ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) may be the most celebrated horror-comedy of Old Hollywood, but DOCTOR X (1932) definitely has it beat in age, beauty, and being fucking weird. It began life in 1931 as a play, The Terror, and seemed to have more or less ended the careers of the writers, Howard Warren Comstock and Allen C. Miller, and producers, Harry and William Brandt, involved after its six-month run at the Hudson. The director, Josephine Victor, hung it up in 1939… but her career started in 1905 (victor, indeed). Warner Bros. bought the movie rights for $5,000, then set to work in adapting it with writers Earl Baldwin and Robert Tasker, and director Michael Curtiz. Y’know, the guy who made CASABLANCA. To call Hollywood a sausage production line wouldn’t be far-fetched. There was no such thing as watching movies at home back then, so the cinema was the only place anyone could see anything. People had short attention spans, so there had to constantly be new things to show. Because of those two facts, directors had the chance, or curse, to crank out movie after movie, spread out over many genres. Which is why the guy who made CASABLANCA could also make DOCTOR X and the 175 other movies in his filmography.
Now for why it’s beautiful and fucking weird. This was around the time when movies were trying for realistic color instead of the tinting that went on with things like NOSFERATU. This was also before the Hays Code put the heavy shackles on what could and couldn’t be seen on the big screen. Look up “Pre-Code Movies” and be amazed at what they got away with. Or read on. Back to beauty. There was a push for two-strip technicolor so movies could get away from black-and-white. Three-strip technicolor is WIZARD OF OZ and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Basically, the more strips the reel had layered, the higher the color range was. Audiences hated two-strip, but DOCTOR X showed the power the format had in the right hands. Two-strip’s strengths lie in the way it handles reds and greens (that is to say, awkwardly). Cinematographer Ray Rennahan’s work with Curtiz produced striking, eerie visuals. Look at that frame-grab up top. There’s something so strange about how the colors pop as much as they are flat. A horror director would be wise to revive the look with a few dial twists in Permiere or AVID instead of clicking the “Bleach Bypass” button while thinking of SEVEN. The colors would do most of the unnerving work on audiences.
Like I said before: this movie’s fucking weird. It’s also a horror-comedy. It’s not funny because it’s weird, in that above-it-all way that’s popular now. I mean, there’re some chuckleworthy things since it’s almost a century old, but the movie holds up. The scary bits are 1932-scary and the funny bits are 1932-funny. Full-disclosure: I missed the first half-hour because I got caught by a boat (Chicago, right?), but I can paraphrase Wikipedia ’til we’re where I started. Lee Taylor’s a reporter who’s on a story about murders that happen on a full moon. The bodies are cannibalized after they’re killed, and witnesses say a disfigured “monster” did it. Doctor Xavier is asked to help, but he’s also a suspect since a scalpel from his medical academy was used in the murders. There’re four other suspects: an amputee, a peeping tom, an angry cripple, and a guy who thinks the moon does weird shit to people’s heads. Xavier has 48 hours to find the killer among them, and Taylor’s journey for the story leads him to Xavier’s daughter, Joan (this is where I come in).
Taylor tries his best to schmooze his way into Joan’s life so he can get his story, but she’s not having any of that. Everyone goes to Xavier’s beach mansion, Taylor sneaking in, for a little psychological experiment. The four suspects and the doctor are strapped into what can only be described as a lie detector by way of Frankenstein’s lab. Well, everyone save the amputee. He couldn’t murder anyone. From there, they watch a reenactment of one of the murders and whoever gets the most excited is the killer. The power goes out at the moment of truth, and the moon geek’s stabbed in the back of the neck. Oh yeah, Taylor got locked in a closet and then got knocked out with gas. They find him and don’t let him leave, and he takes this as a sign to go on a date at the beach in the morn. The moon geek was found eaten in the night. Xavier does another experiment at night, this time with all the suspects handcuffed. The amputee goes nuts when he looks at the full moon, then molds a new face and hand onto himself with synthetic flesh. Turns out, he makes it from his victims. Taylor shows up just in time to push the crazy guy out the window, crashing on the rocks.
You really should check it out, if you’re a fan of classic horror, gorgeous cinematography, and fucked-up movies. Warner released it in a box set recently, Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection, with five other horror flicks of theirs: THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X (yup, a sequel… with Humphrey Bogart as the villain), MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, MAD LOVE, and THE DEVIL-DOLL.