Monday, 21 March 2016
DOCTOR X (1932)
DR X (1932)
In the early years of sound film, it wasn’t always a monochrome world on screen. Warner Brothers had been experimenting with two-strip technicolour for their releases, including horror films. In 1931 they produced The Runaround as part of an abortive attempt to make colour a viable attraction, restricting costly colour prints to major cities whilst striking monochrome prints for lesser markets. Dr X was released a year later and although the technique failed to catch on, it allows us to enjoy an early horror big studio talkie with an added lustre and modern look.
Dr X was based on the play Terror by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller in 1928. Upon mounting it in New York in 1931 they had to change the name to avoid it being confused with The Terror by Edgar Wallace. The play thus became Dr X and retained the name when Warner’s decided to film it, bringing in Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz as director, who would become famed for such classics as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Aside from the brightness accorded by colouring, Dr X benefits from the black humour and the exuberant fast-talking, wise-cracking of Lee Tracy as Lee Taylor, intrepid reporter on the trail of New York’s ‘Moon Killer’, who rips out the deltoid muscle from the base of the brain of each of six victims and subjects them to cannibalism, murdering them on successive full moons. Tracy supplies the same wise-guy energy as later movie screwball comedies, offsetting the grislier meat elsewhere on display courtesy of Lionel Atwill and his Academy of Surgical Research.
British-born Atwill was already a star on Broadway and parlayed this into notable horror film roles as cultured professionals in the 30s and 40s for Warner’s, Fox and Universal - such as Mystery of the Wax Museum, Mark of the Vampire and Son of Frankenstein.
Atwill’s Dr Xavier finds himself under the spotlight from local detectives since each slaying occurs close to his academy. Dr X takes the men on a quick lab tour, introducing them to each of his eccentric and vaguely sinister colleagues, all of whom are presented with equally suspicious clues and backgrounds. There is the voyeuristic Haines (John Wray), the secretive and wheelchair-using Duke, Harry Beresford, and the facially-scarred Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe). Upon hearing that Professor Wells (Preston Foster) has been to Africa to study cannibalism, one of the cops practically falls over himself to clamp Wells into an electric chair before even meeting him: “Why didn’t you tell us this before? It’s as good as a conviction”. Fortunately, he’s not a presiding judge. His premature shutting of the case is hampered when they discover Wells has no left hand, instead making do with a prosthetic glove.
Taylor meets the doctor’s daughter in the captivating form of Fay Wray, who began a fruitful run in horror cinema here culminating in becoming an indelible scream with 1993’s legendary King Kong. As Joan Xavier, she uses her charms to persuade the lovestruck Taylor to hold off his story while her father tries to clear his institute’s name.
Dr X offers the police a test at his Long Island estate that may prove the innocence of his team or find the killer. Echoing Prince Hamlet and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, he plans to subject each team member to images and a re-enactment of the committed murders while they are strapped to their chairs. Bamboozling the cops and the audience with some expository flimflam about using *cough*radio waves as well as a heart-rate monitor, X is sure that any guilty party will incriminate himself by causing their assigned ‘thermal tube’ to overflow. Dr X recruits his maid and butler to perform the re-enactment, but pandemonium ensues – Taylor hides in a closet but is gassed by an unattributed skeletal hand; Wells, whose handicap allows him to run the experiment free of blame, suffers his own tubal overheating by suddenly falling through a glass door; meanwhile, after a disorienting blackout the suspected Rowitz is found dead, a scalpel having been applied to the base of his brain. He is later cannibalised for good measure.
It turns out that the ruled-out Wells was in fact the killer all along. His Africa flesh-finding mission was just that, a red alert not a red herring. (Maybe the hasty cop shouldn’t have been held back by that pesky ‘innocent till proven guilty’ red tape). He’d been secretly studying a way to create ‘Synthetic fleshhhhh’, famously rumbling the line as he liberally coats his face and hands with a porridge-like paste that reconstitutes his skin, covering the dummy hand and disguising his face into Rondo Hatton-esque heavy features. It’s not explained what, if any, are the supernatural properties of the human flesh he went all that way to harvest. (If there were none inherent, why go so far for immaterial material since he’s not above killing folk on his home turf for it?). No matter, for as he threatens to add Joan to his digestive tract, Taylor overcomes a cowardly streak to grapple with the mad doctor, hurling a lamp at him which causes Wells to turn into a human fireball, smashing through the window to plummet down on to the rocks below. Taylor is now free to put an ad in his newspaper’s society column concerning his heroic self and the lovely Joan.
Dr X is fun and deftly mixes comedy with the horror in a blending of laughs, cannibalism, murder and implied prostitution which definitely would have struggled to get past the censor board when the draconian Hays Code soon came into force. There’s also an all-too-brief sassy cameo by Mae Busch, who varied her marvellous battle-axe turns as fearsome wives or girlfriends for Laurel and Hardy with other genres: e.g. Rosie O’Grady opposite Lon Chaney in the 1925 silent version of The Unholy Three and here a cathouse madam whose telephone Taylor borrows to call in his story.
Curtiz, Atwill and Wray would be reunited in Technicolor the following year in Mystery of the Wax Museum as part of an incredible production output by Curtiz. According to IMDB he directed 13 films just between 1932-33, a furious pace that at one point on a Saturday during Dr X had him shooting for 24 hours solid, lensing eight minutes of the finished film in that one day. This explains why at times you can hear slightly garbled or hesitant delivery of lines, particularly by Atwill. Though Curtiz wasn’t in the same league as the notorious William ‘one-shot’ Beaudine, he could perhaps have allowed re-takes of the more obvious fluffs to the trained ear…