The two-strip technicolor stylishness of Doctor X, coupled with a patently ludicrous plot, might qualify it as some early variety of pop-art – the imagery of Doctor X seems directly borrowed from the covers of Astounding magazine and some of its more lurid cousins, with few pretences to depth. Michael Curtiz’s companion piece to The Mystery of the Wax Museum doesn’t have much dramatic weight, but it is sheerly entertaining in its larkish absurdity. A cannibalistic serial killer butchers assorted victims: Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill, the only guy in film history to make a career of wrangling five syllables out of "lab-a-ro-tor-y".) learns from the police that the killer has to be someone from his own research institute, due t killer’s very specific weapon of choice. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s at least three potential suspects with some knowledge and possible history of cannibalism in the institute. He begins a series of experiments involving incredible scientific contraptions (which are, in effect, really clunky early versions of a polygraph on a Frankenstein scale) in his home, Cliff Manor, situated in eerie, isolated, storm-tossed Long Island. Can Xavier and goofball newsman Lee Tracy discover the killer before he goes after Xavier’s daughter (Fay Wray)?
One of the suspect scientists, Wells (Preston Foster), seems discounted as one because he’s missing a hand. But of course he’s an evil genius who has invented a form of synthetic flesh, with which he can fashion himself a new hand – and a monstrous face too, just for the hell of it – before setting out on his nocturnal ventures to contribute to his particularly perverted variety of scientific understanding. His ambition? To “make a crippled world whole!” And because he’s trusted for having no hand, he contrives to have his enemies secured during the experiments and fit for slaughter..
The proto-David Cronenberg themes swirling around the killer, his modus operandi, and his motivation, unfortunately only really come into play right at the end, and then very glibly, so Doctor X is never in any danger of becoming a mind-melting study in New Flesh. Curtiz never pretends that the film belongs to the poetic brand of horror practised by James Whale and Tod Browning over at Universal, and Tracy’s character is a hangover from the days of The Cat and the Canary on other comic-chillers of the ‘20s, taking up too much screen time. It’s more an exercise in style for Curtiz, evidenced in the dramatic camera angles and lighting effects he toys with, but the story structure hampers his opportunities to show off.
Despite the hesitations that ultimately limit its possibilities, Doctor X’s script is rife with pre-Code kinkiness – cheeky humour involving the scientist’s sex lives (one reads magazines on “French Art” for “relaxation”), Tracy’s having to phone in a story from a brothel, and the amusingly odd clinch for Tracy and Wray. The film also wryly emphasises a dislocation between intellectual brilliance and emotional health. All of Xavier’s geniuses are weirdoes, and one of them is of course absolutely insane, in a brilliant way.
The finale is contrived to see intellect pinioned and common human strength triumphant – in a sequence in which Curtiz finally cuts loose with some brilliant editing and lighting – as Xavier achieves absolutely nothing, he and his fellows sit chained to their chairs helplessly as Wells sets about eating his daughter. She’s only saved by the intervention of unlikely hero Tracy, who, with his fear for his job and his being definitely not an exalted genius, is the only one in the end who can take Wells on – finally doing him by throwing a lamp at him with the same technique he used in baseball pitching.
The film’s grisly suggestions remain just that, suggestions, but in its salacious hints of sadism there’s a vibration of portent that travels along the genre’s history to the modern torture-porn variety as well as to Lynch and Cronenberg. Fay’s at her most devastatingly sultry in two-strip technicolor: that, and the way Foster says “Synnnthetic fleeeesh”, is worth the viewing alone..