‘Out-thrills them all!’
Doctor X is a 1932 American First National/Warner Bros. horror film based on the play originally titled The Terror by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller. It was directed by Michael Curtiz and stars Lee Tracy, Fay Wray (King Kong) and Lionel Atwill (Murders in the Zoo; Son of Frankenstein; Fog Island).
The film was produced before the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced. Taboo themes such as murder, rape, cannibalism and prostitution are interwoven into the story.
The film was also one of the last films made, along with Warners’ Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), in the two-color Technicolor process. Black and white prints were shipped to small towns and to foreign markets, while colour prints were reserved for major cities.
Reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is investigating a series of pathological murders that have taken place over a series of months in New York City. The murders always take place at night, under the light of a full moon (the newspapers dubbing them the “Moon Killer Murders”). Furthermore, each body has been cannibalized after the murder has taken place. Witnesses to the events describe a horribly disfigured “monster” as the killer.
Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) is called in for his medical opinion, but it is learned through meeting with the police that the ulterior motive behind this is to begin an investigation of Xavier’s medical academy, as the scalpel used to cannibalize the bodies of the victims was exclusive to that institution.
Aside from Xavier, the other suspects are: Wells (Preston Foster), an amputee who has made a study of cannibalism; Haines (John Wray), who displays a sexual perversion with voyeurism; Duke (Harry Beresford), a grouchy loudmouth cripple; and Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), who is conducting studies of the psychological effects of the moon (Rowitz also displays a notable scar on one side of his face). It is learned that Haines and Rowitz were stranded in a boat with another man, and that while they claimed he had died and they had thrown him overboard, it was suspected that they had, in fact, cannibalized him…
“The wonderfully macabre premise of the film, its art direction and its two extended laboratory scenes make it completely worth watching, and ultimately enjoyable; but these positive aspects are almost buried under a tidal wave of the most agonising “comedy”, predominantly from Lee Tracy, but also from George Rosener as Otto the butler.” And You Call Yourself a Scientist!
“Doctor X’s unique look comes by way of two-strip Technicolor, a process that uses reds and greens to define images. Since it’s lacking other colors from its pallet, the movie takes on an unearthly tone, enhancing the film’s slightly surreal mood. It works to great effect as Curtiz still uses techniques to enhance shadows, but also splits the colors so that they can emphasize one piece of the frame over another. Though not as sharp as black and white, the look is undeniably haunting.” Pre-Code.com
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“On the one hand, Doctor X features a surfeit of corny comic relief and a great many hokey, naive “scare” scenes that would seem more appropriate in a 4-H Club haunted Halloween hayride than in any remotely serious horror flick. Then again, it also has serial murder, cannibalism, some of the ickiest mad science of the 1930’s, and a hell of a lot of scantily-clad (at least by the standards of the era) Fay Wray.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting
“Curtiz manages some fine expressionistic touches, and the sets (gothic mansion, of course) are splendid but with most of the grisly effects turning risible, the good moments … seem few and far between.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
‘The pace of Doctor X is technically quite slow. There aren’t a ton of huge developments. The film packs a hearty dose of creep, but not too much suspense. However, the premise itself is so intriguing and mysterious that the viewer doesn’t need frequent shocks in order to maintain interest.’ MotionPictures.net
‘It is a production that almost makes Frankenstein seem tame and friendly, particularly in its penultimate glimpses’. New York Times, 1932
‘Curtiz’s direction and Grot’s sets are impressively influenced by German horror movies and the film is genuinely horrific, including everything from cannibalism to necrophilia. Only the injection of unwelcome comedy relief detracts from the overall impact.’ Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook