Saturday, April 7, 2012

#600. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell

Tag line: "Another Lovely Woman Vanished from the Earth!...Another Beauty Molded to His Desire!"

Trivia:  This movie was believed to be lost until the late sixties

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a bit of an oddity in that it's a 1930s horror film shot entirely in color. Produced with a primitive 2-color process, the movie may stand apart from the decade's other classic offerings by way of its presentation, but takes its place right alongside them in both quality and execution. 

Sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is co-owner of a London-based wax museum, and the exhibits he crafts, life-size wax mannequins of some of history's most famous figures, have been heralded by many as works of art. Unfortunately, they aren't bringing in any money, and Igor's business partner, Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) wants out. So, to recoup his losses, Joe sets fire to the museum, hoping to collect on its huge insurance policy. When Igor tries to stop him, he's knocked unconscious, and appears to burn up with his beloved creations. But it's not the last we'll see of him. Years later, Igor resurfaces in New York, where he once again opens a wax museum. Oddly enough, Igor's new artistic venture coincides with a string of suspicious suicides, the bodies for which are then stolen from the city morgue. Reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) is assigned by her editor to write a story about the lost corpses, and, during her research, comes to suspect Igor is the man behind it all. What's more, she notices several of the wax figures in Igor's museum bear a strong resemblance to the missing bodies! With the help of her roommate, Charlotte (Fay Wray), Florence tries to gather as much evidence as she can. But their investigation takes a dangerous twist when Igor becomes infatuated with Charlotte, and tries to make her his next “creation”. 

Lionel Atwill turns in a strong performance as Igor, a role that paved the way for his becoming a staple of the horror genre for years to come. At first, Igor is an artist, one who refuses to create the ghastly sculptures featured in other museums, even though they seem to be what the public wants. His outlook changes, however, the moment his beloved figures burn before his eyes. It's a heartbreaking scene, but for Igor, more than his heart was broken: it also destroyed his body, as well as his mind. Once in New York, Igor, his hands twisted beyond recognition, hires assistants to make the reproductions he himself had made years earlier. His perceptions of right and wrong have also been altered, and the man who wouldn't bow to pressure by crafting the monstrous has himself become a monster, stealing dead bodies to further his “art”. Atwill manages to evoke our pity in the early scenes, our fear as the movie progresses, and the sheer ease with which he arouses both is truly impressive. 

I admit there were times I wished Mystery of the Wax Museum had been shot in black and white; fog-filled streets look better in monochrome than they do Technicolor. Ultimately, though, the fact the film is in color is neither a help nor a hindrance. Mystery of the Wax Museum is a well-acted, well-told story of the macabre, and ultimately, that's the reason you'll want to see it.


tjpieraccini said...

One of the great horror reveals of all time, as well, when Fay Wray smashes Atwill's mask...

Lamoreux said...

I had the pleasure of covering this film, and its remake House of Wax, extensively in the book Horror 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies; edited by Aaron Christensen. A delightful movie.

Lamoreux said...

I had the pleasure of covering this film, and its remake House of Wax, extensively in the book Horror 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies; edited by Aaron Christensen. A great movie. The color in this and in Doctor X, a shocker with Lionel Atwill made a year earlier by Warner, was merely to fulfill a contract obligation with Technicolor.

Dave B. said...

Thanks for the comments, guys, and my apologies for the late reply.

@TJ: Yeah, this reveal is something else! A classic!

@Lamoreux: I'll definitely have to pick up a copy of that book. Sounds great! Also, thank you for sharing that information about the color. Very interesting!