Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Lee Tracy, Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill, Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe
“The human mind will only stand so much. We’re all a little strange up here…”
It’s not an out-and-out comedy, but Doctor X certainly skirts quite close to it. Even with a plotline full of cannibalism, serial murder, implied rape and prostitution, it’s played mostly for laughs until the final act, but it never feels forced or unbalanced.
One of the last films made with the early two-colour Technicolor process, Michael Curtiz’s film has a hazy, dreamlike quality as a result, its gorgeous Art Deco interiors and fog-laden outdoor sets drenched in greens and reds, giving a subtle contrast to the very modern and realistic world that the character’s inhabit.
Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is a down at heel reporter for the Daily World newspaper who is investigating the “Moon Killer Murders”, a series of cannibalistic killings that have taken place in New York, always at night, always under a full moon.
Following the police’s lead, Taylor finds himself at the medical academy of Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill), as the scalpel used in the crimes is specific to his institution.
The Doctor is soon cleared of suspicion by the police and given time to mount his own investigation as the killer has to be one of the other doctors, the one-armed Wells (Preston Foster), Haines (John Wray), Duke (Harry Beresford), and Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe).
After Taylor’s initial story causes too much publicity, Xavier flees to his Long Island mansion to continue his investigation of the suspects using the latest in scientific methods, while the reporter follows, falling in love with the Doctor’s daughter Joan (Fay Wray) while trying to identify the killer before it’s too late…
What a raucously entertaining romp Doctor X is. For the most part, it’s pitched as a light-hearted number, with Tracy’s constant schtick flipping between hard-boiled newshound and pratfalling schmuck, double-taking at every ghoulish gag set-up. The subject matter is dark obviously, as it’s Anton Grot’s magnificent set design, but Tracy lightens everything up, while just about managing to stay on the side of being taken serious. There’s almost a feeling that his constant patter is a feint, a way of distracting from his keen journalistic mind. Either that or he’s just really annoying.
Not too annoying for Joan though, who after some initial frostiness falls hook, line and sinker for his fast talk and ends the film engaged to him! Fay Wray is on top form here, showing a strong, feisty woman (though with a tiny hint of Electra Syndrome with her dad perhaps) with no small amount of screen presence.
Lionel Atwill gives maximum Lionel Atwood here too, perfectly hitting the flustered academic who’s more concerned with preserving his reputation than actually stopping a serial killer, but is resolutely likeable at the same time. Well apart from when he hugs or kisses his daughter that is. That’s a bit weird.
The four suspects (five of you count Otto (George Rosener) the ape-like creepy butler) are perhaps the most suspicious line-up in cinema history. One is disabled, but can walk when he has to, one studies the moon and its effects on the human mind, one actually studies cannibalism and another is suspected of eating a fellow shipwreck survivor some years before! Any one of them could be the killer, but the ones that aren’t are still massively shady in their own way.
What’s really noticeable for a horror film of this era is how contemporary it all feels, at least in its first half. It’s very much set in the modern depression era Big Apple, with references to the prohibition and mass unemployment of the day, but once it relocates to the Long Island mansion it feels like it steps back in time, with horse-drawn carriages replacing the Ford automobiles.
Both the mansion and Xavier’s lab are brilliantly dressed in art-deco style, with an almost surreally large library and scientific equipment that reaches to the roof at times being visually stunning.
The final scene where Otto and Joan recreate the last murder with (nearly) each suspect chained to their seat is a masterpiece of both design and tension. Using a ludicrously outlandish experiment to reveal the killer, Xavier essentially monitors their heart rate under stimulus, but using massive coils and tubes full of red liquid that stretch to the roof. It’s insane, but works beautifully.
The final reveal hits hard too. With Joan trapped on the operating table and the rest of the clearly-now innocent suspects helpless to intervene (an inspiration for Carpenter’s classic chair sequence in The Thing perhaps?), the killer is revealed amid the buzz of electric coils, wearing a gloriously lurid mask of synthetic flesh that’s been applied in sloppy style. Surely one of the first examples of body horror in cinema? It’s nasty stuff and completely at odds to the light tone that’s been so prevalent up until now.
The flesh, designed by Max Factor no less, is sloppy to start, before hardening into a rigid, gargoyle-like look and could have been ridiculous in lesser hands, but is brutally effective and is bolstered by a suitably intense and malevolent performance by the man underneath it, whose identity I won’t spoil here. Take my word for it though, he’s great.
Doctor X isn’t the best film you’ll ever see, but it’s so relentlessly entertaining in so many different ways, it’s pretty much essential viewing.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy