“Now listen, please, to what I have to say: one of us in this room may be a murderer; a murderer who kills by the light of a full moon, leaving his victim’s body mutilated; a cannibal…”
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Lee Tracy, Fay Wray, Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, George Rosener, Leila Bennett, Robert Warwick, Willard Robertson
Screenplay: Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin and George Rosener (uncredited), based upon a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller
Synopsis: Reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) lurks outside the Mott St. Morgue, hoping to catch a glimpse of the latest victim of “the Moon Killer”, who for six months has been terrorising New York with brutal killings committed when the moon is full. As he looks on, the police arrive, bringing with them a man who turns up his collar to hide his face. Taylor tries to sneak into the morgue, but after his way is blocked, he slips down the street to report to his editor. He then hurries back to the morgue, where the body has just been delivered, and begins hunting for another way inside… Meanwhile, Dr Xavier (Lionel Atwill) examines the body, who reports that the cause of death was strangulation, but that an incision has been made at the base of the brain with some form of scalpel, while the left deltoid muscle has been torn away – and, based upon the marks on the surrounding flesh, eaten… Having, as he supposes, done everything he can for the police, Xavier washes up and prepares to return to his Academy of Surgical Research, but is stopped by Commissioner Stevens (Robert Warwick) and his subordinate, O’Halloran (Willard Robertson), who point out that all six murders have occurred in the vicinity of the Academy, which is the only laboratory in America to import the particular scalpels with which the brain incisions were made on the victims. Xavier is indignant, insisting that his staff and students alike are all men of the highest integrity, and worrying about the effect of negative publicity should the Academy be linked to the killings. Stevens assures him that the police will be discreet. On condition that the police are permitted to visit the Institute, examine all records and meet the staff, Xavier persuades Stevens to allow him to conduct an investigation of his own. The men move off….and Taylor sits up on one of the slabs, where he has lain concealed by a sheet… At the Academy, worried about her father’s health, Joanne Xavier (Fay Wray) tries to convince him to get some rest, but he responds that he cannot while the killings are unsolved; and that besides, there’s nothing really wrong with him, beyond a headache brought on by the moonlight. Later, Xavier confers with Stevens and O’Halloran, who will not be persuaded that the killer is not tied to the Academy. Their suspicions first focus upon Dr Wells (Preston Foster), an expert on cannibalism, who they find gloating over the human heart he has kept viable for artificial means for three years – only for Wells to remove his artificial hand, and demonstrate that he could not have strangled anyone. After Wells’ exoneration, Stevens presses Xavier about his other colleagues. Reluctantly, he admits that two of them, Dr Haines (John Wray) and Dr Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), were shipwrecked with a third party some time back – and that when they were rescued, there was no trace of their companion… Xavier introduces Stevens and O’Halloran to Haines, an expert in brain grafting; Rowitz, whose interest is the psychological and physiological effects of moonlight; and to the wheelchair-bound Dr Duke (Harry Beresford), Rowitz’ collaborator. Rowitz’ scarred face catches O’Halloran’s eye: he mutters to Stevens that an eyewitness to the latest murder claimed that the killer was disfigured. Stevens asks Xavier how long it would take him to determine whether one of his colleagues is in fact the killer. Xavier responds that if given forty-eight hours, he can run a series of tests that will give a conclusive answer…
Comments: By the end of 1931, following the massive commercial success of Universal’s Frankenstein and Paramount’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, it was clear to everyone connected with the motion picture industry that horror movies weren’t going away; on the contrary. Many people were unhappy about this situation, including the heads of some rival studios. Neither MGM nor Warners had the slightest affinity with the macabre: one had built its reputation on glamorous, star-heavy vehicles, the other on gritty, realistic tales of the street; both entered the fight for the dollars of the growing audience for horror with reluctance, and via movies that, although they contained elements of horror, were nevertheless rooted in a recognisable reality. For Warners, their approach was to take a gruesome premise and to build around it one of their typical, fast-paced newspaper dramas – and in doing so, created the first thoroughly contemporary American horror movie.
Warners’ distaste for their pursuit of the bloodstained dollar is evident in every aspect of the production of Doctor X. Although the film is now unhesitatingly categorised as a horror movie, during the project’s development it was referred to as everything but: as a thriller, as a mystery, as a comedy, even as a romance (I particularly like the approach taken on the studio “herald”, reproduced below, where it is described as “the outstanding love-mystery of all time” – and inasmuch as the love angle of the film is a complete mystery, they were quite right); it was the denizens of the Hays Office, examining the early drafts of the screenplay, who were the first to say outright that, in some respects, the production looked like a horror movie. Universal fought the censors constantly to keep contentious material in their films; Warners, on the other hand, were only too eager to comply with the Hays Office’s various requests to “be careful”, or to “tone down” certain elements of the script.
Indeed, the script underwent revision after revision in order to emphasise its non-horror aspects, and to include more bits of business for Lee Tracy, to the extent that much of the story makes little dramatic sense, while upon occasion the dialogue and the action contradict each other. As a result, in contrast to Universal’s technique of leavening their horrors with humour, in Doctor X it is more a matter of occasional outbreaks of horror interrupting the (alleged) comedy.
Remarkably, even the most significant production choice in the making of Doctor X, the decision to shoot the film in two-tone Technicolor, was not taken for artistic reasons, but merely because Warners were desperately trying to extricate themselves from their contract with the company, which was forcing them to keep producing colour films even after the public grew impatient with the early system’s limitations; although that said, Doctor X was widely praised at the time of its release as the highest quality colour film to date, and its use of Technicolor became one of its main attractions. This was an unexpected bonus for Warners, who with an eye on the extra expense associated with shooting in Technicolor had produced the film simultaneously in black-and-white, so that distributors could take their choice. Almost invariably, the distributors clamoured for the colour print – and complained vociferously when Warners were not always able to supply one.
(And as we consider the use of two-tone Technicolor in Doctor X, we might also ponder the mystery of why the print of this film that Warners eventually released on DVD is so inferior in quality to the one that used to play on Turner Classic Movies….as is also true with respect to Mystery Of The Wax Museum. I used to have both of those on tape, by the way, but I got rid of them when, sigh, I bought the DVDs…)
Another indication of Warners’ attitude to Doctor X is the fact that they farmed out its production to First National Pictures, the subsidiary company with which Warners had formed a partnership during the late 1920s, and with which the studio would eventually merge. During this period, it was not uncommon for Warners to choose to send out its riskier projects under the First National banner. And finally, there is the fact that direction of the film was assigned to Michael Curtiz. We might now consider Curtiz to be one of the all-time great Hollywood directors, but in 1932 he was simply Warners’ go-to guy, a man with the reputation of being able to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. If anyone could make something viable out of this objectionable “horror movie” business, it was surely he.
Doctor X is – not surprisingly, considering its own studio’s attitude to it – an incredibly frustrating film. It is possibly best compared to Paramount’s Murders In The Zoo (also starring Lionel Atwill, coincidentally); but whereas I described that film as “half of an excellent movie”, Doctor X is no more than one-quarter what we might wish it to be. The wonderfully macabre premise of the film, its art direction and its two extended laboratory scenes make it completely worth watching, and ultimately enjoyable; but these positive aspects are almost buried under a tidal wave of the most agonising “comedy”, predominantly from Lee Tracy, but also from George Rosener as Otto the butler.
(Rosener was the original screenwriter of Doctor X, adapting the stage-play of Howard Comstock and Allen Miller. His script was, by all accounts, thoroughly amateurish, and very little of it survived subsequent re-writes. Rosener did, however, recoup something by managing to get himself cast as Otto, a servant you cannot imagine the most desperate employer tolerating…not even an employer who just might be a psychotic killer…)
In railing against Lee Tracy and his unrelentingly Odious Comic Relief, however, it should be acknowledged that this is a thoroughly revisionist perspective: in 1932, Tracy’s performance was one of the most highly praised aspects of the film. Indeed, many viewers complained of Doctor X that he didn’t get enough screentime.
And yes, okay, tempora mutantur and all that; but honestly, the thought that anyone, anytime, anywhere, could have said of this film that there is not enough Lee Tracy is…just…just…
Doctor X opens on a thoroughly sound-stage version of New York, a city being terrorised by “the Moon Killer”, who has claimed a victim on the night of the full moon for each of the past five months. As the film opens, the killer has just claimed his sixth victim; and reporter Lee Taylor is lurking in the vicinity of the morgue in the hope of a scoop. We get our first intimation here on the level of sophistication we can expect of the comedy aspects of this film, as Taylor gets a passing beat-cop with a joy-buzzer, and the cop retaliates by passing Taylor what will prove to be an exploding cigar.
As Taylor watches, Police Commissioner Stevens, his subordinate Detective O’Halloran and one Dr Xavier enter the morgue. Taylor’s own entrance is blocked by another cop, so he scoots down the street to report in to his editor. Here we get a completely recognisable Warners scene, when – and without a single objectionable word appearing in the script – Taylor uses the phone in what is very obviously a brothel; where, by the way, Our Hero is very much at home. Later, the film’s depiction of the lecherous Dr Haines will also be typical Warners pre-Code stuff, as the detectives discover him “relaxing” over a copy of a magazine dealing with – ahem – “French art”.
Here, too, we get our first evidence of repeated script tampering, as Taylor reports the arrival at the morgue of the body of the Moon Killer’s latest victim, “an old scrubwoman”, before it happens, and somehow identifies Dr Xavier, whose name is not spoken, and whose face is hidden by his hat and turned-up collar. Inside, Xavier examines the body, announcing that the victim was (i) strangled, (ii) stabbed in the brain, and (iii) cannibalised.
As always, Lionel Atwill is one of the most enjoyable things about this film, and we get the first of numerous classic moments here with his simply delicious pronunciation of scalpel – “SCALL-PELL”.
Xavier’s conclusions come as a great shock to the law officers; we can only wonder who on earth they got to do the previous five autopsies. Having, as he supposes, fulfilled his obligations, Xavier is eager to get away and return to – mwoo-ha-ha! – “an important experiment”, but Commissioner Stevens has other ideas. He asks for Xavier’s professional view of the murders, and when Xavier obliges by asserting that it is the work of “a neurotic, some poor devil with a fixation, a kink in the brain”, driven by a certain trigger to act on his insanity, Stevens laughs at him – “It’s hard to believe that!”
“Yes,” replies Xavier drily (another great Lionel Atwill moment), “for a policeman, I suppose it is.”
Stevens retaliates by pointing out that all six murders have taken place in the vicinity of the Academy of Surgical Research, of which Xavier is the head (what, it took six before they noticed!?), and that the “scall-pell” with which the brain incisions were made is a surgical tool imported from Vienna exclusively for the researchers at the Academy. Xavier is indignant at the implication, and horrified at the thought of what being linked to the murders could mean for his research institute.
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” replies Stevens tersely, “but I have to start an investigation!”
Uh, again – it took six murders!?
Stevens promises Xavier that the investigation will be conducted discreetly, if Xavier will give his assistance. Xavier counters with an offer to conduct an investigation of his own, a scientific one; to subject his staff to a series of tests devised to reveal the killer – or exonerate the innocent. Stevens hesitates, asking first for permission for access to the Academy, its staff and its records, which Xavier grants.
And as Xavier and the policemen depart, one of the sheet-covered “bodies” sits up. It is Taylor, of course; and a routine with a toe-tag here is possibly intended to distract us from the question of how he managed to get into the room ahead of either the body or its examiners.
One of the most peculiar moments in a film full of them follows, as we get our first glimpse of Fay Wray as Joanne Xavier. Fay was one of the main beneficiaries of the two-tone Technicolor: she was still a brunette at this time, and prepared for her role by putting a henna rinse through her hair; and between that, her creamy complexion and her colour cinematography-friendly green-dominated wardrobe, she looks quite scrumptious here.
This was Fay’s first genre film; Mystery Of The Wax Museum and King Kong, in particular, still lay well in her future, and she had not yet earned her reputation as Hollywood’s preeminent screamer. Yet someone must have known something: her first moment onscreen in Doctor X has Joanne Xavier walking into the room – and screaming for no readily apparent reason.
(Fay is also the focus of a bit of recurrent sloppiness. At no point in Doctor X does anyone settle on a pronunciation of “Xavier”, although personally I like Fay’s own snooty rendering of the word as “Ex-Ahh-Vee-Air”. What’s more, all throughout Fay’s own character goes from being “Joanne” to “Joan” and back again. It’s wonderfully distracting.)
Okay, technically, Joanne screams because she’s startled at coming across her father perched up a ladder in a darkened room; although given that she was looking for him, you might wonder at her being so surprised at finding him. But then, you might also wonder why, although climbing a ladder to search through some records, Dr Xavier himself didn’t bother to turn on a light – or indeed why, after being so startled, Joanne herself doesn’t react by turning on a light, but instead raises a blind to let in the moonlight; moonlight which causes her father to close his eyes, press his fingers to the bridge of his nose, and complain that it makes him feel “nervous”…
Xavier then goes to discuss matters with Stevens and O’Halloran, and we get our first good look at “the Academy”. One of the enduring delights of Warners’ science fiction films (and given the ultimate revelations in Doctor X, I do classify it as science fiction rather than horror) is their set design, with the imagination of their art directors (in this case Anton Grot) generally at war with the habitual practicality of the studio, resulting in laboratories that are a strange mixture of the extravagant and the realistic.
The tendency that would reach its apotheosis in The Walking Dead has its first outing here, with Conical Flasks filled with Mysterious Coloured Fluids aplenty – and in colour! – being thrust into the camera at every opportunity, but sitting alongside oddly sensible details like the lengths of rubber rose attached to each of the taps, as is common in real laboratories.
Stevens finds it highly suspicious that the Academy’s staff should still be on the premises – and in the vicinity of the murders – during vacation time, so Xavier has to explain the facts of academic life to him. One of the film’s most enjoyable sequences follows (and, oh, surprise, not a Lee Tracy in sight), as Xavier is compelled to admit that every one of his colleagues just happens to have some experience of cannibalism…theoretically or otherwise.
There’s Dr Wells, for instance, who literally “wrote the book”; and Drs Haines and Rowitz, who while doing field work off Tahiti were shipwrecked with a third person…although when help arrived, only the two of them remained. Haines is, moreover, a leader in the field of brain grafting; while Rowitz is researching the effects of moonlight on the brain.
Besides these three, there’s also Rowitz’ collaborator, Dr Duke, but he can only get around in a wheelchair or on crutches; so he can’t be the killer – right?
Xavier takes the cops in to meet Wells, who is focussed upon the human heart he has managed to keep alive for no less than three years. When this “expert on cannibalism” admits to having been near the site of the murder earlier in the evening, Stevens’ suspicions fasten upon him – until at Xavier’s carefully careless prompting, Wells removes his artificial left hand…
So he can’t be the killer – right?
(Jokes aside, in 1932 that moment must have come as a tremendous shock.)
The detectives are then introduced to Haines who, apart from his shipwreck experience, is an obvious sex maniac – what with his “French art” magazines, and everything; to Rowitz, with his scarred face, and his comparison of the tides with “an eternal old scrubwoman”; and to Duke, who’s just a grouch.
In short, the cops are like kids in candy-stores – and never mind Xavier’s raptures over his “fondness” for Dr Wells, or Haines being “gentle as a lamb”, or Rowitz being a published poet (which in a Warners film of 1932 is a far greater condemnation than a taste for French art).
Well, it’s been fun, and all, but now Lee Taylor puts in another appearance, spying on proceedings from out on the fire-escape. Inside, Xavier manages to persuade Stevens to give him forty-eight hours to identify the killer, and Stevens agrees because, as he asides to O’Halloran, they’ve already “exhausted every clue”, and without Xavier’s help they’ll have no chance of ever solving the murders. (Warners’ police— Gotta love ’em!)
As Taylor is absorbing all this, he is discovered by Joanne, who holds him at bay by brandishing a small handgun. Alas, she fails to shoot first and ask questions afterwards. Taylor flashes his press-badge and manages to convince her that he’s another cop, set to watch the outside of the Academy.
Inside, as Xavier mutters, “Meddling fools!” to himself, Stevens and O’Halloran encounter Otto the Wacky Butler…and don’t ask me why you’d need a butler as a research institute.
And then, alas, alas! – Taylor is searching for a smoke when, from the shadows of the Academy, a cloaked figure with a strangely twisted face emerges, stalking towards Taylor with murderous intent…only to be scared off when Taylor’s “cigar” blows up in his face.
The next morning, Taylor’s paper blazes forth not only with the news of the murder of “the old scrubwoman”, who apparently doesn’t have a name, but also, via a subheading, that the police have “drafted Dr X” to help with the investigation. (Hey, they said the title!) Taylor is then packed off to get hold of a photograph of Xavier that they can publish, which takes us to the Xaviers’ palatial home.
In fact, “palatial” may even be understating the case; medical research must have paid rather better in 1932 than it does now. We find in residence not only the Xaviers, but Otto the Wacky Butler, and Mamie the Perpetually Hysterical Maid – played by Leila Bennett, who sadly enough made an entire career out of this sort of role.
Taylor schmoozes his way past Mamie and is helping himself to framed family photographs of Xavier and Joanne when the latter catches him in the act. (Amusingly, Xavier’s “snapshot” is a studio portrait of Lionel Atwill that I have reproduced in at least three different books.) The subsequent confrontation further reveals that Taylor is responsible for Xavier and his Academy being linked to the murders in the newspapers, and he continues to pump the distressed Joanne for details about her father throughout their argument; and yet, if you please we’re supposed to believe that Joanne is attracted to this putz – who she indignantly, and rightly, here labels as “contemptible”. Alas, alas, alas, at the end of the film, Taylor does indeed get the girl – but do not ask me why, do NOT ask me why… This subplot is even more repellent than it is unnecessary.
Taylor finally takes himself off, and as he crosses the terrace at the front of the house, a large basin’s worth of dirty wash water lands on him, courtesy of Mamie. This is without doubt my favourite Taylor-centred moment in the film.
During her scene with Taylor, Joanne let it slip that her publicity-shy father was planning on leaving the city and conducting his investigation somewhere else. This turns out to be a hitherto unknown corner of Long Island called “Blackstone Shoals”: an isolated, fog-shrouded, windswept locale that could only have been conceived by a Hollywood screenwriter who’d never made it any further east than Oakland.
The only thing funnier than Blackstone Shoals itself is the revelation that in addition to his immense New York mansion, Dr Xavier owns a huge, cliff-top mansion called “Cliff Manor”, which can without too much exaggeration be described as “Gothic”. We are hardly even surprised that when Taylor, groan, inevitably arrives, he is driven up to house in a horse-drawn carriage driven by a cloaked, whip-wielding coachman.
Inside, Xavier has gathered his colleagues-cum-suspects, who react well to neither their unceremonious summons to the house nor the reason for it. However, at length Xavier manages to convince them of the necessity to undergo his devised test – and the desirability of doing so privately.
Taylor, lurking outside, overhears all this, and manages to find a way into the mansion. The most extended Taylor sequence follows, full of unfunny slapstick and unscary “shock” moments. I think I’ll just skip a bit, if that’s all right with you – and that “bit” includes the supporting alleged comedy of Otto the butler, who along with Mamie has been recruited as a participant in Xavier’s experiment, and who spends every moment until then teasing and tormenting the already terrified maid into quaking, shrieking terror.
As part of Xavier’s test, he plans to have Otto and Mamie re-enact the murder of “the old scrubwoman”, with Mamie dressed in the victim’s bloody clothing, which an unwontedly compliant NYPD has lent to Xavier for the occasion. The scientists then gather in the cavernous laboratory (Anton Grot off his leash here); and here we get some genuine, although possibly unintended comedy as the visitors marvel at the “changes” Xavier has made since the last time any of them were there. Since he has, presumably within the past twenty-four hours, managed to assemble in this remote location all of the equipment necessary to conduct the world’s most complicated (and visually dazzling) “psycho-neurological test”, they may well say so.
At Xavier’s prompting, Haines, Rowitz and Duke seat themselves in specially-designed chairs. Wells, exonerated on the strength of his disability, acts as Xavier’s assistant: he hooks the three subjects up to the various electrodes intended to record their physiological reactions to the re-enactment of the previous night’s murder. Right on cue, outside the still-full moon emerges from behind the clouds.
Duke shudders, demanding that the curtains be closed. Xavier himself is almost basking in the moonlight, but as Duke grows querulously insistent, he blinks, and has Wells draw the curtains. He then sends Wells out of the laboratory to the recording cabinet, while he himself takes baselines readings of the subjects’ “blood reactions”.
Meanwhile, Taylor is spying on all this from a small storage-room and taking notes; but even as he smirks to himself, an eye is seen observing him through a peephole – through which, the next moment, pours gas. Taylor slumps to the floor, unconscious…
Xavier returns to his colleagues and explains his experiment, while the camera shows off the details of the set design – the one making about as much sense as the other:
“Gentlemen, I am now turning on the 100-milliampere, high frequency coil. Your pulses are connected with the magnetic rotators, and each variation of your heartbeat reaction is amplified 4000 times. The rotor of the electrostatic machine is connected in multiple series with a bank of glass-plate condensers, and the discharge causes irradiations to the thermal tubes, which, in turn, indicate your increased pulse rate and nerve reactions.”
And simultaneously, we get to look at a forest of soaring glass spires, an electric arc generator, something that’s giving off sparks, and a hypno-wheel.
Don’t ask me.
Xavier moves to begin the experiment, but Haines (you remember, the sex maniac) stops him with an incredibly ooky inquiry about whether the female victims were “attacked” – which is of course a 1932 euphemism. “Does your mind never run into any other channel?” demands Rowitz disgustedly, accusing Haines of “sadistic tendencies”.
Xavier cuts this brangling short (without answering the question), dims the lights, and expounds on his theory that at some point in the past, one of those present was driven to cannibalism, and that the murders have been a compulsive reiteration of that trauma; and that while the killer has succeeded in concealing his madness from others – perhaps even from himself – he cannot hide from his own physiological reactions; the thermal tubes will inevitably betray him. As the killer’s excitement grows, the red liquid in the tube will climb – and when in one tube it reaches the top, the killer’s identity will be revealed. Assuring the others that he, too, is connected to the telltale thermal tubes, Xavier orders the re-enactment to begin…
At the far end of the room, curtains are drawn back as a series of spotlights illuminate five wax figures meant to represent the previous victims of the Moon Killer (which Xavier has also, presumably, had whipped up during the previous twenty-four hours). Typically for Warners, one of them is “a woman of the streets” and another “a dope fiend”, but there are “good” people too, to illustrate the indiscriminate nature of the killer’s mania. One of them is a young woman killed while in hospital.
On cue, Mamie and Otto, as the old scrubwoman and the killer, make their appearance. As Otto reaches for Mamie’s throat, there is a rapid succession of events: the lights go out; someone breaks free of their electrodes; Dr Duke’s crutches rattle to the floor; there is a cry that someone has come into the room…and in one of the tubes, the red liquid soars towards the ceiling…
And even as Xavier announces the guilty man to be – Dr Rowitz!! – there is a terrible scream…and when the lights go on, Rowitz lies dead on the floor, stabbed in the base of the brain with a “scall-pell”…
(The script never bothers to clarify this point, but I imagine we’re to conclude that it was the physiological shock of the stabbing that sent Rowitz’ readings through the roof.)
The lights also reveal that “hopeless paralytic” Dr Duke is up and walking around – “hysteria reaction”, according to Xavier, whose own suspicions are fixed on Haines, who was seated to Rowitz’ left, where the fatal wound was inflicted.
Suddenly, Xavier realises that Wells has failed to reappear; but even as the survivors search for him, Wells is thrown through a glass door to lie bruised and battered on the floor before his stunned colleagues. To Xavier, who helps him up, he reports that while the lights were out, he was struck over the head. Xavier guides him out of earshot, and then Wells insists that no-one came into the laboratory from the outside during the test.
The ruckus downstairs brings Joanne to her father’s side – which in turn draws Haines who, we were earlier told, is “inclined to be attentive to her”. (Ew!) It is Haines who hears a noise in a storage-room – and so our pleasant, Taylor-less interlude comes to an end. The snoop slumps to the floor as soon as the door is opened, and is revived by the combination of fresh air and bootleg whiskey, courtesy of Otto.
Xavier threatens to have Taylor arrested, but he retaliates with his own threat to phone his story in from the police station. Joanne intervenes, turning on the charm and cozening Taylor into holding off with his report in exchange for “breakfast with the family”.
During the night, something wakes Joanne – the sound of footsteps outside her room, as we know – and in alarm, she hurries to her father’s room. Getting no response to her knock, she heads downstairs – and we get a slightly less stupid but no more necessary repeat of Joanne’s initial entrance in the film as again she enters a darkened room, sees her father in the shadows, and screams. This time, however, he is not perched harmlessly on a ladder, but bent very closely over Rowitz’ dead body…
Xavier hurriedly explains that he was examining the wound and hustles Joanne away. They have barely reached the door when another shadowy figure looms up over the body – Haines this time. He, too, gives a garbled account of his presence, then starts to say something else, which Xavier cuts short. Getting rid of Joanne, Xavier approaches the shaken Haines, who has seen what he saw: that between the time of Rowitz’ murder and now, the body has been cannibalised…
The morning finds Taylor and Joanne on the beach, getting lovey-dovey (ew!!), even as from a nearby overhang, Haines pervs at Joanne in her bathing-suit (ew!!!). How the day passes we do not know, but the night time finds Mamie in bed, still shocky from the events of the previous evening. She gratefully accepts a sedative from Wells, but frets over what will happen if she cannot take part in Xavier’s second attempt to flush out the killer.
Meanwhile, Taylor has disappeared. Xavier fumes that he’s slipped away to send in his story, but a conscious Joanne is sure he wouldn’t have broken his promise to her. They search, but cannot find him. As it happens, Taylor is snooping around some of the darker and more inaccessible regions of Xavier’s mansion. Without warning, a cloaked figure grabs him, and he finds himself trapped on the other side of a sliding panel.
Now, as far as we know, Rowitz’ murder, and the subsequent mutilation of the body, hasn’t been reported to the police; so we’re not sure why Commissioner Stevens suddenly phones Xavier up and threatens to send in his goons. (Oh, wait, yes we are – IITS.) Xavier successfully pleads for the full forty-eight hours he was promised, but this means the repeat test must be conducted immediately – with Joanne standing in for Mamie in the role of victim. She is not asked to play “the old scrubwoman”, though. Instead, she re-enacts the hospital murder – and so gets to lie on a bed in a flimsy negligee in front of the “subjects”.
Yeah. Good luck getting Haines’ baseline readings after that.
And in light of this, Xavier has taken extra precautions in setting up his test, bolting the chairs to the floor, and then handcuffing the test subjects to them – including himself.
Gosh. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if it turned out that someone other than Xavier, Haines or Duke was the killer?
(I love to imagine that this scene was the inspiration for the blood-test sequence in John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, and consequently in The Thing.)
Duke protests Wells’ being free “to do as he likes”, but Xavier has made provision for this: with Wells outside in the recording cabinet, he has Otto lock the laboratory doors, so that Wells cannot get back in.
Which of course leaves Otto to do as he likes…
But no, Wells it is whose breathing becomes harsh and laboured as he stares out of the windows at the full moon. Tearing his gaze away only with an effort, he detaches his artificial hand from the amputation site. Then, opening a secret compartment behind some shelving, he produces another hand – a strangely misshapen one, but nevertheless real and functional. He slips it into his empty left sleeve, where it attaches itself to the stump of his arm.
“Ssssynthetic fleshhhh…” hisses Wells.
He then turns on an electric arc generator (the same as Xavier’s? a different one? who knows?) and thrusts his newly-attached hand into the electrical current, writhing in a strange combination of agony and ecstasy.
What follows is bizarre and senseless yet somehow perfectly wonderful. Wells seats himself at a bench (the electrical arc fore-grounded, and dry ice fog everywhere), and sets to work performing a perverse reverse striptease, smothering himself in ssssynthetic fleshhhh and transforming first into a pinheaded creature that bears a certain resemblance to The Thing In The Closet from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, and eventually into the cloaked monster that didn’t try nearly hard enough to kill Taylor early in the film. My favourite part of this evolutionary process, however, is the transitional phase during which, having covered his own hair with ssssynthetic fleshhhh, the Wells-monster puts on a wig. Eh!?
I also love that the Wells-monster is still wearing his labcoat. Because he’s a scientist, dammit!
It turns out that all this is going on in a hidden laboratory behind yet another sliding panel. (It would be churlish, I suppose, to ask how Wells managed to sneak all this stuff into Xavier’s house – or how he knows about all the secret passages and compartments when apparently Xavier doesn’t.) The Wells-monster creeps out and sneaks up behind Otto, who is dressing up as the Moon Killer preparatory to taking part in the second re-enactment. The next instant, two “terrifically powerful hands” are around Otto’s throat, presumably leaving thumb-marks “deeply embedded in the sternocleidomastoid”, as Xavier eloquently phrased it while examining “the old scrubwoman”. Someone must have opened a copy of Grey’s Anatomy while preparing for this film. (Another example, by the way, of the book being much better than the TV series.)
Anyway, out in the main laboratory Xavier and the others have presumably just been sitting there twiddling their thumbs while all this has been going on – or, under the circumstances, thumb. The re-enactment of the hospital murder begins without warning, with Xavier announcing that they are about to witness “one of the Moon Killer’s most gruesome crimes”, the death of Florence Johnson who, being a pretty young woman, gets to have a name.
On a bed on the platform, surrounded by the wax figures of the other victims, lies Joanne, her eyes closed but her fingers twitching nervously. As Xavier’s verbal prompting, “the Moon Killer” appears. From across the room, the experimental subjects can see only a cloaked figure; but Joanne, opening her eyes as “Otto” creeps towards her, can see its face…
And there it is: the scream that launched a lifetime career as a horror-movie icon.
“It’s the killer!” Joanne manages to gasp between screaming and struggling.
“The killer! The killer!!” repeat the others, trying frantically to launch themselves from their chairs. Only, you know—handcuffs.
“Fight him off, Joan!” cries Xavier, except as it happens, Joan/ne would rather lie there paralysed with fear. Fortunately, Xavier then calls for help from Wells and Otto, which stops the killer in his tracks.
“You idiots are calling for Wells?” he sneers.
Hearing his voice, the penny drops for Xavier. He cries out again for Joan/ne to run, but instead she just lies there. She may have fainted. Or maybe she’s just down with the whole “murdered by a psychotic cannibal” thing.
And then Wells takes time out to explain himself – and, I swear, it’s worth watching the whole film – it’s worth sitting through Lee Tracy – just for this speech:
“Yes, it is Wells! – but a new Wells! A Wells whose name will live forever in the history of science! Yes, look at it! A real hand! It’s alive – it’s flesh! Synthetic flesh! For years I’ve been searching to find the secret of a living manufactured flesh – and now I’ve found it! You think I went to Africa to study cannibalism? I went there to get samples of the human flesh that the natives eat! Yes, that’s what I needed – living flesh from humans for my experiments! What difference did it make if a few people had to die? Their flesh taught me how to manufacture arms, legs, faces that are human! I’ll make a crippled world whole again!”
So, there you have it: it’s all in a good cause. A gold star, by the way, to anyone who can make head or tail of that “explanation”. Particularly the trip to Africa.
And now, having gloated at Xavier that he really is going to give everything for Science, the Wells-monster gets back to the business of murdering Joanne – who has in fact been conscious through all this. However, the Wells-monster does have a hold on her throat with one of his “terrifically powerful hands”, so I guess we can forgive her quiescence.
“Oh, if only I were not powerless here in chains!” exclaims Xavier, in a way that suggests that Lionel Atwill was having a very tough time taking any of this seriously. (Hey, it was his first genre film, too! Over the years he got better at keeping a straight face.)
And then – Taylor appears! There’s evidence of extreme post-production tampering here, as Taylor, last seen trapped behind one of the house’s numerous sliding panels, now reveals himself as standing in for one of the wax figures, and having been present all along. He throws himself at the Wells-monster just as he is slowwwwly closing in on Joanne, and a protracted fistfight ensues.
I should say that at the point that Wells began to smother himself in ssssynthetic fleshhhh, Preston Foster’s place in the film was taken by a much larger stuntman – although I think we’re supposed to conclude that Wells’ “growth” was a part of his transformation. Anyway, during the fight Taylor is very much punching above his weight. As the two roll around, Xavier again cries out for Joanne to run – she continues to lie there, blinking either dazedly or sleepily – while Haines, who isn’t a very nice person even if he isn’t the Moon Killer, spits, “Club him! Club him!”, although without indicating whether he’s talking to Taylor or Wells. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say Wells.
The fight spills into the next room. Wells knocks Taylor down, but instead of getting those terrifically powerful hands around his throat while he has the chance, Wells just grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him. Dammit, Wells! And then, when he does grab him by the throat, he just uses it as a vantage-point from which to knock him down again. Double dammit!!
Meanwhile, Joanne climbs out of bed and runs to help the others – putting on her robe first, of course. She seizes the keys to the handcuffs and frees the scientists. Next door, Wells finally does latch onto Taylor, but is fought off in a way that seems most improbable, but is at length explained.
Wells gathers himself for the final assault, but Taylor moves first: he grabs a lamp from a nearby bracket (just as well those were still in use, despite the household’s massive consumption of electricity – and just as well all the smallest, most disused rooms in the house were kept lit), and hurls it at Wells who, like all good monsters, proves extremely flammable. Although – I guess we don’t know what’s in synthetic flesh. Seeing his advantage, Taylor then charges Wells, knocking him backwards through a convenient window and sending him plunging down to the rocks below.
And after reaching this quite satisfactory (and highly traditional) conclusion, sadly, they have to spoil it all by (i) turning on the mush between Joanne and Taylor, and (ii) revealing that Taylor managed to fight off Wells by some judicious use of his joy-buzzer. (See? It wasn’t just a dumb running joke!) Still…to be fair, this ending isn’t a fraction so painful as what Warners would stoop to inflict upon us some 14 years later at the end of another horror film about monstrous hands, so I guess I’ll shut up.
Despite the studio’s profound doubts, Doctor X was a big hit for Warners who, albeit reluctantly, produced several more genre films over the next few years. Their immediate follow-up pulled the usual stunt of copying most of its predecessor’s major features: thus, Mystery Of The Wax Museum was shot in two-tone Technicolor, directed by Michael Curtiz, starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and centres on a wisecracking reporter tracking a deformed killer on the streets of New York. Despite this (and rather incredibly, when you spell it out like that), the film managed to forge its own identity, and quickly gained a reputation that easily outstripped that of its model.
Still, it’s hard to deny the importance of Doctor X, which took the horror film (even while its studio was denying it was a horror film) into the realm of colour photography, and kick-started the genre careers of both Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. After this, perhaps learning to accept the direction his film career was taking, Atwill was usually better, or at least more serious. Here he’s too openly having a good time, particularly during the scene where Dr Xavier has to explain to the police that while it is true that all his colleagues are cannibals, he’s quite sure none of them could be the specific cannibal they’re looking for. But then, in his first horror outing, Atwill is playing red herring here as “Doctor X”; and probably, too, he had picked up the attitude of Warners towards this film. Subsequently, however, his gravitas would anchor many a dubious production.
As for Lee Tracy, this was his first and last genre role – thank God fasting – but by no means his last wisecracking reporter: he had been typecast ever since scoring a film contract based upon his performance on stage as Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, and he kept on playing those roles regularly for another two years after making Doctor X, at which time he went off to Mexico to appear in Viva Villa! and cut his own professional throat. Tracy continued to play reporters even after that particular international incident, just usually for much smaller studios than Warners.
But the real winner out of Doctor X was Fay Wray – ironically in a way, because Joanne Xavier really isn’t much of a character; although there are moments in the film when Fay manages to show what she could do, if given a decent script (and a director who cared about more than getting his film in the can as quickly as possible). In all honesty, though, it’s hard to believe that her acting in Doctor X did her as much good as her combination of looks and lungs. Be that as it may, it was Fay’s performance here that first brought her to the attention of Merion C. Cooper…and the rest, as they say, is history…
Want a second opinion of Doctor X? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.