The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Director: Vincent Sherman

The 1932 Doctor X is also part of this Warner/MGM 30s horror set, and I watched it again with Scott Macqueen’s commentary before moving onto this literally in name only story. Apparently this was originally planned as a teaming of Karloff and Lugosi, but that was eventually deemed too expensive and it was turned into a B production with the studio’s own, cheaper contract players… most notably an up-and-coming young star called Humphrey Bogart. Yes, before he had quite blossomed as “Bogie”, he had this one B horror to his credit, and OH how unimpressed he was by this fact… Anyway, Macqueen’s commentary on the earlier film observes how Warners weren’t really big horror fans and urged exhibitors to sell their horror efforts as anything but horror, and tried to make it easier for them by minimising the horror aspects and trying to make them more like newspaper comedies with horror business in the background. The Return of Doctor X embodies this tendency even more fully than its predecessor; it’s really all about the wise-cracking reporter’s investigation of a very peculiar mystery involving a dead woman somehow coming back to life. Bogart is the titular “Doctor X”, a former doctor executed for a fairly horrible crime but revived by another doctor who’s been experimenting with synthetic blood. But the artificial stuff is only good for so long and “X” has to find a source of the real stuff instead. This is pretty unabashedly B stuff with few if any evident aspirations to being anything—director Sherman on the DVD commentary (nearly a centenarian at the time) is pretty blunt about it being the sort of job done for money rather than love—but it’s not without its charms on that level (there are some lovely moments of kind of dark humour). Weighing in at only 62 minutes, it never outstays its welcome, and it illustrates what I’ve always said about the storytelling economy of older pictures in quite striking manner; there’s really very little time wasted on anything (especially the happily minimal romantic subplot). Probably only really for vintage horror completists, but a perfectly watchable example of that sort of thing, even if it’s really only remembered now for the Bogart connection…

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