Doctor X (1932)

Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray proved a popular horror pairing in the early 1930's, enjoying a box office run with films such as Mystery Of The Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat (both 1933). They first appeared together as father and daughter in this fairly ludicrous, pre-Code serial murderer caper from First National, directed by future great Michael Curtiz. Shot in two-colour Technicolor before the process was abandoned, the plot concerns the hunt for the "Moon Killer", a grotesque hooded cannibal whom the police trace to a New York medical academy run by one Doctor Xavier (Atwill)  following a series of grizzly waterfront murders. A scalpel used at the crime scenes appears to incriminate Xavier and his deeply sinister faculty, each professor creepier than the last and all working on sicko galvanic experiments, but the chief suspect protests his innocence and begs the cops for 48 hours to carry out his own investigation, which, unbelievably, they agree to. 

Doctor X is hamstrung by its silly premise and erratic tone, principally the fault of Lee Tracy as a hack reporter on the trail of a scoop and in love with Xavier's daughter Joan (Wray), whose wisecracking does much to puncture the tension. However, it is atmospheric in parts and pretty to look at, while the final reveal in which the killer slaps handfuls of "synthetic skin" all over his face so that he won't be recognised is genuinely horrid. His subsequent demise, burnt to death with a kerosene lantern and unceremoniously shoved through a window, calls to mind another homicidal burns victim from the horror pantheon: Freddy Kreuger. You can catch Doctor X in its entirety at Archive.org, although some confused individual has incorrectly billed it as The Return Of Doctor X (1939), an unrelated Warner Brothers oddity featuring Humphrey Bogart sporting a white streak through his hair in his only horror role. Look out here for Preston Sturges regular Robert Warwick as the Police Commissioner and Laurel and Hardy foil Mae Busch as a brothel madam.


  1. I agree that Doctor X is ludicrous, which I think in part is what makes it so entertaining; plus Lionel Atwill's diction is as incisive as that sinister scalpel (I like how he accents the last syllable on that word). Interesting you should mention the villain's demise here being burned to death and how it recalls Freddy Kreuger. I also thought of how Atwill himself also played a burn victim in Mystery of the Wax Museum, a motif which was carried over to its 1950s remake, House of Wax.

  2. Yeah I enjoyed it a lot and Lionel Atwill is something else. They don't make 'em like that anymore! Must check out Mysteries of the Wax Museum, very much enjoyed the remake.