Warning: spoilers eighty decades in the making ahoy!
After a prologue that sees unfortunately named brilliant wax figure artist
Ivan Igor’s (Lionel Atwell) life’s work destroyed because his money man (Edwin
Maxwell) wants to cash in on some sweet, sweet, fire insurance money, we fast
forward to New York, twelve years later.
After she has died under mysterious circumstances, the corpse of a female
socialite is stolen from the morgue before anyone can get around to her autopsy.
The police thinks her ex-boyfriend, Bland Male Lead #1 is responsible for her
death and has hired someone to steal the body. Motor-mouthed, wise-cracking
reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) disagrees, mostly because that stolen
body is the eighth gone missing in the last few months. Fortunately, random
chance – the script is not hip to bizarre concepts like journalists or
police investigating something and following clues when it can get away with
just putting them where the plot needs them by the hand of the script gods –
soon suggests the newly opening wax museum of…Ivan Igor.
For Igor’s getting back into the wax business again. Because his hands and
his legs have been badly damaged in the fire that destroyed his beloved wax
figures, he has officially hired some deaf mute guy and Bland Male Lead #2 to be
his hands. Well, and he’s also killing people and coating their bodies in wax,
using a junkie (Arthur Edmund Carewe) as his off-site wax creation front. Oh,
and wouldn’t you know it, Bland Male Lead #2’s girlfriend Charlotte (Fay Wray)
just happens to be Florence’s roomie? But that’s not coincidence enough – she’s
also a dead ringer for the masterpiece of Igor’s first museum, Marie Antoinette,
so even if you’re from the 30s, you know where this is going.
Mystery of the Wax Museum brings parts of the main team behind
X back together in the two-tone Technicolor horror business, namely
brilliant director Michael Curtiz, Atwill, Wray, and some of the other actors.
It also replaces the earlier film’s wise-cracking reporter with a female one,
leading to the not exactly common sight of a pre-60s horror film with a female
Of course, there’s two caveats to that. For one, despite being the film’s
central non-villainous character, Florence’s agency is rather undercut by a
script whose dependence on coincidence to get anything done borders on the
absurd. So, while Florence certainly always is where things are happening, and
does certainly show much more independent thought and action than any of the
Bland Male Leads or Wray’s character who is only there to look pretty and scream
in the last act – which I suspect is about all Wray was actually able to but I
might be wrong – the script never actually does much with her. The second
problem, at least to an audience in the 21st century, is that Florence is the
most motor-mouthed wise-cracking reporter in a film landscape rather full of
them, a character type one needs to be in a patient and tolerant mood to watch
for more than five minutes. I found myself warming to Farrell’s performance,
though, perhaps because her hyperactive craziness stands in such a marked
contrast to the wax figure like blandness of everyone around her not named
For my tastes, the film also spends too many of its eighty minutes of runtime
on showing us Florence finding out things the audience already knows, the film’s
mystery elements and its horror parts never gelling very well. There’s also a
subplot in which Igor takes revenge on the wax figure burning villain of his
past but the film mostly hand waves through it in favour of showing us
characters finding out things we already know.
In direct comparison, Mystery is still a much more coherent film
than its predecessor Doctor X, but it tends to focus on exactly the
wrong things and loses the free-form, lurid craziness that was that film’s forte
without finding much worthwhile to replace it.
Of course, there are still many bits and pieces to like about Mystery of
the Wax Museum. Curtiz – not unexpectedly – makes the best out of the
awkward script, and creates a handful of scenes where the more expressionist
of the sets and the colour technique create a creepy mood still effective after
all these years. Atwill’s make-up is very good too, as is his over-the-top
portrayal of the crazed artist, while Farrell goes all out in a genre that would
take decades to give actresses many opportunities to do that, and Wray screams
as is her wont. That’s certainly not enough to make the film what I’d call a
classic but it is certainly enough to make it worth watching beyond its obvious