Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mystery of the Wax Museum

1933, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

The second and last of Michael Curtiz's eerie two-strip Technicolor films, Mystery of the Wax Museum reunites much of the talent from the first such outing, Doctor X, including players Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Like the earlier film it's a somewhat unlikely mix of creepy horror -- sometimes very creepy indeed, between macabre plotting and some hair-raising makeup work -- and rat-a-tat Warner Brothers comedy. Where Doctor X featured Lee Tracy in the role of a newspaperman, Mystery of the Wax Museum uses Glenda Farrell in similar fashion, though Farrell emphasizes her character's street smarts rather than the Tracy pratfalls that were such a distraction in the previous film. Indeed, her character is much more engaging than Fay Wray's despite Wray's higher billing; the scream queen has so little screen time it's hard for her to do much with the part except squeal for all she's worth when Curtiz gives the signal.

Warners weren't best known for their horror movies, and the script uses the competition for comparative purposes: the monster at the heart of the film is likened to Universal's Frankenstein, though the horrific visage on display here makes that fellow "look like a lily," presumably to prove that Warners did everything better. As was the case on Doctor X, art director Anton Grot runs riot. The wax workshop above looks like it something that could have cropped up in a villainous lair from a Bond movie, while the waxwork tableaux are wonderfully weird -- even more so when they use actual people rather than wax figures. Grot was one of the first people inducted into the Art Directors Guild Hall of Fame, hardly surprising given his obvious influence on later generations (Ken Adam, I'm looking at you, among others); there's a Rube Goldberg-esque craziness to some of the contraptions on display here.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States