Spooktober: “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933)

A couple weeks ago I featured 1953’s “House of Wax” as one of my Spooktober picks, and today I’m going back to a previous version of the story, 1933’s “Mystery of the Wax Museum”. The plots of both films are quite similar, but while “House of Wax” plays up the horror elements, “Mystery of the Wax Museum” is more of a mystery film.

The basic story remains, with wax museum sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) coming out of a fire set by his partner heavily disfigured, and bent on vengeance by reconstructing his wax figures, but this time using human corpses. In this movie, the disappearance of a young woman is investigated by journalist Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), who discovers that the missing lady looks an awful lot like the Joan of Arc figure in Igor’s museum. Florence’s roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) becomes Igor’s next target when he recognizes her resemblance to his old Marie Antoinette figure.

Fay Wray in “Mystery of the Wax Museum”

“Mystery of the Wax Museum” is a wonderful little movie directed by the great Michael Curtiz, filled with both humor and suspense, even though there’s quite a bit going on throughout the story. And because this movie was filmed during the Pre-Code era in Hollywood, it is able to get away some more risqué dialogue and situations than even the 1953 version was able to. It’s particularly fun to see Farrell’s smart female reporter leading the viewer through the mystery with her snappy dialogue. Wray and Atwill were staples of early 1930s horror films at Warners, and much of the cast of this movie, including the two of them, also appeared in “Doctor X” around the same time.

“Mystery of the Wax Museum” was one of the last feature films to use the two-strip Technicolor process; basically, only red and green dyes were used, resulting in more of a subtle pastel tone that’s really stunning. A suspense film such as this probably would benefit more from black-and-white cinematography, but it remains one of the best examples of this little used color process. This is especially evident in a new restoration from the UCLA Film and Television Archive funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation, and a new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection that was released earlier this year.

“Mystery of the Wax Museum” airs this Friday on TCM at 2:45 PM EST, and the Blu-ray can be ordered from the WB Shop. Runtime: 77 minutes.

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