“The more sensational it is the more the son of a guns love it.”

Reporter Lee Tracy gets mixed up with scientific experiments via Lionel Atwill, an old dark house setting with a madman on the loose and lovely Fay Wray. All at the hands of famed Hungarian director Michael Curtiz.

Dr. X is my contribution to the celebration of films released in 1932 at the height of the pre-code era brought to us by the kindly Theresa of CineMaven’s Essays From the Couch and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen.

dr x poster

This is a classic shocker featuring Tracy as a gumshoe styled reporter tracking a story to the doorstep of Dr Xavier as portrayed by Lionel Atwill. The police believe that a madman killer who is cutting victims at the base of the brain may be involved in cannibalism. A heavy subject for audiences of 1932. They have traced the killer to the doorstep of Atwill’s Academy of Surgical Research. Atwill fearing bad publicity convinces local police to let him conduct a scientific experiment guaranteed to unveil the psychotic madman.

If you’ve seen as many mad doctor films as I have then Atwill has to come in as suspect number one. A red herring this time out? Perhaps.


Atwill and his stuff of nutty professors retire to a mountain top estate giving us a variation of the old dark house thriller that also includes his daughter Fay Wray coming along for the appropriate screams needed to send audiences flurrying up the aisles of 1932 theaters. Intrepid reporter Tracy isn’t about to give up a sensational story such as this and secretly wanders thru the corridors.

dr z old dark house

This early color film moves on to have Atwill recreating the latest murder while using electrodes and thermal tubes to assist in the unmasking of our madman. It’s all quite impressive and leads to another killing on the first try proving there is indeed a killer in the group.


Once the killer is let loose upon the screen, the film gets fairly graphic for it’s day and age featuring a solid rendering of an on screen boogey man and a rousing climatic fight between the killer and the would be hero of the piece. A very satisfying ending to this terror that precedes another famous thriller by one year that rejoined director Curtiz with Wray and Atwill, Mystery at the Wax Museum.


Curtiz gives us a pretty film to look at with it’s shadowy figures wandering about long hallways with rays of light definitely giving it that German look from that countries silent classics. Another film on the long list of Curtiz’s credits proving he was a master of most any genre.


As for the pre-code feel, there are a couple of scenes that stand out besides the look of the monster that I have a feeling might have been toned down after the rules were set in 1934. Early in the film, Tracy wanders into a house of prostitution looking to use a phone and for a brief moment, contemplates sampling some of the merchandise sold within. How about an early form of a “girlie” magazine one of the professors is shamefully looking thru. Even the final fade out includes a gag that would not have been passed by’34. It has to do with a vibrating buzzer, Fay Wray in an embrace and the lights down low.

The Tracy character is an easy mark to pick on though that isn’t always fair. Like many films of the era, the reporter was a staple of movies and quite often was used as comedy relief. Same thing happens here though by the time the final reel plays itself out, Tracy has grown on me. I have a feeling that the production companies of the day included this type of character to counter balance the scares thrown at the audience throughout.


All in all a great thriller from the era with Atwill and Wray in their prime years under the direction of the award winning Curtiz. In color no less! Time now to see who else contributed films to this fun topic and just what movies they chosen to share. Check them out right here.