A grisly mass murderer who is known as the “Full Moon Killer,” his victims are always attacked when the moon is full, is on the loose in New York City. The only clue the police have is that the killer must have a medical background. Doctor Xavier, aka Doctor X, (Lionel Atwell) and his staff at a local medical institute have become the main suspects since the victims are not only strangled but cannibalized. The good doctor convinces the police to let him conduct an in house investigation of his staff for 48 hours so as not to stain the reputation of the institute. They agree.
In truth, Doctor X’s fellow scientists all seem a bit creepy and they all seem capable of being serial killers. There is not one whom you would feel comfortable having over for dinner and a bit of vino. Xavier, by the way, has an independent young daughter, portrayed by the lovely Fay Wray. Into the mix comes nosey newspaper reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) who needs a good story and cannot or rather will not stop getting into the middle of things.
Unfortunately, the film cannot seem to decide whether it wants to be a stylish, atmospheric moody old dark house horror or something more of a lightweight dark comedy. There’s plenty of bad dialogue, mostly delivered by Lee Tracy, along with a plot filled with so many holes that a block of Swiss cheese would be proud. Making it worst is the usually reliable Lee Tracy is saddled with a character who has the most irritating and unfunny bits of wise cracking humor. His performance contains more ham than an overstuffed pig. His character has a fondness for practical jokes filled with hand buzzers and exploding cigars. You begin to wish the killer, whoever he is, would make him his next victim and as quick as possible. Finally, there is the lovely Fay Wray who is wasted in a role as Doctor X’s daughter, Joanne. It’s a part that requires little except for her to look beautiful, romance Tracy and provide a few Pre-King Kong screams all of which she does admirably.
On the plus side there are wonderful atmospherically eerie set designs that create a nice dark mood. The film also has a tense and chilling ending. While you will probably be able to guest who the serial killer is, the scene in which he is revealed is well done. In order to expose who the killer is, Doctor X uses daughter Joanne as bait while the other doctors, including Daddy X, are manacled to chairs. That is, except for the one who turns out to be the killer. You will need to watch the film for why??? It’s a tense scene as the killer is revealed and goes after poor Joanne while Dad and the other scientists are literally chained to their chairs struggling in vain to break loose and save the girl. Don’t worry though, she survives.
Doctor X was based on a 1931 produced Broadway play by Howard Warren Comstock and Allen C. Miller. It ran for a bit less than three months before closing. Warner Brothers picked up the rights and the play was adapted for the screen by screenwriters, Robert Tasker (San Quentin, Back Door to Heaven) and Earl Baldwin (Wild Boys of the Road, Blonde Crazy, Brother Orchid). It was directed by Michael Curtiz who just one year later would team up again with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray and go on to make the much better Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Both of these films were early versions of color. Warner Brothers used a process called two-strip Technicolor, an improvement over earlier color versions but still primitive by today’s standards.
In 1939, an alleged sequel was made called The Return of Doctor X. Other than the title, the films have nothing in common. The Return of Doctor X is notable for mainly two reasons. It was Humphrey Bogart’s only turn in a horror/science fiction film and it was the directing debut of Vincent Sherman. Neither of the films are very good, though if you’re in the right mood The Return of Doctor X is worth seeing just to catch the pale, ghostly Bogart stroking his pet rabbit.