When most people think of a 1930s Hollywood Horror, they think of some drawn-out gothic classic like Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Invisible Man. Well, beyond glitzy stages and novel reworks, filled with mortality-play tales of man’s inner struggle, the 1930s brought us the first works of exploitation cinema by plying its trade to a titillated audience (whilst also ushering in the Hayes Code). Tod Browning’s Freaks shocked audiences by showing disabled people, Erle C. Kenton blended sensuality with cruelty in the Island of Lost Souls, and Michael Curtiz gave us this technicolour body-horror nightmare with Doctor X – a film so ground-breaking and debauched that it got a name check in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!
The film has three very distinct acts, much like the play “The Terror” that it was based on. Act 1 is at the waterfront morgue and involves us following Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy), ace reporter and all-round dickhead, as he tries to uncover details of a spat of murders. In between “hilarious hijinks”, we find out that the murderer is eating and raping the victims, several of whom might be prostitutes. Unlike many horrors of the era watched almost a century later, this still manages to come across as shocking rather than quaint or demure. There is still the use of guarded language, the police inspection of the corpse is all “tell and not show”, and everyone still has to speak slowly, clearly, and in turn, so it’s amazing to feel actual tension at this point. Thankfully Lee Taylor is on hand to defuse any situation before it gets too spooky, with the kind of snappy one liners and practical jokes that make you think police brutality wasn’t always such a bad thing.
Act 2 is at Doctor Xavier’s Institute of Scientific Things, and we are slowly introduced to the people the police think did it because of reasons. Each of them is overtly intelligent, male, and white, so obviously beyond reproach. They probably have names, but other than a couple of dodgy foreign accents, and one of them having a porn mag in his lab, it’s all much of a muchness as we get slowly – very, very slowly – introduced to each of them in sequence. There’s also Dr Wells (Preston Foster), who studies cannibalism and can’t have done it because he’s only got one hand, and Joan Taylor (Fay Wray), who can’t have done it because she’s a woman.
Act 3 is at the institutes’ retreat, which is a mansion filled with weird science and two foreign servants. This is where things really knock up a gear, with magnificently overengineered lie-detectors, enactments of the attacks, and more unnerving spookiness than you can shake a stick at in terror. People die, mysteries are found and explained, and we get to hear the phrase “Synthetic Flesh!” repeated like some crazed mantra as everything goes psychedelic horror thirty years to soon. It’s a blend of dark horror and optimistic futurism, gothic in tone but modernist in execution. It’s also genuinely creepy, even by today’s standards, with some scenes that manage to get your heart pumping at the raw wrongness of what’s going on. It’s only thirty minutes, but even after the drab middle section it makes the whole thing worthwhile to even the modern viewer.
That is, every bit other than all the bits with Lee Taylor in it, who is devastatingly annoying and unrelentingly sexist. It’s like having a tap-dancer save the day in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only with crass humour that everyone laughs at rather than punches the jerk for. He’s very obviously there because there needs to be a love story in it, even though the chemistry between him and Joan is less “explosive” and more “cyanide gas”. Had he been edited out of the whole movie it would have carried on perfectly, which is frustrating when the whole thing had a running time of only 76 minutes.
Overall, this was a Treasure; but that’s pretty much 25% because of the first act, 75% because of the third, and 0% because of any moment the reporter was in shot. The visceral, classical horror at the docks, and the conceptual, modern horror of the mansion are wonderfully complimentary, it still gives the modern casual watcher a ride of depth and excitement, that they would hardly expect. For those more into their film history it also scores on many points; the usage of the early two tone Technicolour process, the pre-censorship content of the script, and how much it showed the medium at a crossroads between old and new. However, this is assuming that they don’t quit as the middle act drags out introduction after introduction, and that they can put aside how much of a repellent oaf the shoe-horned hero actually is.