Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson
Cast: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Allen Vincent, Gavin Gordon, Edwin Maxwell, Holmes Herbert, Claude King, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Thomas Jackson, DeWitt Jennings, Matthew Betz, and Monica Banister
Composer: Bernhard Kaun (Uncredited)
Release Date: 2/18/1933
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Twelve years after surviving a fire set by his partner, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill)—a former sculptor who develops an interest in Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), fiancée of one who wishes to follow in Igor’s footsteps—opens a wax museum in the city of New York. When a corpse mysteriously vanishes from the morgue, newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) begins an investigation of Igor and his nefarious activities.
One of the final movies recorded using the two-color Technicolor process, this production is a visually haunting but otherwise unremarkable murder mystery film. Mystery of the Wax Museum does, however, deserve a certain amount of praise for its horrifying make-up effects, sympathetic villain, and utter absence of an intrusive musical soundtrack—a factor that accentuates the raw, unnerving tension of the iconic body-snatching sequence.
As opposed to House of Wax from 1953, Mystery of the Wax Museum avoids revealing the identity of the deformed killer prior to the climactic scene—an aspect that serves to reinforce the mystery elements of this film.
Also worth noting are the human eyes that peer ominously through Igor’s statues, adding an air of creepiness and claustrophobia to the concept of living, conscious people embalmed in a layer of hard wax. (A similar premise would later be explored in the House of Wax remake from 2005, though without the subtlety and suggestive power achieved by both versions that precede it.)
Mystery of the Wax Museum fails to develop the character of Charlotte Duncan (ostensibly the main protagonist) to a satisfactory degree, instead highlighting the antics of Florence Dempsey—a crude, obnoxious female reporter—from start to finish. The majority of viewers may therefore struggle to empathize with Charlotte during her predicament at the wax museum, where Igor intends to employ the young woman as a model for his new Marie Antoinette figure.
Despite lacking the tragic pathos of Vincent Price, Lionel Atwill (known to horror fans for playing Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein) should be commended for conveying the torment of a man who, though initially a kind and creative soul, commits a variety of heinous crimes after suffering a grave injustice at the hands of another—a poignant commentary on how vengeance can corrupt even the most sensitive and thoughtful of men.
Mystery of the Wax Museum is an intriguing, albeit greatly overshadowed, predecessor to one of the most popular and well-made horror movies of the 1950s. Fans of the House of Wax version starring Price may thus enjoy this film, which offers a unique and primitive take on Belden’s unpublished “The Wax Works” tale.
Overall Quality: 6/10
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