Doctor X (1932):

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a dash of The Front Page, in glib-hybrid The Player terms, though the major frisson is between cinematic and theatrical unveilings of fright, in either case jack-o-lantern lit from below. Corpses are rushed to the morgue, and Lee Tracy, a newspaper snoop looking for a scoop, sneaks out of a barrel to curse a full moon; medical scientist Lionel Atwill, meanwhile, examines the mauled cadaver to declare, "Gentleman... this is cannibalism!" Both characters find themselves waist-deep in the recent series of killings around Atwill's research college, yet Tracy's ad-libbed all-American jitters and Atwill's sinister Euro-slickness are from alternate universes, welded together by the faded, Germanic monochrome of Michael Curtiz's mise-en-scène. Clues point toward the institute's bubbling-test-tube wacky crew, Preston Foster unscrewing his artificial arm to better examine a pulsating heart in a jar, and John Wray, Harry Beresford and Arthur Edmund Carewe going along shenanigans of their own. Atwill looks through his archives and the camera pans down then left to introduce Fay Wray, his daughter, with a gratuitous scream and an even more gratuitous, subliminally lewd close-up exit, thrown in surreptitiously for Pre-Code speculation. Buried incest, to further add to the movie's necro-impulses? "The more sensational it is, the more the sons of a gun love it," Tracy says of newspaper readers, or maybe of paying viewers, for Curtiz's staging of the climactic spook show is nothing if not self-reflexive. The curtains are appropriately lifted to reveal tableaux morts for an audience of suspects bolted down to sanguine lie-detectors, and the makeup effects even get their own ceremonious scene, the murderer halting the narrative flow to apply clay-pancake to his head and morph, before our eyes, into a swollen ogre. The horror genre is its own form of art, and the movie is, like Mystery of the Wax Museum, Curtiz's gloved comment on his own Euro-émigré position, Atwill as his stand-in orchestrating the shocks and putting up with Tracy in a room full of skeletons. Based on the play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller. With Robert Warwick, Leila Bennett, and George Rosener.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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