is actually an auction for his eyesight. Horror ensues. The main message of this film is reminiscent of that of Russian agents who fell out of favor with the Kremlin: do not drink tea.

John Dillon is a freelance writer in Boston.

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