DOCTOR X (1932) - A Review
Horror movies? Love 'em! Horror movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood? Even better. Two-Strip Technicolor? One of my favorite "looks" for films - so dreamlike, so uniquely unnatural.
All that being the case, it's no surprise that I love this movie, given that it's a very rare creature indeed - a Golden Age horror film in Two-Strip Technicolor. The fact that it's also got a great cast (Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, Robert Warwick, etc.), a cracked plot and script, and is genuinely weird and creepy in parts only adds to my affection for it. It would seem strange and wrong to make it through October without visiting Doctor X.
This is one of those films where the plot is very much secondary to the mood (and, when first released, to the novelty of color), so it doesn't really matter much that Lee Tracy plays a wisecracking newspaper reporter who is trying to crack the case of the "Moon Murders." He winds up at the institute run by Doctor Xavier (Atwill). Xavier's daughter, Joanne (Wray) also lives there, along with the craziest collection of mad scientist types ever assembled at one location. This movie doesn't just have one or two oddball, suspicious characters - oh no, that would be skimping. At Doctor Xavier's place, pretty much everyone is in full-blown, eyes-bugging loony mode. It's like a whole house full of Dwight Fryes, or a Technicolor Dwain Esper movie.
The creepy, crazy aspects of this film are super-strong, and extremely enjoyable, and fortunately, most of the story focuses on these elements. Unfortunately, in more ways than one, Lee Tracy plays the kind of snappy patter comic relief part that was more suited to, say, Ted Healy. Tracy is a much better actor and comedian than this role calls for, and he is pretty much wasted here. (For the record, I am a big Lee Tracy fan. But this film is, to say the least, disappointing from that perspective.)
In addition to the overall lunatic tone of the entire film, there are also multiple elements of deformity, disability and infirmity. Characters have missing limbs, missing eyes, get around on crutches, etc. And - SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! - it's the element of deformity that ultimately turns out to be the driving force behind the man/beast committing the "Moon Murders." Though, to be honest, I still am not quite sure exactly why the killer kills people - other than perhaps because he just looks so monstrous.
But never mind. This is 76 minutes of fairly pure cinematic delirium, the real stuff. It starts strong, and builds towards a truly creepy scene near the end in which the killer smears himself with icky pink putty, while muttering about the virtues of "synthetic flesh." It's a scene that I think is still powerful, nightmarish stuff, and I can only imagine how shocking and scary it must have been to audiences with 1930s era sensibilities. And yes, it's all in glorious, unnatural color. As my late criminology professor Doctor Sims would have said: "Outstanding!"
FOOTNOTE: IF there had never been Doctor X, then there would never have been the a-little-too-late non-sequel sequel, The Return of Doctor X (1939). And that probably would have been good news to Humphrey Bogart, who starred in that famous turkey which, by the way, didn't actually feature a character named "Doctor X" at all. But it did allow Bogart to make his one and only, terrible, terrible appearance in a horror movie - an experience he would doubtlessly liked to have avoided.