Lawrence O'Toole
August 10, 1990 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Fooling with Mother Nature in the movies

With their power to portray our worst fears, movies frequently have cautioned science about mucking around with Mother Nature. The current cinematic incarnations of Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll are the med students in Flatliners, who kill and then revive themselves to explore near-death experiences. Beware: Movies usually have advised that it’s best to leave well — or bad — enough alones. Here are some of the best films on video that point out the boundaries beyond which it is dangerous to explore.

The Invisible Man (1934)
James Whale had already filmed Frankenstein when he turned to H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. In his movie debut Claude Rains ”expediments” (as he puts it) with a drug that renders him imperceptible and, soon, megalomaniacal. (The ever-prescient Wells called the drug ”monocaine.”) Whale’s playful and innovative trick photography (using wires and mattes that have now become standard issues) and Rains’ virtuoso performance, nearly entirely vocal, turn his tragedy of transparency into something touching and timeless. A

The Body Snatcher (1945)
Robert Louis Stevenson, who created that other famous dabbler in potions, Dr. Jekyll, wrote the story on which this film is based. In Val Newton’s grisly, atmospheric, and highly literary production, creepy Boris Karloff supplies doctor Henry Daniell with fresh corpses from Edinburgh graves for Daniell’s anatomical doodlings. The grave-robbing eventually leads to the ultimate desecration of nature: murder. The movie has those unmistakable, shiver-inducing touches Lewton (Cat People) is famous for: a loyal little dog refusing to leave the site of its master’s fresh grave, a blind singer’s song suddenly and shockingly stopping offscreen, and the surprise of that final coach ride. B+

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Test tubes and Bunsen burners quickly became antiquated after the atom bomb. In nearly every sci-fi or horror film of the ’50s radiation was the bogey, as it was in Jack Arnold’s Incredible Shrinking Man, the most unpretentious and poignant sci-fi film of them all. A ”strange” passes over Grant Williams while he suns himself on his fishing boat, and he slowly begins to shrink and shrink until, having been reduced to fighting off a monstrous spider with a pin, he’s no more than a speck in the universe. Sad, even wistful science fiction; this is anyone’s nightmare of low self-esteem. B+

The Fly (1958, 1986)
The sight of Al Hedison with a giant housefly’s head atop his white coat lab might seem the height of hokeyness now, as might the little human head on a fly trapped in a spider’s web squealing, ”Help me! Help me!” But kids watching The Fly in 1958 went into sweats and hid under their seats. Harmless as a fly, however, is not the phrase that comes buzzing to mind after watching David Cronenberg’s intense 1986 remake, in which Jeff Goldblum, tampering with genetics, watches his body hideously devolve. Fly (1958): B-; Fly (1986): B+

Altered States (1980)
Hoping to find the meaning of life, specifically the genesis of thought, the brilliant and obsessive young scientist Dr. Jessup (William Hurt) in Ken Russell’s silly but splashy film is another man who would be God. Toying with isolation-tank therapy and a psychedelic drug used by Indians, he fuses the two mind-altering techniques to regress genetically billions of years, turning simian, protozoan, and, finally, infinitesimal. (When he literally goes ape in a generator room’s tangle of pipes, he’s the Alien with hair.) During the climactic experiment, Blair Brown and (gulp) love banish all demons. As trashy entertainments go, this one’s sometimes pretty swell. C+

Re-Animator (1986)
In this comparatively old-fashioned and sometimes obscenely funny movie, a demented med student (Jeffrey Combs) invents a serum to bring the dead back to life. Stuart Gordon’s stitching together of Frankenstein and Night of the Living Dead is fun from start to finish, if a bit short in the style department. And, alas, supporting cast is as dull as death itself. This is still the only known movie in which a severed head makes love to a naked woman. B

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