From Frankenstein to Lecter: Hollywood's Baddest Docs

John Dillon

October 26, 2022

Masks can be scary on Halloween, but more so when they come with scrubs, scalpels, and God complexes. In March, Medscape readers chose their favorite characters and performers in the Hollywood healthcare system. As a Halloween treat, we follow up with a dozen of our favorite Evil Doctors from a deep bench (and no, Dr Evil didn't go to medical school; neither did Dr No, for that matter). Before you see these folks who'd rather haunt than heal, we urge you to seek a second opinion.

George Harris (Richard Widmark, "Coma," 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'll make the hard decisions" — like choosing which young, healthy patients to put into an irreversible coma to harvest their organs. Harris' audience of one here is Dr Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold), the upstart who has uncovered his plot, and whom Harris has just drugged to prepare her as his next unintentional donor. "Coma" was based on a bestseller by Robin Cook and directed by Michael Crichton, who left Harvard Medical School for a career in popular books and films, including "The Andromeda Strain" and "Jurassic Park." Although Harris starts out as a reassuring friend and mentor to Wheeler, older moviegoers won't forget that he launched to stardom by tossing a wheelchair-bound woman down the stairs in 1947's "Kiss of Death."

Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier, "Marathon Man," 1976)

He may look harmless, but Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) is a sadist with a secret, a stash, and throat-slitting skills. Szell, a dentist known as the White Angel of Auschwitz for his war crimes, stops at nothing to protect the diamonds he stole from his victims in the camps. In one of Hollywood's most infamous torture scenes, Szell tries to extract information from Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman), an innocent grad student, plying the tools of his trade. When Szell asks, "Is it safe?" he's not curious about whether Babe's insurance covers anesthesia.

Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin, "Little Shop of Horrors," 1986)

Sticking with deranged dentists, Orin Scrivello, DDS (Steve Martin) sings and dances his way into your nightmares buoyed by copious helpings of nitrous oxide. Orin's too-encouraging momma told him to parlay his sadistic tendencies into a career "where people will pay you to be inhumane." Sonny listened. Moviegoers were treated to screeching sound effects of a tooth getting yanked during an Elvis-like musical number shot in part from inside a patient's mouth. Martin makes a creepy 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 leave medical school and experiment solo in a castle. He insists to his betrothed that he hasn't gone mad when she arrives as  he is bringing a dead body back to life during a raging lightning storm. When she and Henry's mentor, Dr Waldman, witness him succeed, Waldman warns Henry that the former owner of the purloined brain was a notorious criminal. When Henry exclaims, "It's alive, it's alive !," little did he know that he created the face (Boris Karloff) that would launch a thousand sequels, a spectacular satire, and untold Halloween masks.

Dr Gogol (Peter Lorre, "Mad Love," 1935)

A few years after playing doctor Frankenstein, Colin Clive became the patient of a mad medic himself. A concert pianist whose hands have been mangled 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 wife, a star of gory stage shows, that he has created a wax figure of her. He schemes to win her in the flesh by attaching a murderer's hands 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 conquer love?" A modern remake would surely have him asking, "Why do they swipe left?"

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, "Silence of the Lambs," 1991)

The FBI, hunting for a serial killer, sends trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to seek insight into the murderer from the 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 menace from their first meeting; the bars and glass surrounding his cell offer Clarice no protection from his gaze and ability to read her mind. In his own way, the urbane, pathologically charming Lecter takes a shine to Clarice, helping with the case while embarking on another murderous spree against men who recently wronged her. When he escapes, his plans do not include dinner with — or of — Clarice, but others, well, they're not 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 kindly doctor in Victorian London with an American accent. But he is so determined to split good and evil personalities that he devises a potion to outsource his id. As he watches himself morph into Mr Hyde — a hairy, cone-headed dude in serious need of an orthodontist — he exclaims, "Free! Free at last!" Free, that is, for his simian side to engage in debauchery, abuse, self-hatred, intimations of rape, and ultimately murder — all of which are explored in this pre-Code film, the first talkie version of Robert Louis Stevenson's story.

Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton, "Island of Lost Souls," 1932)

"Strange-looking natives you have here," shipwreck victim Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) tells his host, the white-suited, whip-wielding Dr Moreau. Before long, 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 forbidding them from eating meat or walking on all fours. Lawbreakers get taken to the House of Pain, a medical setting which, as its name suggests, lacks adequate analgesia. Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando took on the Moreau role in later versions, but Laughton is the creepiest when he asks, "Do you know what it means to feel like God?" The film was banned for years in Britain, and H.G. Wells despised this take on his anti-vivisection tale.

Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbé, "The Fugitive," 1993)

Richard Kimble, a Chicago vascular surgeon, arrives home to find that a man just brutally murdered his loving wife. The killer escapes, and Kimble falls into the frame-up. Convicted for the murder and headed to prison, Kimble breaks free in an epic escape scene. He spends the rest of the movie all but giving his right arm to find the murderer, while being pursued by a dogged US Marshal played with gusto by Tommy Lee Jones. Kimble eventually discovers that his colleague, Dr Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbé), is not quite the best friend a man could have — or the most ethical of clinical investigators.  

Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons, "Dead Ringers," 1988)

"You've got to try the movie star," fertility specialist Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) implores to his identical but meek twin brother, Beverly (also Jeremy Irons), talking about an actress-patient (Genevieve Bujold) as if she were a menu item. Beverly shares a practice with Elliot, along with a soul and an easily satisfied drug addiction. Beverly is unaware that Elliot seduces patients before passing them off to his brother, including the actress. Beverly is in love with the actress, which upsets the equilibrium of their shared soul. He aims to fix this, but not without some trauma involving freakish and unsanitary operating implements.

Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford, "Get Out," 2017)

Neurosurgeon Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) was such a fan of President Obama that he would have voted for him a third time if he could. At least, that's how he portrays himself to Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an African American photographer and the new boyfriend of Armitage's White daughter. The Armitage estate has plenty of people of color — on staff, anyway — but Chris finds them odd and distant. It turns out that a gathering of rich White people is in fact an auction for his eyesight. Horror ensues. The main message from this film is not unlike that of Russian operatives who fall out of favor with the Kremlin: Don't drink the tea.

John Dillon is a freelancer writer in Boston.

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