Synopsis: Mystery of the Wax Museum stars Lionel Atwill as the wax-wielding madman and Fay Wray as a potential victim. Directed by Michael Curtiz and shot in a chillingly effective early two-color Technicolor process, it offers you a delicious dip in a paraffin bath of terror.
eyelights: Florence Dempsey. its incredible sets. its central conceit.
eyesores: Glenda Farrell’s performance. its editing. its finale.
“My dear, why are you so pitifully afraid? Immortality has been the dream, the inspiration, of mankind through the ages. And I am going to give you immortality!”
I’ve always found wax museums a little strange. I only first heard of them in the mid-’80s (thanks to Madame Tussaud’s and their pop culture icon likenesses), but I was immediately struck by how artificial they were: while attempts were made to recreate well-known figures, they frequently didn’t quite look the part.
So I never understood people’s fascination with them.
In fact, the more I saw wax figures on TV or in the movies, the more incredulous I became; Tussaud’s made remarkable efforts, but some places just didn’t even try. Sometimes the wax figures were disproportionate, if they looked alike at all: they’d throw a glitter glove on a lump of wax and call it Michael Jackson!
Naturally, I wasn’t especially drawn to a horror film that was set in a wax museum. But, at the dawn of DVD, I was given the then-rare opportunity of buying the 1953 Vincent Price-starring classic, ‘House of Wax’, which came with the bonus feature film ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum’. Vincent Price + double feature = sold!
Heck, I didn’t even know that there had been an original!
So I was intrigued.
The 1933 motion picture begins in London, in 1921. Ivan Igor, a wax sculptor, gets into a fight with his investor, who decides to burn down the museum to recoup the insurance money. Igor is left to die a fiery death. And yet, fast forwarding twelve years, an aged Igor turns up in New York to open yet another wax museum.
Working with a few other sculptors, Igor is on the cusp of finally making his lifetime obsession a reality. But the mysterious death of a local actress, Joan Gale, attracts the attention of desperate reporter Florence Dempsey, whose investigations dig up some connections with Igor’s wax museum – deadly connections!
What secrets does the wax museum hold?
Unlike its remake, ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum’ isn’t so much of a horror film as it is a curious hybrid of comedy and murder mystery with a soupçon of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. It feels as though the filmmakers desperately tried to hit a homerun by blending elements of some of the more recent box office hits.
Though mixing it up worked for ‘The Front Page’ two years prior, and it would also be successful in ‘The Thin Man‘ a year later, it doesn’t fully gel here, in part due to clumsy one-liners and a few broad performances. And the worst of it centres around Florence Dempsey, our journalist lead, played by Glenda Farrell.
I don’t know if it’s Farrell’s doing, or if it’s a direction from Michael Curtiz, but, for some inexplicable reason, not only is Florence saddled with the dumbest bits of “witticism”, she also delivers all her lines like a mallet in a vat of mud: overpowering but landing with a plop. She pounds out her delivery throughout.
It’s too bad, because Dempsey is an interesting character, contextually: given that the film was made in 1933, the fact that she’s a single, independent, savvy, career woman is rather impressive. And though she wears heels, she’s actually butchier than some of the men and can outplay them at their own game. Pretty cool.
Too bad it’s spoiled by the performance.
Not helping matters is the equally abrupt editing, which is so unsubtle that the transitions between each scene is nearly non-existent; this is basically a collection of scenes violently wedged together. In some ways, watching this movie is like being pummeled repeatedly with a foam bat: it doesn’t hurt, but it’ll test you.
A perfect example of this is when Flo has followed a suspect, thinks she’s found the body of Joan Gale and calls in the cops. At the end of the scene, as she’s picking up to leave, she sees a stack of crates shift to the side. She screams with fear. End scene. We have no idea what just happened, but, well, she survives.
Cue the next scene!
Given that ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum’ doesn’t always make complete sense, this isn’t especially surprising. I mean, the waxing process alone is sketchy at best: you simply can’t just pour hot wax on anything and transform it into a perfect recreation. And wax doesn’t have a skin-like quality to it. It just doesn’t.
So… making a realistic-looking face with wax?
Having said this, there’s a pulp quality to the picture that can be very alluring if you’re into that sort of thing. Though the mystery itself is sort of predictable, it’s entertaining to watch the picture ramp up to its “great reveal” – and then push past it with a fun twist. It’s actually rather satisfying in its own unique way.
And there’s the wax museums themselves, which are actually quite a sight to behold. Though many of the figures are actually played by actors (apparently the studio lamps would’ve melted real wax!), the costumes and presentations were oft impressive – and that’s before we even visit the villain’s très cool lair.
Sadly, the villain him/herself is no big surprise, but the dark hat, cloak and mask do make an impression – especially when we see what they conceal. Brrr. I was initially stunned that the bad guys were so edgy (there’s even a strung-out drug addict in their midst!), but, really, it makes sense given it’s from the pre-code era.
Ultimately, for all its flaws and contrivances, ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum’ is an entertaining film; it’s comprised of enough fun elements to make it worth seeing. Plus which it’s a small classic: though it’s hardly surprising that it wasn’t a monster hit, it’s also unsurprising that it was remade/resurrected decades later.
Though waxy, it’s lively enough.
Date of viewing: March 16, 2017