Lionel Atwill - Dr. Jerry Xavier
Fay Wray - Joanne "Joan" Xavier
Lee Tracy - Lee Taylor, reporter
Preston Foster - Dr. Wells
John Wray - Dr. Haines
Harry Beresford - Dr. Duke
Michael Curtiz - Director
Hal B. Wallis - Producer
Robert Tasker - Screenwriter
Ray Rennahan - Cinematographer
Anton Grot - Art Director
Bernhard Kaun - Film Score [Title]
Horrible makeup played a major part in Doctor X (1932), with the added thrill of two-color Technicolor. Experienced newspaper reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) hopes to break a major story when he takes up the investigation of a spectacular series of murders that has claimed six victims on the docks of New York City. The murders are all the more sensational because they happened on nights with a full moon and are unique because in every case the victim's left deltoid muscle has been torn from the base of the brain--and eaten.
On the trail of the cannabalistic psychopath, Taylor discovers that the murders are connected with the research lab of Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), located on a remote Long Island estate. Taylor gets more than he bargained for during his pursuit of journalistic fame and fortune when he becomes acquainted with the beautiful Joan (Fay Wray), the daughter of Dr. Xavier. In trying to help the authorities, Xavier stages an elaborate trap for the Moon Murderer, with his daughter as the willing bait. The killer reveals himself by coating his body and his face with "synthetic flesh", which gives him supernatural powers.
Michael Curtiz directed this gripping whodunit--based on the play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller--that strikes a thrilling balance between comedy and horror. Making classic use of high-contrast lighting, intricate sets, and a pioneering two-color Technicolor process, Doctor X is packed with atmosphere and visual inventiveness. If Curtiz doesn't have quite the flair for grotesquerie or black humor of James Whale, he does use the wisecracking of Tracy and the glowering of Atwill to good effect. Atwill especially shines when called upon to casually discuss topics from cannibalism to depravity. Several scenes, from the unexpected animation of a skeleton to the recreation of the final murder, where the killer puts in an unexpected guest appearance, are genuinely eerie. Fay Wray, as Dr. Xavier's daughter, also gets to scream as only she can.
Finally, the two-color Technicolor techniques (involving the processing of two negatives rather than the three which became standard after 1935) are extremely effective. The belief is that Warner made the film in color, not from choice, but because of contractual obligations to the Technicolor Company. The same proces was used again by the studio for The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Doctor X was thought lost for 30 years after its initial release in 1932. A black-and-white print was found in the '60s, and then in 1973 an original two-color Technicolor print surfaced and was immaculately restored. The rather slack and hokey 1939 film, The Return of Doctor X, is not a sequel, but it does contain Humphrey Bogart's only horror movie appearance.
In trying to rival Universal's Frankenstein (1931) with a ghoulish yarn about a moon murderer who kills by scalpel and cannibalizes his victims, First National turned the film into a whodunit where it is all too obvious who did it. Michael 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 (Wray discovering that she is partnering the real killer in a re-encactment of his crimes, for example) seem few and far between.
--PHIL HARDY, ed. from The Encyclopedia of
Horror Films, 1986
A selection of Doctor X related films.
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A selection of Doctor X in books.
A History of Horror
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