Running parallel to the great roar of Gothic spirit represented by the classic Universal horror cycle of the '30s and '40s, the less metaphysical and frankly bizarre genre chillers emanating from Warner Brothers were unsurprising box-office also-rans; today their psychological creepiness has a distinctly toxic tone. The entire trend was heir to German expressionism and the masochistic masquerades of Lon Chaney, but the Warner films alone acknowledged and feared the legacy of Freud. Michael Curtiz's Doctor X is a pulp fiction, one of the studio's first, set in a Long Island as seen through a feverish delirium—all anonymous Vienna-like side streets and baroque laboratory interiors. What really gives the film (produced independently but distributed by Warner) its unique tarnish is an early, two-strip Technicolor process, which envelops the action in a sea of queasy algae-green, as if the universe around the narrative's secret ritual was stagnant and rotting.
The story, based on a minor play, will be familiar to the Hannibal Lecter generation: A serial killer kills and cannibalizes every full moon; the police and a squirrelly newspaper reporter (Lee Tracy) sniff out clues leading to the private medical-research college run by Lionel Atwill's defensive big-brain. Fay Wray is the resident screamer, but suspicion falls on Atwill's eccentric staff, including shock-haired Preston Foster as a one-armed obsessive with a recipe for "synthetic flesh!" (Makeup by Max Factor!).
Whereas the impossible myths of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy over at Universal apparently provided some kind of cathartic succor to Depression-era moviegoers, exploring as they did a forgotten edge-world fraught with supernatural ruptures a good deal more heinous than merely finding the next paycheck, Curtiz's film mucked around fearlessly amid sociopathy and nihilistic rage, just a few years after the stock-market crash. Tracy, one of the forgotten wonders of the '30s, acts as comic-relief ballast, emitting a ceaseless Gatling-gun assault of fidgety ticks, wise-guy cracks and wormy double talk. (You can tell just by watching him that Tracy was an incurable brat and a famous drinker—his career was seriously crippled after being fired from Viva Villa! in 1934, after he'd urinated on an actual Mexican military procession from a hotel balcony.)
Doctor X comes in a streamlined DVD box of Warner horrors (plus a few MGM entries), including the nonsequel The Return of Doctor X (1939), notoriously featuring Humphrey Bogart as a blood-drinking ghoul; The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), with Boris Karloff amid looming quasi-Tibetan sets as Sax Rohmer's Chinese mastermind; and Mad Love (1935), a sweaty psychodrama that has mad doc Peter Lorre jealously grafting a killer's hands onto pianist Colin Clive, and which according to Pauline Kael visually influenced Citizen Kane. Five of the six films come with new genre-scholar commentaries, and all come with original trailers.