If you’ve ever wondered what I find to be the creepiest of all classic-era horror movies, then you probably have too much time on your hands. But at the same time, you’d probably like to know that it’s Doctor X (1932). As an exercise in atmosphere — with its odd color palette (thanks to the miracle of two-strip Technicolor in the last days of that process), strange sets and one of my favorite scenes in all of horror — director Michael Curtiz’s movie is hard to beat.
The film is structured as a mystery, with a cannibalistic serial killer nicknamed “The Moon Killer” on the loose, and all signs pointing to the murderer being a member of a medical school headed by Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). In order to save the academy — and the set of creepy scientists who work there — any embarrassment, the doctor decides to perform his very own investigation via an unduly elaborate experiment to figure out which of his scientists is mad enough to go on a murder spree. Amongst all of this is a wise-cracking newspaper man (Lee Tracy) who’s out to get the real story behind “The Moon Killer.”
There’s a surprisingly grisly nature (for its time, at least) to the film, with dismemberment and mentions of necrophilia. But don’t think of Doctor X as stomach churning, since the tone is agreeably absurd. Tracy and the film’s flock of possibly mad scientists lend a sense of levity to it all. None of this is to be taken too seriously, of course, but when the film gets down to business and decides to be scary, it earns its reputation.There’s a strangeness to the way Curtiz handles Doctor X’s horror elements. There’s a certain grotesqueness on display, mostly due to the rudimentary color stock — something that goes full tilt in the big reveal of “The Moon Killer.” Here we get a scene that’s not only horrific (the creature himself is a bizarre, willfully ugly creation) but it’s his transformation — which is handled in an almost surreal nature — that almost single-handedly makes the movie worth it. Part of what makes Doctor X unique is that no one’s ever made a movie quite like it since.