Trav S.D.’s Guide to Horror in Wax Museums

With Halloween near upon us today we take a look at a minor but powerful horror subgenre, that of the wax museum based murdering madman. At least since Pygmalion and Galatea, storytellers and their audiences have been rapt at tales of creators with sick attachments to their creations. If they are jealous and vengeful lunatic, so much the better!  Further, the uncanny power of the lifelike human sculpture has also long been a fascination. Wax museums date back to the 18th century. “Chambers of Horrors”, galleries of famous villains and murderers and the like at institutions like Madame Tussaud’s and others gave the modern world some of the first horror spectacle as entertainment, pre-dating not only the cinema but even the Grand Guignol. Even if the chamber of horrors weren’t a thing, there’s creepiness enough in a room full of mannequins — Rod Serling went back to that well many a time in The Twilight Zone. 

Waxworks (1924)

We give this one an honorable mention as a kind of precursor to the genre. It’s not a horror film, properly speaking, but does present the moody setting of a wax museum, in this case as a setting to spark other stories based on the lives of the wax figures (much as the The Illustrated Man later did with tattoos). It was a German film, directed by Paul Leni, later celebrated for The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928).

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The modern cinematic “wax horror” subgenre seems to begin with screenwriter Charles S. Belden, whose short story “The Wax Works” and play The Wax Museum, formed the basis of The Mystery of the Wax Museum. Directed by Michael Curtiz. More beautiful in some ways than the better known 1953 remake House of Wax, The Mystery of the Wax Museum sports that delicious mix of art deco and neo-gothic design that defines early 30’s horror. Like so many films of its time, it’s set in a “present day” that somehow also includes dungeons and hansom cabs. Lionel Atwill is the wronged, disfigured wax sculptor, in possession of a mannequin factory below his museum that is simply impossible. The plot suffers from a superfluity of leading ladies/ damsels in distress (Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell) and boyfriends who fail to rescue them, but like so many of the films from this era…it’s about the atmosphere, not the logic. Treat it like a dream and the dream will take hold…

Mad Love (1935)

This one gets honorable mention, although the villain (Peter Lorre) is a mad scientist instead of a mad sculptor. But he does become obsessed with a Grand Guignol actress (Frances Drake) and her wax likeness in the theatre’s adjacent museum. In one particular scene, he loves it (or what he takes to be it) a little TOO much. More on this film in my post on mad scientists. 

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)

Oddly, this was not written by Belden, the father of the genre, even though he did write Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937), Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), and Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938). In this one, the wax museum is merely an atmospheric locale in which Chan (Sidney Toler) attempts to find an escaped convict. At one point, murder is attempted using the museum’s electric chair display.

Honorable Mention: Two by Abbott and Costello

Wax museums figured in at least two Abbott and Costello horror comedies: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Abbott and Costello meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953). They are convenient mechanisms for getting Universal monsters into the mix, with the recurring gag being encounters by Costello with the famous monsters who have replaced their own wax figures in the museum. The spooky atmosphere abides, even when the agenda is silliness.

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House of Wax (1953)

One of my favorite movies of all time. Vincent Price at his absolute best, as a demented wax sculptor and museum impresario, maimed in a fire by an unscrupulous partner for the insurance money. A throwback to an earlier age of horror. The script keeps many lines from the original pre-code Mystery of the Wax Museum, but generally improves it, streamlines and clarifies the story. The mise en scene is gorgeous: designed for 3-D and Technicolor, and historically accurate in many details, set in the time of gaslights and hansom cabs (as opposed to the original which was merely an atmospheric “present day”). It has references to some of the places I talk about in my book No Applause such as the Eden Musee etc. Carolyn Jones (Morticia Addams) is in it as Price’s first victim. Charles Bronson is also in it, thankfully as a mute. The 3-D gimmick is used in many silly ways, but that’s part of its charm.

Chamber of Horrors (1966)

This interesting film was shot as a pilot for a proposed TV series which never aired because it was entirely too dark for the television of the day. Surprisingly it was produced and directed by Hy Averback, whom I associate primarily with comedy –sitcoms like F Troop and M*A*S*H, and movies like I Love You Alice B. Toklas (1968). In this very different take on the old setting, the wax museum proprietors (Wilfred Hyde-White and Cesare Danova) are the good guys, who work as amateur detectives on the side. Patrick O’Neal is the one handed villain (with a series of fiendish prosthetic attachments) who goes around killing people he believes have done him wrong. A young Wayne Rogers plays a cop, and there are appearances by Suzy Parker, Marie Windsor and Tony Curtis, with narration by William Conrad. Averback even added some fun William Castle style gimmicks at the screenings: a Fear Flasher and a Horror Horn.

Nightmare in Wax (1969)

Essentially a low-budget remake of the original, insomuch as its about a disfigured wax museum owner (Cameron Mitchell) wreaking revenge on those who harmed him. In this version the victims who get entombed in wax are not dead, but injected with a paralyzing serum so that they have to watch helplessly as he engages in further misdeeds and are unable to call for help. It was shot on location at Movieland Wax Museum.

Terror in the Wax Museum (1973)

Stumbling across this one a few years ago was what made me realize there are enough wax museum madman stories to constitute a subgenre, and thus merit a post here. Terror in the Wax Museum is refreshingly traditional retelling of the tale, set in the late 19th century, with a dream horror cast: John Carradine as the mad wax sculptor genius, Ray Milland as the impresario who exploits him, Broderick Crawford as an unprincipled backer who gets his comeuppance, Elsa Lanchester as the niece who inherits the wax museum and Maurice Evans as a detective inspector who investigates the murders that are going on there. This one dares to ask the question, “Are the wax figures (all great murderers and villains from history) all coming to life and killing people?” Asked — and answered. Full footnote: Bing Crosby was one of the producers of the film.

Waxwork (1988)

This campy film and its 1992 sequel has its advocates. David Warner plays the wax museum impresario who invites a group of young people to his displays of classic monsters. Unfortunately, entering each exhibit causes you to cross some sort of reality threshold where you have to fight off the actual monsters. Patrick Macnee is the Van Helsing-like old man who helps the kids do battle with the creatures.

The Wax Mask (M.D.C.: Maschera di cera, 1997)

Italian remake House of Wax developed by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. When the latter died prior to shooting the reins were handed to Sergo Stivaletti, who up ’til then had strictly been a special effects artist. Thus the film is stronger on gore and visions like that depicted in the above photo than subtler effects created by acting and atmosphere.

House of Wax (2005)

This one is often referred to as a remake of the eponymous 1953 film, but really only exploits the title and the concept of displaying dead humans encased in wax, and little else. The whole thing is re-envisioned as a teen slasher film, given a contemporary setting, and transplanted to rural Louisiana, where the wax museum in question is a roadside attraction. It’s much more an offshoot of, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than the atmospheric period film which bears the same name. On the positive side, you do get to see Paris Hilton get killed.