The Cannibal Doctor is In

The fear in Doctor X doesn’t come from a singular monster. It’s multi-layered. Using wildly fictional science to explain itself, Doctor X suggests anyone can become a killer; all it takes a small brain malfunction, and suddenly, people resort to cannibalism.

Then the doctor’s experiments convey a different horror, where not only do medical professionals succumb to these possibilities, the methods to discover the man-eater look equally terrifying. Using beakers, tubes, and whirring machinery that ushered in the golden era, men sit strapped to chairs, helpless. Decades later, John Carpenter’s The Thing used this same scenario to grand effect (and more plausibility, if less Hollywood showmanship).

Doctor X sheds its routine boredom in those climactic moments

Lionel Atwill leads, borderline sane, matched by others in his facility who all seem strange. Disfigurement tropes play up generic fears, one man crippled, another missing an arm, still another an eye. Atwill is able bodied, if mentally questionable. Putting them together builds a capable, slow-boiling mystery in the old dark house fashion, only now powered by science, not Gothic terror.

Doctor X softens itself in a misstep, casting Lee Tracy as a clumsy, goofy reporter whose antics play more to Abbott and Costello than the intended genre. He’s totally out of place, filmmakers not yet able to balance horror and comedy deftly. That took time, and 1932 was clearly too soon, even for the great Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair.

Fay Wray adds the only genuine femininity to Doctor X, helpless here as she would be in King Kong a year later. She’s there to scream and swoon for Tracy, inessential to anything other than studio producers who demand romance.

Wray’s part does add to the crisp finish though, a mixture of makeup effects, set design, and defenselessness. The men chained to chairs, the killer puts on a show, Wray his target. The whole scenario is ridiculously elaborate, but surreal and unsettling too. Atwill’s Doctor Xavier gives the murderer a literal stage on which to perform. A rising score and uneasy application of two-strip Technicolor bring this all to life though in a way that’s wholly effective. Doctor X sheds its routine boredom in those climactic moments, leaving an impression even if the rest didn’t.

Doctor X Blu-ray screen shot

Video

Freshly restored, the two-strip source offers a unique looking image. The two colors bleed into one another leading to what looks like artifacts, but it’s not. Preserved grain remains on the thicker side, but not unnatural. No doubt the filming process and elements play their part in any troubles.

Technicolor green and reds glow under today’s technology. Beautiful turquoise mingles with the eerie flesh tones. The contrast between them is grand, and wholly unique given how few films used this tech.

Slim detail survives to this day. Softness pervades, limiting fidelity, but that’s not unusual given the process. It’s on par with Warner’s Mysteries of the Wax Museum. Restoration cleans up damage, some frame drops the worst and minor. Contrast loses nothing to time.

As a bonus, Warner includes the black and white version. While not given the same disc space and grain reproduction suffers, sharpness and detail are superior to the color edition. It’s preferred for HD qualities, if losing the garish surrealism evident in the two-tone.

Audio

Mixed quite low, once volume is adjusted a few notches, Doctor X sounds fine for the early talkie era. Puffier dialog is the norm given the recording methods. Luckily, when the print skips the audio doesn’t. Hiss and static disappear, leaving this DTS-HD track to work its own magic.

Extras

Two commentaries, the first by Alan K. Rode, the other restoration expert Scott MacQueen. Director Michael Curtiz earns his due in a 27-minute feature concerning his horror films. Scott MacQueen adds additional thoughts over a seven minute restoration comparison, and it’s incredible to see.

Doctor X
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
3

Movie

Doctor X is moody if slow classic horror with a great finish to its science-based old dark house formula.

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The 15 unaltered images below represent the Blu-ray. For an additional 36 Doctor X screenshots, early access to all screens (plus the 120,000+ already in our library), 120 exclusive 4K UHD reviews, and more, subscribe on Patreon.