Michael Curtiz’ ‘Doctor X’ (1932) has a number of surprises in store for the first time viewer. For one it’s a pre-code movie shot in two-strip Technicolor giving the film a truly unique appearance. It also deals in cannibalism so the murders being committed are pretty grisly in nature. Yet the biggest surprise is this — the film isn’t, initially, scary or horrifying in the slightest! In fact, it’s downright hilarious and possibly even funnier than ‘Carry on Screaming’ (1966).
Wise-cracking newspaper reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is investigating a series of cannibalistic murders all occurring near the location of Doctor Xavier’s (Lionel Atwill) experimental medical academy. Needless to say the police, and the press, suspect Xavier’s involvement but he pleads with the cops to be allowed to conduct his own investigation to track down the killer, something he can do by subjecting the professors working at his institute, all of whom are under suspicion, to a new experiment of his involving electricity and amateur dramatics.
If it sounds ludicrous that’s because it is, but it’s also wildly entertaining and a load of fun. And that’s not just because of the obvious comedy shtick of Tracy’s reporter (he does a lot of bumping into skeletons, “frightened” double-takes and backtalking to inanimate objects which some might find grating) but more the fact that the entire film functions with its tongue firmly in its hideously deformed cheek.
I mean, just get a load of this dialogue –
“Shrewd and brilliant, he could conceal his madness from the human eye, even from himself… but he can’t conceal it from the eyes of radio sensitivity.”
or how about…
“Yes, the moon is powerful. Why, twice a day it lifts billions of tons of water at high tide that wash the shores of the world, like an eternal old scrubwoman.”
It’s outstanding! And the more serious the delivery the funnier it gets so by the time the Doctor has the professors (and himself!) handcuffed to his berserk machinery whilst simultaneously forcing them to watch an elaborate stage show the Doctor must’ve have rehearsed, directed and set-designed himself I was in hysterics.
Yet when the killer is finally revealed the film gets even crazier, something augmented by the lurid green and red colour scheme (it’s almost like watching a pre-code giallo), with ‘Doctor X’ suddenly plunging into what I can only describe as the body-melt horror territory of ‘Society’ (1989) except exploring the plasticity of flesh fifty years before Yuzna’s classic. And I wasn’t expecting THAT!
‘Doctor X’ is outstanding. It’s funny, stylish and pre-empts some of the freakish body horror someone like Cronenberg would later traverse. Curtiz’ direction is dynamic and fully engaged and the performances, especially that of Atwill’s Xavier and Fay Wray as his daughter, are a joy.
Incidentally, the film was shot in both colour and black and white and both have their merits and unique charms. In fact, I almost preferred the black and white version but the film is so entertaining you’ll want to watch it twice anyway.
Oh, and before I go just two, brief words — “Synthetic flesh!”