Let’s just say that as a kid of, oh, seven or eight years old back in the 70’s, I had no idea (not a clue!) what I was watching when the local public TV station ran Doctor X so very many years ago. I do recall not knowing what was going on for a bit and some parts were wacky, but yes indeed, I did perk up when the “Synthetic Flesh” scene kicked in. Hell, I was a Frankenstein fan by then, even if my exposure was courtesy Universal Pictures and James Whale and not Mary Shelley until I read the book years later.
When I revisited the good Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill), and the film as I got older into my teens, elements started to click and it was all “Oh, that’s what that means!” on more elements I didn’t understand previously. Which of course means that as a grumpier and older old man these days, I’m all over this freak-fest like I’ve run into an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. This one’s pretty funny, pretty grim and completely bonkers. Oh, by the way, Doctor X sounds better and scarier than Doctor Jerry. That and if it were called Dr. J, there’s that slim chance a slimmer handful of folks might get fooled into thinking it’s a sports biopic (heh).
It’s also a great pre-code film, what with its discussion of a few hot topics those who think “well, those old movies were DULL!” might find they’re a bit incorrect about if they ever get off that dead horse they always jump on and see a few of these films. Now a little murder? Hey, that’s fine and dandy in a film about a mysterious killer. Toss in elements like that mysterious killer who happens to cannibalize corpses, a bit of prostitution and rape as story elements, plus a few old guys sitting around talking about their fetishes (hey, that may be the most creepy thing about this to some!), and more atmosphere that you can shake a few sticks at, and you get a true classic.
Based on a stage play of the era, director Michael Curditz and his crew put together a film that mixes its horror and humor elements pretty well. Granted, you have to be a fan of stale jokes and sight gags to appreciate Lee Tracey’s part as Lee Taylor, a joy buzzer-wielding ace reporter investigating some recent killings where the bodies have been mutilated by the killer. The suspects are all part of a rather strange group of doctors who are part of the medical academy one runs (Lionel Atwill), and Taylor heads over to watch what happens and maybe get a story out of this. Leaving out the fact that the police know there’s a mad killer on the loose, yet let the medical academy handle the investigation just because they just so happen to have special equipment there that will prove there a killer in their midst (wait, what?).
For all the reveling in the bizarre, the trailers show this was indeed, made for audiences of the time to be seen as a horror/romantic comedy mashup. But I’d rather not use a hybrid label at all because as noted earlier, these days, some folks WON’T watch a fun movie like this because they like to pigeonhole and streamline movies out of their watch lists just because they may not be fans of a certain genre. Their loss, I say. Anyway, the suspects are put to the test, but amusingly enough (or not so amusingly for one of the doctors), the killer isn’t caught. Instead, we get a new victim of the Moon Killer (oops, but the murder does whittle the suspects down to three) and yes, a bigger and more pressing mystery to solve because the killer strikes inside the academy.
Here comes the “wise” decision to use Dr. X’s lovely daughter, Joan (Fay Wray) as bait, but she won’t go down without a scream, that’s for sure. Taylor also almost gets himself bumped off, but this is supposed to be a pre-code romantic comedy, as you kind of know he and Joan are meant to be by the end, Moon Killer aside. But sans the killer and location, you wouldn’t have the loopy plot, excellent cinematography and production design here without the horror elements. The film was also shot twice, in black and white and in more expensive two-strip Technicolor and as expected, there are a few differences to be found if you happen to see or recall both versions.
I first saw this in the former format and for ages thought that was the only version if the film, but the version on Warner Bros. Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection ($29.99 new, but you can find it used if you look around) is the two-strip one and it’s pretty awesome to see it in this way, as the limited color palette lends a sickly pallor to certain scenes and a lively but unsettling peachy tone to other elements.
WB needs to get both versions on a single disc at some point, but until then, you’ll want this version because it has some other great films on the disc that are worth a look. In addition to Doctor X, you also get The Return of Doctor X, Mad Love, The Devil Doll, Mark of the Vampire, and The Mask of Fu Manchu. Yeah, yeah, I need to review all of these at some point because all are classics, and the Fu Manchu film is even more outrageous that this one (hoo boy, is it ever!).
Score: B+ (85%)