Michael Curtiz, 1932
Starring: Lee Tracy, Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill
A number of strange murders are being investigated by reporter Lee Taylor and the local police. The “Full Moon Killer” dispatches his victims only by the light of the full moon and, horrifyingly, cannibalizes them. According to witnesses it is a monster, not a man, responsible for the murders. A local doctor, Dr. Xavier, is contacted by police to consult on the murders, but they also want to investigate his medical academy after evidence is traced back there. The police learn that Xavier’s academy (haha) is teeming with potential suspects. First is Dr. Wells, who is missing his left hand and thus cannot physically carry out the murders, but ardently studies cannibalism. Dr. Haines is a known voyeur and all around pervert, and Dr. Rowitz is doing a psychological study about the effects of the moon, among others. The latter two may also have cannibalized a man while at sea.
While the police give Xavier sometime to narrow down the suspect pool, Taylor does more investigating of his own and meets Xavier’s lovely daughter Joan. The detectives bring all the suspects together at Xavier’s estate and re-enact the crime with Xavier’s maid and butler, while the suspects are chained down and hooked up to heart monitors in order to figure out which doctor is guilty. Of course this is a disaster as the killer has prepared and causes a black out. One of the suspects is killed in the darkness and Taylor, who has snuck into the house, almost dies. Desperately hoping to clear her father’s name, Joan begrudgingly asks him for help solving the murders. Will they find the real killer before more people are cannibalized?
This was a pre-Code film and there are a number of incredibly lurid elements, though they unfortunately aren’t used to the utmost extent. There are mentions of rape, cannibalism, serial murder, and the murderer gruesomely experiments with synthetic flesh, something the camera does not shy away from in one particularly wonderful scene. Most interestingly, Doctor X seems to mock other horror films from the period that begin with the possibility of supernatural evil, but always end up revealing human perpetrators. Though the killer in Doctor X is human, he is a monstrous example, warped into something non-human by the misuse of science.
Though there are some great elements in this film and a number of beloved horror tropes, those things sadly do not add up to a great film. Probably the worst part of the movie is the inclusion of the journalist (Lee Tracey) who is supposed to provide the bumbling comic relief, but instead brings the horror and suspense to a grinding halt. And I mean grinding. The script doesn’t help matters and is convoluted, overly talky, and full of obvious red herrings. Part of the problem is that Doctor X doesn’t seem to know what genre it belongs in: horror, comedy, sci-fi, police procedural, mystery, etc. It is based on a mystery play, Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller’s The Terror, and overall feels like a twisted version of The Old Dark House, namely during its second half.
Though the script lacks the subtlety, wit, social commentary, or the true horror and subversion of the genre classics from the period, it does attempt to pack in as many horror tropes as possible. In addition to the spooky old house, a creepy laboratory, skeletons, taxidermied animals, brains in a jar, a deranged butler, a scene in the morgue, wax dummies, and experiments with synthetic flesh, we have a serial killer who cannibalizes his victims during the full moon.
This was one of the last films to use the older two-strip Technicolor process and, as a result, the film looks a bit unusual and almost like an old comic book or pulp magazine. There was also a black and white version shot to accommodate theaters, but most preferred the color version. The coloring is complimented by some nice sets from Anton Grot, namely the doctor’s house, which looks particularly foreboding and fantastic. Grot who would return to work on The Mystery of the Wax Museum with director Michael Curtiz, Fay Wray, and Lionel Atwill. Doctor X was produced by Warner Bros. under their First National label, and was surprisingly successful in the box office. It encouraged Warner to make another horror film, the above mentioned, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which was also shot in two-strip Technicolor.
Fay Wray essentially launched her career in this film and her famous scream appears regularly. She would return to horror for her most famous role in King Kong. Lionel Atwill, a Universal horror regular and genre mainstay through the ‘30s and ‘40s, also kicked off his signature role as the mad scientist in this film and is clearly having a great time. Director Michael Curtiz is mostly known for Casablanca, but he also directed a number of classic films: Captain Blood, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mildred Pierce. He did a decent job with Doctor X, despite the lackluster script, and deserves to be remembered as one of the better directors of the period.
I can’t really recommend Doctor X, but if you want to take your chances, it is available in the Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection along with its loose sequel The Return of Doctor X, Mad Love, The Devil Doll, The Mark of the Vampire, and The Mask of Fu Manchu.