For the final post to the enjoyable and brilliantly put together TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, I decided to go in the direction of a film I had never seen, as opposed to revisiting works for which I knew I already had a deep affinity. This is always a gamble, considering that I could turn out not to enjoy the movie at all and would be left writing a blog for a blogathon that is anything but celebratory about the work in question. Fortunately, The Mystery of the Wax Museum is an incredibly watchable film that manages to be one of the creepier and haunting film I have ever encounter, despite being made in 1933. Images of melting wax faces and the chiaroscuro expressionism that generally influence the narrative of this film are some of the best of the era, existing in a wonderful middle ground between the nightmarish work of Fritz Lang and the dreary desolation of the film noir works of the forties. Indeed, The Mystery of the Wax Museum could have gotten away on looks alone, the added enjoyment of some great acting and a relatively engaging plot make for an all around great cinematic experience. Since this is a blogathon concerning the "Featured Star" of the day, I must give brief mention to Glenda Farrell who is wonderful in this film and is indeed the reason this film was take upon by me, even if blindly. Knowing very little about her (and highlighting her in the synopsis), I thought it worth mentioning Fay Wry whose presence reminded me that she was the famous girl from King Kong, as well as in the criminally under-viewed 1932 adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game. Along with her presence in The Mystery of the Wax Museum and a ton of other horror films, I am considering that argument that Fay Wry might be the original scream queen, or at the very least the grandmother of genre films. Her presence in this film is decidedly within her more traditional roles, but given the manner with which bodies double and layer upon one another through wax duplications, her presence also takes on an ethereal quality, adding to the already eerie nature of the film. The Mystery of the Wax Museum is not a grand stroke of horror through barrage, but instead; is a subtle repetition of creepy moments that come together to really leave an unsettling feeling in the viewer long after finishing, much like Dead of Night or The Blair Witch Project. This is the ideal horror cinema.
The Mystery of the Wax Museum begins with Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) completing yet another work in his prized London wax museum, centering around his incredibly lifelike statue of Marie Antoinette. His moment of happiness is quickly stifled when he is visited by his parter Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), who explains that the museum is proving to be a huge loss financially and that the only way to recoup the losses is to burn the entire place down for the insurance money. Ivan attempts to stop Joe from his act but fails to do so. The film then fast forwards twelve years to New York, where the city is receiving its own wax museum, overseen by Ivan, who must use apprentices to do his work, considering that he no longer has hands to sculpt with after they were severely damaged in the fire. Ivan is particularly frustrated with the new work, blaming much of the trouble on hiring a recovering drug addict named Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and a deaf-mute named Hugo (Matthew Betz). Regardless, the museum is slated to open soon so Ivan pushes through with his work at full speed, even receiving a new statue in the mail whose life like qualities are quite uncanny. Centering this female statue as the center of his exhibit as a Joan of Arc recreation, Ivan slips into a maniacal push for perfection. Meanwhile, up and coming journalist Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), while investigating a murder, comes to realize the similarities between a recently deceased woman and the new statue, as well as a similarity between a few other missing bodies and some of the other additions to Ivan's collection. Hoping to warn others, particularly her roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray), Florence takes it upon herself to make the connection between the dead bodies and the new statues, coming into contact with a deeply entrenched bootlegging scheme in the process that is run by none other than Joe Worth. This, however, does get the attention of the police, who agree to meet Florence at the museum a decision that proves quite fortuitous because they arrive only moments before Charlotte is to be "embalmed" by the maniacal Ivan, who believes that she will provide the final piece de resistance for his collection. In the end, Florence saves the day with her persistence and because the film was set in the early thirties, her reward is nothing more than marriage to a man she only remotely likes.
For a film that is an early work in horror/thriller filmmaking, I did not expect to be able to pull a lot from work critically. However, from the moment Ivan lingers on the female statues in his London museum, which cinematically are clearly played by actresses (one's who will later play characters in the narrative) it becomes clear that the film takes on a second layer of objectification of the desired body. Objectification and looking at bodies in cinema are nothing new to theory and criticism, indeed tying most prominently to Laura Mulvey and her idea that the gaze in cinema is that of a male viewer that objectifies the woman on screen as an other. While this theory has been reconsidered, altered and contested over the years, it, nonetheless, stands as the language used to describe the female body on display in film. However, while these bodies are desired in the film, it is precisely the double layer of the "fake" body and the real that causes viewers to reconsider how they constitute the objectified body passively and what happens when the active body is forced into passivity, or in reverse what happens when a body, like the film's opening image of Marie Antoinette later becomes the character of Florence. This is a wild notion of movement through a space by a body, one that is, as Mulvey would suggest, in a constant state of cinematic desire, whether to be objectified by the male gaze or longed for as a thing of cinematic beauty by the women who look at the ethereal presence of the wax versions of Wray and others. Ivan represents a maddened version of the gaze in the diagetic world of the film, enacting his artistic objectification of bodies, both male and female, taking dead corpses, who are no longer active and proceeding to make them even less human, by making them posthumous objects of artistic desire. The fact that Ivan himself is a crippled figure adds another layer of disability in relation to the ideal body as a point of desire and thus objectification. In that he is no longer human, indeed relying on wax to pass as visually normal, he could be read as a vengeful disabled body that seeks "justice" upon the able-bodied individuals he encounters, housing them in a shell of wax, to deny their ability, while making his wax visage no longer the disabled figure, but that of normalcy. This is all happening in a film from 1933, it is quite amazing that it has not gained the same level of notoriety as its counterpart from the same year King Kong.
Key Scene: The opening fight in the London Wax Museum is really creepy, in a I might have nightmares from melting wax faces kind of way.
The DVD I have is not the greatest of version, particularly since it appears to be stuck between full colorization and black and white scenes. Nonetheless, it is a magnificent work and well worth tracking down in an alternative format.
Finally, I would once again like to thank Jill (Sittin' On a Backyard Fence) and Michael (ScribeHard on Film) for letting me be part of this wonderful blogathon. This last film was a great discovery and my previous revisits of Spellbound and The Blob were equally enjoyable.