Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The film announces its fantasticness upon its birth, during the opening scene.  We get an argument between a wax museum proprietor and his angry financial backer, in which the backer accuses the proprietor of sacrificing profits for art.  Why don't you create a Jack the Ripper or Burke & Hare instead of all this history crap? says the financier.  Then he starts a fire and waddles off, leaving the wax artiste to get baked.


I'll remind you that this verbal dialectic about pure art versus the commercially-viable macabre is THE OPENING SCENE TO A HORROR MOVIE.


You can tell immediately that Mystery isn't going to be constrained by genre limitations or stripped of its ambitions.  Departing from burnt, waxy London, we land in New York, where it's New Year's Eve, and bored morticians are sad about the low body count.  There's an amazing proto-jump scare that's topped with a pretty good joke, giving us our first real taste of the movie's genre-bending character.  Soon enough, we learn that waxman Igor, who was apparently burned right into a wheelchair, is reopening his shop in NYC.


It's 1933, it's a horror film, so that means we're probably going to see Fay "Overwrayted" Wray and here she is, as the girlfriend of a wax museum assistant. Wray is here to be pretty and imperiled and she does all that well enough.  


But the queen bee MVP of this film is clearly Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, a wisecracking lady journalist.  I can't remember the last time I was this impressed by a performance.  Farrell delivers her lines at whiplash speed and, at one point, gets this extended Ayn Rand-sized monologue that she races through.  It's an almost athletic performance and she's awesome to watch whenever she's on the screen.  Thankfully, Florence is a pivotal character as she unravels the titular mystery, so we get lots of opportunities to enjoy her.  I'm not sure what Fay Wray's character does for a living.  Professional girlfriend?  Professionally pretty?  Who knows?


The wax museum scenes are certainly creepy enough, especially when we get to stuff like the stabbed Marat or the beetle-browed Napoleon.  This film doesn't skimp on the hard stuff, as we get a fair share of violence, plus junkies, bootleggers, and girly magazines called NAUGHTY STORIES.


But the movie's constantly shifting tones from grim images to light banter.  Some people will loathe the crazy patchwork quality on display here, but I loved it.  So interesting!


They even threw in a little expressionism in the woman-swallowing sets at the end of the movie.


And that ending!  Motherfuck!  Frequently, even very enjoyable pieces will fumble their finales, but Mystery sticks it for the win.  Everything from the big reveal to the masterfully-edited final chase scene is just delightful to watch.  This definitely exceeded my expectations and I could see it gaining even more of my heart after I rewatch it.  Which I will. 


***1/2

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