On a stormy night in London in 1921, artist Ivan Igor, who runs a small wax museum, is visited by a friend and an investor, who is eager to see his works. Igor proudly gives them a brief tour of his museum and the investor is so taken by his talent that he offers to submit his sculptures to the Royal Academy when he returns from an excavation in Egypt. Igor is ecstatic at the news but his joy is short-lived when his shady business partner, Joe Worth, tells him that they're in dire financial straits from lack of attendance and that the rent for the building hasn't been paid. Worth proposes that they burn the place down in order to collect the insurance, an idea that Igor is staunchly against, as he's very fond of his sculptures, which he often refers to as his "children," especially his Marie Antoinette. Worth, however, makes it clear that he's going to do it despite Igor's objections, and despite the artist's attempts to stop him, the entire building and his sculptures are soon engulfed in flames, with Worth eventually knocking Igor unconscious and leaving him there to die. Igor survives, however, and twelve years later, he's living in New York City, where he plans to open a new museum, as well as to eventually get revenge on Worth, who's also working there as a bootlegger. Shortly after the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, model Joan Gale is found dead in her apartment from an apparent suicide and her body is later stolen from the city morgue by a horribly disfigured man dressed in a black coat and hat. The next day, fast-talking, sarcastic reporter Florence Dempsey is threatened to be fired by her editor unless she comes up with a story and when she decides to investigate Gale's death, she's present at the morgue when it's discovered that the body has been taken. Gale's lover, wealthy playboy George Winton, who's had a history of bad behavior, is suspected of having murdered her but Florence, after talking with him in his jail cell, decides he's innocent and tries to find the real killer. Florence's roommate, Charlotte Duncan, happens to be engaged to a sculptor who's working at the wax museum with Igor, and when the two girls meet up with him there, Igor becomes transfixed by Charlotte, who resembles his beloved Marie Antoinette; at the same time, Florence notices an eerie resemblance between a Joan of Arc sculpture and Joan Gale. Florence digs deeper to find a connection between the two, with the reluctant help of Winton once he's released on bail, and soon, she and the police uncover a horrific scheme by Igor to replace his lost sculptures with the bodies of real people dipped in wax, and Charlotte is intended to become his next intended victim.
Lionel Atwill is probably best remembered for his supporting roles in many horror films of the 30's and 40's, often as either a police inspector or a scientist and most notably in every Universal film featuring the Frankenstein monster from Son of Frankenstein to House of Dracula, but in the early 30's, he did have a few leads, with other examples being the aforementioned Doctor X and The Vampire Bat. While I still enjoy Vincent Price's take on this character in House of Wax more, Atwill does give a performance as Ivan Igor that's memorable in its own way. He starts off as a very focused, sort of eccentric artist, one who sees the wax sculptures he's created as his children, especially his Marie Antoinette, and is ecstatic when he's told that his creations are good enough to be put in the Royal Academy. He's so convinced that his sculptures are living, breathing people that he tells his influential admirer that "they" are indebted to him and, once they've left, he asks his Marie Antoinette her opinion and says, "Of course, you'd say that." However, his hopes are dashed when his scheming business partner, Joe Worth, comes up with the idea of burning down the wax museum in order to collect insurance to get them out of the hole of debt they're in and, try as he might, he's unable to save his sculptures and is left behind in the museum to burn to death along with them. When he resurfaces in New York twelve years later, his hands burned beyond use and his legs seemingly crippled, he's a very embittered man and a sharp-tongued taskmaster towards those who work for him, asking Ralph Burton, upon seeing his sculpture of a woman, "It would be interesting to know, young man, where and when you studied anatomy," and comments on the deaf-mute Hugo's tendency to sculpt everything in his likeness. Igor further laments his need to train others to do his sculptures, saying, "It is a cruel irony that you people without souls should have hands." And in this mindset, he's decided to cater more to the type of crowd who loves sensationalism and horror that he once denounced to Worth. The only thing that softens Igor is when he meets Charlotte Duncan, who is the spitting image of his Marie Antoinette, and he becomes positively entranced by her visage, often staring at her obsessively. He tells her of the likeness and asks her to serve as a model some time, intending in reality to make her a permanent part of the wax museum, along with the other people whose bodies he's used to create his new sculptures. When he finally reveals his plan to her when he has her alone, as well as show that he can walk just fine and doesn't need the wheelchair or crutches that he's been using, he becomes completely obsessive and fanatical, telling Charlotte, "Immortality has been the dream, the inspiration of mankind through the ages, and I am going to give you immortality... I have no desire to hurt you. You will always be beautiful. Think, my child: in a thousand years, you will be as lovely as you are now!"
Even though she's second-billed here behind Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray doesn't make her first appearance until about the 30 minute-mark, in a movie that's only 77 minutes long besides, and even then, she has far less screentime than him or Glenda Farrell. She also has much less to play with than they do, as her character of Charlotte Duncan is little more than a naive, young innocent, a woman who is more traditionally feminine and the exact opposite of Florence's more cynical, ballsy personality and who loves her fiance, Ralph, in spite of his being a poor sculptor. She really has little more to do in the film than bristle underneath Florence's acid-tongued comments about her and Ralph's relationship, find herself taking a backseat to her fiance's work, and unintentionally become the target of the maniacal Igor, as she resembles his long-lost Marie Antoinette and hopes to use her to recreate her. Wray does get to let loose her iconic scream a few times but, other than that, there's not much to her role here, as there wasn't with her character of Ann Darrow, aside from all the screaming. Truth be told, while she was an iconic star of her time, I've never seen a movie where Wray proved herself to be a really good actor, although I think that may have had to do with the types of roles she was given, because in interviews, she often proved herself to be quite witty and intelligent. And as for Charlotte's fiance, Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), there's even less to say about him, as he no personality, is far from being even the typically handsome leading man of the time, as he does so little, and his only function is to be ordered around and berated by Igor and have to turn Charlotte down for lunch dates because of him. He doesn't even get to save Charlotte during the climax, as he gets knocked out by Igor and the police are the ones that break in and take him down (does he put up a fair fight with him before being overpowered, though).
Igor appears to have a number of cronies who help him in his evil plans, including a sinister street-sweeper who locks Charlotte in the wax museum during the third act and others disguised as wax figures who keep an eye on her, but the most notable one is Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe). As I said up above, he's a junkie who works for both Igor and Worth, the latter of whom he's actually meant to be keeping tabs on. It's never made clear whether his working for Worth is part of his way of doing so or if he's simply moonlighting because he gets a fix for his addiction from him (his informing Igor of having seen Worth before going to the place to talk with him only makes it more murky) but, whatever the case, he ends up getting arrested at Worth's hideout when Florence Dempsey brings the police after trailing him there. Initially, Darcy denies having ever been there before and says that the watch which belonged to the missing judge that was found on him was something he simply picked up in a taxi cab but, as the evening wears on and he begins to go through withdrawals, he finally breaks down. He tells the police that Igor is the one who's been doing the murdering, while he simply embalmed the bodies in wax (he'd alluded to such earlier when he eagerly asked Igor if he would have the pleasure of working on Charlotte Duncan and piqued Florence's interest when she learned who was the one who worked on the Joan of Arc, saying that he simply followed Igor's instructions), and that the whole place is a mortuary. Another person who works for Igor is Hugo (Matthew Betz), a simple-minded deaf-mute whose exact role is unclear, in that you never know if he works as a sculptor like Ralph or if he does take part in the dirty work. He does act menacingly towards Charlotte after she gets locked in the museum but that could have easily been a case of him not knowing how to react towards her and her getting spooked because of his unintentionally strange behavior and the creepy surroundings.
One character who really threw me for a loop at the end was Florence's editor, Jim (Frank McHugh). Throughout the whole movie, he's been doing nothing but engaging in a battle of wits with her (one made up of a lot of funny, snappy dialogue between them), threatening to fire her in their first scene because of her lack of recent stories, often mocking and dumping on the ideas and theories that she gets as she uncovers more information, and, in general, doesn't seem to think she's anything other than easy on the eyes... and then, during the movie's last scene, he asks her to marry him. Florence is about as shocked as I was when I first heard it, as it seemed to come right out of left field, was something I wasn't expecting in the least, and it threw me even more when Florence decided to go for it. I know that the idea is supposed to be that, after having been more interested in how much money a man has, she decides to choose real happiness over the wealthy George Winton, but besides its being like Lois Lane agreeing to marry Perry White, could she and Jim really be happy together? Really? I don't see that at all, and it was a weird way to end things to me. Speaking of the cast, you have to love how Monica Bannister is actually listed in the credits as having played Joan Gale, a character who you never see as a living person and only know what she looks like because she was made into the wax museum's Joan of Arc. It's rather odd how she got billed but a bunch of other actors in the film who have true speaking parts, even if they're only extras, didn't, don't you think?
As I said in the introduction, a major drawback to Mystery of the Wax Museum is the two-strip Technicolor process that it was shot in which, thankfully, was discontinued afterward, as the studios realized that the general public really didn't care too much for it and it was costly to do besides. In my opinion, it just doesn't look that good. Color in film would become much more vibrant and rich in later years but these early attempts at it, like the one sequence in the original Phantom of the Opera and Doctor X, look like a badly done colorization of a normally black-and-white movie, akin to the stuff Ted Turner was up to at one point. The colors don't look natural at all and often come off as faded and downright tacky as much as artificial. As you can see from the screen images, there's a lot of pink and white in the color scheme and it makes the movie look ugly more often than not, which I doubt it was they were going for. There are scenes and shots in the film, however, that do benefit from the color, especially when there are a lot of deep blues and greens onscreen, like in the rain-swept streets of London at the beginning and the corridors deep within the bowels of the wax museum, and they make me think of Dario Argento's movies Suspiria and Inferno, particularly the latter. What's also nice is that, when the film is trying to be atmospheric and eerie in its look, the color doesn't interfere in Michael Curtiz's attempt to create deep, dark shadows while highlighting other parts of the screen, like Ivan Igor's disfigured face. So, I don't think the color is a total bust and also, to be fair, I've read that the print of the film that I've seen on that House of Wax DVD isn't the best representation of how this movie looked back in the day (I don't know how well it transferred to Blu-Ray) but, given how Doctor X doesn't look much better, I'm glad that this trend went out of fashion afterward.
Back before studios began to look at horror films as nothing more than B-pictures, they would often pour a lot of money into their production and this film is certainly no exception. The sets, courtesy of Anton Grot, are all excellent, lavish, and nicely-detailed, from the moody, almost Victorian-looking London street that you see at the beginning of the film and the modest wax museum full of lovely figures that Igor runs there initially, to the big, extra- and vehicle-filled streets of New York City. Even the most mundane of sets, like Jim's office at the newspaper and the large jail where Florence first meets George Winton, are worth mentioning because they're also proof of the money (a healthy $229,000) that Warner Bros. was willing to put into it. But it's the creepy sets depicting the interiors of the wax museum that are the most memorable. The exhibit area of the museum is enormous and is fairly inviting when it's running and bustling with customers, but when Charlotte finds herself roaming around the place early in the morning, the darkness and the wax figures she sees at every turn give the place an uncomfortable, eerie feel, especially since some of the figures are actually Igor's cronies standing perfectly still and watching her every move, with the guy who's watching her through the executioner's hood being especially creepy. (In fact, this movie is one of the earliest sources of these kinds of tropes you see all the time in Scooby-Doo and other shows, with another one being secret passageways, which Charlotte finds down in the depths of the place). Things don't get much better when she wanders through the corridors that lead down to the workshop, which are big, twisting, imposing passageways with Expressionistic-like shadows and shafts of light and color dotting them, and the workshop is more akin to a mad scientist's laboratory, the centerpieces of which are a long catwalk connected to an angled little staircase and a big vat of boiling wax., where Igor meets his demise. I think the place looks cooler in House of Wax but this is still some really good set design, and I'm sure it influenced Tim Burton when he did Batman, as the inside of the Axis Chemicals plant looks very similar to this place, right down to the vat of boiling chemicals that turn Jack Napier into the Joker.
While the place where Joe Worth operates his bootlegging schemes is little more than an old, rundown building, the cellar is worth mentioning in that it comes off as a pretty classic, creepy set as well when Florence wanders into it after having followed Prof. Darcy there and sees the disfigured Igor snooping around (again, twisting stairs, eerie hallways, a broken down, dirty look, lots of crates, and darkness and shadows galore are classic stuff we've seen time and time again on Saturday morning cartoons but is where it all came from). The only thing is, couldn't they have come up with something better to scare Florence, like a rat or something, rather than a croaking, hopping frog? Finally, I have to touch on the interior of the city morgue, where Igor's real, first face is first seen when he comes out of his hiding place, takes Joan Gale's body, and lowers it out a nearby window and into a waiting truck below. It's a simple but effectively eerie set, as a big, wide open room with a cold, clinical color scheme and cadavers hidden beneath sheets on slabs in a big circle, although it's also a moment where Warner Bros. cut some corners, as it's a recycled set from Doctor X (but Grot was the art director on that as well, so at least the design fits).
Cinematographer Ray Rennahan was another member of the Doctor X crew who reunited with Michael Kurtiz and the two of them managed to make the film look as good as they could in the photographic sense, in spite of the handicap of the two-strip Technicolor. As I mentioned, they were successful in establishing a mood here, managing to create a lot of deep shadows and areas of darkness with highlights here and there, as well as sometimes use the deeper colors to their advantage, and they shoot things in ways they make them look menacing and eerie, like the close-ups of the eyes of the people disguised as wax figures as they watch Charlotte roam around the empty museum and the hallways in both the museum and the cellar of Joe Worth's bootlegging hideout. In particular, that image of Charlotte approaching the secret hatch that leads down into the workshop is shot in a very memorable way, which is punctuated by the featureless, colored background, all of the angles, and the high ceiling and large width of the corridor. And while Kurtiz and Rennahan don't experiment with the camera like Rouben Mamoulian did in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they do manage to come up with some interesting shots and movements, such as these long, continuous crane shots (which would become something of a trademark for Kurtiz) during the first scenes in New York City that pan along the sides of the buildings, up to the windows, and track above the streets; a tracking shot that follows after Worth as he walks the streets to his hideout; an interesting instance of framing where Hugo's head is juxtaposed with these sculpted heads on a long shelf he's sitting behind, making it look as though he's one of them come to life; and numerous high-angled shots and pans that show off the scale of the sets, like in the jail and the lost shot of George Winton as he waits for Florence on the street below Jim's office. Nothing too flashy, but enough to show that this was a film that had as much talent behind it as it did money.
One way in which this film and House of Wax are very similar, aside from sharing the same general plot, is that they're both bookended by spectacular setpieces within the wax museums, with the fire that destroys the original one at the beginning and the climax where the villain is stopped before he can turn one of the female leads into a wax sculpture. In the case of Mystery of the Wax Museum, the beginning is a pretty exciting scene, with Igor struggling with Joe Worth to try to stop him from setting figures on fire but ultimately failing and the two of them get into a fight, punching and shoving each other throughout the place, as the figures burn and melt around them. There's one moment where Igor gets shoved into this sculpture he was working on, toppling it over to the floor, and Worth a bottle of some sort of combustible chemical at him that misses him and explodes onto his beloved Marie Antoinette figure, setting it aflame. He rushes to the figure, shocked and horrified at what's happening, and this is where Worth seems like he tries to pull Igor away to try to get him outside, but he continues resisting and is shoved backwards over a railing, causing it to crumble. He tries to crawl back up the small flight of stairs at Worth but loses consciousness, as Worth walks around him and leaves him behind to die along with his sculptures as the fire continues to spread and sections of the ceiling fall in. The scene ends with Worth locking Igor in, as he wakes up and is only able to watch helplessly as everything burns down around him, with a notable last moment being when a figure holding a rope to a guillotine is burned and the rope snaps, causing the blade to drop and lop off the head of the figure beneath it. It's a memorable way to open the movie, although the scene in House of Wax feels much bigger and more epic in scope, which, as we'll get to more in that review, may actually be something of a detriment to the film. I will say, however, that Wax Museum does suffer from the same problem, which is that the movie is never able to top this awesome setpiece and it feels much more climactic than the actual finale. Despite the chopping editing I mentioned, it's still a nice sequence, as Igor attempts to recreate his Marie Antoinette through Charlotte, only to be interrupted when Ralph and Florence, hearing her screams, rush down to the workshop. Like I said earlier, Ralph does what he can against Igor but is easily overpowered and knocked out with a small club, with Florence trying to get Winton to help. Igor comes very close to covering Charlotte's body in wax but is stopped when the police arrive and he has to fight with them. Again, he manages to hold his own with them, hitting and tossing them aside, throwing his wheelchair at a couple, and knocking one off the walkway, and is only stopped when he's shot at the top of the walkway and falls into the vat of wax below, with Ralph regaining consciousness and saving Charlotte... and then, the film wraps up with that last scene between Florence and Jim, which takes the wind out of the climax's sails.
Aside from a number of the characters being a tad bit bland and the often tacky look of the two-strip Technicolor, my only other major qualm with Mystery of the Wax Museum is that the story is sometimes a little hard to follow and I had to closely re-watch the movie in order to make sure I got everything straight. For instance, Joe Worth's introduction in New York City cuts from him calling someone up and saying that he has to have some unnamed shipment directly to the theft of Joan Gale's body from the city morgue and then back to Worth's hideout as a crate is delivered there, making it seem as if the two are connected. In hindsight, I guess that you're supposed to think upon your first viewing that the crate contains Gale's body and that it was used as a model for the Joan of Arc in the wax museum, as Florence theorizes, but if you were to stop and think about it, it wouldn't make sense, as you'd have to wonder why Worth and Igor would be working together after the opening that we just saw. You could then think that maybe Worth didn't realize he was working with his former business partner but that becomes problematic once you see the first scene between him and George Winton and it's only confirmed when you learn that Worth is working for Winton as nothing more than a bootlegger. So, once it's all said and done, Worth's only connection to Igor in New York was the fact that Professor Darcy worked for both of them and that the sequence of events was nothing more than the filmmakers trying to make you think something more complex is going on, and it's possible that it didn't work for me since I already knew the gist of the story because I'd seen House of Wax. That still doesn't explain, though, why Darcy was going back and forth in his dealings with Igor and Worth, what made him decide to suddenly tell Igor that he's seen Worth, how Igor could've tracked Worth to New York but know where he was operating from all this time, and how he eventually did find out where his hideout was (it's possible that Darcy phoned him from outside, as he was attempting to make a call, but it's a shaky notion). Speaking of which, what exactly was Igor doing down in the building's cellar? I know he went there to finally settle the score with Worth but why was he pushing around the crate full of bootlegged liquor? And he also slips away through what appears to be a secret door, which feels out of place in that cellar. The only thing I can think of to explain this is that it's just another part of the filmmaking artifice to make us think that Gale's body could be in there, as well as to have a moment of suspense where Florence risks being discovered by him. This is another reason why I like House of Wax more: it's much less complicated and ties up this loose end right after the opening.
As you might expect, this is another early sound movie that has no music score except over the opening credits and over the end title card. Moreover, one of these pieces is the opening music from Doctor X, composed by Bernhard Kaun, while the other is just generic music by Cliff Hess; they're both fairly forgettable. In any case, like the other "talkies" we've talked about so far this month, this is a very quiet movie in regards to its ambient sounds when there's no dialogue to be heard and while it does help create a mood most of the time, there are some moments where, as is the case with other movies from this period, the lack of auditory stimulus does get to me. I know, it's unfair to judge these movies on that score, given how limited resources were at the time, but I have to be honest. That said, though, it doesn't affect me as much as in other movies like Murders in the Rue Morgue and Island of Lost Souls.