Some pre-code horror movies like Frankenstein or Freaks are hailed as classics today, yet Mystery Of The Wax Museum is barely remembered – which is a shame because it’s a creepy, underrated horror gem. Directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, Mystery Of The Wax Museum was based on a short story named "The Wax Works" by writer Charles S. Belden and released in 1933. The premise centers around Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill), a sculptor who runs a wax museum in London and is a little more preoccupied with his wax figures – in particular, one of Marie Antoinette – than he really should be.
Unluckily for Igor, his unscrupulous business partner Joe Worth burns down his museum for the insurance money and leaves him to die in the fire. Unluckily for Joe, Igor reemerges injured and wheelchair-bound some years later in New York City where he opens a new wax museum. Igor’s arrival in town happens to coincide with the body-snatching of young socialite Joan Gale from a morgue. Cue plucky reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell) who’s determined to get to the bottom of why Igor’s Joan of Arc wax figure looks suspiciously like Joan Gale, and throw in a pre-King Kong Fay Wray whose resemblance to Igor’s Marie Antoinette figure will not bode well for her.
If the plot of Mystery Of The Wax Museum sounds familiar, that’s because it was remade two decades later in 1953 as the 3D horror House Of Wax starring Vincent Price, which is a lot more widely known. House Of Wax was also remade – albeit very loosely – in 2005 but the less said about that, the better. The prominence of 1953’s House Of Wax is partly why Mystery Of The Wax Museum doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but both are horror movies of merit.
Mystery Of The Wax Museum is a truly a product of its time and a unique one at that. It was one of the last features shot using the short-lived two-color Technicolor process, which produced films with faded reddish-orange and greenish-blue hues. The two-color process was soon surpassed by the more advanced Technicolor process seen in films like The Wizard Of Oz, which made older films look drab and unrealistic by comparison. In Mystery Of The Wax Museum, however, those lurid, unnatural colors give it a nightmarish quality that works well with its creepy plot. Unfortunately, the color version of Mystery Of The Wax Museum was thought lost for many years until a copy eventually resurfaced. That meant many people saw it in black-and-white rather than its luridly effective original color palette, which is another reason why the film is often forgotten.
Color palette aside, Mystery Of The Wax Museum is an early example of a horror movie that plays with the undeniable creepiness of inanimate but lifelike objects to great effect. And, for a film made in a decade not typically associated with very scary films (at least by today’s standards), it’s surprisingly spine-chilling. For that reason, Mystery Of The Wax Museum deserves to be promoted from forgotten horror gem to must-see horror movie.