It isn’t easy to find science fiction films made in the Thirties.
It did show up in quite a few serials, but then those were aimed at kids. There were a few odd films with more developed SF elements — like Just Imagine — but for most part you were going to find it in horror and mystery films.
Actually, as sinister as the title sounds, Doctor X is really Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill), the head of a prestigious (but rather small) teaching and research hospital. There’s a serial killer on the loose, who is probably one of the staff, who only kills when the moon is full. Throw in Lee Tracy playing yet another breezy and somewhat ethically-challenged reporter, and Fay Wray as the Doctor’s daughter (and inevitable love interest for Lee), and you’ve got the basic idea.
And, as this is the pre-code Thirties, we get a few ominous hints of cannibalism, as the victims have been partially eaten!
Not that we ever get to see this. After all, this is the Thirties.
Doctor X gets the police to let him track the killer, using his own scientific methods, with the help of a truly wild laboratory set. It has lots of thin glass tubes sprouting from the console in the center of the room, strange glassware, a series of big heavy chairs surrounded by tubes and wires, wax figures of the victims, and plenty of electrical devices. It is one of the better mad scientist labs I’ve seen, even if it isn’t as big or complex as anything Frankenstein used. Mind you, when we see the villain at work in his own lab, it may be quite small and lack some of the more impressive set pieces of the big lab, but it is shot in a lot of interesting ways, with all sorts of devices framing the action.
Frankly, it’s something a lot of filmmakers need to see: how to make your modest set look impressive with a few tricks.
In fact, the two main locations are spooky and atmospheric, with plenty of lab equipment, piles of skeletons, sinister close-up shots (lit from below, naturally) of the more suspicious characters, and lots and lots of shadow and darkness.
Lionel and Fay would be teamed up in two more horror films after this — The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat, which is stranger than it seems as it would be nearly a decade before scandal ruined Atwill’s career and he ended up making an endless number of mad scientist films for poverty row studios like PRC and Monogram. Still, the film does a great job of making him seem sinister, complete with a few moments with him lurking in the perpetually dark rooms in the main locations.
But then all the scientists seem to be lurking in the shadows. I guess it must be easier to do your scientific research in the dark.
However, much like Universal’s later film, Night Monster, we have an intriguing spin on the least likely suspect proving to be the murderer. And this time, it isn’t a question of “vibrations” or supernatural powers pretending to be scientific, but there is a nicely weird bit of mad science here, with also helps explain the killer’s motivation.
This is not one of the great horror films of the early horror cycle, but it is a nice example with quite a few good moments. Universal did this sort of thing better, but it is so early, at the very start of the first horror cycle, that it is more individual than many of the later films would be, with so many other horror films to influence them.
Oh, well, it’s always fun to see Lionel Atwill being sinister, it looks great, even if they didn’t have as big a budget as the competition did, and it offers a memorable (and probably unique) monster. If you love these early horror films, you’ll love this one.
However, I doubt that those of you who think every horror film has to feature guts being thrown at the screen will be happy.
But then, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.