Certain themes have a way of repeating themselves. Call it lack of creativity or call it timelessness, but the horror movie world certainly has its fair share of commonalities. From the silent era into the early sound period, the “old dark house” genre dominated, with somewhat funny, somewhat spooky tales about wills read at midnight and lunatics (and sometimes gorillas) on the prowl. Of course, most mutants of the comic con circuit know all about how the late ‘70s and early ‘80s belonged to the slasher. Hell, even non-fans can name off at least a series of fright flicks that probably conform to one standard theme or another.
Unbeknownst to many, a bizarre little film appeared in 1933 that ushered in a new, soon to be reused trope—the murderous wax museum. Real wax museums are weird enough, but Michael Curtiz’s The Mystery of the Wax Museum took that weirdness and made it horrifying. While Paul Leni’s 1924 silent film Waxworks certainly contains many of the same elements, The Mystery of the Wax Museum would spawn two later adaptions, 1953’s House of Wax and 2005’s House of Wax, and would therefore create a loose trilogy. With varying degrees of quality and fidelity to the original concept, these three wax museum movies offer yet another subfield in horror’s endless catalog.
The Mystery of the Wax Museum
As the story goes, Warner Bros. sent out feelers in New York on July 19, 1932. They were particularly looking to see if any copyright existed for an unpublished short story entitled “The Wax Works.” According to author Richard Koszarski in Mystery of the Wax Museum, Washington, D.C. attorney Fulton Brylawski discovered the fact that producer Charles Rogers, an independent operator associated with Paramount, had purchased a play entitled The Wax Museum. Both “The Wax Works” and The Wax Museum were written by Charles Belden, a New Jersey journalist who in 1932 co-wrote the screenplay for A Fool’s Advice. Deciding to go full steam ahead, Warner Bros. paid Belden $1,000 for the rights to “The Wax Works” on July 22nd. The fact that Rogers had ultimately passed on The Wax Museum because of its strong similarity to a Broadway play entitled Black Tower (a horror-mystery that featured a mad sculptor using embalming fluid to turn the living into statues) didn’t seem to dampen Warner Bros.’s enthusiasm one bit. Indeed, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production for Warner Bros., probably saw a golden milk cow.
The Mystery of the Wax Museum tells a straightforward pulp thriller. The main villain is Ivan Igor (played by the brilliant Lionel Atwill), a crippled French sculptor whose London wax museum was purposely burnt to the ground by a greedy business partner named Joe Worth (played by Edwin Maxwell). Twelve years later, Igor relocates to New York City and opens up yet another wax museum with all new figures. Coincidentally, on the New Year’s Eve, the night before Igor’s museum is set to open, a pretty socialite named Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) is found dead, the victim of an apparent suicide. The police immediately nab Gale’s playboy boyfriend, George Winton (played by Gavin Gordon). Although everyone is convinced that Winton is the guilty party, a wisecracking reporter named Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) isn’t so sure. Desperate to keep her job as the top (and only) female reporter for the Express, Florence decides to investigate the case her way. It’s at this point that things take a ghoulish turn. During the night, a disfigured man in a black cloak and hat steals the body of Joan Gale from the mortuary. Thus the mystery is set in motion.
In between snappy, hardboiled dialogue, most of which is bounced back and forth between Florence and her bulldog editor Jim (played by Frank McHugh), Florence discovers that the Joan of Arc statue in Igor’s wax museum bears a striking resemblance to the missing body of Joan Gale. At the same time, she and others begin to notice that Igor is particularly fascinated by Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), Florence’s roommate and the fiancé of wax museum employee Ralph (played by Allen Vincent). Igor wants Charlotte to pose for him so that Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), a hopeless dope addict, can give her likeness to Marie Antoinette. Darcy never gets his chance, for after Florence follows him one night and discovers the same awful man in the black hat and cloak fooling around with a suspicious crate that may or may not contain the body of Joan Gale, the police swoop in. Darcy is arrested and given the third degree. Eventually he cracks and tells the detectives that Igor is a killer who hides his victims in wax. The police arrive at the wax museum just in time, for Igor, who is revealed to be the hideous man in black after a terrified Charlotte breaks up his wax mask, has nearly encased Charlotte in wax. With one well-placed shot, Igor tumbles into his own bubbling vat of wax.
The Mystery of the Wax Museum is a standout film for several reasons. Chief among them is the fact that the movie was filmed in two-color Technicolor. After the film’s release, the two-color process, which was very expensive, fell out of favor, thereby making The Mystery of the Wax Museum something of a collector’s item. Another interesting fact about the film is that it forms a near-perfect analog with another film—1932’s Doctor X. Also directed by Curtiz, who would later go on to make Casablanca, Doctor X was likewise filmed in the two-color Technicolor process and features a disgusting monstrosity as its killer. The connections don’t just stop there, either. Like The Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Arthur Edmund Carewe, plus the main character, Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy), is a wisecracking reporter who has to follow up on the Moon Killer Murders or he’s out of a job. Both films are set in New York and both prominently feature Art Deco sets complete with test tubes, giant machinery, and an industrial gothic look that is quintessential 1930s. I’d suggest watching them both together. Of the two, Doctor X has the better story, for despite all of its visual beauty, The Mystery of the Wax Museum is a rush job that is lighter on the horror than it should be.
House of Wax
Rather than bright Technicolor, the gimmick in Andre de Toth’s House of Wax is 3-D. As with most 3-D pictures seen in non-3-D, House of Wax can look hokey and incredibly forced, especially during those scenes when objects are intentionally thrown towards the camera. That being said, House of Wax is probably the superior film, especially since its take on Belden’s story is more drawn out and logical.
While still set in New York, House of Wax takes place in the 1890s and the early 1900s. Instead of bootleggers and junkies, this New York gets its kicks from sensationalist waxworks and can-can shows at the biergarten. Besides this change, the story is essentially the same. Professor Henry Jarrod (played by Vincent Price) just wants to create beauty with his skills as a sculptor. While his first museum could not draw flies, certain aesthetes could appreciate his gorgeous creations, from Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette to John Wilkes Booth and Jean-Paul Marat. Indeed, during one rainy night, two wealthy men come to the conclusion that they might financially back Jarrod’s work in a few months. This proves too long of a wait for Jarrod’s business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), who cashes in on an insurance plan by burning up the museum with Jarrod in it.
Years later, Burke gets his comeuppance from yet another figure dressed in a black hat and cloak. Again, this figure has a deeply scarred face that would scare even the most hardened soul. The mysterious figure attacks Burke one night, kills him, then ties a noose around his neck and drops his body down an elevator shaft. When Burke’s wax figure shows up in the city’s new wax museum, his death is called a suicide.
The new wax museum, which specializes in gruesome, Grand Guignol-like scenes from recent and ancient history, is run by none other than Professor Jarrod. Due to his burns, he can no longer create the figures. For this he relies on two henchmen—an alcoholic conman named Leon Averill (played by Nedrick Young) and a deaf-mute named Igor (played by a young Charles Bronson). The museum is an instant sensation. The one person not entirely enraptured by the place is Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), a struggling “New Woman” whose gold digger friend, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), was recently murdered by the man in black. Sue herself even came close to being the man’s next victim one night. According to Sue, the museum’s Joan of Arc is Cathy, whose body was stolen from the morgue. Professor Jarrod claims that he saw Cathy’s picture in the newspaper and it inspired him. Sue doesn’t believe it, nor does the audience. By the time Sue pummels the wax mask off of Jarrod’s face, thereby revealing that he is the mysterious killer in black, it has long been known that the wax figures are corpses.
If The Mystery of the Wax Museum is pure ‘30s entertainment, then House of Wax is pure 1950s. Filmed in glorious Technicolor, House of Wax is something to behold. The Library of Congress agrees, for the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Not bad for schlock.
House of Wax
From two great horror classics we now move on to a turdtacular. Released in 2005, House of Wax bears zero resemblance to Belden’s original concept. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, House of Wax came out during the horror doldrums of the mid-2000s. As such, House of Wax is without character, without a distinguishing identity. It is nothing more than a teen slasher flick full to the brim with atrocious acting. The cast includes a bunch of good looking people: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, Jared Padalecki, Robert Ri’chard, and, tragically, Paris Hilton. None of these people seem capable of emoting much, while the villains, who are a mix of two stereotypes—crazed, backcountry rednecks and long-suffering “freaks”—are ho-hum.
In short, House of Wax is the classic city-types-get-lost-in-the-woods tale. While on their way to a big college football game in Baton Rouge, six Floridians decide to stop and camp in a clearing that is off a beaten path. Here they do all the expected things, like drink, make sex jokes, and play a game of catch. The only misshapen piece is Nick Jones (Chad Michael Murray), a recently released car thief who is super pissed at his sister, Carly (Cuthbert), for not providing a cover story to the police. For her part, Carly has plenty of inner turmoil because an upcoming internship at In Style magazine means a move to New York. Her boyfriend, Wade (Padalecki), is more of the small town type. The group’s other female, Paige (Hilton), is in a much more serious predicament because she might be pregnant with Blake’s (Ri’chard) child. Such is the stuff slashers are made off.
During the night, while the carefree six are doing what they do, a pickup truck barrels in and stops with its lights blazing. Annoyed, Nick heaves a beer bottle at the vehicle, smashing a headlight. The truck eventually drives off, but in the morning, Wade finds that someone pinched his radiator belt. This forces Wade and Carly to break off from the group in search of a gas station. After stumbling onto a disgusting dump site full of rotting roadkill, Wade and Carly hitch a ride with the friendly, but freaky Lester (played by Damon Herriman). Lester takes the couple to the tiny town of Ambrose, which appears to be absolutely dead. In fact, the first live person they find is Bo (Van Holt), a gas station attendant attending a funeral. After agreeing to fix Wade’s car, Wade and Carly head for the town’s large wax museum.
Inside, Carly and Wade find an entire museum that is literally made out of wax. Furthermore, instead of celebrities or serial killers, the wax figures all appear to be normal, nondescript people. The chill factor increases when Carly sees a masked figure lurking around outside. This is Vincent (Van Holt), the insane sculptor responsible for not only the wax museum but the entire town of Ambrose. You see, everything in Ambrose is made of wax, and as the body count increases, Carly and Nick discover that Bo and Victor were once conjoined twins who were controversially separated at birth. After the death of their parents, Bo convinced Victor to start kidnapping people and turning them into wax figures while they were still alive. Of course, such insanity cannot be permitted to live, so Carly and Nick burn the wax museum to the ground. Carly gets in her mandatory mask shattering moment (thus revealing Vincent’s facial deformity), then she and Nick somehow manage to escape melting wax without suffering severe burns.
House of Wax is a true hack slasher. A Golden Raspberry favorite in 2005, House of Wax is probably only known because of Hilton, who dies a fittingly painful death in the film. I’m sure plenty of audiences cheered at that moment. Sadly, for the series begun by Belden in 1932, House of Wax is a disappointment. Normally I’d suggest that a new film be made to make up for this travesty, but frankly the wax museum theme, which has been used in other films that all essentially tell either the Waxworks story or use Belden’s conceit, has been done to death. Let’s close the doors once and for all.
One thought on “Death Masks: Dissecting the Three Wax Museum Movies”
Very nice article. “Mystery of the Wax Museum” is my favorite of the 3 and probably one of my top 5 of 30’s horror movies.
There was also “Nightmare in Wax”, a real Z-grader with Cameron Mitchell that nonetheless has a cult following.
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