Sunday, July 17, 2016

Doctor X (1932)

A mysterious serial killer dubbed the Moon Killer goes around murdering people on full moon nights. His modus operandi is a bit complicated, seeing as it involves strangulation, the use of a very specific surgical instrument and a bit of cannibalism (hooray for pre-code movies!). The brain-dead cops investigating are completely out of their depth, until they realize the surgical instrument is only used in the medical school/research institute of Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill) who also just happens to be the local coroner.

They’re in luck too, for it is holiday time, so obviously, the deeds can only have been committed by one of the handful of teachers using vacation time for their studies (the idea a student or a random visitor might just have stolen one of the things goes unmentioned, of course, or that someone just might have brought one of the instruments from another country). The problem is that these teachers (as played by Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford and Arthur Edmund Carewe) are all hilariously creepy horror movie characters who all have backgrounds that might involve cannibalism. Then there’s that other tiny problem that our cops don’t actually interview potential suspects, as well as problem number three: Xavier really doesn’t want the bad publicity that’d come with a proper investigation (and what’s a few murders, right?), so he talks the police into giving him 48 hours to find out the truth himself.

For that purpose, Xavier does the obvious thing – packing up his handful of suspects, his daughter Joanne (Fay Wray), his creepy butler (George Rosener) and the obligatory comic relief maid (Leila Bennett), isolating them in an Old Dark House on an island, and testing his peers for craziness via the power of Mad Science(!) and murder re-enactments. There’s of course also the mandatory wise-cracking reporter (Lee Tracy) smuggling himself in, though this one is armed with joy buzzer, so watch out, evil! Obviously, more murders will happen too.

If one applies contemporary standards and tastes to the script for Michael Curtiz’ Doctor X, it’s pretty much impossible not to think of it as a misbegotten mess that violently squashes together unfunny comedy, pulp nonsense science, old dark house movie elements, and an obligatory romance until no narrative sense can have any chance. Even by the looser standards of 1932, quite a bit here could have been handled better.

However, it is exactly this utter disregard for coherence and taste that makes the film as fun to watch as it is. For once, a 30s horror movie actually holds to the promise of being a lurid tale that feels ripped right out of the pulps – and we’re not talking comparatively tasteful pulps like Argosy here but the sort of crime magazine that would mutate into the weird menace pulp soon enough. In fact, this rather suggests an alternative reality where the Hayes Code was never instated and where a movie could try to get close to become a moving shudder pulp (for better and worse). This one’s not quite there yet, but neither were the pulps. and the films that would have been exist only in the imagination but man, Curtiz’ film does come rather close to the ideal.

Making up for the load of comedy, Curtiz films the actual horror parts with surprising intensity, just pushing through the silliness of many of their set-ups to the soft core of horrific goodness. Seriously, the director gets quite a bit of mileage out of decidedly contrived situations, pushing through this viewer’s jaded distance by the sheer power of visual imagination and tight editing. If you’ve seen the wrong movies of this era of filmmaking, you might assume a certain static and theatrical look was the only possibility with the technical possibilities of the time but Curtiz’ film feels dynamic and lively throughout. It’s not a naturalistic looking film, obviously. Curtiz, particularly in the wonderful and completely bonkers third act, uses quite a few expressionist techniques that are only made to feel more unreal thanks to the beautiful yet strange - to modern eyes - two-tone Technicolor this was shot in.

All of this – as well as properly exalted acting and some choice SCIENCE(!) equipment – does turn the experience of watching this into something quite close to having a lurid dream.

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