Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vamp or Not? The return of Doctor X

dvd setThis was a 1939 movie, directed by Vincent Sherman, and featured Humphrey Bogart in a role originally designed for Boris Karloff. I was simply going to review the film, however when I went to do some research I found that it was not listed in David Pirie’s ‘The Vampire Cinema’ nor in either the Vampire Encyclopaedia or the Vampire Book. At this point I decided to look at it under the auspices of ‘Vamp or Not?’ – though my thoughts on it were clearly aimed towards vamp.

This was not necessarily the best put together movie. Ostensibly a sequel to Doctor X (1932) it has precious little to do with that film – not even the character name is the same. Bogart himself was forced to do the film by Jack Warner, allegedly as a punishment for something, and was Bogart’s only horror flick – we shall look at what Bogart had to say about the film later. It is also notable that character names seem to change between script and credit and characters/actors are listed that don’t even appear.

Wayne Morris as Walter GarrettWalter Garrett (Wayne Morris, whose character is credited as Barrett) is a newspaperman and phones actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys) to ask for an interview. She calls him on over but, as she puts the phone down she is grabbed. Walt gets there and, as he serves both the role of main investigator and comedy relief, falls through the unlocked door in a ‘hilarious’ scene that tickled the filmmakers so much they had to do it twice! In the room he finds Merrova’s body and, rather than phone the police he phones his editor.

The police arrive after the story is printed but, when they get there, the body is gone. Walt is convinced the body has been taken, no one could survive a stab below the heart and she looked white, as though a lot of blood had been taken, but that theory is blown when she turns up in his editor’s office and threatens to sue the paper. Walt is fired.

Dennis Morgan as Dr Mike RhodesHe goes to his friend Dr Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) to try and make sense of what he has seen. Mike’s a little busy as he is meant to be assisting surgeon Dr Flegg (John Litel) but the blood donor for the transfusion, Stanley Rodgers (John Ridgely), has not arrived. Luckily new nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) has the right blood group (group 1, the rarest kind).

After the operation the police summon Mike, Walt goes with him. Rogers has been murdered and the body is in the same state that Walt claimed to have found Merrova in. There is blood on the floor that the police labs have already tested and found to be group 4. As Rogers is group 1 Mike tries to retest it but it doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t appear to be either human or animal. He leaves Walt and then goes to ask Flegg for his opinion.

Humphrey Bogart as Marshall QuesneAt Flegg’s he meets a strange man. His name… well he is credited as Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart) but it sounds like Kane when spoken in dialogue. He is a strange, pasty looking man with a mallen streak and is holding a rabbit, which in itself is all kinds of disturbing. Bogart looks creepy, in a ‘lurk in the bushes’ sort of way, but, to me, never got a horror menace thing going on.

Merrova at Flegg's clinicFlegg explains that Quesne is his assistant and then checks the blood sample. He informs Mike that he is wrong and it is obviously group 4 blood. Mike leaves but all this has been observed by Walt who then sees Merrova arrive and be given a transfusion by the doctor. So what is going on…?

gathering evidenceWell there is some investigation, a confession by Merrova, her death (again) and Walt realising that Quesne is actually Dr Maurice Xavier (according to the credits and in-film gravestone, the in-film newspaper clipping cites his name as Eugene) – a doctor who was put to death by the electric chair after being caught experimenting with starvation symptoms in babies, in other words he starved them to death. They confirm his identity by digging up the empty coffin. Flegg presided over the execution.

resurrecting bunniesFlegg admits that he brought Xavier back to life and demonstrates his technique on a bunny. There is a touch of Frankenstein here, in that electricity is needed to de-coagulate the blood. A serum and artificial blood is then used. He chose Xavier as he was a medical genius and, in Flegg’s opinion, a martyr to science. So where is our vampire element?

Joan is in mortal perilXavier’s body can no longer synthesise blood and the artificial blood doesn’t work well enough. He is stealing the blood to keep himself alive and he needs… group 1 blood. The fact that Flegg has a list of group 1 donors is helping him choose his victims – for instance Joan is now in mortal danger – and Flegg revived Merrova temporarily so that she could then die in less suspicious circumstances.

As an aside, and whether this was purposeful or not I do not know, but Xavier’s year of birth was 1897 – the year in which Dracula was published.

John Litel as Dr FleggWhat we have, therefore, is a living corpse. A man (and for a while a woman, plus a bunny) who has been brought back from the dead and, as a result, looks pasty faced and has cold, clammy hands. Then we have the fact that he must take blood in order that he might survive. The fact that it was (pseudo) science based doesn’t take away from the fact that we have a dead man forcibly taking blood to live.

Does he drink it… probably not, he most likely transfuses it but Bogart saw a different blood sucker as he made the film. “This is one of the pictures that made me march in… and ask for more money again. You can't believe what this one was like. I had a part that somebody like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played. I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner's blood, or Harry's, or Pop's, maybe I wouldn't have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”

This is a problem with the film, of course. Bogart’s heart was not in it and he was miscast. The skill of the man tried to out but he was not a creature of horror, as it were. The comedy relief is simply annoying and there is never really a feeling of peril for our main characters (except perhaps Joan and even then we know that the rescue party is hot on her heels).

It felt, to me at least, very much by the numbers and never really escaped that but I would say it is a vampire movie.

The imdb page is here.

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