40×40: Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933)

Directed by Michael Curtiz.

“I don’t know what he is, but he makes Frankenstein look like a lily!”

Why Did I Get This?

I’ve actually got two copies of this – one, a DVD passed on by Late Reviewer contributor and Michael Curtiz fan John Featherstone (yes, another one), which I watched a couple of years ago. Recently though, I treated myself to a copy of House Of Wax on Blu-Ray (which you’ll be able to read about here shortly), and discovered that a remastered version was included in the box set.

Remastered, in this case, appears to mean everything looks a strange pastel sort of pink colour and muddies the picture slightly – I guess that’s the two-colour Technicolor of the day, but it looks like a black and white film that’s been colourised to me.

Still, I’m sure I’ve watched worse films (and worse transfers), and I’m keen to revisit this one before seeing the Vincent Price version for the first time. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see the same story told twice a few years apart – as I recently did with Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde here and here – see how they compare.

Here we go then…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

Master sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill), runs a small wax museum in London funded by his partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), until Worth burns it to the ground and leaves him for dead. Twelve years later, Igor – now unable to sculpt due to his injuries – opens a wax museum in New York, and as corpses begin to go missing from the local morgue, reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), starts to suspect there’s a reason his sculptures look so lifelike. But can she get the story before her friend Charlotte (Fay Wray), becomes Igor’s latest exhibit?

I didn’t really have any recollection of watching this movie heading into it, but after seeing Lionel Atwill pop up again and again in my recent revisit to the Frankenstein franchise, I was curious to see him go full villain.

He’s good, too, with something close to a proper story arc and everything – beginning as the idealistic artist who won’t sacrifice his vision in pursuit of a quick buck, to the murderous nutjob who doesn’t think twice about trying to turn Fay Wray into a mannequin. In between though, he offers up something close to regret at the loss of his talent (and inability to use his hands for the thing he was best at), but in many ways it’s a fairly straightforward villainous role seen in plenty of pre-Code horrors.

Calling it a horror isn’t strictly accurate – the clue’s in the title, after all. Yes, it’s a mystery, though one of those mysteries where it’s absolutely clear from the get-go who exactly is behind the whole scheme. Clear to us as viewers, of course, though not to rat-a-tat reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), who spends the whole film speaking like she’s stuck on fast forward, flinging quips at her editor (Frank McHugh), in that crazy, flirty way made popular and done better in subsequent screwball comedies.

It’s a far cry from Fay Wray’s quiet performance as Florence’s best mate Charlotte, who is in love with Igor’s assistant Ralph (Allen Vincent), and looks just like the mannequin he made of Marie Antoinette before his London place burned down. She’s got pretty much the most passive role in the cast (even more so than Igor’s junkie goon Professor Darcy, though Arthur Edmund Carewe gives a good performance with what he’s given).

I remember being really annoyed by Farrell’s performance the first time I watched this, but whether I’ve mellowed or just learned to better appreciate 1930s performances thanks to all the rewatches of late, she grated on me much less this time round. I also didn’t recall her being drunk during her New Year’s Even introduction, and that plus the next morning’s hangover were fun little gags.

Drinking, bootlegging and drug addiction are spoken about freely throughout this movie, in a matter-of-fact way that screams pre-Code. It’s never distracting, but between that and the graverobbing, corpse desecration, it adds up to that good old pre-Code nastiness that you don’t get anywhere else.

What’s also a nice trope from the era is the use of big, expansive (and probably expensive), sets – the morgue in this film looks like it belongs on top of a Flash Gordon rocket heading to Venus or something – it’s a nice change from the white-tiled underground room that became a trope a couple of decades later.

Igor’s museum, on the other hand, looks like a department store that’s had its clothing racks replaced with models of historic figures looking quaint and peaceful. Meanwhile, under the museum, he’s got a labyrinth of tunnels and secret passageways leading to a big old model making room with a vat of bubbling acid instead of a central water feature. It’s the sort of thing Ken Adam might knock together on a tight budget, and the wax-application system looks inefficient as hell, but it’s a cool set nonetheless.

One other thing to mention is the makeup on Igor when he’s out and about stealing corpses – while the burnt flesh makeup is over the top, it’s a genuinely eerie look, especially when combined with his jerky movements and an almost complete lack of sound during some of his creeping around. Speaking of silence, there’s a lovely reveal of mute goon Hugo (Matthew Betz), behind a bench of ‘severed’ wax heads which made me laugh amongst the chills.


Honestly, it was better than I remembered and the practical effect of Igor’s prosthetic face being smashed from his head stands up even after all this time. I’m curious to see how the 1950s version compares, though less intrigued by how the 2005 House Of Wax turned out, if I’m honest. Though never say never…

A good watch, though your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for fast-talking female reporters of the 1930s and how you cope with oddly coloured chillers.

It might play creepier in black and white, but then wouldn’t most films?

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