Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill stars in this fascinating horror gem from the Pre-Code era.
Doctor X was released by Warner Bros. in 1932 as one of the many horror films that followed the success of Universal Pictures classics such as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). The film is unique because it is a Pre-Code horror film about the search for a serial killer and is one of the last films made in the early two-color Technicolor process.
Doctor X begins with the reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) investigating the “Moon Killer Murders” in New York, where the bodies of the victims have been cannibalized. Witnesses describe the killer as a badly disfigured monster.
The police believe that a scientist at the Academy of Surgical Research is responsible for the grisly crimes. Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) is met by the police because the scalpel used to cannibalize the bodies belonged exclusively to the academy. Along with Xavier, the other suspects are Wells (Preston Foster), an amputee who studied cannibalism; Duke (Harry Beresford), a disabled loudmouth; Haines (John Wray), a pervert; and the facially scarred Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe).
The police allow Xavier forty-eight hours to find the killer in his own way. Whilst Xavier’s investigation takes place, Taylor looks around for himself. He meets Joan Xavier (Fay Wray), who responds coldly to him.
Doctor Xavier is ready to carry out his experiments. All the suspects are brought to his beach-side estate in Long Island where Xavier will use various unorthodox methods, but will he be able to identify the killer?
Despite being thinly plotted and overtalkative, Doctor X is an entertaining horror gem. It is based on a modestly successful 1931 play The Terror by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C.Miller and was directed by Michael Curtiz, who would soon make such classics as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). Curtiz directs the film with vigour and style.
The two-color technicolor by acclaimed cinematography pioneer Ray Rennahan (who would later win plaudits for his work on Gone With The Wind eight years later) produces a rather strange picture, eerie in parts and otherworldly in appearance throughout.
All the suspects look like a mix of the most sinister types which at least makes the medical institute look rather peculiar and macabre, even if the guilty party becomes rather obvious from the outset.
However, the film lacks an effective lead character. Lee Taylor, played by Lee Tracy, is mostly irritating. A wise-cracking newsman with an endless stream on bad gags, Taylor seems to exist here to provide a romantic angle and for some light relief to counter the gruesomeness.
Fay Wray’s star power and talent is evident in every scene she is in. Her very presence seems let down by the fact she has very little to do. Her character, Joan Xavier, is interesting but clearly underwritten. She is, after all, the daughter of Doctor X and that angle should have been explored. If Joan was more central to the narrative, the film would surely be in a different class.
Lionel Atwill produces yet another assured performance, as he does in every film.
Following the box office success of Doctor X, Warner Bros. released Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which also starred Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill and again directed by Michael Curtiz. Mystery of the Wax Museum was also shot in early two-color Technicolor. Both films were also filmed in black and white.
The Hays Code, the informal name for the Motion Picture Production Code, meant that films such as Doctor X could not possibly have been made. It would have been difficult for the censor to approve the subject matter, the themes and risqué elements that are present in the film from the start, such as a prostitute (Mae Busch) conversing in a whorehouse.
Doctor X certainly has its moments, especially the colorful German Expressionist sets and shadows, the revelation of the killer using his synthetic flesh (make up by Max Factor) and some of the performances. Despite its flaws, Doctor X is an enjoyable and fascinating thriller and is certainly worth the watch.
Paul J. Bradley
This is one of my two entries for Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: The Blogathon, which is in conjunction with the publication of the wonderful Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir by their daughter Victoria Riskin. The book has been on release since February 26th, 2019 and it is an essential read. Please do not forget to read our blogs on March 2nd and 3rd.