Biology Runs Amok! The Life Science Lessons Of Science Fiction Cinema by Mark C. Glassy (book review).

Ah! A writer after my own heart. Cancer immunologist/writer Mark C. Glassy uses his book, ‘Biology Runs Amok! The Life Science Lessons Of Science Fiction Cinema’, to explore how real science was used in SF films can date when they were made and the accuracy to their display. These articles first appeared in the American magazine ‘Scary Monsters’.

Biology Runs Amok! The Life Science Lessons Of Science Fiction Cinema by Mark C. Glassy (book review).
Biology Runs Amok! The Life Science Lessons Of Science Fiction Cinema by Mark C. Glassy (book review).

When Glassy explores the use of the microscope, I do wonder if the reason why the illumination mirror is level rather than redirecting the light might, in some cases, be because it would be reflecting a studio light and risking dazzle. Something I hadn’t realised was the word ‘lens’ come from the word ‘lentil’ as in the seed which it resembles. Further in, the ‘pinal gland’ got its name for resembling a pine cone. Be prepared to learn a lot and Glassy doesn’t write stale science and explains everything properly.

For each of his chapters, Glassy presents a variety of examples from over the decades and might be a good game to play which other examples he could have used or missed. I would add ‘Children Of The Damned’ (1964) for examining blood under a microscope. It isn’t as though he’s ignoring British films. If anything, I’m finding it’s triggering my own memories and picking out better examples.

Glassy gives a piece about the subject he is dealing with as it should be before comparison to how it is depicted in his selection of films and how well they did it. If you’re well informed on the spectrum of old horror and SF movies then you’ll know what he’s getting at. Even if you aren’t, then you’ll still get a lot of extra knowledge. More recent films up to the turn of the century get the odd mention.

Obviously, Glassy examines the Frankenstein myth and Universal films. I was hoping he would explain how Dr. Pretorius in ‘The Bride Of Frankenstein’(1935) kept his homunculi fed and house trained.

An apparent error Glassy has describing Volta’s zinc and copper plate battery is failing to add the acid electrolyte that conducts the electricity. A very important detail that was over-looked which was unusual.

What will give all of you food for thought is the various definitions of death and what happens to be body when it dies. Glassy’s medical background noting that the pancreas is the first organ to deteriorate so any creature is either going to need a very fresh organ or risk being diabetic. That should make hospital visits interesting. It’s also why you don’t see pancreas transplants.

When it comes to werewolves, you have a whole lecture on the types of hair we have before focusing on the lycanthropes themselves. What is weird is that Glassy points out that hair grows everywhere on them but their upper lips and then has some of his examples do have moustaches, which is contradictory. From my perspective, keeping the upper lip trim there may be more to ensure their fangs are visible and stop moustache hair getting entangled in them. Traditional wolves don’t have the same problem but they also don’t grow hair as rapidly as lycanthropes.

With the use of weird drugs used in films, we again get caught in the examples. I know Glassy says he keeps to examples but there are some better choices. Although Jekyll and Hyde is covered under hormone drugs in the next chapter, there are examples from the original book and other films using the pair that were purely drug transformation. In fact, I’m surprised ‘Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ (1971) wasn’t covered. It isn’t as though the odd book example isn’t given. It did set me thinking on what better examples should have been included. ‘Trancers’ (1984) for its time travel drug, ‘Alien Nation’ (1988) and its Jabroka drug which it toxic when over-dosed and that nice Dr. Phibes who created a drug to preserve life in suspended animation. If anything, there are fewer super-drug films than I realised. Mind you, it would be interesting to do a comicbook based version of this book and see examples beyond Captain America because it’s quite prevalent there.

There is some illogic in what Glassy describes about ‘The War Of The Worlds’ (1953). Yes, a couple Martians were touched by humans or their materials and got infected by terrestrial infections but by far most stayed in their machines and didn’t have much physical contact with each other, so how did they get infected?

It’s odd that the discussion on brain transplants or purely keeping them alive sans body barely mentions ‘Donovan’s Brain’ (1953), the defining film on the subject.

Again, we come down to the problems of examples or page space but why should ‘The Devil Doll’ (1936) for miniaturisation be covered and not ‘Dr. Cyclops’ (1940) or even ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966) that clearly showed some scientific aspects. I can understand a little more why ‘Tarantula’ (1955) and not ‘Them!’ (1954) when it comes to enlarged animals because the latter has been covered but then only one example from so many films seems a shame when some other subjects get so many. Glassy does spend an entire chapter on ‘The Amazing Colossal Man’ (1957) and interested enough to consider getting a copy of the film. Granted this is reprinting material from ‘Scary Monsters’ but little adjustments in the examples would probably encourage its readers to see what else Glassy has to say.

His look at nurses was probably at the urging of his wife, who is a nurse, but their activities are mostly normal and nothing out of the ordinary. If anything, their regards to health (sic) and looking after patients has been shown throughout film history. Well, except maybe for ‘Gorgon’ (1964) and ‘Misery’ (1991).

Glassy covers a lot of ground in this book and the gripes are small in comparison to the amount of material he covers. About the only thing he doesn’t cover is why would a physicist need chemicals in his lab? At most, assuming they make their own circuit-boards, is a select acid and plenty of water. See. I’m still thinking after reading this book. Always a good sign.

GF Willmetts

June 2018

(pub: McFarland, 2016. 247 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £39.95 (UK), $ (US). ISBN: 978-1-47666-472-9)

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