Madness has been a staple of movies as long as there have been movies. (Actually, it’s been around as long as there’s been drama of any kind.) Of course, the days when it was simply dubbed madness or insanity are long past. It’s been categorized and labelled and broken down. Even the movies recognized this early on. When the genially crazy Earl Williams (George E. Stone) shoots alienist (an outdated word for psychiatrist) Dr. Max J. Engelhoffer (the ever-wonderful Gustav von Seyffertitz) in Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931), the doctor falls over diagnosing, “Dementia Praecox!” (an outdated term for paranoid schizophrenia). A few years later, von Seyffertitz would turn up as Dr. Emile Von Hallor in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and diagnose Mr. Deeds (Gary Cooper) as suffering from what we’d now call bi-polar disorder in everything but name.
The movies, however, have cared less for scientific or medical accuracy than for the concept of just plain old crazy. Consider the explanation for the actions of the killer in William Nigh’s The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942). Some 18 years before Simon Oakland came in at the end of Psycho to explain everything, this movie offered us Lionel Atwill (no mean hand at playing crazy himself) as a red herring named (incredibly enough) Dr. Fish, who informed us that the killer “had two phobias—number one: he was an egomaniac with a desire to mesmerize the jury and get his client acquitted. Number two: he wanted to punish the criminal himself. It was a psychopathic case.” Where does this get us? It gets us Shemp Howard bringing it down to movie perspective by announcing, “Psychopathic, me eye! He was cuckoo!” The reason—however politically incorrect it may be—is that unadorned insanity is showy and popular. It always has been and it still is. Think not? Then explain that Oscar nomination with Heath Ledger’s name on it for the Joker.
Movie madness also affords us an absolute treasure trove of great moments in film, because—at least so far as the cinema is concerned—madmen are amazingly gregarious. They do love to carry on at great length. The loquacious nature of the movie lunatic has been a standard fixtue of the horror and thriller genre from the beginning. It has afforded some of our greatest scenery-chewing thespians with many memorable moments where they could cut loose shamelessly and yet not overplay the scene. It offers rich dialogue—often very memorable—that virtually defines the genre. It’s also a terrific convention, because excessive verbosity has helped bring down many a movie madman, who might have gotten away with it if he’d just shut up and gone about his business.
With this in mind, what follows is a look at the archetypes of the more flamboyant motormouthed madmen who came our way in the development of this cinematic side street. A lot of the amusement value now stems from the limitations of the writers of that time to understand mental illness. Just as likely, they didn’t much care because the more purple theatrical writing style necessary for this was pure entertainment gold. That it fell out of favor around the middle of the last century and was replaced by a more natural—if a lot less fun—style that didn’t so lend itself to full-blown melodrama is a little regrettable.
While there were certainly examples of these gents in the silent era, it really takes a talkie to get the good out of it. Reading an intertitle just doesn’t cut it, which is probably why silent crazy people spend more time making peculiar faces and broadly gesturing than rabbiting on about whatever their particular idee fixe happens to be. The first such case I’m aware of is Chester Morris as the Bat in Roland West’s The Bat Whispers (1930). The Bat’s big moment actually comes after he’s been caught and consists of an outburst of egocentric bravado (it comes moments after his humble claim, “I’ve got the greatest brain that ever existed!”). “You think you’ve got me, eh? Let me tell you this—there never was a jail built strong enough to hold the Bat, and after I’ve paid my respects to your cheap lock-up, I shall return—at night! The Bat always flies at night—and always in a straight line!” Just in case anyone missed the fact that he’s unhinged, our boastful friend dissolves into maniacal laughter for the curtain.
One of the best—and best loved—of all movie madmen made his appearance in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). I refer, of course, to Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) possessed/hypnotized/vampirized (the film is a little dodgy on just how the Count holds power over him) Renfield as played by the magnificently over-the-top Dwight Frye. According to the film (there’s really no sense in dragging Bram Stoker’s novel into this, is there?), Renfield is a real estate agent/solicitor who is turned into a frequently raving nutcase with a taste for eating flies and spiders when he brings the lease for Dracula’s new home, Carfax Abbey, in England. He functions more or less as the vampire’s familiar and appears to specialize in opening doors for his master—as far as you can tell from the somewhat muddled screenplay. It really doesn’t matter, since Renfield’s real purpose in the film is to deliver creepy speeches that help to drive the plot and goose the atmosphere.
Frye’s Renfield is as theatrically nuts as they come. It’s a performance of the eyes-and-teeth school of drama—accented by dark make up around the eyes (so we can tell he’s possessed or whatever) and punctuated by a trademark laugh that’s probably the first impression every horror fan learns how to do. Nearly everything Renfield says after his transformation is grade A loonspeak. However, he gets two absolutely bravura moments, which—given his general manner of discourse—are almost like gilding the lily. About an hour into the movie, he tells Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) all about Dracula’s power—“He came and stood beneath my window in the moonlight and he promised me things! Not in words, but by doing them, by making them happen. A rid mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire! And then he parted it, and I could see that there were thousands of rats—with their eyes blazing red—like his, only smaller. And then he held up his hand and they all stopped! And I thought he seemed to be saying, ‘Rats! Rats! Rats! Thousands! Millions of them! All red blood, all these will I give you—if you will obey me!”
Renfield’s final scene is very nearly on the same level. Having inadvertently led Van Helsing and company straight to Dracula—who really has only himself to blame for relying on this guy in the first place—Renfield gets to beg for his life. “I’m loyal to you, master! I’m your slave! I didn’t betray you! Oh, no, don’t. Don’t kill me! Let me live, please! Punish me, torture me, but let me live! I can’t die with all those lives on my conscience! All that blood on my hands!” It’s all magnificently overacted by Frye (who could be merely magnificently awkward) and helped earn him a place in the hallowed halls of madmen of the movies. After all, how many character actors have an Alice Cooper song (“The Ballad of Dwight Frye”) named after them?
It’s at this point in movie history that we find the first talking mad scientist in the person of Colin Clive in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Even at his calmest, Clive—a deeply disturbed alcoholic who would die of pneumonia in six years at the age of 37—comes across as wound up as a mainspring that’s about to give way, making him a natural for this kind of thing. Being that Frankenstein is a James Whale picture, the bravura of Clive’s lines and performance is actually presented as a kind of theatrical event that’s occasionally undercut by comedy (“Of all times for anybody to come!” he bitches when he finds his experiment interrupted by the arrival of his fiancee, a friend and his old professor).
Clive’s big scene in the realm of screwy speechifying comes early in the film with the creation of his famous Monster, and gets well underway when his friend, Victor (John Boles), makes the tactless observation that would soon become something of a genre staple—“You’re crazy!” For some reason, movie mad men tend to take issue with that pronouncement. “Crazy, am I? We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not. Come on up,” he counters, bringing the (literal) audience up to see the experiment. After some exceedingly dubious scientific blather about what he’s planning, he turns on the assembled trio to announce, “Quite a good scene, isn’t it? One man crazy—three very sane spectators!” (That he doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of good old Dwight Frye as Fritz, his hunchbacked assistant, is never questioned. Presumably, Fritz is crazy, too.) His big moment is saved for the finale of the sequence when he succeeds in his “mad dream.” “Look! It’s moving! It’s alive. It’s moving. It’s alive! Ohhhh, it’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!” he gloats with mounting fervor, only to have old tight-assed Victor interrupt him, “Henry! In the name of God!” This only inflames him more—“Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” (For years, this was censored out of the print, but has since been restored.)
The hysterical madness of Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is far removed from that of our next case, which crops in the not-terribly-good John Francis Dillon film Behind the Mask (1932), a strange programmer from Columbia. It’s not really a horror picture, but it certainly milks the elements of one—not in the least by bringing in Boris Karloff (as a gangster, who says things like, “That’s all right, baby, the doc expects me”) and that venerable old adversary of monsters, Edward Van Sloan. The movie is a silly affair involving hero Jack Holt as undercover narcotics agent Jack Hart out to bust up a ring of morphine peddlers. It’s structured as a mystery, but it’s probably not giving away too much at this late date to reveal that the head of the drug ring turns out to be none other than the supposedly civic-minded Edward Van Sloan himself. The fact that any classic horror fan worthy of the name is going to recognize Van Sloan’s voice even when he’s in disguise ought to absolve me of any wrondoing in telling you that anyway.
Van Sloan has only one big scene, but it’s a lulu. In fact, it may be my favorite mad speech of all time, even if the movie containing it isn’t all that hot. Van Sloan in his “Mr. X” incarnation has captured Hart and has him at his mercy in a private hospital where he plans to operate on the strapped-down detective. “I know it is customary to get the consent of a patient for an operation, but this is an emergency and I was compelled to use my own judgment,” he tells Hart, who is the very model of the tactless victim throughout the scene. “I can guarantee this. Whatever happens to me, this butcher shop won’t be here tomorrow,” Hart taunts him, only to be assured, “Neither will you. But I am surprised, my friend, that you should question the regularity of this institution. It is my own private hospital, and I always insist that everything be done in accordance with the requirements of the law. Here is your admittance card. This card, by the way, was made out several days ago. You see, Mr. Hart, we were expecting you.”
Mr. X’s sadism knows no bounds. “I am going to test your heart action—to see if it is advisable to give an anethetic. Some people cannot stand ether. They die during the operation and I would not want that to happen to you. Your heart shows a distinct flutter. I’m afraid I better not give you ether. I might try a local anesthetic—a little morphine perhaps.” OK, so the pharamaceutical classification is a little strange, but it pales in comparison to Hart’s response to this—“I don’t think you have enough morphine left—not after what we did to your prop cemetery last night. How many people have you killed to get that dope into this country? Those narcotics are worth a pile of money.” Perturbed, Mr. X assures him, “There’s more where that came from, my friend!” “But it’s gonna be tougher than ever to get it in from now on, my friend,” counters Hart. (I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I was strapped to an operating table with a masked doctor planning on carving me up for the fun of it, I’d think twice before angering him further.) “I will remember that while I am operating on you,” Mr. X purrs. Not satisfied with the damage already done, Hart keeps going, “And remember this, we got Henderson last night. He’s being sweated over at the federal building now, and when they get through with him, they’ll know who you are.” This, however, only amuses our surgical friend—“You can’t tell what you don’t know.”
“Has it ever occurred to you, Mr. Hart, that you can commit almost any crime if you select the proper environment? For example, if I were to stick a knife into you in the street, it would attract attention. I might have to answer embarassing questions. But when I stick a knife into you here on the operating table, nothing will happen—to me,” Mr. X carries on. The indefatigable Hart just will not let bad enough alone and turns sarcastic—“If my hand were untied, I’d applaud.” “But your hands are tied,” Mr. X points out—beating Bette Davis to the punch of “But you are, you are in the chair” by 30 years. Pausing to call for a nurse (God knows why), X returns to his silky rambling, “In a way, Mr. Hart, you are very fortunate. Few people are able to see an operation performed upon them. But you will be able to see every detail. It will be too bad, of course, that you will not be able to talk about it afterwards.” X plays it out for all its worth, slowly cutting away Hart’s shirt in preparation for the event, prior to turning really mean—“The pain when I am going through the layers of skin will not be unendurable. It is only when I begin to cut on the inside that you will realize that you are having an experience. Wasn’t it Nietzsche who said that unendurable pain merges into ecstasy? We shall find out whether that was an epigram or a fact! For my part, I know it will be—ecstasy.” (Wow! A 1932 B picture that drags in Nietzsche! You don’t see that every day.)
The problem with all this excessive verbiage rather than just commencing with the carving is quickly apparent. Before our homicidally twisted friend can make the first knife stroke, Hart’s romantic interest (dressed as the nurse X summoned) shows up and plugs the chatty madman. That should have been a lesson to future madmen, but, of course, it wasn’t. Perhaps if they went to more movies their murderous endeavours would have been more successful.
Having seen the criminal mastermind, the possessed (or whatever) henchman, the unhinged, megalomaniac scientist, and the sadistic surgeon, let’s turn our attention to the deranged would-be benefactor of mankind, who, by my reckoning, first cropped up in Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X (1932). Now, this, like Behind the Mask, is structured as a mystery, but it’s a better mystery, so if you’ve never seen it and want to preserve the mystery of just who “the Moon Killer” is, you might want to skip to the next movie.
The deranged benfactor quickly became pretty standard—at least conceptually. The problem with it beyond concept is that most of the time the benefits from whatever medical or scientific lunacy that’s afoot are hard to fathom. OK, you might accept that kindly old Boris Karloff in William Nigh’s molasses-paced The Ape (1940) skinned an escaped gorilla in order to don the resultant ape suit (yeah, I know) in order to commit murders (apes being inconspicuous in rural America) in his search for a cure for polio. The approach might seem extreme—even extravagant—but the potential benefit is at least reasonable. On the other hand, just exactly what was to be gained by Bela Lugosi turning himself into a semi-simian in William Beaudine’s The Ape Man (1943) is pretty unanswerable. And let’s not even get started on the dubious benefit to humanity evidenced by that B picture favorite of putting a man’s brain into a gorilla’s head (or vice versa).
All in all, the aims of the Moon Killer in Doctor X are sort of laudable—albeit tinged with that touch of egotism of which movie madmen are so rightly proud. The story hinges around a series of murders—“all committed in the full of the moon with no apparent motive”—that leave the victim minus the left deltoid muscle, apparently via teeth (“No, gentlemen, that wasn’t torn—this is cannibalism!”). The murder suspects are all members of the academy of a highfalutin medical school run by a Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). Pressured by the police for an investigation, Dr. X gathers all the suspects (how traditional) at his creepy old mansion (equally traditional) on Long Island to trap the killer by “scientific methods.” The science here consists of the world’s showiest lie detector—colored tubes of red liquid (the film is in color) that will give him away when excitement causes the liquid to overflow. (Oddly, the noise for this device is the stock Warner Bros. sound for an elevator. Who knew?) How to excite him? By re-enacting the crimes on a convenenient stage. Makes sense to me.
None of this scientific folderol actually bears fruit—and indeed it ultimately gives the killer the upper hand, since all the suspects are handcuffed to their chairs. Who cares? It’s neat, as is the fact that the killer is (big shock) the one person, Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) who can’t possibly be guilty because he’s only got one hand. Of course, no one reckoned on him having invented synthetic flesh—which is the crux of his murderous mission. Naturally, he tells all—which is helpful to the viewer as well—before he gets down the task of adding a chunk of Dr. Xavier’s daughter, Joan (Fay Wray), to his flesh collection. (Whether he eats this or uses them in the manufacture of synthetic flesh isn’t wholly clear, but if it’s the latter, the synthetic flesh must be at least partly organic, which should please the health set.)
While up on the stage in his full Moon Killer make up (partly a really nasty mask courtesy of Max Factor), someone realizes that it is indeed Dr. Wells. “Yes, it is Wells! But a new Wells! A Wells whose name will live forever in the history of science!” he tells them. “Look at his hand! It’s horrible!” cries one of his captives. “Yes, look at it—a real hand! It’s alive! It’s flesh—synthetic flesh. For years I’ve been searching to find the secret of a living manufactured flesh and now I’ve found it! You think I went to Africa to study cannibalism? I went there to get samples of the human flesh that the natives eat! Yes, that’s what I needed—living flesh from humans for my experiments! What difference did it make if a few people had to die? Their flesh taught me how to manufacture arms, legs, faces that are human! I’ll make a cripple world whole again!” As mad scene speeches go, this is pretty near the top—even if one wonders if his idea of arms, legs and faces that are “human” relates in any way to his horrific appearance. Typically (obviously, he’d missed Before the Mask), he goes on too long—“Doctor, your name will be remembered. You’ve given your life—everything to science. All but one thing, and now you’re going to give even that to science—your daughter!” This affords the chance for wisecracking newspaperman Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) to step in and save the girl—and the day.
If Lionel Atwill had been merely a sinister presence in Doctor X, he would get a much stronger workout when he reteamed with director Curtiz and Fay Wray for a second Technicolor horror outing, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). This round he was Prof. Igor (pronounced: Eye-gore)—a celebrated artist and certifiable madman. Igor presents something new in the way of cinematic insanity—the artist who’s ready to kill for his art. Igor’s particular problem is that his life’s work was destroyed when his unscrupulous partner (the ever-slimy Edwin Maxwell) set fire to Igor’s wax museum for the insurance money, leaving Igor to presumably perish in the conflagration.
But Igor lived through the blaze. Unfortunately, his hands are too badly burned to recreate his masterpieces. What’s a dedicated artist to do? Why, seek out people who look like the destroyed figures, coat their bodies in wax like a dipped ice-cream cone—and there you are. Instant art. OK, so just exactly how well these folks are going to hold up is open to question, and the process of locating just the right subject must be laborious and largely a matter of luck. Just how often do you come across people who look like Voltaire? Exactly. Clever scripting, however, decrees that Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray)—who just happens to be the fiancee of one Igor’s guileless assistants (Allen Vincent)—is the spitting image of Igor’s greatest achievement, Marie Antoinette. (She ought to be, since she’s pretty obviously standing in—not entirely steadily—for the wax statue early in the movie.)
It ought to be a simple matter, but, for whatever reason Charlotte just isn’t that keen on being covered in hot wax and put on display in Igor’s museum. Ah, but Igor is such an enthusiast about his art that he will persist in trying to sell her on the idea. “My child, why are you so pitifully afraid? Immortality has been the dream, the inspiration of mankind through the ages—and am going to give you immortality,” he assures her. “Oh, please, I’ve done nothing to hurt you,” she argues. “I have no desire to hurt you! You will always be beautiful. Think of it, my child! In a thousand years you’ll be as lovely as you are now! Come!” It’s a good pitch—as pitches for this sort of thing go—but the woman just lacks the necessary vision and artistic sense to buy it. Indeed, she beats at his face with her fists—only to find that his face is made of wax, a covering for his hideously deformed visage.
She holds her poise surprisingly well, calling him a fiend, which he, naturally, denies, assuring her that “there was a fiend—of that you may be sure. There was a fiend and this is what he did me!” He’s pretty worked up by this point and darts over to an upright packing case, shouting, “You! You did this!” at it, before explaining to her, “For 12 years—12 awful years—this terrible living dead man with his burnt hands and face has searched for this fiend. Now the account is closed! He is here!” he cries, throwing up the crate and gives her a good look at the waxed over corpse of his late pyromaniac partner. This is much more persuasive. At least, it causes her to faint dead away, allowing Igor to put his plan into action. But wouldn’t you know it? All the palaver about art and immortality and the real fiend has given time for Charlotte’s typically rather worthless movie hero boyfriend and her wisecracking reporter roommate (Glenda Farrell) to show up and help to foil his plans. A quick rap on the head and a quick dose of wax would have served Igor better than his madman’s desire to natter away.
But what of the homicidal madman who kills just for the hell of it? You may think he’s a product of a newer age—something that came along with Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. But, no, he at least dates back to 1933 and Ben Stoloff’s Night of Terror, a clever and atmospheric little thriller that stars Bela Lugosi as Degar, a Hindu servant with a penchant for a peculiar smoke that he calls “an Oriental…cigarette.” Even so, Lugosi is not our madman. (This isn’t Reefer Madness.) That honor falls to a character called—aptly enough—the Maniac (Pat Harmon). Now, the Maniac is a little more colorful than the modern mad slasher. First of all, he likes to peer through windows and lurk in shrubbery, and he affects an outfit that’s exactly what you’d think the well-dressed serial killer would wear. Moreover, he has a noticeable tic and spends a lot of time blinking. And then there’s his maniacal calling card—he always leaves newspaper headlines about his previous murder penned to his victims’ bodies. (Presumably, he had to wait till victim number two to start this nicely theatrical practice.)
The Maniac, however, is easily as effective as his modern counterpart—the body count starts at 12 and goes nowhere but up. And like his modern counterpart, he doesn’t say anything. This makes him outside the realm of the loquacious loon, but he does get a speech at the very end of the movie. In point of fact, he rises from the dead and comes forward to address the audience. More incredibly still, he’s no longer Pat Harmon, but has transformed into Edwin Maxwell (perhaps Maxwell was a better talking Maniac). In this incarnation he announces, “I am the Maniac. Take heed! I’m talking to you—and you—and you. If you dare tell anyone how this picture ends—if you dare reveal who the murderer really is, I’ll climb in through your bedroom window tonight and tear you limb from limb! I’ll haunt you. Good night. Sleep tight. Pleasant dreams!” At that he goes into (what else?) maniacal laughter, topping it off by hissing at the camera. I’d like to see Jason Voorhees try this.
Of course, no rundown of archetypal movie madmen would be complete without that very useful figure, the nutjob who did it all for love—or more correctly for unrequieted love. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Louis Friedlander’s The Raven (1935). This isn’t an especially good movie—and it looks even more lackluster coming right on the heels of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). If that film had been an attempt to cash in on the combined popularity of Messrs. Karloff and Lugosi, this one was an attempt to cash in on The Black Cat. Lacking the stylishness of Ulmer, however, Friedlander’s approach to the material is…let’s be kind and call it workmanlike. That doesn’t keep it from being an awful lot of lurid fun. The fact that a lot of it makes no sense may actually be a bonus.
Lugosi is a brilliant surgeon, Richard Vollin, and a keen admirer of Edgar Allan Poe. “I’ve actually built, you know, several of those torture devices that Poe described in his tales,” he tells someone early in the film. Now you know where this has to go, though you’re allowed time out to envision him going shopping at Home Depot to purchase the materials for these projects. When he saves a young Jean Thatcher’s (Irene Ware) life, he becomes obsessed with her—a fact that seems to completely escape her notice. (The woman is either the dumbest human being who ever lived, or she’s a deliberate tease. In either case, it’s hard to care what happens to her.) Of course, things go badly, so Vollin does the only logical thing. He transforms escaped killer Edmond Bateman (Karloff) into a horribly deformed fellow (well, that’s the idea, but the make up is on the silly side) in order to pressure the professional criminal into helping him get his revenge on Jean, her fiance (Lester Matthews) and her father (Samuel S. Hinds). Dad is in particular trouble, because he’s done that one thing you just don’t do with lethal loons. He called Vollin “stark staring mad.”
So Vollin invites a bunch of folks for a sleepover and a torture session in his basement. Working on the concept that “when a man of genius is denied his great, he goes mad,” Vollin proceeds to illustrate that idea. And talk about it—a lot. The idea he puts forth is summed up when Dad—strapped down in the “Pit and the Pendulum” device—exhorts him, “Oh, try to be sane, Vollin!” “I am the sanest man who ever lived. But I will not be tortured. I tear torture out of myself by torturing you! Fifteen minutes! There’s the clock—you can see it! Torture! Waiting, waiting! Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!” he assures the old boy, before going on a laughing jag.
His plans for Jean and her fiance involve putting them in “the room where the walls come together.: Somehow Vollin has concluded that this is going to set things right—“I’ll soon be rid of my torture—rid of it! Then I’ll be the sanest man who ever lived!” (He likes this idea.) After securing them in the room, he really gets wound up. “What torture! What delicious torture, Bateman! Greater than Poe! Poe only conceived it! I have done it, Bateman! Poe, you are avenged!” he rants. (In his book, A Pictorial History of the Horror Film Denis Gifford notes of that last claim, “Others would disagree.”) It’s the kind of outrageous hi-octane nutso behaviour that only Lugosi could get away with. Dr. Vollin, alas, isn’t so lucky, as you might have guessed. Oh, well, he had delicious torture while it lasted. If he’d lived in the 21st century, he could have just called on Eli Roth and enjoyed it in relative safety.
And with that, we come to the end of our little look in on the archetypes of movie madmen with a taste for talk. Oh, there’s more of it to be sure. Some of it’s very fine—or at least very fun, too. But all of it more or less adheres to these basic concepts. It all may be pretty bogus as science, but after all in the movies, doesn’t this sort of thing really come back to, “Psychopathic, me eye! He was cuckoo!”?