Monday, September 5, 2016
Synthetic Flesh: "Doctor X" (1932)
I really don't know why Doctor X isn't a bigger deal. After all, what's not to love about this cheap-o schlocker that most certainly terrified and horrified the prudes of its day. Made during those glorious few years of sound known as the pre-Code era, Doctor X is almost the perfect mad scientist film. Hell, it's even in color, being one of the few films made via the two-color Technicolor process. Directed by Michael Curtiz (yes, the same Michael Curtiz who directed Casablanca) and with a pure pulp script churned out by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin (the script itself was based on a play originally known as The Terror), Doctor X tells the story of the Moon Killer Murders, a series of bizarre crimes that have whet the appetites of the sensation-loving public of New York City.
Enter Lee Taylor (played by Lee Tracy), the goofy reporter for the Daily World. Taylor doesn't necessarily want the story, but events get away from him. Specifically, after yet another murder (this one featuring evidence of cannibalism), the newshound is forced to go to great lengths to meet his deadline.
While Taylor is trying to get a scoop, a second party is also working towards unmasking the murderer. After reaching an agreement with the NYPD, Doctor Xavier (played by the brilliant Lionel Atwill) decides to quietly conduct his own investigation. You see, following the most recent murder, police traced the murder weapon ( an Austrian-made scalpel) back to Dr. Xavier's private research institute. Inside, the cops find a menagerie of white-coated weirdos. These docs include: Haines (John Wray), a voyeur who likes looking at French girlie mags in the laboratory, Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), a scarface who writes poetry but really studies the effects of the moon on the human psyche, Wells (Preston Foster), an amputee interested in cannibalism, and Duke (Harry Beresford), a pugnacious invalid with a fierce temper and sub-par opinion of women. In order to avoid press and police pressure, Dr. Xavier calls everyone to his spooky manor house in Long Island and begins a series of scientific tests designed to ferret out the killer.
Unfortunately for Dr. Xavier, Taylor manages to sneak his way into the manor. On the night when Rowitz dies after the killer strikes during a reenactment of one of his earlier crimes, Taylor is found unconscious inside of a medical closet after being drugged. He's revived and restarts his ham-fisted courtship of Dr. Xavier's daughter Joan (played by Fay Wray). This new pairing, as rocky as it is, ultimately winds up saving the day. As the body count rises, it's Taylor who steps in during yet another reenactment,this time featuring Joan as a sleeping hospital patient whom the killer had murdered and partially ate.
With constantly bubbling fluids colored in reds, greens, and blues, and with a soundtrack that oscillates between howling coastal winds and the buzzing of electrodes, Doctor X is ne plus ultra of early sci-fi. It is also a grand horror film, as well as a mystery story redolent with the perfumes of Mary Roberts Rinehart and even Agatha Christie. Best of all, Doctor X provides an unlikely culprit and an even better explanation. You see, the Moon Killer was driven mad by studying African cannibalism. While on the Dark Continent, he stole human flesh for his experiments--experiments designed to create what he calls "synthetic flesh." This synthetic flesh allows the killer to hide his identity underneath a grotesque, Dr. Hyde-like mask. It's a great touch. The whole film's great. So go watch it.