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September 22, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #90 - Doctor X

When you consider the greatest horror movies of all-time, you can generally boil each film down to a great visual image that represents the film at it's best.  Think of it this way - if horror movies were on Facebook, they'd have to have a profile picture.  And if they wanted to show off for the other folks on their friends list, they'd want to bring their best stuff.  The Exorcist would show off Reagan with her head spinning, Halloween could feature The Shape in front of the Wallace house, Night of the Living Dead might show off a horde of undead folks approaching the farmhouse.  But part of what I'm here to tell you tonight is that Doctor X - a mostly forgotten chiller from all the way back in 1932 - might have my favorite profile picture moment in horror history.  And it looks a lot like this:
But more on that later....
Doctor X is a bit of a horror oddity, primarily because it was filmed in the early "two-strip" technicolor technique.  As far as I can tell (by skimming Wikipedia, naturally), this process brought color to the cinema by having a camera photograph black and white film under two red and green filters.  This process produced two different strips of film - one filtered red, one filtered green - which were then combined to make the final "color" film.  In the case of Doctor X, the result is both a) a film that has a green and yellow tone to every single scene and b) a film that is FREAKIN' GORGEOUS IN MY EYE SOCKETS.
Seriously, it blows my mind that something this cool exists and was only used for a couple of years and is now a footnote in cinema history.  (In fact, many of the original prints of films made in this process were disposed of by Technicolor in the '40s when they ran out of warehouse space.) Sure, having actual HD colors is probably better than this, but Doctor X is just so darn good looking that I want to find a way to make other movies look like this again.  It's so moody and cool that it makes me ridiculously sad to see it gone away.
The movie itself - if I can allow myself to get past the purdy old fashionedy colors - is one part mad scientist film and one part comical whodunit. It follows a bumbling reporter (Lee Tracy, who annoys me here) investigating a "Moon Killer" case, which also must make this one of the first movies to deal with serial killers who kill on a lunar cycle (as explained by Sigourney Weaver in Copycat).  His snooping leads him to a house of science, a medical academy lead by Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill), a house in which amputation, cannibalism, sexuality and other topics that would later become Hollywood Code bugaboos are covered.
With the police and the stupid reporter convinced that the killer is one of the people inside Doctor X's school - which could imply that those X-Men ripped this movie off! - most of the film is spent establishing the odd doctors inside the building and showing off state of the art special effects that are part of the Doc's plan to weed out the killer among his people.  Oh, and a large part of the film features the legendary Fay Wray.  Which is another reason this movie rules.
Director Michael Curtiz - who would go on to Hollywood immortality with Casablanca ten years later - fills the film with weird images, particularly for this stage of Hollywood's infancy.  Horror was a booming business by 1932, but more successful films like Frankenstein and Dracula didn't directly deal with topics like cannibalism at the time.  As mentioned earlier, the Hollywood Code that censored the inappropriate between 1934-1968, was not being enforced yet, and Warner Brothers took a risk by releasing such a "controversial" film at the time.  Thankfully Doctor X was a success financially, which led the studio to produce another two-strip terror flick with Atwill and Wray, Mystery of the Wax Museum, which was the precursor to the Vincent Price classic House of Wax.  (The film also inspired a sequel in name only, The Return of Doctor X, which is notable for starring Humphrey Bogart as a mad doctor.)
While I could sit here and talk about the history of the film and how friggin' cool the two-strip thing looks to me and post images like that abstract Caligari-esque one above all night, I really should get back to Fay Wray.  Guys, I really don't feel like we give Fay Wray enough credit these days.  "Scream Queen" is a popular term these days, and every wannabe actress with a set of lungs thinks they can call themselves a scream queen.  Those of us who love horror go back to Jamie Lee Curtis or Janet Leigh as original scream queens, but I'm pretty sure Fay Wray had them all beat back when she was dealing with Doctor X and Wax Museum and, of course, King Kong.  And, in one late film scene, she pretty much cements her place as one of the most powerful and talented scream queens of all-time.  

Just take a look and see what I mean....
As you can tell by the eight screencaps of a 10 second sequence, I can't understate just how fantastic this moment is.  Though it does represent one of the most overused trends in horror - men terrifying and abusing women - it friggin' shatters my nerves.  Wray emotes something different in each movement, and the scream she unleashes is a real and frightened one.  I'm not sure if a scream has ever been as real and as deserved as this one, because the lovely Ms. Wray knows exactly why she's here in this moment.  It's one of the most fantastic scenes of horror that I've ever come across.
I know I'm really going nutso on Doctor X here, and the movie quite honestly is not that good.  It's terribly dated and it's pretty slow and its kind of cheesy.  But there are bits and pieces of this movie that just friggin' thrill me.  With Fay Wray at her best and the gorgeous colors and Curtiz' daring direction, Doctor X has a place in my heart as one of the most interesting films in horror history.  Now available as part of a fantastic boxset from Warner Brothers, I strongly believe that Doctor X is one of horror's earliest underrated gems. (Oh hey, you can also watch it on YouTube.)


Andreas said...

I'm totally with you on Doctor X: it's far from perfect, but it's still so weird, and interesting! It covers so much horror ground in so little time.

I know a lot of other horror movies that could learn from Doctor X. And yes, that two-strip Technicolor looks awesome.

Thanks for spreading the X-word!

The Mike said...

Thank you for readin' dude! Glad someone out there has seen it, I was afraid this one would be all crickety to most. :)

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Fay Wray (in 1925 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously, which is dead)