Mystery of the Wax Museum
In this episode of Pop Culture Beast’s Halloween Horror Picks, filmmaker Matt Dinan joins me to talk about one of the earliest color horror films – Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)!
Mystery of the Wax Museum was one of three Warner Bros. pre-code pictures to utilize an improvement to Technicolor’s so called 2-strip color process, before technological advancements made the process obsolete. In the 1920s and 1930s, color was a rapidly evolving film technology, and (especially in the early days) viewed by audiences and studios alike as something of a novelty. By the time Mystery of the Wax Museum was released in 1933, the novelty had worn off. Audiences were burned out on a technology that was plagued by technical problems and whose color palette was limited to various shades of red and green. As such, Mystery of the Wax Museum has a muted, pastel quality, and never comes close to anything resembling true color.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (perhaps best known for directing Casablanca (1942), although he ultimately made more than 150 films), the movie stars Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Allen Vincent, Matthew Betz, Gavin Gordon and Arthur Edmund Carewe.
Celebrated art director Anton Grot designed the art deco sets, and innovative color film cinematographer Ray Rennahan handled the film’s beautiful photography. He would later go on to win Academy Awards for his outstanding cinematography on Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blood and Sand (1941).
When a body disappears from the morgue on New Years Eve, 1933, fast-talking newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Farrell) unravels a mystery involving the grand opening of a celebrated sculptor’s (Atwill) wax museum.
Mystery of the Wax Museum was remade as House of Wax (1953) with Vincent Price, and House of Wax was recycled into House of Wax (2005) with Paris Hilton. For my money, Mystery of the Wax Museum is the best of the three, in large part due to Glenda Farrell’s wonderful leading turn as one of cinema’s all time great wisecracking, indefatigable heroines.
If you’re looking for an early, non-Universal horror classic, with a bit of pre-code naughtiness and tons of laughs, this is your movie. Equal parts screwball comedy, crime/mystery, and impressionist horror, Mystery of the Wax Museum is a genre-bending classic that I rate 9/10.
Look for new episodes of Pop Culture Beast’s Halloween Horror Picks every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in October! You can watch past episodes HERE.
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Ryan Stockstad is a Los Angeles filmmaker with a passion for horror, documentary and experimental cinema. He has written articles for HC Magazine, Mostly Harmless Magazine and various blogs and websites. He has lectured on topics as diverse as low budget filmmaking, short story structure, and the influence of the Spanish Civil War on surrealist cinema. He hosts new episodes of Pop Culture Beast's Halloween Horror Picks every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in October.