I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have never been to a wax museum. The thought of viewing wax reproductions of celebrities like Michael Jackson or Humphrey Bogart or historical figures like Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill has never excited me. Just because I never saw them in person doesn't mean I'm excited to look at them recreated in wax. Having said that, I would love to visit a wax museum that contains wax reproductions of Jack the Ripper or Rasputin or Dracula or Donald Trump. I'm much more fascinated by nightmares than real life people.
Setting a horror film in a wax museum is absolute genius. People are creeped out by wax mannequins that look life like. Throw in a disfigured stalker cloaked in black, stealing bodies from the morgue to turn into wax replicas of Napoleon or Marie Antoinette or Voltaire, those are the hallmarks of a great horror film. Warner Bros. did just that with MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) and then remade it twenty years later with HOUSE OF WAX (1953). Interestingly, both films used color in groundbreaking ways. MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was made during the beginning of talkie films. 99% of films were black and white but MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was shot in two strip Technicolor giving it a lurid nightmarish quality. HOUSE OF WAX was made in 1953 when color was becoming the norm but it was an early color film shot in 3-D.
One of my favorite directors Michael Curtiz directed MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM from a screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson based on a three act play by Charles Belden. Curtiz is best known for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) and CASABLANCA (1942) but he cut his teeth early with horror films like 1932's DOCTOR X (which also has a scary deformed murderer known as the Moon Killer) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. Andre De Toth directed HOUSE OF WAX, a remake of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM with a screenplay by Crane Wilbur based on the original film. De Toth and Wilbur deviate at times from the original but keep the basic story and characters intact. Interestingly, both directors Curtiz and De Toth were born in Hungary. What that has to do with a movie about murders at a Wax Museum I have no idea.
In classic horror film style, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM opens on a stormy night in London in 1921. Sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) puts the finishing touches on his wax subjects when he's visited by Dr. Rasmussen (Holmes Herbert) and Mr. Gallatin (Claude King). Gallatin is so impressed with Igor's craftsmanship that he pledges to submit Igor's work to the Royal Academy. But Igor's next visitor, his wax museum partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), is unhappy with Igor. The wax museum is losing money. Worth wants to burn down the museum and Igor's dreams and collect the insurance money. Igor and Worth tussle. Worth starts a fire, burning and melting Igor's waxworks. Worth makes it out alive but does Igor?
We jump ahead twelve years to New Year's Eve 1933 in New York. The police arrive at a hotel where socialite Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) has apparently committed suicide. Watching from one of the hotel room windows is a white haired Ivan Igor, very much alive after the earlier horrific fire. Gale's boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon) is arrested for Gale's murder. Spunky Express reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) is pressured by her editor Jim (Frank McHugh) to break a sensational story. The police hint to Florence that Gale may have been murdered. When Gale's body is stolen from the morgue by a mangled stalker dressed in black, Florence dives headfirst to solve the mystery.
Sculptor Igor has relocated to New York to open yet another London Wax Museum and to extract revenge on his ex-partner Worth (now a bootlegger) living in New York. We learn that Igor survived the terrible fire in London but he's now wheelchair bound with deformed hands, damaged by the fire. His assistants Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmond Carewe), the mute Hugo (Matthew Betz), and young, naïve Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent) perform his sculpting. But Florence's investigation reveals that Darcy and Hugo along with the disfigured man in black are stealing corpses from the morgue (like Joan Gale's body) to dip in wax and reproduce as wax figures of Joan of Arc (Gale's body) and Voltaire (a murdered judge who resembled the philosopher) among others.
Igor meets Ralph's pretty girlfriend Charlotte Duncan (KING KONG's Fay Wray) during the new museum's opening. Charlotte reminds Igor of his favorite wax figure Marie Antoinette. When Charlotte returns another day to see Ralph, Igor tricks her into looking for Ralph down in the work basement (complete with boiling cauldron of wax). When Charlotte can't find Ralph, Igor appears, revealing he can walk. He plans on murdering Charlotte and dipping her in wax so she can be his second Marie Antoinette figure. Charlotte claws at Igor's face, exposing it's a wax mask. Igor is the damaged monster stealing bodies from the morgue. Florence, Ralph, and the police arrive. They discover Worth's body in a crate. Igor and the police fight on a catwalk where Igor is shot and falls into the pool of hot wax.
Director Curtiz makes MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM one part horror film, one part screwball comedy, and one part mystery. The wisecracking banter between reporter Florence and her editor Jim is right out of THE FRONT PAGE (1931). When Florence asks Jim, "Have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?" Jim sarcastically replies, "I used to be married to one." The identity of the crippled body snatcher in black is kept secret much better in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM than HOUSE OF WAX. The use of color, even two strip Technicolor is perfect for a film full of colorful wax mannequins and shots of bubbling wax in the finale. WAX MUSEUM was made before the Production Code (created to cut down on unsavory story elements) was enforced which is why Igor's assistant Darcy was allowed to be a drug junkie in the original. In HOUSE OF WAX, the same character now known as Leon is changed to an alcoholic.
Curtiz pulls out the Grand Guignol giving us classic horror set pieces like a mysterious scarred killer stealing corpses from the morgue or a lady in distress walking through a cavalcade of creepy wax figures, one with a pair of human eyes following her every step. The photography and set design are influenced by German Expressionism films like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920). Curtiz's attempt to film some of the actors as the wax figures (like Fay Wray as Marie Antoinette) doesn't work (she moves ever so slightly). I thought Curtiz might be trying to imply that from Igor's perspective, his wax creations are alive. In reality, the film lights were so hot, the real wax figures would melt so the filmmakers had to use real actors for some of the close ups of wax figures.
Lionel Atwill's performance as Igor may be one of the best of his career. He transitions from a compassionate artist at the top of his craft to a crippled madman bent on revenge. We feel his pain when his unscrupulous partner Joe Worth torches his life work, forever altering his world. Atwill's Igor plays God in his wax museum. He's the creator of all the waxworks, creating not in the image of himself but from people he has murdered. He promises Charlotte immortality once he's turned her into a wax siren. Atwill would appear in other horror films including THE VAMPIRE BAT (also 1933) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) but MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is his chance to shine as an actor.
Horror scream queen Fay Wray, forever famous as King Kong's heartthrob in KING KONG (also 1933), is fetching as Charlotte Duncan, the living embodiment of Igor's vision of Marie Antoinette. No actress could scream better than Fay Wray. Wray had an incredible streak in the early 1930's starring in several hits including DOCTOR X (1932) also directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Lionel Atwill, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), and KING KONG. Rounding out the cast are Glenda Farrell as spunky reporter Florence Dempsey. Farrell would make a career playing fast talking reporters including the adventurous blonde Torchy Blane in a series of Warner Bros films. And Frank McHugh as Dempsey's newspaper editor Jim was another Warner Bros contract player who appeared in over 90 films during his first dozen years with the studio.
Which brings us to Andre De Toth's HOUSE OF WAX twenty years after the original MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was released. De Toth and screenwriter Wilbur place the remake in New York in at turn of the century 1900 and dispense with the wisecracking newspaper characters, focusing entirely on sculptor Dr. Henry Jarrod and his fall from artist to deranged madman. Once again, Jarrod is visited by wealthy admirers including art critic Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanagh) who marvel at his wax museum. But Jarrod's partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) is unhappy with the profits from the wax museum. He torches the museum for the insurance money, turning on the gas as well. Burke and Jarrod scuffle as flaming timbers fall all around in glorious 3D. Burke escapes but Jarrod is presumed dead as the museum explodes.
Worth collects the $25,000 insurance money, taking his blonde girlfriend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) out to dinner. When Worth returns to his apartment, he's attacked by a disfigured man in black who hangs him by throwing Worth down the elevator, a rope tied around his neck. Later, the man in black murders Cathy and then steals her body from the morgue. Cathy's roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) finds the killer in her room but scares him away. She reports the incident to Lieutenant Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy) and Sgt. Jim Shane (Dabs Greer) who begin to investigate these macabre incidents.
Jarrod resurfaces, seemingly back from the dead, reaching out to Wallace to invest in his second wax museum, this time a House of Horrors. Wallace agrees. Wheelchair bound and unable to sculpt, Jarrod enlists the help of assistants Leon Averill (Nedrick Young) and the muscular but mute Igor (a young Charles Bronson using his real last name Buchinsky). This time, Jarrod exhibits themes of violence, guillotines and the electric chair among the attractions. He opens up his second wax museum calling it House of Wax.
Wallace visits on opening night and introduces a young protégé Scott Andews (Paul Picerni) to Jarrod. Jarrod offers Scott some work but he's more interested in Scott's friend Sue Allen who looks incredibly like his original Marie Antoinette figure. Sue is intrigued by the Joan of Arc wax figure who eerily resembles her murdered friend Cathy. Brennan and Shane begin to also look closely at Jarrod's wax exhibits, suspecting other stolen corpses may be part of Jarrod's exhibition. When Scott tells Jarrod that Sue is coming by to see him, Jarrod sends Scott on an errand. Sue enters the empty wax museum, confirming the Joan of Arc figure is her dead friend Cathy. Jarrod appears, confessing that some of the wax mannequins are his dead enemies. He wants to turn Sue into Marie Antoinette. Sue tries to fight off Jarrod, tearing his wax mask apart to reveal Jarrod is the hideous maniac. Brennan, Shane, and Scott arrive to arrest Jarrod. Igor almost decapitates Scott at the guillotine exhibition. Jarrod scuffles with Brennan and perishes into the vat of hot wax.
HOUSE OF WAX runs eleven minutes longer than MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. HOUSE OF WAX maintains much of the plot and characters from the original but changes up the storyline too. The opening fight scene is longer and more dramatic between Jarrod and his crooked partner Worth. HOUSE OF WAX drops the newspaper reporter storyline and sets the entire film in New York in the late 19th century (utilizing Warner Bros New York street sets). MYSTERY was set in the 20th Century. I felt HOUSE OF WAX explains better which stolen corpses are transformed into which historical waxworks. MYSTERY'S wax museum was mostly French themed. Jarrod's first wax museum in HOUSE OF WAX has more historical events like Lincoln's assassination or Antony and Cleopatra's romance. But Jarrod's second wax museum House of Wax is the archetypal wax museum we expect for a horror film with a House of Horrors and more violent recreations. Both films incorporate creepy close ups of the heads of the wax figures, observing the horror and intrigue from their stationary positions.
HOUSE OF WAX struggles at times on whether it wants to be a good old fashioned horror film in glorious color or a gimmicky 3D film. Certain shots and scenes are played at the camera for intentional purposes such as Can-Can girls kicking their legs at the camera or an annoying barker (Reggie Rymal) hitting a paddle ball at the screen and breaking the fourth wall by talking to the audience. I've not seen HOUSE OF WAX in 3D but I can imagine the burning wax museum with its flames or the foggy atmospheric New York streets or the House of Horror with all its wax exhibits must have looked fantastic in 3D.
Whereas Lionel Atwill's sculptor Igor played God with his wax creations in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, Vincent Price's Professor Jarrod comes off more like Pinocchio's father Geppetto. Jarrod talks to his creations as if they're alive, scolding and chiding them like a parent to his young children. Both Igor and Jarrod remind me of another tormented artist Erique Claudin aka the Phantom of the Opera. Like Igor and Jarrod, Erique (played by Claude Rains in 1943's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) starts out as a sympathetic artist (a violinist) who is wronged by a music publisher, driving him to murder. He's also disfigured when the publisher's maid throws acid on his face. Erique returns as the Opera Phantom, scaring the Opera house into showcasing his young singing protégé. Even Vincent Price's makeup in HOUSE OF WAX as the scarred killer resembles some versions of the Phantom both on stage and screen with clumps of hair springing from his ghastly burnt bald head. Like Atwill, Professor Jarrod is one of Price's finest performances, playing pathos and horror with equal aplomb.
Vincent Price as I remember him was always the epitome of the horror film actor but HOUSE OF WAX is really the film that kicked off Price's horror film career. He had played bad guys and cads in films like LAURA (1944) and THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1948) but his only previous appearance in horror was in 1939's THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (if you can consider that an appearance since he's invisible through a good portion of the film). After HOUSE, Price would be a horror regular in films like THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) and a series of Edgar Allen Poe films with American Pictures International including THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961).
HOUSE OF WAX is filled with some familiar supporting actors. My new dearest friend Paul Cavanagh (I just came across Mr. Cavanagh in 1934's TARZAN AND HIS MATE recently) with his distinctive voice plays a good guy this time as Jarrod's benefactor Sidney Wallace. Phyllis Kirk as the damsel in distress Sue Allen won't make anyone forget Fay Wray. Fans of THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and DEATH WISH (1974) will recognize a young Charles Bronson (using his real last name Buchinsky for this film) as Jarrod's muscular mute henchman Igor. Frank Lovejoy who plays Lt. Brennan would play many cops in other films but I recently saw him in the desert film noir THE HITCH HIKER (also 1953). Carolyn Jones as the ditsy blonde Cathy Gray (later to become the wax Joan of Arc) would make her name later as Morticia Addams in TV's THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1964-66). And fans of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE will recognize Dabbs Greer who plays Detective Shane in HOUSE OF WAX. Greer would play Reverend Alden on LITTLE HOUSE from 1974 to 1983.
Some final trivia on MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX. The two strip Technicolor print of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was thought to be lost forever until it was discovered in Warner Bros President Jack Warner's private collection in the late 60s, giving movie fans another chance to see this classic horror film in color (supposedly there's a black and white version of the 1933 film too). Warner Bros would make another HOUSE OF WAX in 2006. But, except for the same title, this new version bears no resemblance to either MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM or the 1953 HOUSE OF WAX. The filmmakers go with the now standard group of lost horny college students who stumble upon a House of Wax museum in an abandoned town where they're pursued by a creepy killer. The only gimmick in this modern version doesn't involve color or 3D. The gimmick is casting Paris Hilton (the original Kim Kardashian) as one of the terrorized students.
The film historian William K. Everson in his book Classics of the Horror Film which I bought in my youth sums up perfectly my perspective between MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX. "The original film had seemed far subtler in its contrasting of the Old and New. It created an unreal nightmare world of wax amid modern New York, so that merely stepping from Broadway through the doors of the Museum was like stepping into a whole new world of unseen terrors...Furthermore, the original's retrained and limited use of the Monster made it less apparent that he and the sculptor (Lionel Atwill in the original, Vincent Price in the remake) were one and the same, and thus the final classic unmasking had surprise, as well as shock, in the first version. Somehow it was all handled much too abruptly and casually in the remake." Everson does express it better than I ever could.
HOUSE OF WAX has its merits and scares but it reminds us what a novel and thrilling film MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was and is when it first came out in 1933. MYSTERY goes for the jugular, having fun with the mayhem. HOUSE OF WAX has a breakout performance by Vincent Price and some nice atmospheric horror scenes. The disfigured killer in WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX would be the predecessor to the modern horror stalker Freddie Krueger who would first appear in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET in 1984 and subsequent sequels. Ultimately, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and its remake HOUSE OF WAX give us two great horror staples: a horrifying monster and an equally scary setting.