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Doctor X (1932)



Stumbling onto Doctor X used to be like stumbling onto a 5 dollar bill in the street -- a rare occurence, definitely worth it, but you kind of wished it was a 10. While available on VHS, it was hardly a prominently placed tape. More likely, however, you found it through its occasional showings on Turner Classic Movies, especially after VHS faded away and a DVD replacement failed to show. However, now with Warner Video's "Hollywood's Legends of Horror" box set, we finally get the opportunity to view this curiousity in its full digital splendor.

In 1932, horror became the hot thing in Hollywood. Universal had launched the genre into the sound era with the one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931). Monsters were suddenly in demand, and Warner Bros., whose genre dealings up to that pont had been in the now outdated "old dark house" mysteries and bizarre human melodramas, was now under pressure to bring on the creature features. Company president Jack Warner had little use for horror -- the studio made roughly nine horror films between 1930 and 1950 -- but the public's appetite had to be whetted.

On top of that, Warner was contractually obligated to make two more films in Technicolor's slightly gaudy two-strip process, which was limited to displaying only greens and reds. In a savvy move, Warner combined its two "problems" by setting workhorse director Michael Curtiz to make two chillers with essentially the same cast and releasing them within six months of each other. While the second film, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, is probably the superior of the two, Doctor X is an enjoyable experience in its own right.

Somebody's murdering people on the full moon and cannibalizing their bodies (in 1932, no less -- zombies aren't even eating flesh yet). Renowned medical expert Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) is called in to examine the latest victim, and it is determined that the killer is likely one of the doctors at Xavier's renowned Academy of Surgical Research. Given 48 hours to solve the case before the police move in, Xavier spirits his staff and his lovely daughter (Fay Wray) to a spooky Long Island estate for a series of experiments that will conclusively prove whodunnit. Things are not what they seem, however, and gatecrashing detective Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) isn't helping matters at all.

Although based on fairly standard "mystery play' called "The Terror" by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller, Doctor X is particularly notable for how it inverts the creaky old dark house tropes. In your normal old dark house flick, a group of people gathers at some remote, sinister mansion or castle. Some force which can only be supernatural stalks and/or kills them, but the culprit is revealed to be perfectly human before the end credits roll. The cartoon series "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" would later appropriate the format for its own, more comical purposes. In Doctor X, a group of people gather in a remote, sinister mansion, but they assume that the force that stalks them must be completely natural -- after all, this is the real world. It is only at the end that the killer is revealed to be something more bizarre than just human. In a way, Doctor X, along with James Whale's The Old Dark House (also 1932), would be the horror genre's farewell to a hoary old cliché (although it did stick around, the films were more appropriately marketed as mysteries for the most part).

Beyond the curious twist in the genre, however, the script leaves a lot to be desired. The red herrings are uninteresting, as one early scene goes out of its way to disqualify one particular suspect -- so they must be the killer, naturally. It is a shame that this cynicism is not disproven later. Further, the bumbling comic relief of Tracy is hardly a relief at all. While he is not entirely annoying, he also manages to jar the film out of its moorings more than once with lame wisecracks and silly gags. He's an unfortunate reminder that Hollywood did not trust 1930s audiences to completely give themselves over to the experience of horror.

While director Curtiz (who is better known for such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942) ) uses the limitations of the two-strip Technicolor to create a shadowy, nebulous realm for his characters to wander through, he is still stuck with the fact that red and green when blended together make a very muddy brown. This causes much of Doctor X to be visually unappealing, even when the shots themselves are impressive (like the long shot of Xavier's macabre theater of science, with all the figures of the killer's victims looming under uncertain lighting). However, certain scenes actually benefit highly from an injection of color, especially the blazing hot climax.

The two significant leads, Atwill and Wray, are fine here. Wray's first appearance is prescient of what she would be long remembered for. When finding an intruder in the library, she lets loose a scream. Not a scream. The Scream. The Fay Wray Scream. Of course, she finds the intruder is only her father (you'd think she'd know him by now) and the film proceeds. Atwill's performance is the first of many he would do in the genre, and its only a shame that he is so easily discounted as a suspect, as he is so good at looking suspicious.

Overall, while it is difficult to classify Doctor X as a must, a classic horror fan would probably be remiss if they avoided it altogether. It is a relic of a bygone era; it simply doesn't stand up as well as Dracula, Frankenstein, or even its "sister" film Mystery of the Wax Museum. As a horror film, Doctor X is middle-of-the-pack , but as a curiousity of the genre's history, it's definitely worth a gander.


Only the black & white version was available for many years after the initial release, until a color copy was unearthed in 1973.