Doctor X: Warner Bros’ Early Attempt at Horror

When Warner Brothers decided to hop the horror bandwagon, they knew they had to do something different with Doctor X.

When Universal proved it could work by taking the gamble and making the plunge into horror in 1930 with Dracula and again the following year with Frankenstein, the other studios reflexively followed their lead. By 1933, after Columbia and MGM proved it was no fluke, that damn near anyone could have a hit with a monster movie, the debate began among the brass at the reluctant Warner Brothers. By then the studio had pretty much cornered the market on tough, gritty, and controversial gangster pictures with Little Caesar and Public Enemy, so why the hell would they want to do what everyone else was doing, plumbing the depths into a gutter genre?

Well, money, pretty much. But when the decision was finally make to try their hand at a scary picture, it was agreed they’d have to do something different, something that would make their horror movie stand out from the rest. The first thing they did was get rid of all the gloomy castles, the quasi-European villages, and all those period costumes. Their film would be set in contemporary New York with contemporary characters. Not only would that make things more immediate (and immediately terrifying) for audiences, not having to shell out for all those sets and costumes would also save on the budget,.

Second, they would up the ante by releasing the film in an early form of color—an experimental two-tone process that worked surprisingly well. And finally, they’d steer away from the deadly serious moodiness that infected most horror films by punching up the comedy. Better to give audiences a break every now and again, lighten the mood, let them know it’s not all serious and send them away laughing instead of dumping all that endless dreariness on them.

To that end they brought in Lee Tracy, a tall, lanky, fast-talking redhead who’d had a couple of big comedy hits in recent years to play a role that would help solidly typecast him for the rest of his career. In Doctor X he play’s Lee, a wisecracking and admittedly cowardly newspaperman on the trail of a Jack the Ripper style murderer who’s been terrorizing New York. Given the skilled and precise manner in which the victims are killed and assorted organs removed (even the murders were unexpectedly brutal for a horror film of the time), the cops turn their attentions to one shady Dr. Xavier and his oddball circle of scientific researchers. Each one, it seems, either has a personality quirk or a research specialty that would make him a prime suspect. Unfortunately each one also has a perfect alibi, from a missing arm to being wheelchair bound. Dammit all!

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Interestingly enough, the respected character actor (at the time anyway) Lionel Atwill made his horror debut as the titular Doctor X. Although he was not in the original, over the next 15 years he would appear in more of Universal’s Frankenstein films than any other single actor without ever playing the monster. Despite a long and checkered career in films of all sorts, these days if at all he’s remembered as a minor horror icon thanks to the Frankenstein franchise, a thought I’m sure would mortify him no end.

As the bright, sensible and protective daughter of that possibly sinister Dr. Xavier, we get Fay Wray, who that same year would appear with Atwill and Universal horror standby Dwight Frye in The Vampire Bat, a sort-of quasi horror mystery more about mass hysteria than anything unearthly. She was also in another 1933 film, and because of that one no one remembers her in The Vampire Bat or Doctor X or anything else.

The film was directed by Warner’s stalwart Michael Curtiz, who during his long career would also make a few other minor hits for the studio like Casablanca. Never much known as a horror director, he approaches the material with an economic flair and atmosphere, treating it the same way he would any other over-the-top murder mystery with a, well let’s just say unexpected resolution.

Although it was based on a stage play the same way Frankenstein, Dracula, The Vampire Bat and so many other early stabs at horror were based on theatrical pieces, Curtiz effectively breaks away from the stuffy, stodgy, claustrophobic staginess that stifles so many of those others. The pacing is zippy, and the action moves around enough from locale to locale that you never get the sense you’re trapped on a stage with characters forced to describe what remarkable things had happened elsewhere.

As the reluctantly intrepid reporter puts the moves on Dr. Xavier’s daughter (at least in part to try and get some info out of her), the wacky scientists, under increasingly irksome scrutiny from the cops, decide to retreat to Xavier’s estate, where they lock themselves in in an effort to determine which, if any, of them is the killer in question.

There’s more than a bit of your standard parlor whodunnit here, especially in the technique the scientists use to uncover the madman. Up to a point, anyway, and again the resolution, which really was pretty unique, is where the film goes beyond simple atmospherics into real horror.

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Mostly forgotten today, Doctor X remains a neat and compelling little number, a personal favorite, and absolutely unique for its day. Six years after its release, Warner’s would release the utterly unrelated (except by name) The Return of Doctor X, in which Bogart, in the most unlikely role of his career, plays a pasty-faced reanimated corpse in constant need of fresh blood supplies in order to remain among the sort-of living. But that’s another story, and may help explain why Warner stuck with the gangster pictures.