Thursday, February 9, 2012

48. DOCTOR X (1932)

Warner Bros.'s trailer for their Technicolor entré into the horror genre promised that "you will GASP... and then GIGGLE!" -- and DOCTOR X manages to keep this unseemly promise without seeming deficit or compromised in either category.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, designed by Anton Grot (previously SVENGALI, subsequently MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and THE GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933), and starring a wonderful cast twin-barreled by the delectable Fay Wray and dapper Lionel Atwill (in spats, no less), DOCTOR X is a stylish gem of 1930s horror. It also manages to shuffle some of the best possible cards from the wise-crackin' newspaper drama, the spooky murder mystery and romantic comedy, while boasting some  superlatively futuristic sets as well.

The story concerns a series of "Full Moon Murders" all connected by an element of what Atwill's Dr. Xavier calls "Cannibal-ism," committed by what he furthermore calls a "scal-pell" but followed by a literal bite taken out of crime. As police (and "Daily World" reporter Lee Tracy) investigate, they follow the unique brand of scalpel used in these violent deaths to Xavier's research clinic, whose staff of very queer-looking research scientists (Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe) amazingly have not only one but various connections to the subject or the act of cannibalism! In a plot twist that seems equally derived from Gaston Leroux's locked room mysteries and the "game test" set-up of A. Merritt's SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, Xavier puts a huge art deco laboratory to use as a prototypical lie detector, strapping in the suspects and tempting the real killer out into the open by restaging his most vicious killings on a makeshift stage.

The film's highlight, truly among the eeriest sequences in 1930s horror, finds one of the suspects applying to his face and scalp heaping gobs of "Synthetic Flesh" -- a word repeated with horrifying relish as the red and green scenics bubble and smoke and shimmer in diabolically amusing ways. Max Factor is credited with the monster makeup, a milestone in the evolution of special makeup effects. As Xavier's loopy domestics, Leila Bennett and George Rosener fill out the cast, which appropriately delicious.

Viewed as part of Warner Home Video's HOLLWOOD'S LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION box set.

4 comments:

  1. Dr. X is very underrated. I don't think I've ever read an overly positive review of it. Could it be because of the duller B&W prints being the only ones in circulation all those years?

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  2. That "Legends of Horror" box set is quite the bounty and one I really wish had spawned a series, a la Warner's noir collections. Probably came too late in DVD's life.

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  3. Was delighted to see that the version in the Hollywood Legends Collection is the best to date on home video. The image is brighter and sharper, exhibiting more detail than any other in the past and, most importantly it has perfect two color Technicolor hues. It hasn't been electronic altered to exhibit blue hues as MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM has been. Hopefully a correct and revised version will become available at some point.

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  4. It was fun viewing this with you last week, Tim. I made a point of watching the BW version the following night. I had never watched them in such close proximity and was surprised to see far more (but subtle)differences throughout than I had ever noticed before.

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