Friday, May 31, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: DOCTOR X (1932)

As wild as its plot and characters are, Doctor X (1932) is quite a thrill for fans of classic horror and the old dark house genre, especially those who can’t resist a mad scientist type. Directed by Michael Curtiz in the earlier years of his Hollywood career, the film makes use of both laughs and chills as it sends its cast careening through spooky rooms and strange laboratories, all rendered even more surreal by the use of an early form of Technicolor. The marvelous Lionel Atwill, a stalwart of classic horror, heads up a cast of creepy, colorful characters, each one stranger and more sinister than the last, while Fay Wray provides the sex appeal and Lee Tracy supplies the wise-cracking comic relief.

The story begins when a full moon inspires a series of gruesome murders, and the evidence points to one of the scientists in the employ of Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). The doctor conducts his own investigation by experimenting on the scientists at a remote and ominous mansion, but his plans are intruded upon by persistent reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy). Soon more corpses are piling up, and the the killer might not be discovered in time to save Dr. Xavier’s beautiful daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray), from a similar fate.

The plot revels in macabre elements, including the killer’s cannibalistic urges and strong hints about one scientist’s sadistic tendencies, and there are moments of pure horror scattered throughout the film. Lee Tracy’s snarky reporter, however, dispels most of the dread with his doggedly pragmatic pursuit of his story. In one scene he even disguises himself as a corpse in the morgue, and later he manages to get trapped in a closet full of skeletons, but his reactions to these situations are meant to provoke laughter instead of fear. More comic relief is provided by Mamie (Leila Bennett), a stereotypical maid character who shakes and screams at every shadow. The mixture of comedy and horror is typical of the old dark house genre, and here it works well to create the feeling of riding through a haunted house in a spinning car, laughing and screaming in equal measure as spooks jump out from every corner.

The most bizarre aspect of Doctor X is its wealth of crazed scientists, any one of whom might be the ghoulish Moon Killer. Early in the film, Doctor Xavier introduces the police to each of his employees in turn, and the audience shares the cops’ awe at the staggering assortment of suspects. Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, and Arthur Edmund Carewe play the wild-eyed crew of researchers with great enthusiasm, and half the fun of the movie is picking one as the most likely suspect. Atwill’s Doctor Xavier also has a sinister edge, and the servant, Otto (George Rosener), is certainly creepy enough to warrant a spot on the list of potential cannibalistic killers.

See more of Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which Michael Curtiz also directed. Best known today for high-profile classics like Casablanca (1942), Curtiz headed a handful of horror productions in the 1930s, including The Mad Genius (1931) and The Walking Dead (1936). Look for Lionel Atwill in Mark of the Vampire (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Fay Wray screamed her way to lasting fame in King Kong (1933), but you’ll also find her in The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Catch fast-talking Pre-Code star Lee Tracy in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Bombshell (1933).