Directed By: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy
Tag line: "Out-Thrills Them All!"
Trivia: For a time Warner Brothers did not have a print of the original Technicolor version and it was assumed to be lost. The Technicolor version was finally discovered and restored by the UCLA Archives
Hot on the trail of a big story, reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) has been shadowing the police for days as they investigate a string of killings known as the “Moon Killer Murders”, thus named because each one occurred under the light of a full moon. Eventually, the police determine that the weapon used in the slayings, a specialized scalpel, came from a nearby medical academy. Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), the head of this academy, is convinced the killer is most likely one of his colleagues, and tells the authorities he has a surefire method to figure out which one it is. Inviting the academy’s top scientists to his secluded mansion, where he lives with his daughter, Joan (Fay Wray), Xavier hooks each of them up to a machine of his own making and then reenacts the most recent murder, believing his equipment will identify the killer by analyzing his physical reaction to the violence playing out before their eyes. The plan goes awry, however, when an actual murder occurs during the experiment, thus intensifying the mystery and putting all of them in harm’s way.
Like 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X was shot in the two-color Technicolor process. Unlike its counterpart, however, which didn’t rely on the gimmick all that much, Doctor X uses color to great effect (a late scene, featuring both the killer and a lit candle, is especially shocking due to its vibrancy). Yet what makes Doctor X a notable motion picture is its introduction of Fay Wray to the genre, who not only made her horror debut in this film, but also got a chance to test the scream she’d put to good use a few years later in King Kong (and it’s a particularly shrill shriek at that, one guaranteed to send shivers up your spine).
This alone makes Doctor X a movie worth your time, but to its credit, the film offers more besides, including a deformed killer, a creepy laboratory, the odd reference to cannibalism, and even plenty of humor (courtesy of Lee Tracy’s bumbling reporter). All this, plus the legendary Lionel Atwill in the lead role, transforms Doctor X into an early horror picture that still packs a pretty good wallop.