❉ The essential ingredients of giallo are all on display here, writes Dan Roberts.
“While Doctor X feels stylistically staid nowadays, it does wear the medal for introducing the idea of the modern cinematic serial killer which would eventually lead to slasher favourites of Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and even Hannibal Lector.”
From the start of this year I have spent most of my free time digging and preparing soil. I’m not exaggerating – it is a lifestyle more than a hobby. Soil aside, it has built up some anticipation watching the 1932 film Doctor X, and writing a follow-up to my last piece concerning Mystery At The Wax Museum (hereafter MATWM).
I first saw Doctor X many years ago as a black and white film and then found a Region 1 DVD box set with a very poor colour version. Much like MATWM it remained on my list of films I wanted to see as originally made and released.
When Warner Archive recently released the restored version of MATWM I was delighted to find HMV had decided to distribute it under their HMV exclusive range. Once the same treatment had been given to Doctor X, I pestered HMV to see if I could persuade them to follow in the footsteps of MATWM. Sadly, they weren’t very enthusiastic so I relented and was forced to pay a little more than I would normally for a Blu–ray. It then sat on my “to watch” shelf for far too long getting buried in other DVDs.
Doctor X was released in 1932 just before MATWM and used largely the same cast and crew. Lionel Atwill plays Dr Xavier. Fay Wray is his daughter Joanne and Lee Tracy plays Lee Taylor, the wise-cracking nosey journalist. Warner Bros. were never into the horror genre and it has been rumoured Jack Warner couldn’t stand them. The studio had achieved massive success with their “talkies” in the late 1920s, however the onset of the Great Depression and loss of income from ticket sales meant drastic action was required.
Universal’s massive box office success with Frankenstein and Dracula dominated the genre and continued to do so for the next decade. Warner Bros. saw an opportunity to get a foot into the crypt door and tasked the studio on-call director Michael Curtiz to direct “a horror film”. Curtiz already had a fantastic range within his filmography and it is noted the only genre he didn’t try was science-fiction, although Doctor X comes close.
Warner Bros had tried to make more films in colour but public apathy and the cost of installing special screening equipment and processing meant the return on investment was low. However in order to fulfil a contract with Technicolor, they made a handful of films using the process. Each film was also shot side by side with a black and white version for general distribution.
The plot to Doctor X is a typically mad pre-Hays Code grand guignol. A series of gruesome murders leads the titular Doctor X(avier) to believe the killer is in fact a cannibal. Each victim is killed by a simple cut to the base of the neck using a scalpel and then some flesh is removed. The police focus their attention on Dr Xavier’s sanitorium which is close to the location of each victim. Witnesses to the murders report seeing a horribly deformed figure skulking away. Dr Xavier convinces the police to give him 48 hours to allow him to uncover the killer or clear the names of scientists under the roof of the sanitorium. Each scientist has a peculiar trait and is a potential suspect. One studies the effects of the moon on behaviour. Another studies cannibalism. Both of which are characteristics related to the murder spree.
In order to discover the identity of the killer, Dr Xavier decides to perform an elaborate experiment recreating a recent murder under lab conditions at his isolated cliff top retreat. Well you would, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t want to use a fully kitted out lab in the centre of the city near to the police. That would be stupid.
<SPOILER ALERT FOR 90 YEAR OLD FILM>
The killer is eventually unmasked as being Dr Wells (Preston Foster), the one armed scientist who studied cannibalism. How did he do it? Well he found a way of creating synthetic flesh, repairing his hand and transforming himself into a gruesome figure. A simple mask and a hat would have probably been fine but if you’ve got a bee in your bonnet about synthetic flesh then go for it.
First – let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Doctor X is a dry run for MATWM. The morgue scene is almost the same with the difference being the rising corpse is Lee the reporter and not the disfigured sculpture Ivan Igor. Both films feature wise cracking reporters which although a trait of Warner Bros of this period, they function in the same way offering investigation and some comic relief. Fay Wray is the love interest in both films though this isn’t played out as effectively. Both killers use masks to disguise themselves. Though in the case of MATWM it is to inventively disguise disfigurement rather to transform into. While we at the dressing table, both masks were created by Max Factor.
The use of colour is also slightly more subdued here than in MATWM. It is almost like Curtiz was just trying out a few things first before really going for it a year later. It still looks garish and resembles a pulp novel jacket but there was more to come in MATWM. Noted is also the camera is far more static here than the roaming vision of MATWM. Again it’s like Curtiz was trying to get to grips with the equipment.
So what’s wrong with it? Well the romance between Lee Tracy and Fay Wray is clunky and doesn’t work. There is a bizarre beach scene between the two which is completely out of place. Most of the film takes place in the dark and stormy cliff top house while apparently down on the beach it’s sunny and calm. It feels like it’s the result of a test screening.
This is probably why in MATWM the romantic function was split over four roles. The interaction in MATWM between Frank McHugh/Glenda Farrell – Fay Wray/Allen Vincent works because it doesn’t feel forced, adds depth to the characters and keeps them central to the plot. In Doctor X, Lee Tracy and Fay Wray have largely one dimensional characters which perform a function rather than being integral to the plot itself. This is probably the reason for the beach scene because they have so little interaction elsewhere.
In MATWM, Lionel Atwill’s obsession with Fay Wray’s Marie Antionette adds a conflicting emotion which attempts to derail the central romance of the film. In Doctor X there is no infatuation or jeopardy to the romantic thread because it only comes to fruition at the end of the film. Our only concern is whodunit and how.
It also has to be said Lee Tracy is NO Glenda Farrell. Her performance in MATWM is a delight in every way. Tracy seems to be ticking a lot of “wise cracking” boxes while not really influencing the film. It is possible he ad-libbed a few scenes too perhaps indicated in the scene inside the medical store cupboard and his playful interactions with some of the specimens. It doesn’t feel like he was following the pen of a writer.
Preston Foster’s Dr Wells lacks the depth and villainous dominance of Lionel Atwill’s Ivan Igor in MATWM. Given Atwill’s skill playing villains (Moriarty, Ivan Igor etc) or at the very least adding an authentic oddity to a character (the one armed darts playing Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein, which was mimicked in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein) his casting as the straight Xavier seems a misstep. Atwill tries to oddify it with some slights of eye movement but it certainly isn’t a role that would have stretched him.
As for the unmasking itself in comparison with MATWM we only discover Atwill is disfigured when Fay Wray cracks his face and unleashes her legendary scream. Here we see Dr Wells creating his own synthetic face and hand – there is no genuine moment of surprise, though it is quite an effective scene considering this is 1932! Seeing this process does mean the climax lacks a dramatic punch.
Stylistically Doctor X has a focus solely as a whodunnit wrapped in an “Old Dark House” mystery. There are elements of comedy and eccentricity with the odd collection of scientists, weird butler and hysterical housekeeper, much in keeping with the Old Dark House theme. In some ways it comes across like a Scooby Doo episode, which isn’t a good thing. While this feels staid and rather flat nowadays it does wear the medal for introducing the idea of the modern cinematic serial killer which would eventually lead to slasher favourites of Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and even Hannibal Lector. Masks on all of them in one form or another!
As with MATWM you can see how the palate of the film will have influenced Dario Argento’s wilder films such as Suspiria and Inferno. I think in many ways Doctor X is much more an Argento film thematically. Using a method of recreating a murder and attempting to influence the brain pattern of the potential killer sounds exactly like something he would use as a McGuffin likethe corpse detecting skills of an insect (Phenomena) or attempting to capture the last image in the eye of a victim (Four Flies On Grey Velvet). And then there are the menacing figures in black hats. The essential ingredients of giallo are all on display back in 1932.
In terms of style, it is worthy to mention the Art Director Anton Grot. Once again his designs are well and truly twisted. The highlight of which is the library which is probably more dangerous than a war zone. Put it this way, if your first edition copy of The Canterbury Tales was on the top shelf, you’d go and buy another copy. In his own words, Grot in the publicity material released at the time said “We design a set that imitates as closely as possible a bird of prey about to swoop down on its victim.” Having seen a few films designed by Grot, I’d say this was his signature style.
The disc on my region-free Warner Archive package was very well presented. The extras include a documentary about the restoration which, like MATWM, is staggering. There is also a decent background documentary as well as a trailer and the original black and white version of the film. I believe it is virtually the same apart from some very minor changes in the scenes.
I paid over £20 for this disc and if you are really into older horror films, pre-code films or early technicolor films then you need to get this. Your collection won’t be complete without it. Both Doctor X and Mystery At The Wax Museum represent the genesis of horror in colour. Although it took until the late 1950s for Hammer and Roger Corman to pick up the mantle, the groundwork in these two films cannot be underestimated.
Oh and I nearly forgot. As the picture fades to black at the end we get a little pre-code cherry on the cake. Throughout the film Lee Tracy uses a handshake buzzer to surprise people. While he kisses Fay Wray and the darkness envelopes them we hear the sound of the buzzer and Fay Wray swoons “Oh Mr Taylor”. I wonder what he was buzzing?
❉ ‘Doctor X’ (1932). Director: Michael Curtiz. Screenplay: Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin (Based on the 1928 play ‘Terror’ by Howard W. Comstock, Allen C. Miller). Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster. Distributed by Warner Bros., First National Pictures. Run time: 76 minutes. ‘Doctor X’ Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray is available here: https://amzn.to/3VwcVeE
❉ Dan Roberts is usually found protecting his vegetables and watching wildlife. Every so often he manages to write something, usually about old films you’d forgotten about or didn’t know existed. Follow him on Twitter: @trampilot
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