Thursday, November 17, 2016

Doctor X

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Doctor X (WB, 1932) – Director: Michael Curtiz. Writers: Earl Baldwin, and Robert Tasker (s/p). George Rosener (contribution to s/p construction; uncredited). Howard Warren Comstock, Allen C. Miller (play, The Terror). Stars: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray,  Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Leila Bennett, Robert Warwick, George Rosener, Willard Robertson, Thomas E. Jackson, Harry Holman, Mae Busch, & Tom Dugan. In two-strip Technicolor, 77 minutes.

Now listen, please, to what I have to say: one of us in this room may be a murderer; a murderer who kills by the light of a full moon, leaving his victim’s body mutilated; a cannibal…” – Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill)

By the year 1932, the Depression has firmly set in and Hollywood was looking for new diversions to get the public into theaters. Studios took note that Universal had a series of hits with their horror films: DraculaFrankenstein, and Murder in the Rue Morgue that brought audiences into the theaters.

It got to the point where even Warner Bros. was forced to get into the game. But for Warners, known for its gritty urban dramas, horror was unknown territory. Fortunately, they had a director who had cut his teeth in Germany with such films – Michael Curtiz. He was assigned to direct two films devoted to horror: Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. To boost audience interest, the studio used the two-strip Technicolor process, although audiences not in the urban areas saw the pictures in black and white. And in keeping with the studio’s philosophy, there was absolutely nothing supernatural about each film: they were firmly rooted in the studio's urban environment and ethos.

Lee Taylor (Tracy) is a reporter investigating what the press has dubbed “The Moon Murders,” a series of killings over the past six months always committed under a full moon. Each victim has been neatly and clinically stabbed and chunks of flesh are missing, insinuating some form of cannibalism. Taylor is waiting outside the morgue, located somewhere on New York's Lower East Side, acting on a tip that the police are calling in an expert to do the postmortem on the latest victim, a scrubwoman. Barred from entry, he ducks into a local brothel to call his paper and give them an update on who’s attending the postmortem. 

The police have called in Doctor Xavier (Atwill), the head of the nearby Academy of Surgical Research, to perform the postmortem. Xavier concludes that the old woman was strangled by a pair of powerful hands before an incision was made at the base of her brain and her left deltoid muscle removed, presumably for cannibalization. 

Asked by Police Commissioner Stevens (Warwick) his opinion of the killer, Xavier replies that the killer is “A neurotic, of course. Some poor devil suffering from a fixation ... A knot or kink tied to the brain by some past experience. A madness that comes only at certain times when the killer is brought into direct contact with some vivid reminder of the past.”

Stevens is more than a little skeptical, but Xavier continues, pointing to his head: “But I tell you that locked in each human skull is a little world all its own.”

When Stevens asks what these ‘reminders’ would be, Xavier responds, “Anything. The poor devil, sane at all other times, is forced to live over the scene of the action that first drove him mad.”

And there we have it. While Universal is attributing its horrors for the most part to supernatural causes, Warner Bros. is going straight to Freud, with a side detour to Richard Kraft-Ebbing for the perverse details, for its explanation. There’s nothing supernatural at all about The Moon Killer; he is simply driven to do what he does by a past traumatic experience.

But to his consternation, Dr. Xavier discovers that the commissioner has an ulterior motive for asking him to perform the postmortem. The commissioner believes that someone from Xavier’s nearby Surgical Academy is the killer. Xavier takes umbrage to the accusation. He knows every student and faculty member personally and asks Commissioner Stevens to allow him to conduct his own internal investigation before officially proceeding. Stevens agrees to Xavier’s request. Xavier, Stevens, and the others present leave the morgue to see the Academy and meet its faculty. 

Immediately after the men leave, Taylor pops up from the slab where he has been hiding – and listening – while the discussion has been going on. Tracy’s character will perform tricks like this throughout the film, lending some necessary comic relief to the gruesome proceedings. He puts on his shoes and leaves to report what he has heard to his editor and heads for the Academy.

At the school, formerly titled “Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research,” Xavier’s daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray) discovers a figure skulking in the dark. She lets out one of her famous screams before turning on the lights only to find her father skimming through the bookcases in his library. She begs him to take a break and get some rest, but he replies that he cannot rest until he clears the name of the school. As she opens the blinds to let in the moonlight, Xavier tells her that he is bothered by the ghastly moon.

Dr. Xavier introduces his faculty to the police, and a better group of likely suspects could not exist. First up is Professor Wells (Foster), an expert on cannibalism. Wells is working on an experiment that is keeping a human heart beating through electrical impulses. He tells Stevens and his staff that his left arm is bothering him, then unscrews his artificial left hand.

Next up is Professor Haines (John Wray), whose specialty is brain research and is experimenting with brain grafting. He asks after Joanne in a way that can best be described as unsettling. Xavier notes to the police that Haines was part of an expedition that was shipwrecked. He and two colleagues were adrift for days in a lifeboat. When they were finally rescued, only two were still present. There was no trace of the third. 

The other person left alive in the lifeboat is Dr. Rowitz (Carewe), who also works at the Academy. His specialty is studying the effects of the moon on a person’s mind. As he is explaining his work, he begins to rhapsodize quite fancifully about the moon, while the light beaming down on his face from the skylight above shows massive scars. His rhapsodizing gets to the point where his grumpy, wheelchair-bound partner Professor Duke (Beresford) interrupts to get him back on track. After meeting the faculty, Stevens gives Xavier the 48 hours he requested to finish his investigation. 

As Xavier is busy making introductions, Joanne catches Taylor prowling around the grounds and threatens him with a gun. Taylor tries to charm her, but to no avail. As he skulks in the dark, an unknown figure creeps up behind him. He lights a cigar given to him by the guard at the morgue as the figure grows closer. Suddenly, just as the figure’s hands are about to close around his neck, the cigar explodes, a payback from a cop he used a joy buzzer on when they shook hands earlier (and something that will come into play later in the movie to save Taylor’s life), and the unknown figure runs away, unnoticed. 

Taylor later sneaks into the Xavier house, conning Mamie (Bennett), the family maid. Joanne once again catches him, this time attempting to steal photos of herself and her father for his paper. She becomes further enraged when she learns that he wrote the story about her father in that morning’s paper. However, as she’s busy taking Taylor to task, she lets slip the fact that her father is convening the faculty at his summer estate in Blackstone Shoals, Long Island, for his internal investigation. Taylor follows the group out to the estate.

At the estate, Xavier tells the others his reasons for the move. He and Professor Wells have devised a psychoneurological test to determine if anyone of them is the guilty party. Xavier is also going to subject himself to the test; the only person exempt will be Wells, who Xavier has deduced can't be a suspect as he has only one hand. Despite the protests of the professors, the test will begin in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Taylor has snuck into the house, receiving a series of frights as he tries to figure out what is going on. He ducks into a closet full of skeletons, and while waiting, begins to play with them. But one of the skeleton’s arms moves, exposing a hole in the wall through which an eye is watching. The closet soon fills with gas, knocking Taylor out. 

For the experiment, Xavier is using Mamie and Otto the butler (Rosener), dressing them up as victim and killer to re-enact the murders under the light of the full moon. Each of the professors, excepting Wells, is handcuffed to a chair and hooked up to a set of tubes monitoring their heartbeat, with each beat causing a reddish liquid to surge in the tubes. The quicker the heartbeat, the higher the liquid goes, which shows how excited the individual is becoming. If the tube overflows, that individual is guilty. As the experiment goes on, the lights go out, with chaos ensuing. Rowitz screams and as the lights go on, Xavier determines he is the killer, as his tube is overflowing. But Rowitz is dead, murdered like all the others. Wells is later found conked on the head during the pandemonium and when he comes to, he remembers nothing. 

Despite the horrors of the previous night, Xavier is determined to repeat the experiment, but Mamie is too distraught to continue. Joanne volunteers to take her place and dresses as one of the victims, this time, a young girl who was murdered by the fiend while in the hospital. Otto will once again play the killer. Taylor has wandered off to examine the house and has discovered a secret passage to one of the professor’s labs. Doctor Xavier thinks he’s slipped away to send in his story, but Joanne is certain that he kept his promise to her. Although they search, but cannot find him. But we saw that while Taylor is snooping around, a cloaked figure suddenly grabs him and imprisons him on the other side of a sliding panel.

In his room setting up the experiment, Wells begins acting strangely. He reaches behind some shelving and produces another hand. Although it’s misshapen, it is real and quite functional. Slipping it into his empty left sleeve, where it attaches itself to the stump of his arm, he applies what looks like goop to his left stump, all the while muttering the words “synthetic flesh.” The goop sets and allows him to use the hand like a normal hand, only a much stronger one. He turns on an electric arc generator and thrusts his newly-attached hand into the current, with his reaction being a rather strange combination of agony and ecstasy. He also applies the goop to his face, once again muttering “synthetic flesh,” in case we didn’t catch it the first time, creating a mask that looks horribly distorted. 

Wells sneaks up on Otto and strangles him. He then heads for Joanne grabbing her throat and reveling himself to the others, who are struggling to escape from their cuffs. Wells taunts them with his new makeover, revealing his insanity: “Yes, it is Wells! – but a new Wells! A Wells whose name will live forever in the history of science! Yes, look at it! A real hand! It’s alive – it’s flesh! Synthetic flesh! For years I’ve been searching to find the secret of a living manufactured flesh – and now I’ve found it! You think I went to Africa to study cannibalism? I went there to get samples of the human flesh that the natives eat! Yes, that’s what I needed – living flesh from humans for my experiments! What difference did it make if a few people had to die? Their flesh taught me how to manufacture arms, legs, faces that are human! I’ll make a crippled world whole again!”

As Wells continues clutching Joanne by the throat, Taylor suddenly springs out from the shadows and takes on Wells while Joanne manages to free her father and the others. The insane Wells is powerful, but just as Taylor appears to be overcome he uses his hand buzzer to drive Wells back, grabs an oil lamp from the wall, and flings it at the monster. The synthetic flesh catches fire and Taylor pushes Wells through the window, where he plunges in flames to the beach far below. Joanne and Taylor embrace as Lee phones in his story and tells the society editor that a future matrimonial announcement may be forthcoming.


The genesis of Doctor X was on Broadway in a three-act melodrama/mystery originally entitled The Terror, by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller. The title was changed to Doctor X after one of its main characters to avoid confusion (and a possible lawsuit) with a play of the same name. It opened on Feb. 9, 1931, and closed in April 1931 after 80 performances. Warner’s story department bought the play for $5,000, and while in preparation for filming, the screenwriters focused on the horror elements of the story, making it more of a horror/comedy and made the villain a monster instead of a mere serial killer. They also changed the locale of Dr. Xavier’s mansion from East Orange, N.J., to Long Island, N.Y., to give a more secluded and creepy feeling.

As the script began to evolve, the horror elements were downplayed and new scenes with Lee Tracy were added to emphasize the comical aspects of the story. Possibly it was felt that a film dealing with elements of cannibalism, rape, and other repressed Freudian aspects would be a little too much for the audience to take, as they couldn't merely shrug it off as they could the Universal horrors by noting the presence of the supernatural. One was far more likely to meet a fiend like that in Doctor X than meet someone like Dracula.

So the writers ratcheted up Tracy’s presence, making him both the hero and comic relief character. Usually in these sort of films where the reporter is the hero, he has a comic relief sidekick who usually works as his photographer. They also provided a subplot in the form of a romance between Tracy’s character and Fay Wray’s Joanne Xavier. Throughout most of the film she can’t stand him, but after he comes to her rescue in the final reel, she not only falls head-over-heels for him, but wedding bells are implied as the film fades out. In the end, we get a horror-mystery where the hero places emphasis on the comical aspects of the plot.

This and the film that followed, Mystery of the Wax Museum, were the last Warner Bros. would make using the two-strip Technicolor process. The only reason they were made using this method at all was to fulfill the contract with Technicolor, which was owed two more films. What we know and love today as Technicolor is a three-strip process combining blue, red and green to reproduce a wide range of tones. Back in its early days, Technicolor was a two-strip process, displaying colors only as shades of reds and greens. The company took a shellacking from critics and public alike due to way too many terrible, murky prints, and the public was said to be tired of it by 1932. Two-strip Technicolor was also hell for those who had to act under its strong lights, which raised the temperature on sets to around 120 degrees.

However, in its last bow using the process, the studio decided to go out with a little style. The producers asked Technicolor to work with them on developing a color scheme that would enhance the mysterious atmosphere they wished to create for the film. In addition, Ray Rennahan, a pioneer in color cinematography, was asked to supervise the photography on the film. This created a film that distanced itself from the garish, unflattering reds and greens and moved instead towards a pastel of aquas, grays, and browns. The result is that the film takes on a nightmarish, otherworldly feeling. The opening scene, with the full moon ever so slightly lighting the foggy streets, effectively sets the mood for the rest of the film.

The highlight, of course, is when the film reveals Wells (Foster) as the monster. As he plasters layers of what he calls “synthetic flesh” over his head and hands, the shades of pinkish-orange set off by green shadows provide an unsettling experience for the viewer, maximizing the mood. Max Factor, known by its reputation to glamorize actors and actresses, created the makeup used by Foster for his transformation.

But spooky hues alone do not an effective film make. In order to keep the audience riveted, the hues must emphasize something other than the actors. And so, in order to make maximum use of the color palette, Warner’s assigned art director Anton Grot, their resident genius when it came to fantastic set designs, to create elaborate sets full of wild and dangerous-looking electrical contraptions arranged against dark, vast, and foreboding interiors. The result was a set that mixed futurism with Art Deco, giving the film a look that is distinctly – and unforgettably – odd. 

Grot’s design for the Doctor’s summer home, called “Cliff Manor,” is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture gone wild, with its cavernous hallways, secret passage and huge basement laboratory. Should we be surprised that when reporter Taylor is driven to the place he is taken there in a horse-drawn carriage driven by a cloaked coachman?

The third slice of credit for the look of the film goes to director Curtiz himself. His emphasis on shadows and splitting the colors in order to emphasize one part of the frame, though not a horrifically sharp as black and white, nevertheless makes for an undeniably haunting experience. Curtis can also be credited, along with the writers, for a most unique innovation: standing the Old Dark House Mystery plot on its head. 

In the standard variation, a group of disparate people gathers at some wildly remote sinister old mansion. An entity, which is thought to be supernatural, stalks them and kills some off, until at last the hero and heroine reveal the killer not to be a supernatural force or being, but perfectly human, usually interested in being the last one standing to claim the inheritance. (Many critics and bloggers have noted that this morphed into the general plot for the animated series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?) In Doctor X, a group of people, all known to each other, gather in a remote, sinister old mansion, only they assume that which stalks them is perfectly natural, for this is the 20th century. But here, at the end, the killer is revealed to be just a bizarre as he is human.

Just as the standard Old Dark House Mystery has a slew of red herrings, so does Doctor X; in fact, the film is awash in them, from Professor Haines, who along with his colleague Dr. Rowitz (he who is investigating the effects of moonlight on the brain), may have eaten the other survivor of the shipwreck to stay alive, to the cranky wheelchair-bound Professor Duke, who we later find could walk on his own due to a hysterical reaction, to the Good Doctor himself. In the scene in his library, when Joanne raises the blinds to let in the moonlight, it causes her father to close his eyes, press his fingers to the bridge of his nose, and complain to her that moonlight makes him feel “nervous.”

As stated previously, our guide to this bizarre, deviate world is Sigmund Freud, with an assist from Kraft-Ebbing’s textbook, Psychopathia Sexualis. Their influence seems to be everywhere: in the killer Dr. Xavier claims is responsible; in his staff with their unusual peccadillos; even in Dr. Xavier himself. No one is immune, not even his daughter Joanne, who shows tendencies of a definite Electra complex towards her father in the way she constantly worriers after him and idolizes him. For instance, Professor Haines is a voyeur. He enquires to Dr. Xavier about his daughter in a creepy way; the police find a semi-pornographic book entitled French Art hidden in one of his textbooks; and when Lee Taylor and Joanne are at the beach, Haines is watching them though a pair of binoculars. Last, but certainly not least, let’s not forget that sequence at the mansion’s laboratory when Xavier has all the scientists (excepting Wells) chained to chair and forced to watch a reenactment of one of the “Moon Killer’s” crimes while being tethered to a machine calibrated to measure how excited they are by the scene. 

But the one who wrote the book on cannibalism, Dr. Wells, is the first suspect the police hone in on, and in the end, revealed as the killer. He was ruled out by both Xavier and the police due to the fact he has only one hand and the victims were forcibly strangled by a powerful pair of hands, but no one took notice of the “synthetic flesh” he was making, and the cuts that were made to remove flesh from the victim supposedly for rites of cannibalism were actually made to obtain specimens to further his synthetic project. In the scene where he reveals himself to the other while holding his hand to the throat of a prostrate Fay Wray in a negligee, implying elements of rape, also set the tone for future trends in horror movies. In both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, the women (both played by Fay Wray)  were bound and vulnerable to assault by all too human fiends. The implications of Fay Wray lying prostrate and helpless in a negligee before the Moon Killer was the stuff of which exploitation dreams are made, although we would have to wait until the late ‘50s for this aspect to become fully realized.

And what of the performances? Though he was billed behind Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, this is clearly Lee Tracy’s movie. He plays one of his typical fast-talking characters, which as noted above, was written to fit into the plot. He comes off as brash and rude, but he also has a vulnerability that shows not only his inventiveness but also reveals a strange sense of humor. It’s this aspect that raises the film from an adaptation of a stage play into something else altogether. His upbeat attitude and morbid humor is in stark contrast to the gravitas of the academics, who are prisoners of their own logic. Tracy’s propensity to sneak into places where he doesn't belong brings him a lot of trouble for his efforts. But when the final moments arrive, he shows his mettle in battling Wells to the death and his inventiveness is using a joy buzzer to throw his opponent off just as it looked like Tracy was done. Tracy’s quintessential role was that of the fast-talking newspaperman, a role he first played  as Hildy Johnson in the Broadway version of The Front Page in 1928. Although Doctor X was a departure from the films he was best known for, he took to the horror format without any problems and it’s a shame he never returned; his humor would have been most welcome.

This was Lionel Atwill’s first foray into the realm of horror, but as we know, it wouldn’t be his last. Atwill was as eccentric as some of the mad scientists he played. His hobby was attending murder trials. Were he acting today instead of back in the ‘30s we would expect to see him playing such characters as Hercule Poirot or Inspector Morse – he seemed born for those parts. It was Atwill’s alternation between the sinister and the sympathetic – set off by his distinguished voice – that allowed him to be so effective, an effect seen even in his comic lines, as they were spoken by a seemingly diabolical doctor and reflective of a sort of morbidity that makes Doctor X so offbeat. Atwill’s attitude is best seen in his attention towards his daughter. On one hand he is the devoted and loving father, yet he comes off so icily and logically menacing that we can easily visualize him killing her for the sake of science. One of Atwill’s funnier moments was his reading of the particularly awkward line “Oh, if only I were not powerless here in chains!” He says it will all the aplomb of someone having a rough time taking this seriously. Probably little did he know at the time that he would be speaking even wackier lines in cheaper movies. 

Speaking of daughters, Fay Wray acquits herself well in what was also for first foray into the horror genre. Known as the Queen of Scream for her role in King Kong, her screaming in Doctor X seems as though it’s a warm-up. Her character doesn’t have much to do in the film except to worry after her father and make for a fetching victim in the film’s climax. The film even has a hard time in distinguishing her character’s name, referring to her as “Joanne” in some parts and “Joan” in others. However, she does get to show the audience a little spunk when she stands down Tracy with a gun after catching him peeping through the window at her father's and tossing him from the house when she discovers that he wrote the story that got her beloved dad in so much hot water. Her romance with Tracy seems forced for the sake of the plot, but we get a nice glimpse of how she took advantage of the Technicolor process with her cream complexion and use of a green dominated wardrobe. I loved her snobby pronunciation of the family name as “Zaave-vee-A” And then … there’s that scream, which we first hear when she’s startled in the library. It was her work in this film – and her screaming – that caught the attention of Merian C. Cooper over at RKO, who was preparing the ultimate version of Beauty and the Beast, and needed someone who could give it her all when she screamed. 

The most interesting performer was Preston Foster as the crazed Wells. It wasn’t so much his performance, though, that interested as it was his casting. Foster had the looks of a matinee star and had just come off an excellent performance as Edward G. Robinson’s best friend in Two Seconds (1932). And yet here he’s in a character role. This would set the pattern for his later career: strong supporting or character player in “A” films and leading man in “B” productions. In Doctor X, he hits all the right notes as Wells, who is driven to murder and mutilation by the vision of the full moon. When he reveals himself in the movie’s crucial scene, the garbed, choking noises he makes when the moonlight envelops him are truly creepy and his enunciation of his concoction as he applies it is truly terrifying because we know his next move. 

George Rosener, the original screenwriter of Doctor X, whose script was totally redone by Baldwin and Tasker due to it’s being “amateurish,” managed to salvage a little victory in the role of Otto, the weirdest butler this side of Lurch. Leila Bennett, as Mamie, the hysterical maid makes little out of a minor role. She would later make an entire career out of playing strange servants, competing with Maude Eburne, who also had the same typecasting. 

Doctor X was a nice entry in the Old Dark house murder mystery genre; it’s great look and good performances making it a surreal, enjoyable murder mystery. Credit to Warner Bros. for taking a gruesome premise and to building around it one of their typical, fast-paced urban dramas. In doing so, they managed to create the first contemporary American horror movie they scored with the public, earning $594,000 worldwide and returning a profit of $72,000, which in 1932 Depression America was a strong plus as most of the studio’s releases that year lost money. The profits were strong enough to allow the studio to go ahead with Mystery of the Wax Museum, also directed by Curtiz.


Director Curtiz was a hard-driving martinet on the set, begrudging the cast their lunch breaks and reportedly shooting 15-hour days, six days a week, to impress Jack Warner with his efficiency. Others maintain that Curtiz shot the film late at night after other units had left the studio and told ghost stories to the cast in order to create the proper atmosphere. 

Doctor X was the first of three films Curtiz made with Lionel Atwill. The others were Mystery of the Wax Museum in 1932 and Captain Blood in 1935. 

Doctor X was also the first of three films Lionel Atwill made with Fay Wray. Afterward they co-starred in The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat (both 1932).

Doctor X was originally filmed simultaneously in color and in black and white, and supposedly the two versions used different takes in several scenes. When the film was included in a package of older films syndicated to television in the late ‘50s, the Technicolor version was thought to be lost. No print could be located, as Technicolor had discarded most of their two-color negatives in 1948. When Jack Warner died in 1978, a color negative was found in his personal collection and has since been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Since then, the black and white version has become the more obscure.

The love scenes between Lee Tracy and Fay Wray were shot in Laguna Beach. 

Some of the film’s sets were recycled in Miss Pinkerton.

Memorable Dialogue

After Xavier gives Commissioner Stevens his view of the murders, he’s met with skepticism.

Commissioner Stevens: It’s hard to believe that!

Xavier: Yes, for a policeman, I suppose it is.

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