When thinking about a horror movie centring around murders committed by a disfigured mad sculptor the 1953 Vincent Price classic House of Wax would be the first thing to come to mind, I certainly hope no one immediately thinks of the 2005 version starring Paris Hilton, but Price wasn’t the first mad sculptor to stalk the streets looking for models for his macabre display, that honour goes to Lionel Atwill in Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum.
Set in the dark and eerie world of a turn of the century wax museum, the film follows the twisted tale of Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill), a master sculptor and owner of a financially failing wax museum in London England, despite his wax sculptures of Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette receiving great praise from a local art critic. Unfortunately, before he gets an ounce of good press his beloved wax figures are destroyed in a fire deliberately set by his business partner (Edwin Maxwell), who was hoping to recoup some of his investment via the insurance money. The film then fast forwards twelve years and a trip across the Atlantic where we find a now wheelchair-bound, and hiding his burned features under a wax mask, Ivan has reopened a new and improved wax museum in New York City, but with a nefarious band of assistants his wax figures are manufactured from corpses of people he has murdered and then encased in wax.
The “mystery” of Mystery of the Wax Museum deals with the uncovering of these diabolical acts of murderous art by intrepid reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) who is trying to prove playboy George Winton (Gavin Gordon) didn’t murder his ex-girlfriend Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) – her corpse stolen and now standing in for Joan of Arc – and Florence also spends much of her time being repeatedly fired by her exasperated editor (Frank McHugh) as each lead sends her on one wacky misadventure after another. Basically, this is a horror version of Ben Hecht’s play The Front Page only instead of simply freeing a wrongfully convicted man from the gallows, our heroine must uncover the truth behind these ghastly murders and the mystery of a deformed serial killer, hopefully in time to save her roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray) who has caught Ivan’s eye as to be a perfect replacement for his lost Marie Antoinette.
• The movie opens with an art critic visiting the wax museum, but then rushing off to join an Egyptian expedition, and one can only hope it’s to uncover the mummy of Imhotep.
• The morgue set was recycled from the laboratory set in the 1932 classic Doctor X which was directed by Michael Curtiz and also starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.
• Glenda Farrell is billed below Fay Wray despite the fact that she’s the heroine and Fay Wray doesn’t appear until about the 31-minute mark of this 77-minute movie.
• Glenda Farrell would go on to play another hard-boiled reporter in the Torchy Blane mysteries which ran from 1937 to 1939 and were inspirational in the creation of Lois Lane.
• Many of the wax statues are played by real people so even a casual viewer will most likely spot one of them taking a breath, twitching, flinching, or blinking at several points throughout the movie.
• Fay Wray smashes the wax mask that conceals Lionel Atwill’s burned visage but this makes little to no sense as a hard mask would not have worked at all as a disguise.
One of the most notable aspects of Mystery of the Wax Museum is the superb art direction by Anton Grot whose beautiful set designs have a German expressionist flair that perfectly captures the era while also creating a sense of otherworldly apprehension. The filmmakers were able to create a genuinely haunting and atmospheric environment, with dimly lit corridors, shadows dancing across walls and a sense of foreboding lurking in every frame. The attention to detail in the wax figures themselves is remarkable, showcasing the skill and craftsmanship of all involved. The performances in Mystery of the Wax Museum are all commendable, with Lionel Atwill delivering a compelling portrayal of the tortured artist seeking revenge while Glenda Farrell brings a refreshing bit of energy to the film as the relentless reporter and her chemistry with Frank McHugh’s character adds a touch of humour amidst the tension.
Then there is Fay Wray, who later gained fame in the 1933 monster classic King Kong, portraying a woman who has the misfortune to look like Ivan’s Marie Antoinette and becomes entangled in the mystery surrounding the wax museum, and while she doesn’t have Bruce Cabot to run to her rescue she at least has Glenda Farrell’s intrepid reporter for a roommate. Another of the film’s strengths lies in its ability to blend elements of horror, mystery, comedy and suspense as Curtiz is able to keep viewers on the edge of their seats with a genuine sense of unease and tension, with the occasional break for a laugh. Balancing this blend of humour and horror is required when dealing with the concept of replacing wax figures with real corpses creates which in itself makes for a macabre and unsettling atmosphere, heightening the horror elements and establishing the film as a standout in the genre. Lucky for us, we have Glenda Farrell to keep our spirits up.
If you are a fan of the 1953 Vincent Price movie, or just a fan of classic horror movies in general, then Mystery of the Wax Museum is a must-see as it showcases the talents of director Michael Curtiz as well as the unforgettable performances of Lionel Atwill, Glenda Farrell, and Fay Wray. With its intriguing storyline, chilling visuals, and unique colour cinematography by Ray Rennahan, this has become a significant entry in the genre and its enduring legacy makes it an enjoyable piece of cinematic history.
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
Movie Rank - 7/10
Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum is a captivating and atmospheric thriller that has stood the test of time. With its impressive visuals, strong performances, and gripping storyline, this film continues to be an essential piece of filmmaking history that showcases the creativity and skill of its era.