Reporter with the Daily World Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is trying to be inconspicuous while he hangs around the city morgue late at night, a night of the full moon. Why is that significant? Because Taylor believes the dreaded Moon Killer has struck again, and tries to follow the police and eminent doctor Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill) into the morgue to find out if they are going to examine the latest vicitm. However, he is stopped at the door, in spite of flashing his press credentials, yet finds a way of sneaking in disguised as a corpse under a sheet. Eavesdropping, he listens to the autopsy as Dr Xavier tells the police inspector that the body has been strangled and cannibalised - just like the others. But the inspector has news for Dr Xavier: he thinks the killer is somebody at his own medical academy...
"Preposterous!" shouts Dr X in response to this, which is a very good description of the film itself, with its clunky mix of broad comedy, whodunnit old dark house mystery and over the top thrill sequences. Nothing to do with the X-Men - the good doctor pronounces his name "Ex-ah-vee-ay", la di dah, if you please - this was one of the Pre-Code horrors of the early thirties, so they could get away with an scene near the beginning where the hero marches into a whorehouse run by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy foil Mae Busch as the madam. To use the telephone, you understand, as presumably it was the only place he could find that was open.
Doctor X was based on a play that had been successful the previous year, written by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller, here adapted by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin. The film was such a success that it spawned the far better known Mystery of the Wax Museum the following year, with the same director, Michael Curtiz (already making a name for himself), and some of the same cast, although Tracy was replaced in the wisecracking reporter role by Glenda Farrell. Also notable about the two films was their colour, as they were both shot in a primitive Techincolor process that made everything look green and red and contributed a nice atmosphere unique to its era.
But back to the plot, and the suspects swiftly mount up when Dr Xavier takes the police around the medical establishment to meet the staff. Shifty and dubious to a man, they mainly have handicaps such as missing an arm or confined to a wheelchair and crutches - this is what passed for suspicious in the nineteen thirties. Another is a bit of a pervert - which is what passes for suspicious in the twenty-first century, too. When one scarred doctor is singled out by the police due to witnesses remarking on the killer's unnerving countenance, Xavier protests that it couldn't be him as he writes books of poetry (!). Eventually Xavier concedes that it must be one of them (could it be our title character?) and hatches a plan.
That plan is to work out the murderer's identity himself, by using the latest in scientific means. In practice, his methods are ridiculous, but it offers the film all the excuse it needs to transplant the main characters to an isolated mansion on the windswept coast, including Xavier's daughter Joanne (a dark haired Fay Wray), although she only seems necessary to play a victim-to-be-saved role. Along for the ride and sensing a big story sneaks Taylor, increasing a comedy quotient that can't have been particularly rib-tickling even then, with his highly unamusing palm buzzer an overused prank. If you can overlook Tracy, then the rest of this is rollicking good fun that builds to a ludicrously bizarre climax involving an electrical machine that must be the world's biggest lie detector and a clay-faced villain who repeats the word "flesh" about fifty times in his maniacal murder attempts. Not as good as the film it inspired, Doctor X still has its place.