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Don't even try to compare this wonderful old WArner Brothers thriller from l934 with today's thrillers. It was made at a time long gone when atmosphere, sets, lighting and camerawork were king. I adore getting this movie out at least once a month along with "Mystery of the Wax Museum" and "Night Monster" (another reviewer has also cited "Night Monster" as the classic it is)turn out the lights and lose myself in the early Technicolor two-strip photographey which is beautifully pastel and atmospheric in its eerie greens, pinks, crimson and gold. The Anton Grot sets are unforgettable. The cast of Hollywood's greatest character actors throw themselves into their roles (I doubt they had any other choice. After all, the demonic Michael Curtiz was cracking the whip as director). Fay Wray is pretty and screams now and then. Most irritating of all is Lee Tracey as the relentlessly wise-cracking reporter. Glenda Farrell had the same role in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" also filmed in early color and she was fantastic. A great old thriller, set in a remote mansion by the sea. The monster is terrifying. Ironically, you never see any carnage, blood or torture. Hats off to those long-ago film masters who knew how to do things right.
Old dark house thrillers were all the rage in the early talkie era.
Doctor X combines a spooky old house with a mad scientist horror story,
and as directed by Michael Curtiz in early two-strip Technicolor, it's
a quite good show even by today's standards.
Lionel Atwill's Doctor X is a scientist who runs a medical research institute in New York City near where a series of grisly murders have recently occurred. He and his entire teaching staff are suspects in the case, as the police have determined that the killer has some medical knowledge. The ever-helpful doctor seeks to prove the authorities wrong, and transports his staff to the cliffside manor, Blackstone Shoals, to prove them wrong, and gets more than he bargained for.
Newspaperman Lee Tracy is along for the ride, and can't seem to keep his mouth shut, as he continually makes wisecracks. His character is utterly of the time, and as such a fascinating glimpse of a bygone type, both of real life and the movies. Fay Wray is her usual lissome self, with her peculiarly gyrating physicality far more interesting than her delivery of dialog. She's a brunette here, and proves herself once again filmdom's definitive Scream Queen, on at least one occasion shrieking with no provocation whatsoever, as if in preparation for the horror to come.
For a 1932 movie, this one moves quickly. There are enough dour and sinister-looking suspects to keep one guessing the identity of the murderer till near the end. Curtiz shows an often sadistic sense of humor, as when several suspects are manacled to their chairs to witness reenactment of one of the murders, only to have the real killer turn up! The director's control of the material is complete, and he shows himself once more one of great unsung masters of the studio era.
Wow, what a shock - a 1932 color movie! Well, sort of......only two
colors, but they look great.
I only got this because I saw it at the library as part of a two-pack with "The Return Of Dr. X." It is part of a Hollywood "Legends Of Horror" package that includes several other films I am familiar with and think highly of, so I can see a possible future purchase.
Anyway, the first thing that struck me watching this was that fantastic two-strip Technicolor. Immediately there is a street scene of green and brown that looks tremendous....and eerie. You would think that only black-and-white might make this look eerie, but not so - that combination of green and brown was very effective and made this a fascinating visual film. Hats off to the UCLA film restoration team, which made this 75-year-old film look really good.
As for the story, well, let's just say it doesn't measure up to the visuals. It starts off looking like a fun movie, even - surprise - a comedy as the newsman "Lee Taylor" (Lee Tracy) cracks a few corny jokes. However, it settles down into a crime story (more than horror) and we wind up with a whodunit and a room full of suspects, a la Charlie Chan or Sherlock Holmes. The suspects are all scientists working in the Academy of Surgical Research. A bunch of recent hideous crimes by the "Moon Killer" were all done in the vicinity of the academy, so they're the prime suspects. Even the head man at the academy, "Dr. Xavier," looks a bit suspicious. He is played well by Lionel Atwill.
The police give "Dr. X" 48 hours to find out if any of his employees are the killer before they totally take over the investigation and ruin the reputation of the scientific institution. All of the scientists, by the way, look and act creepy which adds to the mystery. Heck, they all could be serial killers.
The film drags during much of that period - except for a short testing session that Dr. X sets up to see if any of his subordinates are, indeed, the killer. Apparently, it's true because someone kills one of the suspects during the experiment! Then there is another long lull and the cops are getting impatient with the good doctor. They give him another ultimate so he "tests" his employees again, this time using his daughter "Joanne" (Fay Wray) as a guinea pig, so to speak.
Then, we finally see who the real killer is and that part is fun to watch and he transforms into a hideous monster-like man. I guess this why the film is called a horror film instead of a crime movie. I won't give the ending away but I admit, it's pretty good.
If that long middle part had been spiced up a bit, this would have super, but it was too talky for too long. Still, this isn't bad and I love those two colors. I wish more movies looked like that.
Use of Technicolor in its early two-strip days was primarily reserved
for musicals and comedies -it was rarely used for dramas. That's why
it's such a treat to see how well it could be used in a production such
as this, where cinematography is king. Only Michael Curtiz could light
a set and create compositions that are enhanced by the limited pallet -
only blues and reds registered here - of early Technicolor. One is
reminded of the red and blue hues of 3-D comic books.
This is a visual treat - the sets and the cinematography are the whole show.
Tight direction, excellent use of close-ups, and a rapid running time all make this a true cinematic classic. I grew up on the black and white version shown on television and now can't imagine it in any but the Technicolor original.
However, the script is shot full of holes. How did Lee Tracy know it was a scrub woman who was killed when the body arrived at the morgue and how did he know who accompanied the police into the morgue since they were all concealed in a vehicle and he was hiding behind a barrel on the wharf? How did the killer know Tracy was hiding in the skeleton closet and why is there a hole in the wall for passing gas through? There were five murders up until the washerwoman's death that starts the film, yet the wax models displayed in the mansion only cover the first four. How did the red liquid in the tube reach enormous heights during the first experiment when the killer was loose and not attached to the apparatus? Why was one of the doctors killed? Most importantly, how did the killer have the time (between setting up the experiment and actually appearing to claim a new victim) to create the synthetic flesh attached arm and face enhancements?
These only come to mind when critically viewing the film and looking for loopholes. If you're about sheer entertainment and viewing pleasure, you're hooked from the first reel and you believe everything you see.
A great horror film and a rarity in two-strip Technicolor. Add it to your collection - and thanks to UCLA for restoring it.
As a collector of old mystery-horror-comedy films (over 700
my collection!), "Dr. X" (& "Night Monster") rank as my Top
Films of All-Time! And, that's quite a statement!
Why? The marvellously spooky sets by Anton Grot, the superstitious antics of the maid, plus the ad-libbing of Lee Tracey make this film a gem! The entire film is extremely "atmospheric" and the effects of the "monster" shadows on the walls, clutching hands, wind (machines!), and all the rest really add to it!
Sometimes I watch this film just to observe the SETS!
(If you see it, watch the scene where Lee Tracey is trying to get into the house on Blackstone Shoals....the "wind" is howling like crazy, but not many of the trees are moving! I LOVE it!)
If possible, try to watch this film in the original tri-color technicolor version, as it's a lot better!
A wonderfully creepy film!
DOCTOR X is one of those heartbreaking films to watch for a fan of old
horror movies, because it has so many wonderful things going for it yet
just narrowly misses the mark of being really good due to a liability
or two which could have been avoided. As is so often the case with
early '30s fright films like this, the need was felt to add a
"funnyman" to the proceedings to perhaps give audiences of the day a
chance to laugh along with being scared. The culprit in this case is
Lee Tracy, who plays a typical golden age newspaper reporter who snoops
around and gets his nose tangled into everyone's business.
The "business" at hand is a string of killings in New York regarding a fiend who strangles people and then apparently cannibalizes them. Dr. Xavier (the always enjoyable Lionel Atwill) heads a group of doctors who are all suspects up for scrutiny, and though we have to deal with the frequent lapses into silliness from Mr. Tracy, this old chestnut is interesting and gripping a fair amount of its running time. Director Michael Curtiz does a fine job of visually entertaining us with strange angles, quick closeups and flashy set designs. An added delight is the early use of two-strip color that gives the film a rather eerie dimension with its muted greens. Fay Wray (KING KONG) steps into another early horror picture here, but really doesn't have much to do and isn't of much use to the story. There's a completely out of place beach scene with Wray and Tracy that will leave you wondering who thought it shouldn't be left on the cutting room floor (perhaps it was an excuse to get a pantie shot of Fay as she sunbathes under her big beach umbrella).
The film's strongest moment comes in a revelation sequence late in the movie where we finally get to see who the crazed murderer is, and it's still chilling even now to watch him go through his insane routine. You're bound to have the words "synthetic flesh" etched into your subconscious for a long time after seeing DOCTOR X, and if there's one thing you'll remember, this will be it. **1/2 out of ****
When you think of it, everything about this film is strictly
synthetic...the plot, the hokey comic relief, the occasional ham
acting--but the atmosphere photographed in crisp looking two-strip
Technicolor is fully charged and the taut direction of Michael Curtiz
(long before he did another more polished noir called THE UNSUSPECTED),
makes this a very watchable early horror film from Warner Bros.
The Anton Grot sets in early color will keep the viewer totally enhanced even when the plot holes become too obvious. The annoying comic relief supplied by Lee Tracy as a fast-talking newspaperman (was there any other kind?), is fortunately not much of a handicap when the cast includes an assortment of richly eccentric characters.
I have to confess I guessed who the murderer was from the start--but it didn't dampen my enjoyment of the melodramatic and very creepy events. The storyline concerns a killer known for striking when there's a full moon and Lionel Atwill is the doctor who thinks he can solve the crime by some scientific detective work of his own.
It's the sort of film that became a staple of the "old dark house" mysteries audiences loved in the '20s and '30s--and even into the '40s with films like THE CAT AND THE CANARY. None of it seems quite as compelling as some of the better known fright films (including MURDER IN THE WAX MUSEUM), but we do get a chance to hear some first rate screams from Fay Wray (who looks very attractive in close-ups even though the Max Factor make-up is a little too extreme), and the capable cast includes such sturdy performers as Lionel Atwill and Preston Foster.
Trivia note: The killer's synthetic flesh make-up is very effective when he's in full mode on the kill. Kudos to Michael Curtiz for a fun-filled fright film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The 1930's was one of the most interesting transitional periods for the
horror genre; it marked the heyday of the classic Gothic horror film,
and the seeds of elements from the contemporary noir thrillers and 'Old
Dark house' comedies which would later evolve into the 'Gruesome True
Crime' films, and much later; the Slasher flick. 'Doctor X' is a great
embodiment of all those different eras in one neat package.
Like a noir film, the film takes place mostly at night with many expressionistic camera angles and reliance on shadows to create ambiance, like a crime thriller/whodunit, the film has police, reporters and multiple suspects, like an Old Dark House film, there's creepy but comical servants and well, an old dark house, and like various Gothic horror films, there's a mad scientist villain who may as well be a magician. Half the fun, however, is figuring out who the villain is.
The plot is somewhat convoluted, but told in a linear enough fashion. A series of grisly killings that take place in the full moon(which may or, may not involve cannibalism) which the police determine could have only been committed using a certain kind of scalpel found exclusively at a currently closed university run by Doctor Xavier(Lionel Atwill); it seems all the doctors are likely suspects, but at the same time each has a plausible alibi, Xavier is given 48 hours to determine which of his faculty is the killer. Meanwhile, a wisecracking reporter(Lee Tracy)is hot on the trail not only of the killer, but of Xavier's daughter(Fay Wray, a year away from the role that would make her famous in 'King Kong'). Hilarity, or what we're supposed to see as hilarity, ensues, along with some good natured scares.
The film has several odd elements worth mentioning, not the least of which is that it was one of the rare films of this era shot in color. For one, as often as Tracy's reporter character is criticized for being annoying(And a gag involving a hand-buzzer wears thin REALLY fast), he does not slow down the narrative as much as you would think. For some odd reason, characters like him who are often the sidekick of the main hero really do annoy me, but I had no problem with him here, because he IS the hero, not a sidekick. You'd expect that giving such a character such prominent screen time would make him more annoying, but it doesn't. Thankfully, there is no straight man for his antics to draw attention from, so his antics seem natural. Plus, it works as a character trait when you think about it, he's selfish and annoying and only thinks he's funny, but that's one of his flaws. And best of all, he actually does get to show some depth and dignity by being THE man who defeats the villain at the end. It may not be three-dimensional character development, but it's something you didn't see everyday in such comedy-relief characters.
What's also interesting are some of the 'jump' scenes. Several years before Val Lewton perfected the 'bus' sequences in his films, 'Doctor X' throws in several; from a genuinely chilling scene where the Moon Killer zeroes in on our hero, to a scene where one of the suspected doctors is introduced in silhouette, his pointed beard and disheveled, pointing hair spikes making him look like the devil. Great stuff. It's also interesting how the title could refer to either Xavier(Who IS a suspect just as much as the others), or as a metaphorical term for the search, after all, if one of the doctors has to be the killer, than the search is for 'Doctor X'. Clever.
So other than some plot holes, flat gags, the usual contrived love story, and a never explained motive for why the killer is compelled by the full moon, the film is a ton of fun to watch. And even just the HINT that the killer may or may not be a cannibal must have made this too gruesome for words back in the '30's. The color is also a nice plus.
Don't miss it. Just be sure to apply a lot of 'Sssssssynthet-tic Flessshhhh' before watching it(A scene which was a real creeper then, and still is today).
Y'know what's funny? The more I re-evaluate the '30's horror classics I loved as a kid, the more I realize that, aside from the Whale films and the Lugosi/Karloff trilogy, the majority of the best films of the era were not from Universal. Bizarre.~
A creepy laboratory where eccentric doctors engage in bizarre
experiments. An intrepid reporter & a beautiful young woman
involving themselves in terrible danger. And a fiendish
strangler who only strikes during the full moon...
DOCTOR X does have an absurd plot, but it is undeniably entertaining to watch. Much of the credit for this must go to the look of the film. Art Director Anton Grot designed some very spooky interior sets. The Max Factor make-up is striking. And both elements are enhanced because this was one of the first movies to be shot in two-strip Technicolor.
Lee Tracy, one of the most enjoyable actors of the early 1930's, plays another in his long line of fast-talking wise-crackers - this time a newspaperman out to get a big story. Fay Wray is lovely as always & gets to use her famous scream (a year before KING KONG). Lionel Atwill hams it up a bit as the instigator of many of the more unusual elements in the plot.
A Full Moon Killer has been stalking the streets of New York and now has claimed a scrub woman as his latest victim. The police suspect the Academy of Surgical Research as the home of its killer, who the police believe has a vast knowledge of the human body and where the surgical knives found at the scene came from. Dr. Xavier (head of the Academy) believes this is nonsense, but decides to perform an experiment with the four main suspects (not including Xavier) doctors Wells, Rowitz, Haines, and Duke, to test their reactions to the mention of the crimes as well as reenactments. Xavier's daughter Joan teams up with annoying reporter Lee Taylor to find clues to the murders, but they have to act quickly when one of the doctors is killed and the next victim will be Joan, and no one in the academy will be able to stop him. Very entertaining horror film that did benefit from the two strip Technicolor process. Atwill, Wray, Foster, and Rosener gave very good performances, which however did seem to be overshadowed by all technical aspects of the film, Curtiz' direction, Rennahan's cinematography, and Westmore's makeup for the killer at the film's end. The obvious drawback to the film was the perennially annoying Lee Tracy as the reporter. Oh well, you can't have everything. Rating, 8.
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