Release Date(s)1932 (April 13, 2021)
Studio(s)First National Pictures/Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
The early 1930s was a bonanza time for Hollywood horror. Universal led the pack with its two 1931 blockbusters Dracula and Frankenstein. They followed up with The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and a host of sequels. Seeing the box office potential of the genre, Warner Bros stepped up with its own efforts, beginning with the eerie Doctor X.
A madman has been terrorizing New York in a series of grisly murders that also involve cannibalism. The police trace a weapon to the medical academy run by Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), who works with four other doctors conducting their research at the institute. The police want to launch a full-scale investigation but Xavier, dreading the negative publicity, convinces them to give him 48 hours to conduct his own investigation.
Based on the comedy-mystery play The Terror, Doctor X magnifies the play’s horrific elements and turns a routine murderer into a monster. Warner Bros decided to use the new two-color Technicolor system, lending the film a creepy greenish look in most of its scenes. Set designer Anton Grot added to the sinister atmosphere by creating elaborate sets complete with electrical devices arranged in dark, cavernous surroundings.
The film combines horror and mystery with comedy that was intended to balance the film’s more gruesome moments but mostly falls flat. The comic moments rely on fast-talking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy), whose fondness for a hand buzzer supplies a tired running gag that is corny and better suited to a junior high school class clown. Other bits of comic relief that die include a scene in which skeletons seem to take on a life of their own and an exploding cigar that kills a suspenseful moment. Every time Tracy is on screen, the forward thrust of the story is interrupted and dramatic momentum is lost. Hokey, childish “scare” scenes detract from the suspense.
Lionel Atwill, a stage-trained actor, is appropriately enigmatic as the mysterious doctor and we never know whether he’s the murderer or if one of the other doctors is the culprit. Fay Wray plays Dr. Xavier's daughter, Joanne, and is present mostly to look pretty and serve as an awkward love interest to the annoying Taylor. Later in the film, she becomes the requisite damsel in distress when the killer’s identity is revealed. Atwill and Wray would team up once again the following year with director Michael Curtiz in Mystery of the Wax Museum, a far better film with no distracting buffoonish comedy.
Doctor X looks really weird in this early Technicolor process. Together with excellent lighting and use of deep shadows, it’s highly atmospheric. Atwill carries the film dramatically and fits the role of the “mad doctor” perfectly. He would play variations of this character in many horror movies to come, adding a palpable sense of authoritative villainy. Wray would make her most famous film, King Kong, the very next year. Doctor X is notable as a pre-code horror film with grim subject matter that breaks new ground. Not only is a murderer loose, but it’s a cannibalistic murderer.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the new Blu-ray of the film has been lovingly restored by the Warner Archive Collection from the only surviving nitrate print and is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This new 4K restoration makes the film look brand new. Dirt specs, scratches, end-of-reel damage, and cue marks have been removed. Rich, deeply saturated color has replaced print fading, and the contrast of light and shadow has been digitally adjusted to create an eerie effect. Flesh tones are basically good, though Wray’s cheek rouge often looks a bit exaggerated. Both of the main settings, the Academy of Surgical Research in New York City and the doctor’s huge Long Island mansion, look foreboding. Green-glowing lab equipment highlights the production design. The monster make-up is literally smeared on and has that precise look as a human being is transformed before our eyes. The two-strip Technicolor process uses reds and greens to define images. Because other colors are absent from the palette, the film takes on an unearthly tone, enhancing the film’s uncanny mood. The look is both creepy and haunting.
The soundtrack is provided in English Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. Dialogue is clear throughout. The film is dialogue-heavy in its early scenes and becomes more visual as it proceeds. Fay Wray gives out with screams that foreshadow her vocal terror in King Kong. The lab’s whirring, crackling electrical equipment suggests sinister experiments. Sounds of a struggle between Taylor and the monster involve bodies pummeled, objects thrown, and bodies hitting walls and floors. There is no musical score except over the main and end titles, though an atmospheric score would definitely have amped up the suspense.
Bonus material includes the alternate black-and-white version of the film, two audio commentaries, a featurette on the horror films of Michael Curtiz, a UCLA before and after restoration reel, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Black and White Version – This version of Doctor X, originally intended for smaller U.S. markets and international distribution, has been restored from its original nitrate camera negative. It has not been seen in over 30 years. It is free from visual debris but far less impressive than the color version.
Audio Commentary #1 – Film historian and author of Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film Alan K. Rode discusses similarities between Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. Both films starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, were directed by Michael Curtiz, and were filmed in early Technicolor. Career overviews are provided for key cast members. Rode explains why some studio films were released under First National, a distribution arm of Warner Bros. The play and film are based on the 3X Killer case, a real-life series of “chain murders” that parallels events in Doctor X. The morgue set resembles the one later created for Mystery of the Wax Museum. Many of Curtiz’ directorial efforts are noted, along with enthusiastic testimonials from stars who worked with him, including Joan Crawford, John Garfield, and Doris Day.
Audio Commentary #2 – Scott MacQueen, head of preservation at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, notes that many of the images in Doctor X had never been seen on screen before—a removable artificial hand, blood-splattered lab coat, and smeared-on monster make-up. The theme of cannibalism wasn’t dealt with on screen again until the 1960s. Several later films dealing with cannibalism are noted, culminating with the Academy Award-winning The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Lionel Atwill was a popular Broadway leading man, an acclaimed specialist in Ibsen roles, and played Caesar opposite Helen Hayes’ Cleopatra. Atwill became an in-demand Hollywood character actor. His precise, brisk stage delivery translated well to talkies. He shined in roles of villainy and authority. Mad doctors became his acting template. The Long Island mansion of Dr. Xavier adds to the film’s gothic atmosphere. Doctor X was one of the ten highest-grossing films of the season, earning nearly three times its cost. The color was universally praised as one of the film’s best aspects. The black-and-white version was intended for export. Doctor X was limited to 127 color prints for domestic distribution. By contrast, Mystery of the Wax Museum was issued in 189 domestic prints and 200 foreign prints, all in color. The equipment shown in the lab sequences was scientifically useless but visually spectacular. Cinematographer Ray Renahan shot both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. He had done camera tests for the Technicolor Corporation and shot the first Technicolor feature using the two-color process, Toll of the Sea. A specialist in color photography, he won Academy Awards for Gone with the Wind and Blood and Sand. Michael Curtiz was known for working his casts very hard during long shooting days. Nineteen of the Doctor X 28 filming days were 14 hours or longer. Six exceeded 20 hours. Wray referred to Curtiz as a director with a military style and didn’t like him as a person. A number of contemporary reviews of the period are quoted. The studio’s promotional guideline to distributors was, “Sell comedy and romance, not horror.”
Madness & Mystery: The Horror Films of Michael Curtiz – Alan K. Rode notes that Curtiz is not thought of as a horror director despite having directed three successful horror films of the 1930s for Warner Bros: Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and The Walking Dead. Scott MacQueen, head of film preservation, UCLA Film & Television Archive, notes that “Curtiz hasn’t been given his due in the area of classic horror.” He was a great director and one of the foremost directors at Warner Bros. He directed all types of films. Warner Bros needed to make money at the depth of the Great Depression in the early 1930s. The studio was desperate to get audiences into theaters, many of which had closed. Horror was one way to attract audiences. The studio downplayed the term “horror” in its advertising since it didn’t want to identify horror as the Warner Bros’ “house style.” Lee Tracy as the smart alecky, fast-talking reporter was inserted into the film to soften some its shock value. Color adds mood to both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, but the latter featured more elaborate camera movements. The Walking Dead was a 66-minute programmer starring Boris Karloff, who had become a star with Frankenstein after years toiling as a character actor. Curtiz shot this immediately after Captain Blood, an A picture starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
UCLA Before/After Restoration – Scott MacQueen shows before and after examples of the restoration, explaining how fading, scratches, dirt, changeover cue marks, and print scuffing were removed. He also explains how missing dialogue, crackles, and noise distortions were treated. Color correcting and color balancing completed the process of bringing back the film to its the original intent. The restored versions of the scenes are dazzling by comparison.
Theatrical Trailer – This black-and-white trailer heralds “A new idea in mystery stories!” and “A daring departure in love stories.” The word “horror” is never used and the more gruesome images of the film are not shown. It misleads the viewer by stating in bold letters that Doctor X is a “comedy that is good to the last giggle.”
Doctor X is a mad doctor horror film that could have been excellent if the lame comedy had been reduced or eliminated. It exists now more as a curiosity and a showcase for a long-gone color process. Atwill is quite good and the supporting cast, with the exception of Tracy, is effective. The build-up is far too lethargic and talky, with Curtiz relegating suspense to select scenes rather than sustaining it throughout. Though the subject matter is gruesome, the film keeps undermining itself by pulling back from the horror.
- Dennis Seuling