Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

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 Doctor 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 lead.

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 Igor.

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 historical interest.

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