Michael Curtiz, 1933
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh
Sculptor Ivan Igor owns an artsy wax museum in London, but his business partner is frustrated that he won’t make more lurid sculptures and draw bigger crowds that are only interested in the macabre. To recap on his investment, his partner burns down the museum with Igor inside it, leaving him for dead and ruining his prized creations. Over a decade later, Igor reopens a museum in New York, though his hands were damaged in the fire and he is unable to sculpt. He hires a number of assistant, whose work he directs. A local reporter, Florence, who would rather spend her time drinking than working, is investigating the story of a model’s suicide when her corpse is stolen from the morgue.
Charlotte, Florence’s roommate, happens to be dating one of the assistants at the wax museum, Ralph. She and Florence attend the museum’s opening and Florence notices that the Joan of Arc figure bears a disturbing resemblance to the missing model. She also discovers that, aside from Ralph, there are a number of questionable people working at the museum, including a drug addict. She gets the police interested and they bring Professor Darcy, the addict and sculptor, in for questioning. He eventually admits the horrible truth: he and Igor have been murdering people and stealing bodies, then dipping them in wax for the museum sculptures.
Charlotte goes to the museum to visit Ralph, but Igor surprises her and traps her, because she resembles his old Marie Antoinette sculpture. She hits him in the face and is shocked to learn that it is made of wax and a horrible, twisted and burned visage remains underneath. He straps her to a table, intending to submerge her into boiling wax and transform her into his next masterpiece: Marie Antoinette.
Based on “The Wax Works” by Charles Spencer Belden, Warner Bros. decided to make another horror film after the success of Doctor X. Though unrelated in terms of plot, these two films bear a number of common elements. Both use the two-strip Technicolor process and highly underrated director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) was reunited with stars Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill. Several crew members also returned, namely art director Anton Grot and his work here is even finer than in Doctor X. Due to the two-strip Technicolor, Mystery of the Wax Museum has a wonderfully pulpy look. While the film may seem dated in some regards, it is well worth watching simply for the great visuals. The sets are absolutely incredible, namely Igor’s wax museum and his hidden laboratory filled with some very German expressionist-looking staircases and hallways, and a massive vat of boiling pink wax. There are numerous creepy wax figures throughout the film. Interestingly, these could not be portrayed by actual wax dummies, because the intensely hot lights used for Technicolor would melted the wax, so real actors stood in. Keep your eyes peeled for moments where they accidentally breath, blink, or move slightly.
Universal horror regular Lionel Atwill is at his best as mad sculptor Ivan Igor and Fay Wray gives one of her most enjoyable performances as the sweet, innocent Charlotte Duncan. The woman sure can scream. While I loved the sassy, ball busting Glenda Farrell (Little Caesar and a number of other MGM gangster films) as Florence, she might annoy some viewers. She certainly seems more like a gangster’s moll than a reporter, but she makes the performance her own.
There’s some very fast dialogue, most of it from Florence, and this film feels much more pre-Code than Doctor X. Florence frequently complains of a hang over or the need for a drink and later steals a few bottles of gin from a coffin filled with bootleg alcohol (!!!). She asks a police officer about his sex life, while he is looking at some dirty magazines, and there are numerous references to drug use throughout the film.
The only element of the film I actually found annoying was the attempt to shoe-horn a slapstick romantic comedy into the latter half of the film. Glenda flirts with a number of men and leads us to believe that she might marry the millionaire wrapped around her finger, but the film bizarrely ends with her engagement to her newspaper editor, despite the fact that they have fought throughout the entire film and seem to hate each other.
Mystery of the Wax Museum comes highly recommended. The film moves quickly and doesn’t waste a single scene and though it isn’t one of the classics, it is a solid example of pre-Code horror. Considered a lost film for some time, private collection prints were discovered over the years and it is finally out on DVD as an addition to the House of Wax release. House of Wax is a 1953 remake of the film starring Vincent Price, which I somewhat sadly have to admit is a superior film that sheds a lot of the annoying side plots in favor of stronger horror elements.