Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Melting Faces Double Feature: The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953)

I hadn't seen a Vincent Price movie in quite some time, which really is a tragedy, so I rented the classic (?) wax-based horror flick House of Wax, which unexpectedly came with the original version (directed by Michael Curtiz!) The Mystery of the Wax Museum right on the other side of the disc! I had time on my hands and both films are short, so it became another original/remake double feature, which I do enjoy. Both films are based on a story by Charles Belden, and share several of the same scenes and characters, but the pre-Code original differs greatly in tone and approach from the Price vehicle.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum plays out as a sort of cheeky mystery seen from the perspective of fast-talking reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell), who suspects a new wax museum displaying unbelievably lifelike historical figures is hiding a deadly secret. Her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) entices the museum's handicapped artist Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill), who wishes to use her as a model for his Marie Antoinette. She is at first flattered but soon realizes the creepy sculptor and his unfriendly assistants have more in mind for her than just modeling, and it's up to Florence and Charlotte's fiancé Jim (Frank McHugh) to solve... THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM!

Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed this version more than the Vincent Price remake. But more on that later. This one has a great spunky female lead in Glenda Farrell's Florence, a sassy reporter in the vein of Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday, who looks/acts a bit like Ginger Rogers. She's the heart of the film, really, and I enjoyed her go-to spirit, weird slang, and sexual innuendo. She doesn't even like to date dudes that much! She'd rather be off following a lead or yelling at her boss! Fay Wray is pretty bland but gets in some good screams (and if you really want to see her exercising in short shorts, this is the film for you), and Lionell Atwill is effectively creepy and pseudo-Russian. I liked the old timey newspaper angle, making if more of a crime mystery-thriller than horror, while still throwing in some tense, scary moments. Overall it's a well-made, well-scripted film that's interesting to watch even if I already knew most of the story. But the very last scene is one of dumbest, most irrelevant endings I've ever seen.


Further Reading:
Igloo of the Uncanny review

House of Wax amps up the horror and thrills with a dimly-lit urn-of-the-century setting, 3-D gimmickry, and much more attention paid to the murderous sculptor. Like in the original film, artist Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price)- renamed to avoid Russianness- loses his precious wax works and his ability to sculpt in a fire, and sets up a new wax museum with the aid of shady assistants who supposedly cast his figures for him. He becomes obsessed with another artist's fianceé (Phyllis Kirk) because she looks just like Marie Antoinette, but she's noticing an awful lot of deaths recently and begins to suspect his motives. No newspapers, this time, though.

Watching the original after this actually made me appreciate House of Wax less. It's a fun movie and all but it really cuts down the other characters' roles to focus more on Jarrod. Price is amazing, as usual, and I loved his overly-polite, quiet-voiced performance. He seemed so nice and grandfatherly but then there'd be sparks of complete craziness- it's the perfect role for him and I'm glad the filmmakers expanded upon his character and altered the story for him. However, it's frustrating that increasing his part came completely at the expense of the female characters. Now in place of Florence there's a friend who laughs like a chicken and hunts for rich men and totally doesn't spout off witty one-liners while solving mysteries. Sigh.


Basically, The Mystery of the Wax Museum is a better movie, but House of Wax is still pretty cool because Vincent Price is amazing. The former has cool characters and a better-structured story, while the latter has a better eye for eerie tension and weird shots only included for the 3-D effect (high-kicking can-can dancers, in-your-face paddle balls, etc). I kept forgetting it was originally 3-D and would be confused by these seemingly unnecessary moments. Both films capitalize on the fact that wax figures are creeeeepy and the site of their heads melting is awesomely jarring.

The End.

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