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  Mystery of the Wax Museum Worth The Candle
Year: 1933
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Allen Vincent, Gavin Gordon, Edwin Maxwell, Holmes Herbert, Claude King, Arthur Edmund Carewe
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The time: 1921. The place: London. One night, sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is showing two gentlemen around his wax museum, which depicts various figures of historical importance such as Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc and Voltaire. The gentlemen promise to recommend Igor's work to the Royal Academy, such is its quality, but after they leave, Igor's business partner arrives with bad news - they've run out of money and he plans to set fire to the museum to collect the insurance. Igor is horrified, and a struggle ensues, which ends with the wax figures going up in flames as the sculptor lies in the wreckage...

Believed lost for many years until the sixties, this was the first and possibly the best of the subgenre of mad wax museum owner horrors, and was scripted by Don Mullaly and Claude Erickson from Charles Belden's story. It was filmed in an early Technicolor process, lending it a distinctively eerie look in shades of green and red, and it's not short of incident, being one of the fastest paced chillers of the period, or indeed, any era. Warners, who made the film, were at the time known for their social realism, and when the action moves forward to New Year's Day, 1933, in New York, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching one of their newspaper pictures - as the wisecracking reporter, Florence, star Glenda Farrell could have stepped straight out of Five Star Final or similar.

When we reach the thirties, Florence is threatened with losing her job by her argumentative boss (Frank McHugh) if she doesn't get hold of a story before the night is over. Luckily for her, but unluckily for the victim, the fiancée of a millionaire has just committed suicide by poison, and Florence goes straight down to the morgue to hear the autopsy. However, we see a disfigured character break into the morgue and steal the body, and when Florence finds out, she can barely contain her excitement. There's almost too much plot to fit in, and you'd be forgiven for needing to sit through the film twice to follow the connections and consequences.

Although Ivan Igor is by now wheelchair bound, his hands ruined by the inferno, he nevertheless continues working with the help of assistants to whom he dictates his every wish. We know that he's a little barmy from the start, where he chats away to Marie Antoinette as if she were real, and when he sees Florence's room mate Charlotte (Fay Wray in an archetypal "victimised beauty" performance) he is struck by the resemblance between her and his lost wax figure. As a viewer, you tend to be one step ahead - of course Igor, in Atwill's committed performance, has something to do with the missing body, as does his new wax museum, but as he shuns the more gruesome happenings from history, nobody suspects him of foul play.

Nobody except Florence, of course, and Farrell is a lot of fun to watch (and listen to) as she trades gags with the others, jumps at a toad while investigating the museum, or appropriates a few bottles of bootlegged whisky as compensation for her jitters. The film was made just before censorship was cracking down on American films, so it's interesting to hear Florence cheerfully ask a policeman, "How's your sex life?", or learn the suicide dabbled in drugs. One of Igor's henchmen is a junkie as well, and his interrogation depends on denying him his fix. Also interesting is that there's no real hero: Florence screams when faced with horror (not as much as Charlotte, naturally), and the two potential male leads singularly fail to make a dent in the villain's schemes. Handsome to look at - check out Igor's lab, complete with a bubbling jacuzzi of liquid wax - and with a great atmosphere, Mystery of the Wax Museum may not be a top notch horror of the day, with too many distractions, but it's one of the fondest remembered.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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