Lionel’s at Will


One of the greatest classic (and fun) horror flicks ever made, Michael Curtiz’ 1933 triumph MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM comes to the Warner Archive Collection in a superb stand-alone Blu-Ray edition!

Best known as the original version of the much-more famous House of Wax (directed by fellow sadist Andre de Toth), Curtiz’ vision remains “the” stylized, Germanic Expressionist cocktail of horror, rude pre-Code comedy, sex, and fetishist obsession (with the characteristic Warners fast-paced editing chaser).  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love House of Wax, but this creepier, more graphic and modern goth version may take, bake and shake the cake.

The script (based on Charles Belden’s story) by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson (and a terrific one, too), WAX MUSEUM (as it was called during production and is id-ed on the reel leaders) tells the now-well-trod tale of a sculpting genius driven mad, who must use living models covered in molten wax to realize his artistic ambitions.  While Vincent Price certainly excelled in the remake (it is the pic that finally made him a major horror star), it is Lionel Atwill, who not only gives us the shivers, but does so with a side of pathos and sympathy.  Not an easy task.

In 1920 Paris, Ivan Igor is a brilliant, impoverished artist who has convinced scumbag conman investor Joe Worth to finance a wax museum of historic figures.  Refusing to go the Madame Tussaud route (Jack the Ripper, Bluebeard, etc), Igor takes pride in his “children” and is rewarded when a visiting entrepreneur offers to take over Worth’s note and re-open the museum in a wider venue.  While intrigued, the conman doesn’t want to wait for the dough, and has a better, quicker idea:  torch the place and collect the insurance.  This sends Igor over the edge; as he watches his creations melt, he attempts to attack Worth, who clobbers him into unconsciousness and leaves the artist for dead.  But is he?

Twelve years later, on New Year’s Eve in New York City, a mysterious wheelchair-bound professor prepares to open a Manhattan wax gallery of historical and newsworthy figures.  Yep, the dude is none other than Ivan Igor, his hands now disfigured and whose moldy molding team consists of disgraced albeit talented “hands,” aka perverts and drug addicts.  The one normal artiste is Ralph Burton, whose beauteous lover, Charlotte, is roomies with wise-cracking typical Warners pre-Code sassy lassie Florence; she’s a reporter on a local tabloid, chasing down a series of disappearances in the Big Apple.  When Igor eyes Charlotte, he nearly plotzes, she’s practically the ringer for his beloved lost Marie Antoinette.  She must join his redux corpse museum (not a good thing).  Yikes!  Sure, we love when worthless Worth eventually gets his, but the kidnapping of innocents and their mutilations – well, not so much.

The reporter, actually the lead, is soon-to-be Warners’ Torchy Blaine, aka Glenda Farrell, who trades raunchy barbs with her boss Frank McHugh and the standard array of dumb cops/detectives who try and crack the alarming rise of disappearing New Yorkers.

Of course, for horror buffs, the true stars are Atwill  and Fay Wray (as Charlotte); there’s also Allen Vincent, Gavin Gordon, Edwin Maxwell, Holmes Herbert, Claude King, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Thomas Jackson, William B. Davidson, Milton Kibbee, Robert Emmett O’Connor, and Pat O’Malley.  Liberties were definitely taken with the remake (set at the turn of the century), toning down the gruesome “lower depths” scenario.  In House, a brutally interrogated artist is an alcoholic; in WAX MUSEUM, he’s a coke addict.  Leave us also not forget that in the remake, the heroes were Paul Picerni and Frank Lovejoy; in the original it is female “don’t fuck with me” newshound Florence.

With the horror genre in full bloom in 1933, Warners wasn’t taking any chances.  They didn’t really make these kind of pictures, so, when they did, it had to have something extra.  The delicious snappy pre-Code dialog – certainly a trademark Warners attribute helps, but there was more.  Like the previous year’s Dr. X, also directed by Curtiz and costarring Atwill and Wray, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was shot in two-strip Technicolor. And exquisitely, too.  While Dr. X looks ghoulishly groovy, WAX MUSEUM used the earlier exercise to improve on the lighting and color design.  Just when two-strip was being phased out, WAX MUSEUM mastered the technique.  Typical.  The movie was filmed by iconic Technicolor expert Ray Rennahan (already a color veteran by 1933).  The sets were by the equally celebrated Anton Grot.  The movie concurrently oozes goth atmosphere (the Paris stuff) and art deco modernity (absolutely stunning in color).  Massive kudos must be given to Perc Westmore’s and Ray Romero’s hideous face behind the mask of the burned and deformed Igor – still packing a fright wallop, nearly 90 years after MotWM‘s release.

For years, WAX MUSEUM and Dr. X in color were Holy Grail cinema pipedreams, long-thought forever lost like many two-strip pics.  Then, in 1973, 35MM prints of both were found in Jack Warner’s personal library.  I freaked back then (to put it mildly), but somehow missed a special MoMA screening.  What followed was an aberration. With CRIs not yet being the norm; UA (then distributing pre-1948 Warner product) slop printed terrible negatives on both.  When I first saw the new color WAX MUSEUM and Dr. X on TV in the mid-1970s, it looked like a black-and-white movie with a Winky Dink screen over the television tube.  Subsequent laserdiscs somewhat improved this mess.  DVDs, more so (by now all the pre-48s were back in Warners’ hands).  Then, in 2013, came the 3-D Blu-Ray release of House of Wax; as a supplement, a newly restored WAX MUSEUM was included.  It was the best I’d ever seen the movie look.  Until now.

The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM seemingly has meticulously restored each scene frame-by-frame.  The colors are rich, vibrant, and often hellishly spooky (Curtiz, even in pre-Code, couldn’t go extreme on the violence, so he adoringly languished on shots of the realistic wax figures melting – flesh and blood pigmentation giving way to eyeballs popping out of the sockets, etc.).  You’ve never seen this movie in its prime until you’ve viewed this transfer.  It shows you how wonderful two-strip could be – how it wasn’t merely a novelty, but added to the overall narrative.

If all of this wasn’t enough to get you to fork over your dough, there are a slew of new extras to add to the enjoyment of this chiller: a documentary on Fay Wray (featuring her daughter), a featurette on the restoration and separate audio commentaries by film historian Alan K. Rode and UCLA’s head of film/television preservation, Scott McQueen..

LSS, if you’re a fan of the director, the stars, early Technicolor, horror or pre-Code (I qualify for all of the above), you gotta add MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM to your library!  Repeat, gotta!

THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. Color. Full frame [1.37:1] ; 2.0 mono DTS-HD MA.  Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection: or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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