From the video case: When the moon is full, murder stalks the streets in this classic chiller directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). An investigative reporter traces the trail of corpses to the suspicious Dr. Xavier and his medical college, where grisly experiments are being performed. In a tiny laboratory at the college, a one-armed scientist teetering on the brink of madness researches cannibalism and the creation of limbs from synthetic flesh. The result is a man-monster on the prowl for human flesh to use in the scientist’s increasingly bizarre experiments. (1932, color)
Mark says: Doctor X is not the most significant horror/mystery to come out of the 1930s, but it does possess enough interesting facets to make it worth your time.
The most notable feature is the use of the two-strip Techinicolor system. (The Technicolor we came to know was a three-strip system, allowing for a much broader spectrum.) Producers enlisted the talents of Natalie Kalmus to create an incredibly effective muted color scheme, which lends to the mysterious atmosphere of the picture.
Reinforcing the creepy ambiance are the fantastic sets of Anton Grot. It would be hard to over-estimate how much Grot’s elaborate, moody sets add to the distinct flavor of the film. These sets coupled with the color scheme make for some fascinating visuals.
Speaking of fascinating visuals, I would be remiss not to mention make-up artist, Max Factor, for creating a particularly grotesque, “synthetic flesh” monster. Even by today’s standards, I find the creature repulsive.
Doctor X stars Lionel Atwill (Man Made Monster, Mark of the Vampire) and Fay Wray (King Kong, The Vampire Bat) as Dr. Jerry Xavier and his daughter, Joanne Xavier. Both give convincing performances and Fay Wray throws in a few trademark screams to give the picture extra chills.
On the down side, the film’s hero, Lee Tracy (as Daily World Reporter, Lee Taylor), is so clownish that we are constantly distracted by his antics. It wouldn’t be so bad if he wise-cracked now and then, but in every scene he goes for the laugh, which makes him an extremely grating character. (I am often told I suffer from the same characteristic.) A running gag throughout the film is Lee’s use of a simple hand-buzzer. Sometimes he uses it as a practical joke, and sometimes he forgets he’s wearing the thing and shocks someone unintentionally. A real laugh riot, to be sure, but it gets old surprisingly quickly (like after the first time).
The doctors at Xavier’s medical academy are somewhat cartoonish. One of them is a one-armed man (Dr. Wells), another wears an eye monocle (Dr. Rowitz), yet another is confined to a wheelchair (Dr. Duke), and all of them are suspiciously bizarre. The academy even houses a dark and peculiar butler (played by George Rosener). Everyone at the academy is a suspect in the “Moon Killer” murders, including Dr. Xavier himself.
The plot, while full of holes, is entertaining in a comic book sort of way. The theme of cannibalism gives the movie an uneasy edge, which must have been more unnerving in 1932. However, I don’t want to elaborate any more on the story as not to spoil the mystery (the video box description already gives away too much.)
Though Doctor X is disappointing on some levels, its overall eerie feel and strong performances by Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill make it a worthwhile morsel for B film enthusiasts.
Based on a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (Mystery of the Wax Museum).
Scene to watch for: In an uncharacteristically bright setting for the film, Fay Wray and Lee Tracy take time off from their gloomy surroundings to sunbathe.
Line to listen for: “Professor Duke, don’t criticize Joanne for her state of undress.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! out of 5.