Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Doctor X (1932) and The Return of Doctor X (1939)

A gruesome series of murders has rocked the city, the work of a cannibalistic madman known as the Moon Killer. The police have narrowed down the culprit to Dr. Jerry Xavier, who runs a scientific academy devoted to strange experiments. Xavier realises that if he is to exonerate himself and his colleagues, or to uncover the true killer, he must find out before it's too late...

Doctor X is one of the most well remembered horror classics of the 1930s, and has managed to stand alongside titans such as King Kong, and remain strong. The film was made during the short lived Pre-code era, where anything went and censorship was at a minimum. This resulted in many unique films, especially within horror. There wasn't so much freedom like that of the modern day, where you can curse up a storm and show all kinds of gore, but the tones of many films were noticeable darker or more intense, and they could hint at things that were forbidden only a few years prior or after.

Doctor X is a fairly typical story of mad science, but told and presented in a unique way. Its dark themes give it an offbeat and mature atmosphere, but are never so present that the movie becomes forced or overly grim. There's enough levity to keep things balanced too.

The plot is fairly interesting. It starts off in media res, in a way, and we're able to get our bearings fairly quickly, due to the economical storytelling. All the characters are introduced to us right from the start, from the titular doctor, to the nosy reporter looking for a scoop (and to keep his job), as well as the healthy suspect list.

At first I was dumbfounded when the very first suspect is introduced as an avid researcher of cannibalism. Well obviously he's the killer then, right? But then the next two students both resorted to eating their fellow man when stranded at sea. Apparently the Doctor has a strict 'Cannibals only' hiring policy. Yet he always speaks so glowingly of them-"He couldn't possibly be a killer, he's a beautiful poet!" Even the butler Otto is a cackling madman with a deathly pallour.

The solution to the mystery is a decent one, even though it requires Xavier to be a bit of a naive dope. No complaints here though, as it allows for a creepy monster to menace the cast.

The heroes are a likeable enough pair, and contribute plenty to the action rather than being passive. Dr. Xavier's daughter Joanne is feisty yet sweet, while the reporter is a bit of a knob, but is made fun of by an aware cast, and does make up for it.

Overall, the story here is simpler than I expected, but good writing manages to show how a basic plot can be spun into something that really grabs your attention for an hour. One complaint I do have though is that the title is a bit of a lie. The titular doctor is neither mad or evil, despite being played by Lionel Atwill, and having an art deco themed hideout that could easily be a villain's lair.

The setpieces in Doctor X are well shot, and full of suspense. They're creative to watch as we see Doctor Xavier applying ridiculously elaborate lie detector tests to all the suspects, and embracing his inner comic book character. It's a shame in a way that he wasn't the baddie!

The cast do good jobs here. Lionel Atwill is an ominous authority figure, but gains more trust as the movie goes along. Fay Wray is a lovely presence, getting to scream to her heart's content, but also having some depth, as well as comedy and romance too. Lee Tracy is a decent enough lead, even if his character's a bit of a rascal. The collection of actors playing the kooky scientists are great, including the killer (whose identity I won't spoil).

The effects are quite neat. While the monstrous killer is only onscreen during the climax, he looks great, and we even get a gooey transformation sequence. It felt to me like something David Cronenberg would do decades later.

What really sets Doctor X apart from the competition is its amazing visuals. This is a gorgeous film, with creative direction, awesome visuals, and it's also got a great sense of scale. Rooms and labs that would only be 3 feet wide in a regular b-movie are as big as a court.

Colour is a special thing about the movie too. Just about every scenes is lit or highlighted with a vibrant green. This sounds like it could easily be annoying, but the way it's done gives it a great look. If a modern movie did this, it's probably just look like someone lit a green floodlight in every scene, but the early technicolour process makes the green a part of the environment, if that makes sense. It lends an unearthly atmosphere to the proceedings.

Doctor X shows both the creativity at play in 1930s horror, and also the common tropes of the era, to great effect, making for a very good watch

The Return of Doctor X

Walter Garrett is a news-hound who comes across skulduggery when he discovers the corpse of a famous starlet, a victim of murder, but is soon admonished by police when not only is the body nowhere to be found, but the woman herself comes forward to complain.Walter might know he can be a bit of a dope at times, but he just knows something fishy is afoot, so he enlists the help of a doctor friend, and together they investigate the mystery, leading to a shocking discovery...

The Return of Doctor X, despite its title, is in no way a sequel to Doctor X. The studio just slapped that name on to make more money. There are a couple of minor details thrown in to link the movies together, but these don't really amount to much. Moving past that connection though, how does the movie fare? Pretty well actually. It feels like a Monogram picture, but on a slightly higher budget.

The central mystery is decent, and there's more than enough spookiness to keep everyone happy. It can get a little confusing at times (mainly everything involving the starlet, and her murder, plus sudden personality change), but overall it works well.

The characters are a good bunch. The heroes are all likeable, with Walter being a typical smart-alec reporter, but one with a heart of gold and a nose for justice. His buddy Mike Rhodes is likewise a smart and noble guy, and the two make for a good pair. Love interest nurse Joan is underused, but makes the most of her scenes, and is very pretty. In one scene she's underused in a hilarious way. All the poor girl wants to do is go out dancing, yet they keep forgetting about her as they drive to mystery hotspots, leaving her waiting endlessly in the car.

Who the main villain is is a bit confusing at first, but soon becomes apparent. Dr. Francis Flegg is Mike's friend, and one gets the feeling he has misplaced trust in the guy. Two people are dead, and a deceased murderer is alive and in his employ. He's beyond explaining/excusing! Mike even gives out Joan's full name, details, and address when he asks, resulting in her kidnapping. "You told no-one of your visit to the cemetery?...Then come with me."

The movie makes a somewhat failed attempt to show Flegg as being morally ambiguous, simply a good man caught in a bad situation. This leaves his assistant Marshal Quesne, alias Maurice Xaver as the diabolical mastermind, murdering people and stealing their blood, to prolong his own undead life. He's a creepy villain, looking and acting slimy and unsettling, in an effective way. On a random note, Quesne is a strange name, but what's stranger is that it's pronounced Caine! And not one person pronounces it phonetically either. Suspicious!

Walter's boss and coworkers get some laughs, especially with their various insults and nicknames, including the fabulous 'Wichita Frankenstein'.

Socialite Angela Merrova is a fun addition for the first few minutes, and a nice indication of Walter's character, seeing how much trust this celebrity has in him. But then she'd immediately murdered, which I thought a shame, since she was already shaping up to be the film's most entertaining character. Then she returns, only to suddenly hate Walter, and harbouring no ill will towards her murderers. It's all a bit muddled, really.

Wayne Morris is a good lead, getting a nice mix of goofiness, but without being farcical. He and Dennis Morgan share straight man duties, while Rosemary Lane is good as the love interest. Mercifully there is never attempt at a love triangle. Lya Lys is amusing at times, but less so as the movie progresses. John Litel is a fun presence, getting to play the mad scientist archetype to a tee, with an evil goatee and monocle too!

And last up is the film's most surprising addition-Humphrey Bogart! Playing an undead mad scientist himself! Shocking, right? And now I know you're dying to see this film, just for the novelty! Beyond that, how does he do? Pretty well I thought. His unmistakeable voice lends itself well to the role, and visually he looks the part, with a fun Bride of Frankenstein trail through his hair to boot.

There is one person who didn't like Bogart being in this film, and that's the man himself. He hated it! If you ask me, I honestly find it a bit silly that Bogie was so negative about being a horror film villain. I understand if someone has a bad experience during a production. For example, I had a great time with Paul Naschy's spy caper Operation Mantis, but I can get why he wouldn't have fond memories of it, considering his father died at the time, it almost bankrupted him, and signaled the premature end of his once thriving career. Even if we look at Bogart's own Beat the Devil, which he similarly disliked, it was for understandable reasons. But here it seems his only grievance was it being a horror film, as if he was embarrassed. Cheeky bastard wasn't even a star at this point, and he's being pissy that he has to perform in genres he's not 100% into? Just sit down, shut up, and do yer darn job, mate! Whew, got that out of my system now.

The Return of Doctor isn't really a patch on the first film, but it's still an entertaining enough little horror, and worth checking out...

1 comment:

  1. DOCTOR X is an outrageous and fun example of pre-Code Hollywood horror. It usually gets most noticed for its early Technicolor, but it should be cherished as the horror film debuts of Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.
    Of course, THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X is remembered as the one horror film that starred Humphrey Bogart. I agree that he does a good job in this rather limited role. Unfortunately, Bogart's apparent contempt for the genre seems pretty typical at the time. A lot of "serious" actors didn't want to be caught dead in a horror movie.