I have to say now that we are about 3 weeks into our Insomniac Cult Movie Weekly Marathon, it’s really nice watching and reporting on films when it’s not because of simply because I can’t sleep. I get to watch these films during the day or early evening, I usually get a full night’s rest, and I’m not a grouchy mess the next day sometimes so sleep deprived that I want to vomit.
Another great thing that has happened is the fact that I’ve gotten to watch some of these films with my better half, and that’s made for some wonderful snuggling on these crisp autumn evenings. Both of us bundled up under a blanket on the couch, sipping hot cider, enjoying some of these scare fests from a bygone era.
Of course, that wasn’t the case with today’s movie, as sincerely my wife saw just a couple scenes from the polarized dramatic lens of Michael Curtiz what with the gothic horror on full display, and said: “If I watch this with you, I’m going to need to do my own Insomanic Cult Movie entry, because I’ll have nightmares until the wee hours!”
So with that, I’m back to tackling another entry on my list by myself. But don’t worry I’m hot on the trail of the Moonlight murderer from today’s film. Settle in folks, for tales of macabre forbidden science and human cannibalism, all wrapped up in a package called “Doctor X”.
Not to be confused with the more recent Japanese medical drama of the same name, the original “Doctor X” was released in 1932 by as a joint film venture between First National and Warner Bros. Like so many of the other movies I’ve showcased on this blog, this is another Pre Hays code picture and thus is chocked full of more risque elements that years later would be censored out of the motion picture industry for decades.
References to murder, rape, prostitution, and the aforementioned cannibalism all find themselves at some point or another as the eerie tale of science gone horribly wrong takes shape. Shot in a 2 color Techincolor process, I was amazed to see a film from so early in Hollywood’s history that wasn’t in black & white.
It was directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz, the Academy award winning director of one of the greatest movies of all time “Casablanca” as well as previous ICMT entry “Captain Blood”. This was only the 6th movie Curtiz had ever directed, and although he was still early in his career, the unusual and often striking camera angles he often employed in his movies as well as his unique use of contrast between shadow and light to ratchet up the tension were already hallmarks of his movie making. These bold, sometimes unnerving choices in both cinematography and scene selection fit the tone of the nefarious murder mystery of “Doctor X” to a tee, and make for some incredibly gripping scenes.
Also making a return to the gothic horror genre that made her a star, the beauty from King Kong, the legendary Fay Wray, plays the part of Doctor X’s daughter, Joan. Although she doesn’t get as much scenery chewing scenes as she did when she had a huge gorilla as her co star, Fay does manage to still convey that same wild eyed mix of innocence and sexuality which makes her performances as the bewildered damsel caught up in nasty unfolding business of forces beyond her control both believable and terrifying as the audience’s surrogate.
In addition, the film stars Lionel Atwill, as the title character Doctor X (which is short for Xavier). Excelling at playing villains, Lionel has had turns as playing haughty slave owner Col. Bishop in Captain Blood, bizarre one armed Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein, Professor Moriarty in many of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, and The Scarab in the original Captain America movie serial.
Interesting enough though, Doctor X is actually not the villain of this movie. He is definitely got somewhat of a mad scientist vibe with all his eccentricities, mannerisms, and shouts of protest to the police about their investigations of his institute with “You FOOLS!”. However, he genuinely cares about his daughter, Joan, and I feel as if his entire performance is done, like so many things in this movie, to throw the viewer off the scent as to who the real murderer is.
Speaking of which, the plot of the movie is that after several grisly full moon murders in which victims are not only killed but have body parts taken and possibly eaten, the police believe that the killer must be someone that works for Doctor Xavier’s research institute, given the murders were committed with a particular form of scalpel that is common among the scientists there.
Doctor Xavier who wants to avoid bad publicity that might disrupt the work being done at the institute, fully cooperates with the investigation, allowing police detectives to interview many of the somewhat odd scientists that work there. This includes Wells, an amputee that once had to resort to cannibalism when his ship sank off the coast during an expedition; Haines, who has an unhealthy sexual preclusion to voyeurism; Rowitz, who is studying the effects the moon has on people’s mental stability; and finally Duke, an anti social paralytic. Following the police to the institute is a wisecracking reporter Lee Taylor, who has been working the Moon Killer murders story for the Daily Globe newspaper, and it’s here that he first meets Doctor Xavier’s daughter, Joan, and they definitely seem to hit it off.
After the initial interviews fail to convince the police that the guilty part isn’t someone at the institute, Doctor X pleads with them to give him 48 hours to conduct his own internal investigation and discover who the killer is through scientific means. Thus, the Doctor brings all four scientists as well as his daughter to his secluded manor house out on the coast to conduct the investigation in private. Lee manages to tail them, and fearing he might expose the story before the killer is found, Joan talks her father into letting Lee stay with her at the house as well.
After hooking up the four suspects to what amounts to a pretty fancy lie detector machine, Doctor X has his servants recreate the murders in hopes the action will so excite the killer that he won’t be able to resist in making his presence known. Unfortunately, the first test results only in the death of Rowitz, as the killer manages to turn off the lights and in the confusion murder him.
With the police on their doorstep, a second test is ordered to be performed the next evening with Doctor X’s daughter, Joan, playing the part of one of the victims. Not to give much more away, but the killer does reappear and attempt to kill Joan, only to be stopped at the last moment by Lee, who pushes him out of a window.
Oh and there’s some creepy scenes with something called “Synthetic Flesh”, but again I’m not going to spoil the ending so I can’t say much more about that.
Credited by some to be possibly the first movie to deal with cannibalism, it was successful enough to spawn three sequels of sorts. First there a spiritual sequel albeit with different characters called Mystery at the Wax Museum in 1933. This also used to 2 color Techincolor process as well as reuniting many of the cast and crew of of Doctor X including Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Arthur Edmund Carewe and Thomas Jackson as well director Michael Curtiz; art director Anton Grot; and cameraman Ray Rennahan.
The second movie has become a bit more infamous as The Return of Doctor X in 1939, which many fans of famous screen legend Humphrey Bogart consider one of his worst movies. Although originally billed as a sequel to Doctor X directly, it actually had nothing to do with the original movie. In addition, it was directed by Vincent Sherman as opposed to Curtiz, and it definitely shows. Mr. Sherman was known mostly as Warner Bros. B Movie directors, and it definitely shows in the lack of artistic vision and atmosphere that permeated the original Doctor X.
Finally, there was Night Monster from Universal Pictures in 1942. Lionel Atwill returns in that as a doctor very similar to Doctor X, and the plot and especially the ending are pretty much the exact same as the film we review today. The only memorable part of that film is the fact that it has screen legend Bela Lugosi playing the part of the sinister looking butler.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
This movie is somewhat of a mixed bag for me. Being originally a stage play that was later adapted as film, this movie can be somewhat cliche in it’s Clue style “whodunnit” mentality. Plus because all of the characters are played somewhat melodramatically with high emphasis on being as suspicious as possible, it’s really hard for you to empathize with anyone, including some of the scientists when they start getting picked off one by one.
The supposed hero, Lee Taylor, with his “yuck yuck” silly practical jokes and deadpan antics aren’t really want we’d like from a leading man, or at the very least actor Lee Tracy who played the part doesn’t have any sort of Cary Grant type style or charm so everything somewhat falls flat.
Even Fay Wray’s Joan, which does have some really interesting nuisances in her performance, just doesn’t seem to have enough to do in the story to make a real impact. Instead what could have been a saving grace in terms of the character department ends up being a woman who is hell bent on sucking the oxygen out of every room with all her distressed hyperventilating pants.
However, where the characters and plot somewhat fail, the directing, pacing, production design, and overall tone succeeds in spades! There’s no question about Curtiz and his genius behind the camera, but it’s especially true when he’s given limited resources to work with. The shot selection, the edits, the methodical delivery of suspense and payoff, it’s all executed perfectly to keep the audience on the edge of their seat and continual teetering into an unsettling state of heightened awareness.
In addition, This particular Technicolor process I feel added to the overall art deco style of Gothic horror with heavy shadow lines and a washed out color scheme that gave even mundane scenes an eerie unhealthy glow. I personally think if it had be shot solely in black & white, it would have been largely forgettable, but boy does that particular strange mix of muted blues and oranges make you feel somewhat sick to your stomach, but in a good way. Like something unearthly or filled with malice.
But most importantly, the production design and the overwhelming emphasis on Doctor X’s scientific research and machinery in particular is lie detection machine really does make this movie something beyond the normal murder mystery. To understand what I’m driving at, you have to put yourself in the time/place context of when this movie was released. It was the 1930s. Science had delivered so many amazing modern inventions which had made lives better for most Americans, whether that was electric lights, cars, or even Penicillin.
However there was still a great misunderstanding and somewhat distrust about science and those that dabbled in it. Most of the regular people were still afraid that electricity was going to pour all out of open outlets and on to the floor unless something was plugged in. Surgeons and other medical researchers were still looked on as butchers instead of live savers. In general, science was a dark thing, like black magic to a degree.
So the decision to make all of the scientists somewhat detached from regular folks and framing the investigation of the murders within the confines of an elaborate scientific apparatus, filled with big tesla coils spotting off electricity and chemicals being pushed through tubes, that was in key to setting the tone of science gone crazy, and playing on very real fears that people had about what scientists were really doing behind closed doors.
And for me, like the Invisible Man, is somewhat pure genius and worthy of watching this particular film alone.
Final Grade: B-
In the end I can’t really give this movie an higher than this grade, mainly because the characters and overall plot all seemed a bit muddled. Like the movie was more interested in throwing out false leads on who the killer was than actually developing any of the characters any more than somewhat empty shells.
However, as I said the magnificent direction and design work at play here really do elevate this well beyond what would have been a “D” if based solely on the story.
To be honest, in the end, I was reminded of some of the golden age comic books I’ve read over the years when I was watching this film. Something like those early issues of Batman, like when he fights the Mad Monk or Dr. Hugo Strange. Something about that art deco type melodrama where maybe things don’t quite gel from a narrative perspective, but you don’t really care because it’s done in such a stylistic manner.
Besides you watch for yourself and tell me when you reach the end that the bad guy doesn’t immediately remind you of the Batman villain, Clayface.
I double dog dare ya say he doesn’t. Go ahead. Try me!