Friday 13 April 2018

Pre-War Thrills:
Doctor X
(Michael Curtiz, 1932)

“It’s peculiar that the left deltoid muscle should be missing. […] Gentlemen, it wasn’t torn out - this is cannibalism!”

Well, that sure put the cat among the pigeons. The speaker is Dr Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill), and he has has just thrown back the sheet covering a murder victim in old New York’s delightfully shabby Mott Street Morgue. We’re less than five minutes into ‘Doctor X’, Warner Bros’ first stab at a full-blooded horror movie, and one of the first out of the gates from any of the major studios following Universal’s runaway success with ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ in 1931. (1)

Quite why the doctor is so confident of his assertion that cannibalism has taken place is never really made clear (I mean, were there teeth marks or something..?), but regardless - this is certainly a hair-raising way to begin a movie in 1932. Could it be an indication that the hard-boiled, straight-talking approach that had recently proved so successful in Warners’ game-changing gangster pictures was about to cross over into their nascent horror efforts..? Well, kind of, but we’ll get onto that later.

For now though - apparently the cops who have called Dr. Xavier out in the dead of night to examine the body are equally as suspicious of his diagnosis as we are. When Atwill says his good nights and turns to leave (“I have a very important experiment in progress, which demands my attention..”), they spring a bit of a surprise on him, blocking the doorway and informing him that they are aware of a few other matters that demand an equal claim to his attentions.

You see, the stiff on the slab is the sixth victim of a fiend the press have dubbed “The Moon Killer” as a result of his penchant for committing his crimes by the light of the full moon. And, the police have determined that all six murders were committed with the aid of a specific kind of European scalpel – an implement so high-end that the only place in the USA known to have imported any is, uh, Doctor Xavier’s medical academy - an institution which furthermore happens to be a mere stone’s throw from the locale in which all of the bodies have been discovered.

“Well… shit,” the doctor may have thrown in for a cheap laugh at this point had ‘Doctor X’ been made half a century later, but as it is, Atwill maintains his cool, and Dr. X instead denies all knowledge of the crimes, demonstrating his desire to cooperate by inviting the two detectives back for a late night tour of his laboratory complex.

What follows is a delightful sequence that is probably my favourite part of ‘Doctor X’, as the detectives are introduced one by one to Dr Xavier’s “research associates”, each of whom has them exchanging glances that say “ok, we’ve found our man”, only for them to then be ushered into the next room to meet somebody EVEN MORE eminently suspicious.

It’s as if, in the wake of ‘Frankenstein’, Warner Bros were telling their audience, “So you like mad scientists, huh? Well boy have we ever got some mad scientists for you!” Frankly, I’m surprised The National Academy of Sciences didn’t attempt to sue the studio for bringing their members into disrepute.

Professor Wells (Preston Foster, looking somewhat like Dean Stockwell in The Dunwich Horror) is “a student of cannibalism” (ya don’t say), who can barely hold back his cackles as he ogles the jar of crimson fluid in which he keeps a human heart he claims he has kept alive for three years using electrolysis. (He also has a pair of mud-caked boots drying on the radiator in his lab, and claims he was out on the waterfront “for a breath of fresh air” at around the time the latest murder was committed – but, wait, he’s also missing a hand, which would seem to rule him out, given the murderer’s penchant for strangulation – OR WOULD IT?)

Professor Haynes (John Wray) meanwhile was shipwrecked off Tahiti several years past, and when he and a companion were rescued after an arduous time adrift, the third occupant of their lifeboat had mysteriously vanished, if you get my drift. When he is first introduced in silhouette, his tufty beard and unruly forelock make him look like a pantomime devil. In the medical world, his speciality is “brain grafting”, apparently. He gets jittery in the presence of the police and also keeps saucy French magazines hidden around his lab.

Next up, Dr Rowitz (played by the wonderful Arthur Edmund Carewe) was Professor Haynes’ companion in that lifeboat, believe it or not. A cadaverous fellow with a smoked glass monocle covering his empty left eye socket, he speaks with an Germanic accent faintly reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ Dr Strangelove and takes “ interest in the light qualities of the moon”. “If you suffer sunstroke, might you not suffer some similar EVIL from the rays of the moon?” he asks pointedly, before throwing in a flippant comment about a murdered ‘scrub woman’ (that being the agreed upon description of the killer’s most recent victim). Strangely, given that his private research seems to primarily consist of observing the heavens, Dr Rowitz also has some grisly looking gore splattered all over his lab coat. Dr Rowitz is a sensitive soul, and the author of several volumes of poetry, Dr Xavier points out when leaping to his colleague’s defence.

Professor Duke (Harry Beresford) is a cankerous old bugger in a wheelchair, who, it must be said, is somewhat less suspicious than his fellows (not that that’s saying much), but he makes up the numbers, as indeed does Dr Xavier’s genre mandated leering, cadaverous man-servant Otto (George Rosener).

Now, clearly if Detective O'Halloran and Police Commissioner Stevens (thanks, IMDB) really were the hard-boiled Warner Bros cops they appear to be, they’d slap the cuffs on this whole crew of nuts and sort out what’s what once they were safely behind bars down at the station. But, as you may have gathered by this point, gritty realism is not really the priority of Robert Tasker & Earl Baldwin’s screenplay, despite their studio’s trademark aesthetic. (2)

Instead then, the cops prove surprisingly receptive to Dr Xavier’s pleadings against negative publicity, and to his claim that he can use state-of-the-art scientific methodology to identify the killer in his midst. As such, they promise to leave him and his associates unmolested for forty eight hours. Which is nice of them.

Whilst all this has been going on meanwhile, we have – to the chagrin of every horror fan who has ever written about this film since being a “horror fan” first became a thing – spent an equal amount of time in the company of wise-cracking newspaper reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy). He has one of those joke hand buzzer thingys, an exploding cigar in his pocket, and a habit of saying “wayda minute, WAYDA MINUTE” whilst waving his arms around. Oh boy.

In truth, Tracy isn’t all that bad as far as comic relief goes. Basically doing a Bush League Bob Hope impersonation, he’s likeable enough and good for a few chuckles. The problem is rather that he is on the screen all the damn time, filling up a fairly hefty chunk of ‘Doctor X’s seventy five minute run time with his antics, when we would far rather be learning more about the film’s world-beating retinue of mad scientists (none of whose quirks are ever really explored in much detail, unfortunately), or indeed checking in on the depredations of The Moon Killer. (3)

This whole ‘comic reporter’ angle was reportedly absent from the film’s source play, and is said to have been largely mandated by Warners' Head of Production Darryl F Zanuck, whose fears of potential censorship led him to try to steer the picture away from all-out horror and more toward the ‘comedy chiller’ template established by the countless ‘mystery play’ adaptations that followed in the wake of 1927’s ‘The Cat & The Canary’.

Bolstered by the fact that Warners had recently been enjoying big success with a handful of other "wise-cracking newspaperman" type movies, Zanuck thus determined to exercise the long-standing prerogative of studio bosses to fuck up perfectly good pictures whenever they feel like it, and ‘Doctor X’s potential future status as a stone-cold classic of taboo-busting weirdo horror cinema duly found itself badly compromised.

In addition to comedy, Zanuck also prescribed a heavy dose of romance to try to widen the film’s appeal, and as such, Tracy’s presence becomes particularly irksome during the scenes he shares with the film’s obligatory leading lady, Fay Wray (no relation to John, as far as I know).

Appearing here as Dr. Xavier’s daughter, about a year before she was achieved immortality via ‘King Kong’, Wray herself is great in ‘Doctor X’. She has a brassy, no-bullshit attitude, she looks amazing, and her very presence adds a great deal to the film. Unfortunately however, she is given absolutely nothing to work with in a role that basically amounts to little more than a token pretty girl parachuted into a cast that otherwise consists almost entirely of middle-aged male weirdoes.

Despite Zanuck’s edict that Tracy and Wray’s characters should take centre stage as much as possible, screenwriters Tasker & Baldwin clearly had no idea what to do with them, and thus we find them running through an unedifying “big-mouthed goon charms the lady” rom-com routine that must have seemed hackneyed even in 1932. This basically involves Tracy winning Wray’s heart by the tried-and-tested means of bothering and harassing her until she eventually succumbs to his unctuous advances, and as a result is liable to strike modern viewers as more ghoulish and unconvincing than anything in the film’s horror storyline.

Had those horror elements been rendered in less convincing fashion, Zanuck’s meddling might well have torpedoed ‘Doctor X’ entirely, but thankfully, there was enough talent both in front of and behind the camera to ensure the film’s “good bits” remain so remarkable that we can excuse any amount of clowning around in the interim.

For a start, the resources allotted to ‘Doctor X’ seem to have been surprisingly elaborate for a ‘horror subject’, and the filmmakers make excellent use of them. Sets were created (or redressed from earlier productions) by splendidly named production designer Anton Grot (a much celebrated figure whose impressive resumé can be perused here), and without exception they look absolutely wonderful, from the shabby, dockside street scene that opens the film to the shadow-haunted, bubbling test-tube filled interiors of Dr X’s academy. (Even the academy’s vast hall of records – used solely for a fairly mundane dialogue scene in which Wray is introduced as Atwill’s daughter – is a knock-out.)

Grot and his collaborators further up their game when the action switches to Dr Xavier’s cliff top gothic mansion (of course he has a cliff top gothic mansion), supposedly located in Long Island. Introduced via a wonderfully foreboding painted establishing shot that pre-empts the ones used decades later in AIP and Hammer gothic horrors, this decidedly unreal location highlights the uniquely uneasy relationship between hard-boiled realism and utter fantasy that runs throughout ‘Doctor X’… with the latter very much predominating at the mansion, as you might well imagine.

At one point, we even see Tracy’s character arriving at the house in a horse-drawn carriage, complete with a coachman in a top hat and inverness cape. Perhaps intended as a nudge-wink reference to the opening of Browning’s ‘Dracula’, this shot looks as if it could have been pulled directly from an early ‘60s period gothic, and seems a bizarre addition to a film supposedly set in 1930s New York, joining the howling winds on the soundtrack and the house’s faux-medieval exteriors in signalling that, as modern parlance would have it, we’re now off on some other shit entirely.

Suffice to say, Dr. X has called everyone to the mansion so as to isolate his ‘suspects’ whilst he uses allegedly fool-proof scientific methods to try to establish which of them is the unhinged cannibal killer. In short, this goes about as well as you’d imagine it might in a dark, old house full of suspicious characters, hidden stairwells, closets inexplicably filled with skeletons and prominently displayed fuse boxes operated by big levers.

Before all the fun gets underway however, we at least have enough time to appreciate the magnificence of the mansion’s central laboratory set, which comprises a cornucopia of vertiginous art deco glass tubing fronds, fog-spewing beakers and bell-jars, spinning hypno-wheels, giant, gleaming steel valves, massive halcyon lighting rigs and assorted Frankensteinian electronic equipment of unimaginable purpose.

Enhanced by the extraordinary morass of techno-babble that Lionel Atwill gamely intones as he straps his assembled suspects into barbers chairs to test their physiological reactions to re-enactments of The Moon Killer’s crimes (“..the rotor of the electro-static machine is connected in multiple series with a bank of glass plate condensers and the discharge causes irradiations to the thermal tubes which in turn indicate your increased pulse rate and nerve reactions..”), Grot’s ingenious creations ensure that, for connoisseurs of vintage mad scientist gear, ‘Doctor X’ is up there with ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ as the gold standard for this sort of thing. It’s amazing.

Mirroring Grot’s achievements meanwhile, Curtiz’s direction proves that, despite his reputation as an unpredictable tyrant on set, he was already an accomplished visual stylist a full decade before his breakthrough with ‘Casablanca’, employing disorientating dutch angles and vertiginous overhead shots wherever possible, and cluttering his foreground with jagged assemblies of weird-looking props.

As you will no doubt have noted from the screen shots posted above, ‘Doctor X’ also enjoys the distinction of being shot using two-strip Technicolor, securing its place in genre history as the first – and for several decades, practically the only – colour horror film. (4)

Though the idea of a colour film from the 1930s may seem novel to us today, the primitive two-strip process employed here had actually been used extensively in Hollywood during 1929-30, with Warner Bros leading the charge. In fact, with a return to black & white mandated both by the legendary intransigence and dictatorial tendencies of Technicolor and an increasing public perception that two-strip colour was little more than an unconvincing gimmick, ‘Doctor X’ was actually one of the *last* entries in this early colour boom, and was reportedly only filmed in colour to help fulfil Warners’ remaining contractual obligations to Technicolor. (5)

Nonetheless though, the limitations of the two strip process (which as I understand it involved layering up two of the three primary colours whilst leaving the third entirely absent) suits the fantastical nature of ‘Doctor X’ extremely well, and Technicolor cameraman Ray Rennahan does an extremely good job of imbuing the film with a uniquely weird look, with whites and blues entirely excised in favour of a murky, almost sepia-tinted palette of brown, beige and cream tones, fuzzy pools of bottomless inky black and sickly blasts of bright green, red and pink used to liven up the mad science scenes.

Though this look was likely more the result of circumstance and technical limitations than anything else, it again seems to pre-empt the expressionistic colour schemes that would eventually be incorporated into the horror genre once directors like Bava, Freda and Corman first got their hands on a bunch of gel filters in the ‘60s.

Yet another thing that helps make ‘Doctor X’ so noteworthy is The Moon killer himself. Though we don't see much of him for most of the film, he already looks pretty striking in his brief appearances, with a melty-looking rubber face-mask, grasping, monster hands and what looks to be some kind of ritualistic robe.

This is small beer though in comparison to the movie’s final ace-in-the-hole for horror fans – an incredible sequence in which we are allowed to witness the villain’s complete transformation into his ‘Moon Killer’ alter-ego, plastering his face in the synthetic flesh (or seeeenthetic flerrsh as he prefers to pronounce it in none-more-creepy fashion) that has apparently been his life’s work – living, breathing tissue that he moulds like putty onto his own features in advance of each crime in order to turn himself – for some reason - into a monstrous, flesh-eating galoot.

Effectively pre-empting the “body horror” pioneered by directors like David Cronenberg by nearly a full half-century, the innovative use of gooey special effects (rubber masks provided by Max Factor, no less) and Grot’s weird, pseudo-scientific set dressing make this sequence feels startlingly modern – more akin to the kind of FX showcase sequences that took centre stage in so many ‘80/’90s horror movies than anything you’d associate with the ‘30s.

Quite how the killer’s ‘synthetic flesh’ angle tallies up with his cannibalism, his full moon fixation, his Jack The Ripper-like surgical excavations and the clearly stated implication that he has raped his victims(!), lord only knows, but as an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mutated maniac, he is certainly a pretty extraordinary figure to find rampaging through a movie of this vintage.

Enlivened by a pungent whiff of Freudian weirdness, the film’s finale, during which our lingerie-clad heroine, laying on what may as well be a sacrificial slab on a makeshift stage, is menaced by the creature’s hairy hands whilst her father looks on from the ‘audience’, strapped to a chair and unable to help, achieves a truly nightmarish intensity.

As you will have noted if you’ve followed this review up to this point, the logic of just about every aspect of ‘Doctor X’ is just a little bit skewed. In fact, as an early exemplar of the ever-popular “what were they smoking when they came up with this?” approach to horror movie scripting, it’s practically flawless.

I mean, aside from anything else, why is Professor Wells excused from Dr. X’s physiological tests on the basis that his missing hand disqualifies him as a murder suspect, even though Professor Duke – who is confined to a wheelchair – must submit them? And, whilst we’re on the subject, how did the killer apparently manage to incorporate a whole network of secret passages and his own crazy, electricity-draining lab set-up into someone else’s house, to which he’d been invited with less than twenty four hours’ notice? I’d go on, but you get the idea.

Of all the many things that allow us to celebrate ‘Doctor X’ for being ahead of its time, I think that, ironically, these frequent forays into absurdity may actually be the most significant.

Whilst the tradition of sloppy scripting that crept into American horror movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s (and that was inherited by the exploitation and ‘grindhouse’ product of the ‘60s and ‘70s) was primarily rooted in a patronising disdain for the films’ presumed audience (the “why bother getting all the details lined up when yr making pictures for children and imbeciles?” defence), the unhinged plotting of ‘Doctor X’ seems to be coming from somewhere else entirely.

Less the result of mere laziness, it feels more like an errant explosion of crazy ideas piled up with such haphazard enthusiasm that it almost collapses under its own weight – a wonderful, irrational nightmare zone that American audiences and filmmakers have only intermittently been able to access over the years, but that a subsequent generation of European genre directors would soon take to heart in a big way.

Even as the goon-ish comic relief reporter tries in vain to drag ‘Doctor X’ back to a world in which grown-ups were incapable of treating supernatural subjects with anything other than mockery, the film’s demonstration of the fact that a script consisting largely of thrown together, abject nonsense can still be transformed into a feast of visually intoxicating, thematically provocative, jaw-droppingly weird entertainment points the way forward toward all of the maniacal triumphs that the more outré proponents of the horror genre achieved in the latter half of the 20th century.


(1) Ok, I know that TECHNICALLY, ‘Doctor X’ was a ‘First National Pictures’ production, distributed by Warner Bros, but First National was basically a subsidiary of Warners by this point, having been bought out by the larger studio in 1929, after which they continued to intermittently use First National branding on their pictures before formally dissolving the company in 1936. More info here for anyone who cares.

(2) Credit where it’s due department: ‘Doctor X’ was adapted for the screen from a Broadway play of the same name – authored by Howard W. Comstock & Allen C. Miller - which ran for eighty performances in 1930-31.

(3) Fun Fact: Lee Tracy lost his contract with MGM after the studio had to smuggle him out of Mexico following an incident that saw him urinating on a military parade from a hotel balcony whilst filming ‘Viva Villa!’ in 1934. Given the “you’ll never work in this town again” treatment, he served out most of the rest of his career on stage and TV, much to the delight no doubt of the countless thousands of fans and critics who have given him shit over the years for ruining ‘Doctor X’.

(4) Contrary to Technicolor’s strict demands to the contrary, ‘Doctor X’ was actually shot simultaneously in colour and black & white, with prints from two separate negatives being prepared and distributed simultaneously, leading to no end of confusion. The B&W version, which apparently features many different takes and shot compositions, was the only version of the film in circulation until the chance rediscovery of the colour version – which is generally held to be superior – in the 1980s. Both versions are still widely available however, thus furthering the aforementioned confusion.

(5) The prominence of colour films in the early sound era is often overlooked today as a result of the fact that the cumbersome and fragile nature of the era’s colour prints led to most of the relevant film elements being unceremoniously destroyed in subsequent decades, leaving the films in question either reduced to alternate B&W prints, or lost entirely. In case you were wondering.

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