Sunday, October 19, 2008

She's a wax house

TCM are showing the really fun horror movie Mystery of the Wax Museum overnight at 3:45 AM ET. It's the original version of the movie remade twice as House of Wax, and while it's not as well-known as the remakes, it's actually the best of the lot.

The story starts off in the London of 1921, at a wax museum that's facing financial difficulties. One of the partners wants to burn the place down for the insurance money, but Ivan Igor (played by Lionel Atwill), the artist actually responsible for making the wax figures, is horrified by this prospect. Eventually, though, his partner burns the place down, with Ivan in it, leaving Ivan a cripple.

Fast forward about a dozen years, to Christmas 1932. Ivan, now wheelchair-bound, is now in New York, about to open up a new wax museum thanks to figures made under his supervision by his apprentices. Everybody who sees the statues remarks how amazingly lifelike they are. At the same time this is happening, there's a string of disappearances -- of dead bodies being taken from the morgue. Are the two events related?

Well, this being a horror movie, you know fully well they are. How is this shocking crime going to be discovered? Through the resourcefulness of reporter Florence Dempsey (played by Glenda Farrell). Florence finagles her way into the museum before its official opening thanks to the help of her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray), whose boyfriend works at the museum. Florence thinks she sees one of the toe tags still attached to a "statue", but can't quite prove it. Meanwhile, her friend Charlotte looks amazingly like Marie Antoinette....

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a heck of a lot of fun, thanks in no small part to Glenda Farrell. Her characters consistently had a lot of brass and chutzpah, and in this movie, that works incredibly well in playing the intrepid lady reporter stereotype. The rest of the cast is more than competent, if not exactly great, and the two-strip Technicolor lends a great atmosphere to the movie. The dark parts of the movie here look anywhere from dark green to brownish, an atmosphere that works much better for a horror movie than the black-and-white photography generally in use at the time. It's directed, surprisingly enough, by Michael Curtiz, the man who went on to win an Oscar for Casablanca. Mystery of the Wax Museum is available on DVD, should you miss the overnight showing.

A note of trivia: everybody in the movie marvels at how the wax statues are supposedly lifelike. The funny thing is that the statues actually were real live actors. Because Warner Brothers were using color, the lights had to be even brighter than normal, and when they tried to use wax statues, the statues melted.

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