Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Doctor X (1932)

Dr. X, posing in the shadows to look creepy.
Ingredients: Cannibalism. Lunar madness. Synthetic flesh. A somber, isolated mansion on the craggy cliffs of Long Island. A flat-footed reporter with a penchant for practical jokes. Not one, but five deranged mad scientists with severe psychological trauma, one of which is likely a new serial killer just hitting his stride. Fay Wray in a negligee, screaming bloody murder. Such are the appeals of Michael Curtiz's delightfully creepy pre-code horror Doctor X, all filmed in painterly two-strip Technicolor.

In investigating a series of cannibalistic murders, police have a strong hunch that the killer must come from Dr. Jerry Xavier's Academy of Surgical Research. "If you're just looking for someone to hang suspicion on," Dr. X (Lionel Atwill) says to the police investigating the murder, "there's not a man in my faculty that wouldn't come under that heading." Ain't that the truth. The Academy's faculty is a veritable rogue's gallery of psychopaths in the making. We have the one-handed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), who has recently returned from an expedition to Africa to study cannibalism and keeps a living heart in a jar on his desk. Dr. Haines (John Wray, no relation), who is studying "brain grafting", and the one-eyed Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), were shipwrecked together off the coast of Tahita and are suspected of having eaten one of their companions through necessity (did they develop a taste for it?). Rounding out the set we have the crotchety paralytic Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford), who studies the effect of "moon rays" on the mind along with Dr. Haines. Dr. Duke may appear to be the least neurotic of group, but he couples this normalcy with such ill manners that merely to say hello is a personal affront.

Under the guidance of the most accommodating police force in New York history, Dr. X takes his staff to his house on Long Island to conduct his own investigation. As a scientist, he conducts this search exactly as one might expect--through a series of experiments. Actually, his experiment works something like a cross between a polygraph test and Hamlet's play "The Mouse Trap."  The suspects are strapped down and hooked up to a device that measures their "blood reaction" while scenes of the murders are acted out in front of them. Naturally, the retelling gets far too real for anyone's taste and threatens to entangle a pair of innocents: Dr. X's daughter Joanne (Fay Wray) and a stowaway reporter (Lee Tracy) looking for a scoop (he'll settle for either a good story or the delicious Joanne).

Sssynnthetic flessshhh...!!
The acting is really fine all around. Preston Foster's gleeful chant of "Synthetic flesh!" as he grabs handfuls of goo from a smoking vat and smears it on his face is the best portrayal of a scientist's love affair with his own work since Colin Clive shrieked, "It's alive!" the year before. Lee Tracy as the bumbling reporter who jumps at shadows even while surrounded by actual monsters enhances the tension in the rest of the film by juxtaposing his silliness with its seriousness. I find myself wanting to cheer him on when he walks past a table without knocking it over. The scene of him hiding in a closet with a gang of skeletons, much of which was ad-libbed, is particularly well-conceived. The ever-lovely Fay Wray is wonderful as the doctor's devoted daughter. As Joanne she resists the "damsel in distress" role as long as humanly possible, braving every danger with stoic calm until the scream positively bursts out of her, the intensity of her fear wildly amplified by her demonstrated strength of character.

Is this the hand of a killer, or of an actor pretending to be a killer? You decide.
The biggest appeal in Doctor X, though, is not its story or acting, although both are solid throughout. No, art director Anton Grot gets the blue ribbon here for his dense, expressionistic set design and masterful use of early color. The Technicolor print was long believed to have been lost, but was discovered in the personal collection of Jack Warner after his death in 1978. UCLA has done a fine restoration, and the film looks fresh and new. The images are murky and strange, engendering in the viewer a sense of malaise long before the plot justifies the fear already created. The sets themselves are many and varied, including a New York waterfront, a brothel, Dr. X's academy, and his Long Island home. Two full sets of "mad scientist" labs are used, one at the academy and one at the mansion, each of which is full of all the bubbling, oversized beakers, big mysterious dials, billowing smoke and buzzing electricity that we know and love. 

Something is rotten in the state of New York.
Curtiz made good use of his pre-code freedoms, seasoning the story with adult themes that wouldn't have passed muster a few years later: cannibalism, rape, and prostitution are all essential to the plot, and seem far more shocking than they would in a modern film by the novelty of their context. All told, Curtiz really brought everything together with Doctor X, combining the solid acting of this ensemble cast with gorgeous set design and good, old-fashioned story-telling to create one of the most powerful and frightening horror films of early Hollywood.