Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

An early example of a 'sequel in name only', The Return of Dr X's title was clearly meant to give audiences the impression that it was a sequel to a previous Warner horror hit, 1932's Dr X.  Except, of course, that it isn't.  It is, however, thematically linked to the earlier film, featuring a series of murders being carried out by a mad scientist and investigated by a plucky reporter.  This time around the Dr X of the title is played by none other than Humphrey Bogart in his only horror role.  Bogart apparently hated the film and rarely spoke about it.  There's no doubt that it was the sort of role you's expect to see played by Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi.  In fact, it's the sort of film you'd expect to have been produced by Universal or Monogram, rather than Warner Brothers, a studio which wasn't noted for its horror output. But hey, in 1939 a new horror movie cycle was kicking off, led by the likes of Universal's Son of Frankenstein and Warner's obviously wanted a piece of the action.  As for Bogart's presence, well, it was still the days of the studio system and was a Warner contract player and, most importantly, hadn't yet achieved full star status - the films which established him as a top star who could headline a movie - The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca - were still a couple of years in the future, (he only has third billing here).

Nonetheless, it is still strange to see an actor more associated with 'realistic' roles as gangsters and the like, playing a pasty faced murderous scientist who has been raised from the dead (he was executed for murder) by a colleague, using 'synthetic blood'.  (Another thematic link with Dr X: there the mas scientist was using 'synthetic flesh' to fashion a new arm with which to strangle his victims).  Of course, as is always the case with such innovations, the synthetic blood's effects are only temporary and Bogart has to keep giving himself transfusions of real blood. Real blood of a very rare type, his craving for which inevitably leaves a trail of victims.  Despite being firmly out of his comfort zone, Bogart still delivers a suitable creepy and menacing performance in the title role.  Of course, being a Warner production, The Return of Dr X's climax wouldn't look out of place in one of their crime movies, featuring Bogart shooting it out with the authorities.  In addition to Bogart's presence the film is also notable for being Vincent Sherman's directorial debut.  Sherman would go on to direst several Bogart-starring vehicles during the war as well as several notable film noirs, including Nora Prentiss and The Garment Jungle.  Rarely seen on UK TV, (although I do vaguely recall it forming part of one of BBC 2's regular Saturday night Horror Double Bills in the eighties), The Return of Dr X represents an interesting and unusual footnote to Bogart's career.



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