Directed by Michael Curtiz
Even with the skilled workaholic, Michael Curtiz (Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933); Casablanca (1942); Mildred Pierce (1945); White Christmas (1954)) at the helm, Doctor X is often considered a run-of-the-mill, pre-Code horror movie. It’s position in the limelight has been somewhat usurped by its more famous cinematic cousin the Mystery of the Wax Museum, which used an almost identical cast and crew, as well as being shot using the same two-colour Technicolor process.
Yet Doctor X has far more to offer than some would have you believe. This is especially true for the colour version, which drips with atmosphere even when having to battle against the comedic reporter, as played by Lee Tracy. His wisecracks, slapstick humour and jokey hand buzzer quickly wear thin, yet despite these distractions the film still manages to propel you along at what feels like a breakneck speed.
Opening in the depths of the New York docks, the reluctant investigative reporter, Lee Taylor, is hot on the trail of the latest victim of the Moon Killer. Whilst hiding in the police morgue, Lee overhears a conversation between a group of detectives and Dr Xavier (Lionel Atwill), who has performed the autopsy on the Moon Killer’s latest victim. However, Dr Xavier is horrified to learn that his own renowned medical academy is itself under suspicion as possibly harbouring the killer, because a knife used in the murders can only be found at Xavier’s esteemed institution.
Xavier begs to be allowed to perform his own investigation in an attempt to avoid any damaging publicity. The detectives reluctantly agree, but only after being introduced to a selection of the most suspicious scientists ever captured on celluloid, although Xavier swears that they are all men of the highest integrity.
In order to further his own investigation, Xavier takes every suspect to his hilltop mansion (complete with secret passageways and a private laboratory). There he conducts an elaborate experiment to uncover the Moon Killer’s identity. But when the first attempt results in the murder of one of the suspects, Xavier decides that for the second attempt all the surviving suspects, including himself, must be handcuffed to their chairs.
Unfortunately this almost results in his own daughter, Joan (played by Fay Wray) being strangled in front of him, as the most obvious suspect has been left free to help conduct the experiment due to his apparent innocence. Luckily, Lee Taylor is at hand to save the day. After a protracted fight scene, he sets the Moon Killer on fire and sends him tumbling out of a window to certain death, which allows Taylor and Joan to end the film in a passionate embrace.
With a story that revels in insanity, death and cannibalism, Doctor X embraces the horror genre as epitomised by Universal’s copious output. Yet it updates those films’ historical settings with a snappy present day feel, whilst locating the story within lushly lit, expansive sets all bathed in the two colour Technicolor process. Rarely will Fay Wray appear as vibrant than in this, her first horror outing. Although, screaming just because her father is up a ladder, in a darkened library, appears to be taking her renowned vocal abilities a little too far. However, for all her duelling dialogue scenes with Lee Tracy, Fay Wray is only a bit-part player to the ghoulish characters and events revolving around Dr Xavier.
The film races from morgues to medical academies to a wind-swept mansion overlooking the ocean. All the main players, excluding Wray and Tracy, parade their bizarre histories, beliefs and eccentricities with such relish, that the police could have been forgiven for arresting each and every one of them. But there is only a single Moon Killer and his reveal, is as obvious as it is flamboyant. With gleeful insanity, he re-animates a seemingly dead arm and then smears copious amounts of synthetic flesh over his face to create his murderous alter-ego.
Doctor X is not a clever film. It throws every horror trope and cliché it can find at the audience, to such an extent that it often threatens to become a parody. Yet somehow it manages to skate along the edge of that potential trap without ever quite falling in. Instead it is an engaging, sometimes annoying, but always watchable foray into the wilder excesses of pre-Code horror.