Thursday, 18 September 2008

Doctor X (1932)

After the huge commercial success enjoyed by Universal with their early 1930s horror movies Frankenstein and Dracula it was inevitable that other Hollywood studios would jump on the horror bandwagon. Warner Brothers threw their hat into the ring in 1932, with Doctor X.

A series of murders, committed by the so-called Moon Killer, is spreading terror through the city. The police have determined, because of the unusual surgical knife used by the murderer, that the culprit must be one of the doctors working at the prestigious medical research institute run by the brilliant Doctor Xavier. Given that all five doctors at the institute are not merely eccentric, but completely and utterly insane, that seems a reasonable hypothesis. If one mad scientist is fun, five mad scientists must be even more fun! Doctor Xavier comes up with an ingenious plan to unmask the killer, by hooking up all five doctors to an outrageous mad scientist apparatus that will measure their responses to a re-enactment of the crimes.

OK, it’s a silly plot, but the potential is there for plenty of entertainment. Unfortunately there’s a fly in the ointment. Like most of the other Hollywood studios, Warners were convinced that horror movies needed comic relief, and in this case the comic relief is provided by Lee Tracy as a wise-cracking reporter. This might have worked except for the fact that Lee Tracy was the most annoying and most unfunny actor ever to have worked in the US film industry.

All is not lost, however. Doctor X does have the reliable Lionel Atwill in the role of Doctor Xavier, and some competent supporting actors as the other mad scientists. It also has the delightful and gorgeous (and underrated) Fay Wray in the role of Doctor Xavier’s daughter. Its most important asset, though, is the man in the director’s chair - Michael Curtiz. Curtiz could make just about any kind of movie, and do it well. In this film, and in the following year’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, he displayed a considerable flair for horror. Curtiz draws his visual inspiration very much from the German Expressionists. He’s helped considerably by the studio’s decision to shoot the film using the early two-strip Technicolor process. The strange and wildly unrealistic colour palette provided by this process not only gives the movie a wonderfully mysterious and spooky atmosphere, it also gives it a look that is quite different from other horror movies of the period. Curtiz used this colour process again, with even better results, in Mystery of the Wax Museum.

The very impressive visuals, combined with Curtiz’s sure-footed pacing, makes an otherwise routine horror offering into something more. It still doesn’t rate as one of the better American horror films of the 30s, but it’s definitely worth a look. And yes, Fay Wray gets to scream, very impressively.

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