Monster #18 - Doctor X


USA, 1932

A First National Pictures Production, distributed by Warner Brothers
76 mins, 2-strip Technicolor and Black & White, 1.37:1 aspect ratio
Shot on 35mm film

Director - Michael Curtiz
Writer - Howard Comstock, "The Terror", 1928/31 theatrical play
Screenplay - Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin
Cinematographer - Ray Rennahan (Technicolor), Richard Tower (b&w)
Production Design - Anton Grot
Make-Up - Max Factor, Ray Romero, Perc Westmore (uncredited)
Special Photographic Effects - Fred Jackamn Jr. (uncredited)
Editor - George Amy
Music - Leo F. Forbstein, Bernard Kaun

Lionel Atwill (Dr. Jerry Xavier), Fay Wray (Joanne Xavier), Lee Tracy (Lee Taylor), Preston Foster (Dr. Wells), John Wray (Dr. Haines), Harry Beresford (Dr. Duke)


(Carousel Books / Transworld Publishing)

  Dr X was one of the many ghouls and fiends my 13-year old self had never heard of before browsing Denis Gifford's alphabetic roll-call in Monsters of the Movies - and I distinctly remember not being very impressed either, mostly based on the still image used.

Whilst it actually looks rather good when reduced in size, clicking on the image reproduced here will reveal just how blurry and grainy the picture in the book actually is. It wasn't until I finally got to see the movie that I was able to appreciate the monstrosity that is Dr X, along with the remarkable qualities of the film.

Doctor X was produced jointly in 1932 by First National and Warner Brothers, and therefore before the Motion Picture Production Code was rigidly enforced as of 1934, essentially leading the major motion picture studios to self-censor well into the 1950s.

Some of the themes woven into the storyline of Doctor X, such as sadistic murder, rape, cannibalism and prostitution, would have been toned down sustantially or dropped outright had the movie been shot two years later.
Based on a theatrical play by Howard W. Comstock, Doctor X was directed by Michael Curtiz and starred Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Lee Tracy - all well-known classic Hollywood names to this day. Setting apart Doctor X from many contemporary (horror) movie productions, the film was shot in the early two-color Technicolor process (in the end the color prints were reserved for major cities, whilst black-and-white prints - filmed by a separate camera unit - were shipped to small towns and foreign markets).

Doctor X is a solidly made period horror picture, but it is the fact that it was shot in Technicolor's "Process 3" - the first horror movie made in colour - that gives it a very special and almost unique atmosphere which elevates this movie far above many of its contemporary cousins.

"Process 3" was Technicolor's advance in colour film processes which moved from the cementing of two separate prints into a single print which was arrived at by dye imbibition, involving separate red- and green-filtered frames.


These were shot by a special Technicolor camera that simultaneously shot two consecutive frames of a black-and-white film behind red and green filters.

  It didn't really catch on with the movie-going public at the time, making it financially uninteresting and resulting in only few movies were produced in what was then called "two-color Technicolor" (mostly by Warner Brothers).

Many of the original negatives were discarded by Technicolor in 1948, and all colour prints of Doctor X were believed to have been lost. For decades, the movie was thus only accessible through the black & white version, which had been shot separately, side-by-side with the colour version (comparison of the two versions shows only minor differences, if at all).

But then an original colour nitrate film of Doctor X was discovered in the personal collection of studio mogul Jack L. Warner in 1969 (Rhee, 2021). It was donated to the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which conducted a state of the art 4K scan restauration with precise colour separation and digital clean-up in 2020, which was then released by Warner Brothers' Archive Collection on Blu-ray in April 2021.

Although labelled as being restricted to viewing in the US, the Blu-ray is actually region code-free and thus also playable in Europe, enabling me to view Doctor X in a way that Denis Gifford could probably only dream of.

The storyline of Doctor X at times feels somewhat convoluted and requires the usual 1930's horror movie total suspension of belief, but within those limitations it works really well, helped by on-point direction and acting and a set of highly atmospheric sets. It also introduced the concept of the serial killer to the Hollywood horror genre (Rhee, 2021) and created a genre star:

"Fay Wray's scream when used as bait to catch the Moon Monster of Doctor X made her the First Lady of the Horror Film." (Gifford, 1973)

But the crowning glory is the two-colour Technicolor which, contrary to its name, does render more than just red and green (skin tones, for example). However, both green and red hues are very dominant, and they give the film an atmosphere all of its own, reinforcing it to the point of a truly masterful movie.


"In terms of its color, the film made innovative use of specialty lighting. It saves its red and orange colors for its climactic scenes, like when the mad Moon Killer “creates” himself with globs of “synthetic flesh.” In another scene where Fay Wray finds her father in the makeshift morgue after the first laboratory murder and they realize that the dead body has been cannibalized, the entire scene is saturated in solid green. Green lighting is traditionally a horror color; it’s the antithesis of warm colors, it’s unreal (...) it’s a truly different experience now to see what the Technicolor process could actually do. Its triumph of color design and cinematography now comes front and center." (Scott MacQueen, in Rhee 2021)


Doctor X is one of those movies that has been somewhat underrated ever since it was made.

"Doctor X was actually very well received in color. In the trade papers, exhibitors reported that the color version was a sensation and made a big difference in their box office numbers. The black-and-white version was mainly distributed in Europe. Why didn’t Jack Warner recognize the money-making potential of the color version? Possibly because he didn’t like horror movies in the first place and the studio didn't have a history of making them." (Scott MacQueen, in Rhee 2021)

An excellent pick by Denis Gifford, and an essential horror movie thankfully preserved in its intended visual form.

Monster Factor:

Overall Movie Rating:


Whilst the plot and its story elements may seem thin at times, the atmosphere produced as a result of iconically gloomy and threatening locations, committed acting and directing, and extremely well set-up visuals carries this movie all the way. The two-colour Technicolor process gives it a pleasingly unique look and feel, and the 2020 UCLA restoration is fabulous. An essential horror movie, preserved in its intended visual form, making it required viewing for horror film buffs..


Denis Gifford on Doctor X
in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973)

"Make-up played the major part in Doctor X (1932), this time with the added thrill of two-colour Technicolor (...) Dr Xavier, club-footed red-herring, marked the horror-film entrance of Lionel Atwill, starchy architect from Croydon. His brisk and British ways suited the genre (...) his fierce face and sly eyeballs bridged a curious gap between Middle-European police inspectors and mad doctors."


GIFFORD Denis (1973) A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Hamlyn

RHEE Jennifer (2021) "Restoring "Doctor X," the First All-Technicolor Horror Feature", UCLA Film & Television Archive Blog, 12 July 2021


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Page created 9 August 2023
Last updated 2 September 2023

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