A double dose of wax museums kickstar this week’s Halloween reviews as I compare and contrast Mystery of the Wax Museum with its remake, House of Wax. (We’re going to pretend the 2005 remake doesn’t exist.) Mystery and House are practically the same movie, albeit the latter boasts a larger leading man in comparison to the former’s legendary director. Each movie has their own merits and changes due to the Production Code, while neither one is really the picture of perfection.
Mystery of the Wax Museum – Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is the owner/head sculptor of a decrepit wax museum that is losing business. His business partner realizes the museum would make a profit via insurance claims and sets the place on fire. Igor makes it out, but a series of bizarre murders ends up tying back to the museum. Brassy girl reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) decides to investigate, only to realize her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) might be in danger.
House of Wax – Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is the sculptor who loses his wax museum, in a plot that’s 99% the same. In lieu of Farrell’s reporter we have mild-mannered Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) who starts investigating the wax museum after her roommate Cathy (Addams Family star Carolyn Jones) is murdered.
Both movies are incredibly similar if the above plots indicate anything; both involve a lonely sculptor losing his life’s work and taking to turning dead bodies into living wax statues. The widest difference between the two is tone. Mystery of the Wax Museum is very light, bordering on comedic, with Glenda Farrell’s wise-cracking reporter looking into various mysteries tying back into the wax museum. With such an emphasis on Farrell, it’s easy to see this as “Torchy Blane and the Mystery of the Wax Museum.” The 1933 time period also puts it in the Pre-Code era so you get prominent lady nipples on the wax figure being sculpted, one of the characters is called a junkie, and Farrell asks a cop “How’s your sex life?” Twenty years later and that’s all gone.
House of Wax is the better known wax museum film due to Price’s leading man status as a horror star by 1953. (Casablanca director Michael Curtiz helmed the original film; Andre De Toth directed this.) Where Mystery was Farrell’s film, House is all about Price. Price plays Jarrod as a lonely, overly theatrical hermit who calls his statues “people.” Every line is filled with Shakespearean pathos, like Price is reading a book of quotes. He’s great, as he was in every horror film he appeared in, but it lends a hokey quality to the film. Lionel Atwill in Mystery is more reserved, creepy, and incidental. Mystery of the Wax Museum is a film about a wax museum, whereas House of Wax is a film about a sculptor gone mad. (A young Charles Bronson is given Atwill’s character name of Igor, but it’s perceived more as a callback to the Universal horror assistant instead of a tribute to the earlier film.)
The horror elements are pronounced more in House of Wax, again due to Price’s cache as a horror star. There is an intriguing opening as Jarrod discusses audiences’ desire for blood and gore as opposed to looking at works of art. With this being a venue for 1950’s 3D – hence random scenes of a peddler out front playing paddle ball at the camera – might this be a critique? Mystery of the Wax Museum was the last dramatic film made with two-strip Technicolor so both exhibit a reverence for technology, albeit the older film marks the death knell for one and the other embraces a newer technique. House of Wax runs through the various horror tropes, including the addition of a little sex with Sue being stripped and bound to a table before hot wax is poured on her. Either way, neither one is particularly frightening; it’s just House of Wax knows what it is.
From an acting standpoint, each film has their pros and cons. The always reliable Price creates a lonely hermit with passion for his work. The same is said for Atwill, whose internal passion smolders under the surface. Both actors are ultimately revealed as disfigured, but it’s expected of Price; it’s also expected since the character who betrays him makes mention of Jarrod’s body being missing post-fire. When we finally see the grave-robber it’s safe to assume it’s Price. Without that scene in Mystery, there’s actual (dare I say) mystery because we’re not quite sure it’s Atwill; you know if you’ve seen the later movie. Glenda Farrell of Mystery, as mentioned in my alternate title, plays Torchy Blane under a different name – a role she’d play four years later. She’s a brassy gum-snapping sleuth whose bark is as bad as her bite. There’s life in her personality in comparison to the dull Phyllis Kirk. Kirk is relegated to the nice girl; I kept thinking they were saying “Sue Ellen,” as opposed to Sue Allen, only enhancing her sweet as pie image. You aren’t watching these movies for the star, but the sculptor, but Farrell creates a better character than Kirk.
House of Wax also holds the distinction of a turn-of-the-century setting compared to Mystery’s modern day London. I’m not entirely sure why House of Wax puts events in a time machine, possibly due to Price’s past success in throwback pictures? Either way, it certainly adds something unique to House whereas the events in Mystery of the Wax Museum play as unrealistic.
House of Wax and Mystery of the Wax Museum are equally entertaining. Vincent Price dominates House of Wax, but Glenda Farrell and Lionel Atwill present nuanced characters in a story that feels ripped from the pages of a pulp mystery. The pre-Code elements within Mystery of the Wax Museum create a more risque story compared to House of Wax’s routine horror film. If you watch both back-to-back it’s easy to get fatigued as the story’s are so similar with little deviation other than time period and female lead. It’s worth it to watch both, particularly if you like Farrell or Price.
Ronnie Rating for both Mystery of the Wax Museum and House of Wax
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.