Saturday, 23 April 2016
MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)
Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always associated waxwork figures with frissons of horror. One of my most vivid childhood horror experiences was visiting the old Osborne-Smith Wax Museum on the Isle of Wight. Something about the frozen images of life-like humans from history sends shivers down the spine, even those depicting people engaged in harmless activities. They are preserved for ever, suspended in time, merely statues – and yet didn’t I see it move, breathe? For some, the fear they inspire is as deep-rooted and inexplicable as coulrophobia. For me, the ‘blame’ can be traced back to the wonderful horror films made by Hollywood’s Golden Age and I thank them for the extra dimension of pleasurable fear that played tricks on my imagination and that of many others. Long before Doctor Who gave us the stuff of nightmares with the wonderful cold stone chills of the Weeping Angels, film-makers seduced us with warm wax.
The creatives behind the successful Doctor X in 1932 reteamed for the following year’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, a horror tale that developed the potential evil of wax humans first shown on screen in 1924’s silent feature Waxworks (see my review here dated 8/1). A welcome reuniting it was, combining among others the confidence of director Michael Curtiz and actors Lionel Atwill and the emerging Scream Queen Fay Wray (warming up for her vocal folds for her star-making role in King Kong) – all handsomely presented once again in glorious Technicolor. Sadly, this was to be the swan-song for this format of two-colour films for a while. The technique had proved expensive, and too many movies had been made without enough quality control, leading to audiences and critics complaining of an unreality about it. This film is a show-case for what the process could achieve, largely thanks to the art design of Anton Grot and the cinematography of Ray Rennahan, also brought back from Doctor X. Like its predecessor, the sumptuous colouring of Wax Museum adds a modern freshness and shows off the creamy skin tones of the wax models to luscious effect, one that is crucial in selling the story idea of their incredible ‘realism’.
Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson based their script on the 1932 short story ‘The Wax Museum’ by Charles Spencer Beldon. Curtiz demonstrates once more his sure handling of actors. There’s not a duff note in the performances and the pacing is well-maintained. We are introduced almost immediately to Atwill as Ivan Igor, celebrated sculptor and part-owner of a 1920s London wax museum. The gentle coiffuring of his hair and trimmed beard is nicely reminiscent of a neater Vincent Van Gogh, a suave, aristocratic look that seemed to inspire the real-life Fine Arts expert Vincent Price in his 1953 remake House of Wax). Atwill also subtly alters his accent to what I believe is Hungarian. His gently rolling ‘r’ sounds match those of Curtiz, himself a native Hungarian, and he occasionally mis-stresses syllables. As a voice artist myself, I appreciate his reigning back on what could otherwise have been a fruity and ruinously distracting stereotype.
Igor is a passionate artist, yet with enough modesty to be humbly gratified by the patronage of a friend and a potential investor he shows around, who volunteers to recommend his amazingly lifelike works to the Royal Academy before they leave. He has lovingly sculpted figures from history and the arts such as Voltaire, Joan of Arc and his masterpiece, Marie Anotinette – using wax rather than stone to more faithfully reproduce their human warmth. The glow of his visitors’ flattery is soon muted though by the sudden appearance of Igor’s business partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), who delivers the bad news that they are financially bankrupt, suggests that torching the museum for the insurance money is the best solution and sets light to the place without waiting for agreement. They fight madly but to no avail for Igor, who is knocked unconscious and locked into the museum by the fleeing Worth, while his beloved wax ‘children’ melt tragically around him….
Moving forward to 1993 New York and the champagne cracks open to see in a New Year. Here the pace really kicks in, amidst the hustle of a convincing ‘city that never sleeps’. From here, Curtiz deftly handles a switch in tone and genre akin to Doctor X with the wise-cracking reporter Florence Dempsey desperate for a story to save her from being fired by her editor Jim played by Frank McHugh. Theirs is a fiery, classic newspaper movie relationship and their dynamic exchanges have all the verve and machine-gun rat-a-tat of His Girl Friday. Farrell made a name for herself as the dame with urban attitude in many films, leading to her own series as a similarly bolshy newshound Torchy Blane later in the decade.
Igor has resurfaced in the city, albeit wheel-chair bound and without the ability to sculpt with fire-scarred hands. He prepares for the grand opening of the revived London Wax Museum, created using assistants who work to his painstaking designs. At the same time, Florence‘s nose for a story leads her to suspect that something doesn’t sit right in the presumed suicide of model Joan Gale, whose corpse is secretly stolen from the morgue by a disfigured man. Florence’s flat-mate Charlotte (Fay Wray) is a link to the museum, as her boyfriend Ralph (Allen Vincent) works there for Igor. Working whatever connection she can like a good reporter, Florence sneaks into the museum, her intuition expressed in gangster-moll terms: “There’s something cock-eyed about that joint”. She is stunned by the similarity between Gale and a model of Joan of Arc. She isn’t the only one transfixed by life seemingly imitating art – Igor spots Charlotte and is transfixed by her beauty, a dead-ringer for his beloved Marie Antoinette. This unhealthy fascination, if we hadn’t suspected it already, leads us to conclude Igor has a ghoulish trade secret for achieving his uncannily life-like mannequins. He’s also involved in an underworld network of ne’er-do-wells that facilitates his work including drug addict professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and the deaf-mute Hugo (Matthew Betz).
Over the years, Worth has ‘graduated’ from insurance scamming in London to channelling his criminally enterprising streak into bootleg trade. Florence’s snooping leads her to Gale’s body on Worth’s property and the re-appearance of that unsightly-visaged man, but the evidence vanishes, meaning she can’t get the police to take her seriously. If only Charlotte had that benefit – she tangles with Igor in revelations she might wish she could unsee. Grappling with him when he apprehends her at the museum, she strikes his face, recalling the shock unmasking of Eric in Phantom of the Opera as we discover that Igor’s face is the disfigured creature under a brilliant concealing mask of his own handiwork. Wray then unleashes several lusty shrieks of terror, vocally earning her a place in the annals of horror heroines in peril even before the mighty Kong can get her in his simian clutches.
Igor allows Charlotte’s cries of fear to feed the flames of his long-burning vengeance in a speech of real feeling by Atwill that underscores the Grand Guignol horror with some pitiable sympathy for his lost humanity. He is a monster, yet one whose real ugliness is a good heart crippled beyond recognition into a seething, single-minded rage for rough justice: “For twelve years, twelve awful years, this living dead man with his burnt hands and face has searched for this fiend. Now the account is closed!” Charlotte’s distress is re-doubled when Igor opens a crate and out falls his nemesis Worth, boxed up like a bottle of his own illicit hooch. The cops arrive just in time before he can dip Charlotte into his vat of molten wax to preserve her in waxey immortality. The resulting unseemly scuffle ends with him terminally immersed in his own creativity - another gleefully macabre Atwill performance. In seizing every opportunity to memorably thrill audiences throughout the 1930s, he was no dummy.
Mystery of the Wax Museum became one of the classic staple horror plots, revitalised in a celebrated colour remake by director Andre de Toth in 1953 with Vincent Price, pioneering another cinema format of 3-D, and then (ahem) another one with Paris Hilton in 2005.