Monday, January 8, 2018

Doctor X: Colorful and Funky as Ever

The "Moon Killer."
A recent viewing of Doctor X reconfirmed that this 1932 horror classic has lost none of its quirkiness. Indeed, with a moonlight killer, a medical academy perched atop a cliff, and "synthetic flesh", it remains a unique viewing experience. And, as if that weren't enough, it's historically significant as one of the first talking pictures filmed in color.

Lionel Atwill stars as the title character, Dr. Jerry Xavier, the head of the aforementioned academy. It has attracted unwanted attention due to a string of murders in the vicinity. The killings take place only on nights when the moon is full. The victims, who die by strangulation, all have a small surgical incision at the bottom of their brains.

Lionel Atwill as Dr. Xavier.
While the police--as well as a fast-talking reporter-- investigate, Dr. Xavier conducts an experiment to rule out members of his staff. That's a good idea because they're a suspicious group whose fields of study include cannibalism and the effects of moonlight. The experiment goes horribly wrong during a blackout and one of the scientists is murdered with a scalpel. The good news, though, is that Dr. Xavier now knows that someone from the academy is the "Moon Killer."

Curtiz's use of silhouettes.
Michael Curtiz directed Doctor X three years before Captain Blood (1935) would establish him as one of Hollywood's top directors. Curtiz, who was impressed by German Impressionism early in his career, imbues Doctor X with extreme lighting, silhouettes, and disturbing camera angles. He shot the film in two-strip Technicolor (not the later, more vibrant three-strip process). The print I watched, which was restored by the UCLA Film Archive, looked like a combination of sepia and an eerie dark green. While it was muted color by later standards, it gives the film an effective semi-noir appearance.

Fay Wray as Joanne Xavier.
Based on a stage play called The Terror, Doctor X benefits from a trio of effective performances. Lionel Atwill, who evolved into one of Hollywood's best supporting actors, is wonderfully off-kilter as the enigmatic Xavier. As his on-screen daughter, Fay Wray has one of her best roles and, for once, is required to do more than look frightened. Then there's Lee Tracy, who memorably played the U.S. president in The Best Man (1964), one of my favorite political dramas. Tracy almost transforms the stereotypical wisecracking reporter into a believable character. That's no small feat.

Doctor X will never rank with Universal's best horror films of the 1930s (e.g., The Invisible Man). Still, it's certainly original and made with panache by a gifted filmmaker. It was a big moneymaker for Warner Bros. and led to another Technicolor horror film, Mystery of the Wax Museum, which reunited Curtiz, Atwill, and Wray. The later "B" picture The Return of Doctor X (1939) has nothing to do with Doctor X, but is notable for featuring star Humphrey Bogart and director Vincent Sherman before they went on to bigger things.


  1. I would rank this among the Universals. Ironically, Uni's was the most timid of horrors. Nothing in its output matched the "queasy factor" of Dr. X, Wax Museum, Freaks, Island of Lost Souls. Even MGM's Mark of The Vampire originally had an incest back story.

    Btw, not cuz of his later legal problems, but there was always something....unhealthy about Atwill. Any woman trapped alone with him in Wax Museum would welcome an all-over hot Brazilian wax.

  2. I didn't realize this goose pimply thriller was based on a play. I wonder what that experience would be like. I would miss the 2-strip Technicolor.

  3. It is always interesting to learn about Michael Curtiz and the influence of German Impressionism is especially evident in the third photo you posted.

  4. Never heard of this. Thank you for introducing it to me.