Wednesday, July 27, 2011

This Will Make Your Blood Curl!

Doctor X(1932)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster

That quote is from Michael Curtiz, the brilliant director famous for his hilariously broken english, describing his first horror film, Doctor X. Made in what I consider to be Hollywood's best year for screen horror, Doctor X is the first technicolor horror film ever made and one of the creepiest of the decade. It may not be overall as good as many of it's masterful contemporaries, but there is still much to like about this Pre-Code, old dark house chiller.

The film is significant also, for being set in contemporary New York City, though the look of the film and the locations utlized, clearly recall an earlier time. A series of "moon-killer" murders are spreading throughout the New York City waterfront and reporter, Lee Taylor(Lee Tracy) is trying to get a scoop. He discovers that an eminent scientist, Dr. Xavier(Lionel Atwill) is part of the investigation and concludes that the killer has used surgical instruments to slay his victims as well as cannibalize them! The police link the instruments used to the university where Xavier works and all the staff become suspects. They are a strange sort, particularly Dr. Wells(Preston Foster) who is introduced exclaiming that he is on the brink of discovering the secret of life, while gazing at a beating heart in a jar! A macabre scen follows where he removes a false hand, pretty strong stuff for 1932. There's some great stuff here, really including a great line when the police suspect the scarred Dr. Rowitz(Arthur Edmond Carewe) of the murders and Atwill replies, "He is the author of several volumes of poetry!" Fearing scandal, Xavier decides to conduct a 48 hour investigation himself to determine if any of the staff is the murderer. Tracy annoyingly attempts to intervene and follows them to a really spooky cliffside mansion that looks just terrific, whether it's a model or not! Tracy goes there by carriage on a moonlit night, complete with fog.

Joanne Xavier(Fay Wray) goes along to the mansion, her character's introduction includes her screaming for no reason at all at the sight of her father in the library! Xavier has a plan to re-enact the murders with actors and dummies and have the doctors watch with a blood pressure monitor to measure their levels of excitement to see who is the killer. Xavier has one of the coolest mad doctor labs of the 30s, complete with tons of electrical equipment straight out of Frankenstein and probably was. The colors enhance the mansion's atmospher considerably, and Curtiz's use of shadows and distorted angles and closeups make the proceedings very eerie. Xavier holds the experiment, Wells runs it, being a non-suspect due to his handicap  and something goes wrong. The lights go out, closeups of hands and faces and ultimately, a scream. Xavier believes it's Rowitz, but he turns out to be the victim. Still, not ready to turn this matter to the police, the scientists agree to conduct the experiment again the following evening. Meanwhile, Tracy is locked in a closet full of skeletons(!) and is found out and made a guest. The usual red herring and clutching hands business goes on, as the killer is found to have(in a rather grotesque touch) gone to partially feast on Rowitz's corpse! Tracy is on the make for Joanne and vows to protect her, spending a day at the beach with her and they fall in love, predictably. The experiment is held the next night, another full moon as the killer only strikes by the light of the moon and this time, Xavier decides to have all the doctors tied down this time, determined to catch the murderer.

What follows is what I consider to be the most frightening scene in any of the golden age horror classics. Wells goes into a secret passageway, where he has a laboratory set up. He turns on some machines and removes his glove and moulds some goop that he repeats over the soundtrack as, "synthetic flesh" and creates a new hand, monstrous and hideous. Than he proceedes to construct a new face over his own head and creates something just as horrible. He rises from his seat, seeming to have enlarged, one of the most terrifying creations of 1930s cinema, courtesy of Max Factor makeup. Taking the place of Xavier's butler, he descends upon Joanne, who is acting the part of a victim. He reveals himself to the hepless doctors and cries out, in one of my favorite twisted movies lines, "Synthetic flesh! I shall live forever in the history of science!"
Lucky for Joanne, Lee Tracy comes to the rescue, posing as a dummy(ha) and jumps the killer, getting in a scuffle, before setting him afire and tossing him through a window, where he falls to his death. The case is solved and Lee and Joanne are engaged, fading out on Lee handbuzzing Joanne's bottom. Good one, dude.

Doctor X is something of a dated curio-piece, but is still very entertaining and engaging, thanks to a capable cast of characters and moody direction by one of Hollywood's best. The technicolor process utilized is decidely creepy, enhancing every scene ten fold. The green and red hues are eerie and appropiate to the film, creating almost a colorized form of German expressionism. It was seldom utilized, but proved that color if used properly could get the same desired effect as black and white. The following year's Mystery of the Wax Museum(1933) was also as effective, utlizing this process. The sets are an asset as well, the mansion in particular, a wonderful example of Hollywood gothic. It's unfortunate that for many years, this was see largely in a black and white format, because the impact was lessened to a great extent. This is especially true in the "synthetic flesh" scene with Preston Foster, where all the faded colors combined for a decidely unhealthy look.

Lionel Atwill adds sardonic black humor to the title role, perhaps being the screen's greatest portrayer of mad scientists. This is one of his best roles and he plays the part of suspect with touches of menace and mystery, quite effectively. Fay Wray never looked as lovely here, in technicolor, in a more multi-dimensional role than was generally afforded her in other genre efforts, including King Kong(1933). Her character is genuinely sympathetic and engaging and we are really afraid for her when Preston Foster goes in to kill her, and perhaps worse! Lee Tracy tries to make something of the  stock reporter character that was so popular at the time, but comes across as boorish and annoying. His humor dosen't fit the natural black humor of the script, nor the playfullness of the rest of the cast. He could be an effective actor, but this is far from one of his best roles and he serves as something of a debit to the enjoyability of the picture, being placed in the hero role. Preston Foster had a long career as a character actor, playing seemingly everything and his Dr. Wells is one of the great psychotics of all time. His twisted painful expressions when undergoing his synthetic flesh experiment, conjures up disturbing images of both ectasy and pain. The repeated phrase of "synthetic flesh" is chilling and was particularly unnerving when viewing this early one morning as a child! He earns horror film immortality with this role and that classic scene.

Doctor X is not one of the finest horror films of this very rich and rewarding decade in screen horror, but it is one of the most inventive and disturbing. The technicolor photography is unique and there are a few truly memorable and frightening scenes to reccomend it, including what I consider to be, the decade's best scare scene. For that alone, this film deserves some reccomendation and should be seen by the horror buffs who read this blog. By the way, the 1939 film, The Return of Doctor X, is not a sequel to this film, but does feature Humphrey Bogart in his only horror role! It dosen't quite make the blood curl like this one does.

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