The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is a 1942 Universal horror thriller that has all the ingredients for a terrific movie of that type. It has a mad scientist, it has Lionel Atwill and it has a guy in a gorilla suit. What could go wrong?
In fact everything goes wrong. The result is a tribute to Universal’s ability in the 1940s to make dreary and irritating movies out of even the most promising material.
The mysterious Doctor Rx is murdering notorious criminals. These criminals have all been acquitted of their crimes, despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. Doctor Rx seems to be a kind of crazed vigilante determined to see justice done when the system fails.
Captain Hurd (Edmund MacDonald) of New York’s Homicide Squad is at his wit’s end. He appeals to his friend Jerry Church (Patric Knowles) for help. Church is a famed private detective and if anyone can discover the identity of Doctor Rx it’s Jerry Church. Unfortunate Jerry has just married Feisty Girl Reporter Kit Logan (Anne Gwynne) and Kit has decided she’d rather have Jerry as a live husband than a dead hero. She doesn’t want him to end up like Detective Barney Scott. Barney Scott was a vigorous young detective determined to solve this case but after an encounter with Doctor Rx he is now a virtual vegetable. And his hair tuned white overnight from sheer fright! So Jerry turns the case down.
Of course we know that eventually Jerry will have to get involved whether he wants to or not. Getting kidnapped convinces him that he really needs to do something about the Doctor Rx situation.
What follows is a moderately interesting mystery potboiler, which is OK as far as it goes but this movie has some very big problems.
The first problem is that all those cool ingredients I mentioned earlier take up only a few minutes of screen time. The mad scientist element is an afterthought that really doesn’t go anywhere. Lionel Atwill might as well have not bothered- he’s hardly in the picture at all. And even the brief appearance of the guy in the gorilla suit isn’t enough to make things interesting.
The second problem is the comic relief. Comic relief is the factor that ruined, or at best went close to ruining, dozens of potentially excellent 1930s and 1940s Hollywood B-movies. In this case the comic relief is so persistent, so intrusive and so irritating that it’s impossible to ignore and it really does sink the movie. Mantan Morland is bad enough but he’s comparatively innocuous compared to Shemp Howard. Yes, Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame. Shemp Howard may well be the unfunniest comic in the history of cinema. His contributions are cringe-inducingly lame.
The third problem is the romantic sub-plot between Jerry and Kit that takes up too much time and isn’t very interesting, and isn’t even particularly romantic.
Apparently the script was unfinished when shooting started and much of the dialogue was ad-libbed, which is unfortunate because clearly none of the cast members are really capable of effective improvisation.
Patric Knowles makes a so-so hero. By B-movies standards he’s adequate. Adequate is also a reasonable description of Anne Gwynne’s performance. Lionel Atwill’s appearance is not much more than a cameo and he is given no opportunity to give the kind of Lionel Atwill performance that this movie desperately needs.
This film forms part of TCM’s five-movie Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set. The transfer is excellent and there are at least a few token extras. The movies in this boxed set are certainly a very mixed bag.
The Strange Case of Doctor Rx was never going to be much more than mediocre but the comic elements are so dismally unamusing and annoying that there’s really no reason at all to bother watching this one. Not recommended.