When film fans think of their Mount Rushmore of horror stars, a few names immediately come to mind. Boris Karloff. Bela Lugosi. Lon Chaney (Sr & Jr). Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee. One name usually omitted is Lionel Atwill. Which is a shame, because the actor was front and center at the beginning of the horror cycle of the 1930s. While hard-core horror buffs certainly know his work, Atwill is best remembered today for his supporting role as the wooden-armed Inspector Krough in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. But at the dawn of the Golden Age of Horror, Lionel Atwill starred in two of the earliest fright classics, both produced by Warner Brothers: DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.
DOCTOR X is more along the lines of an “old dark house” mystery, with dashes of the new horror genre added for extra spice. Dr. Xavier (Atwill) is called in by the police in the matter of the “Moon Killer” murders, involving a cannibalistic madman. The cops say these murders could only be caused by a special scalpel used at Xavier’s academy. The doctor, worried about bringing bad publicity to his research, asks for 48 hours to investigate on his own. Meanwhile, nosy reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is snooping around trying to get a sensationalistic scoop. We’re introduced to Xavier’s faculty, and they’re an odd lot indeed: one-handed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) is an expert on cannibalism, Dr. Haines (John Wray) a brain surgeon once shipwrecked in Tahiti under mysterious circumstances, and Drs. Duke and Rowitz (Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe), studiers of astronomy. Taylor goes to Xavier’s estate to dig up some info, where he’s thrown out by Xavier’s lovely daughter Joanne (scream queen Fay Wray). He manages to find out Xavier is bringing his faculty out to Cliff Shoales manor, and follows along.
The doctors are gathered together as Xavier explains his “psycho-neurological test” method. He spouts some pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo as they’re all hooked up to an electro-static machine to monitor their heart rates (save for Wells, whose one hand excludes him from suspicion) and shown a reenactment of the latest murder. Xavier’s maid is dressed as the victim, while his butler plays the killer. Suddenly the lights go out, a scream is heard, and Rowitz is found dead, a scalpel taken to his brain. Wells claims he was knocked out by an unknown assailant, and the butler finds Taylor unconscious in the closet . Taylor explains he was nosing around to get the story, but was gassed by someone. Joanne and Taylor begin to get closer (as nosy reporters and fair damsels usually do in these things) and she persuades her father to let him stay the night.
The police call the next day and demand results. Xavier promises he’ll have them by the end of the night. The maid is too freaked out to continue, so Joanne decides to take her place in the evening’s experiment. The remaining doctors, including Xavier, are handcuffed to their chairs this time. All but Wells, who it turns out has been experimenting with “synthetic flesh” to regenerate his missing hand, and becomes the fiendish Moon Killer by disguising himself with the gooey substance. Wells kills the butler, then goes after Joanne. Xavier and the other doctors are helpless, cuffed to the chairs, about to watch Joanne fall victim to the Moon Killer when Taylor bursts in, and they engage in a life-or-death struggle. Taylor throws a lamp at Wells and hits him, causing the synthetic flesh to explode into flames, and sending him crashing out the window to his demise.
DOCTOR X was filmed in the two-color Technicolor process, a rarity for early horror. Directed by Michael Curtiz (CASABLANCA, ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and so many other Hollywood hits), the film effectively hits the target with its scares. Lee Tracy’s comic relief can be annoying at times, but he’s an important part of the story. Fay Wray, KING KONG’s favorite lady, is good in her role as are Foster and Carewe. But it’s Atwill who steals the show as the title character, and though he’s the ultimate red herring, he gives the impression that he just might be the Moon Killer until the very ending. It was DOCTOR X that brought Atwill to horror prominence, and although the film today is a bit disappointing, it’s worth at least one viewing for fans of Pre-Code films in general, and the horror genre in particular.
Special mention should be made of Anton Grot, the movie’s art director. Grot’s expressionistic set design, filled with bubbling test tubes and chiaroscuro lighting, give DOCTOR X it’s eerie mood. Grot was back the following year, along with Atwill, Wray, Carewe, and director Curtiz, in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. This one, also in the two-color Technicolor process, ramps up the horrors, with Atwill as sculptor Ivan Igor, crippled and wheelchair bound after being trapped in a fire started by his former partner Worth (Edwin Maxwell) in London years ago, opening a new wax museum in New York. There’s been some strange goings on about bodies being stolen from the local morgue, and reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) begins looking into the story, after being fired, to get back in the good graces of her editor Jim (Frank McHugh). Florence’s roommate Charlotte (Wray) is dating Igor’s assistant Ralph (Allen Vincent). When Joan Gale’s body is swiped, Florence helps prime suspect Winton (Gavin Gordon), a rich young man about town, to get released. The four of them attend Igor’s opening, and when he sees Charlotte, he’s mesmerized by her beauty, reminding him of his greatest creation, Marie Antoinette. While browsing, Florence spies a toe tag on Joan of Arc and pockets it, only to have it pilfered by another of Igor’s helpers, Professor Darcy (Carewe).
Florence, her suspicions raised, has Winton follow Darcy to an old building. She sneaks into the basement and finds a pine box. Seeing a hideous looking fiend descending the staircase, Florence hides. She escapes and goes to Winton, who’s been tailed by the cops. They all enter the basement, with Florence claiming Joan’s body is inside the box. But when the cops open it, they’re in for a surprise: it’s filled with bootleg liquor! They do nab Darcy, a known dope fiend, and find in his possession a watch that belonged to a missing judge. They haul him in for questioning as Charlotte goes to the museum to meet Ralph, and is sent downstairs by Igor. The door shuts behind her and a secret passage opens. Pressing further on, she is met by Igor, who rises from his wheelchair and proclaims her to be his new Marie Antoinette. Back at the station, Darcy cracks under the strain of drug withdrawal, telling the cops the gruesome truth: Igor is using dead bodies for his wax figures. Charlotte, in Igor’s clutches, hits him repeatedly in the face. To her horror, his face cracks, and his horribly disfigured appearance underneath is revealed. Igor subdues her and straps her under his wax mold machine, about to pour the hot liquid onto her half-naked flesh when the cops arrive. The mad sculptor is chased and shot down, falling into his own vat of hot wax. Florence gets the scoop and winds up with editor Jim instead of rich Winton.
MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is the better of the two, and if it sound familiar, it’s because the movie was remade as the more well-known HOUSE OF WAX (1953) with Vincent Price. The plot’s cliché now, having been used countless times over the years, but Atwill’s version was there first. His Ivan Igor is cultured and sophisticated at first, becoming unhinged at the sight of Charlotte, and finally a raving lunatic at the film’s climax. His performance once again dominates, not easy to do with this cast of scene stealers. That patented Warner Brothers fast talking style is on full display, and Farrell is a definite upgrade from Lee Tracy. The Pre-Code film is loaded with racy dialogue, and the themes of drug addiction, bootleggers, and sexual innuendo would be considered taboo just a year later.
Lionel Atwill went on to star in other early horror films like THE VAMPIRE BAT (also with Fay Wray) and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (his first of seven with Bela Lugosi). He began getting character parts in many mainstream movies like CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935). THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN (also ’35), THE GREAT GARRICK (1937), and THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1939). A sex scandal in 1940 involving allegations of showing porn flicks and hosting orgies at his home, followed by a 1942 perjury conviction regarding the whole mess, found Atwill’s career opportunities dwindling away. He has the distinction of being the only actor to appear in five different roles in five of Universal’s Frankenstein series (besides the previously mentioned SON OF, Atwill also played in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and HOUSE OF DRACULA). Starring roles were relegated to second-feature films like MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET and STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX. He made some quickies for Poverty Row studio PRC (CRIME INC, FOG ISLAND) and did some time in juvenile serials (CAPTAIN AMERICA, RAIDERS OF GHOST CITY) before his final completed film GENIUS AT WORK, with old pal Lugosi and the not-so-funny comedy team of Brown & Carney before dying of bronchial cancer in 1946. Lionel Atwill’s movie career is packed with great performances. He deserves to be remembered as one of the architects of the Golden Age of Horror.