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Waxworks is an anthology film directed with great German expressionism flair by Paul Leni. The horror element is liberally mixed with irony, humor and amazing escapes. The three stories, one quite short, start out with a young man (Wilhelm Dieterle) answering an ad: "Wanted - An imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibition." The exhibition is a sideshow at a carnival, and the waxworks are life-size figures of some legendary human monsters. There's Harun al Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Spring-Heeled Jack -- no, not Jack the Ripper -- (Werner Krauss). The daughter (Olga Belajeff) of the waxworks creator and the young man are attracted to each other. He picks up a pen and begins writing his stories while she watches enraptured.
Harun al Raschid was a ruler who "hated monotony, so he had a different wife for every day in the year." He's a corpulent, spoiled and lascivious potentate played with a fierce mustache, leering eyes and wandering hands by Jannings. When he becomes entranced by the baker's wife (Belajeff), she inspires the baker (Dieterle) to prove his worth by stealing the caliph's wishing ring. After attempted caresses ("Don't let that bother you, my nightingale," the caliph tells the baker's wife when her gown becomes disarranged, "your lack of clothes doesn't bother me in the least."), barred doors, leaping escapes, a severed arm and the baker's oven used as a hiding place, all comes to a close with a happy and ironic ending.
Ivan the Terrible was a "blood-crazed monster on the throne, who turned cities into cemeteries. His crown was a tiara of mouldering bones, his scepter an axe." He "loved to gloat over the dying agonies of his poisoned victims," using an hourglass to measure out their last minutes. This story is genuinely unnerving. The sight of Veidt as Ivan, followed by his astrologer, stalking down the passage to the torture chambers in a long white gown, bent at the waist, elbows back and hands on his hips, each step measured, is something to see. This ending is ironic and disturbing.
Spring Heeled Jack -- "the notorious character -- pounced suddenly and silently upon his victims." Our writer has finished his first two stories. The young girl has fallen asleep. He looks at the waxworks figure of Jack, starts to write but falls asleep. Or is he. Suddenly the girl is holding him, telling him Jack had tried to kill them. They flee into the carnival with Jack after them, a frightening figure in an overcoat, a long scarf around his neck, a hat set at a jaunty angle on his head and a knife in his hand. Is this a dream or reality? Well, watch the movie, but don't blink. This sequence is over in just two or three minutes.
Probably the greatest pleasure of the movie is its look. In Waxworks, there's not a straight line or a right angle to be seen. Bagdad is an odd wonderland of domes and crooked ladders, veils and shadows. Anything solid seems to have been made out of rough clay. The staircases in the palace look like the ribcage of some exotic creature. The Kremlin looks to be a cross between a dark, crazed fantasy and a grotesque stage set. The carnival grounds are a fantasm of double exposures, shadowy lighting effects and fog. This is an unusual and entertaining film, with two over-the-top yet skilled performances by Jannings and Veidt, and with all the strange visuals you could hope for in a film by Paul Leni.
If you like anthology films which feature stylish dread, watch Dead of Night, a British film from 1945. There are stories in the film that will make you think twice about looking in mirrors, watching a ventriloquist's act or staying with friends for the weekend.
The Kino presentation of the restored Waxworks has a very good DVD transfer, chapter stops for each sequence and an unobtrusive piano accompaniment composed and played by Jon Mirsalis. There are a couple of minor extras.Read more ›
1924's Waxworks is one of those films whose credits are more impressive than it's achievements. Directed by The Man Who Laughs' Paul Leni and starring Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt and Dr Caligari himself, Werner Krauss, it's an early anthology film linking three inhabitants of a fairground chamber of horrors as future director William Dieterle's writer is hired to come up with publicity stories. The first, an Arabian Nights tale in which a baker attempts to steal Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid's wishing ring while, unknown to him, the Caliph is romancing his wife is a horribly drawn out affair that offers plenty of opportunities for Jannings to ham it away but does nothing to justify his comical character's reputation as one of the most evil men in history. Things improve immensely in the second story, largely because of an extraordinarily intense performance by Veidt, utterly convincing as an increasingly paranoid Ivan the Terrible: in one remarkable scene he seems to completely lose himself in an orgasm as he watches one of his victims die. Unfortunately Krauss' Spring Heeled Jack is thrown away in a brief and badly executed nightmare coda, ending the film on a disappointing note. It's definitely worth watching for Veidt's sequence, but it's a shame it's sandwiched between two clunkers. The restoration by the Cineteca del Commune di Bologna is good but the blue and orange tints on Kino's DVD are so extreme you might want to turn the color way down to stop them bleeding out the detail altogether.
Also included on the DVD is the surprisingly enjoyable Rebus Film Number 1, a 1926 film crossword directed by Leni that's an intriguing kaleidoscope of rapidly edited footage serving as clues interspersed with brief animations, and an extract from Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad which is supposed to show the influence of Waxworks on the film's design but actually serves to disprove it! (If anything, Leni's film seems much more of an influence on Stephen Grimes production design for Krull).Read more ›
The movie can be compared with the 1945 Cavalcanti film 'Dead of Night', also a compendium of horror and/or comic tales where the hearer characters become entangled - some fatally so - with the fictional stories that they tell or hear. 'Waxworks' has three such stories, framed by a situation of romance involving a Poet (actually a blurb writer, such are our fallen commercial times), the waxworks proprietor and his daughter. The first story is an Arabian Nights fantasy with wonderful theatrical sets. It's basically a genial cod-macabre sex farce with the Poet and Girl mixed up in the plot, and all the characters basically get what they want. In this Baghdad there's not a straight line to be seen, built of dizzy towers, weird angles, twisting staircases and oddly biological-looking windows and doors.
Then comes the film's stand-out performance by Conrad Veidt as a horror comic version of Ivan the Terrible ( the Poet cooks up some lurid prose for this exhibit, but after all, he's writing for the waxwork patron not the historian). This Ivan appears to think that each death of his enemies somehow prolongs his own life. At the segment's chilling end (after some lusty outrages to demonstrate him being Terrible) he is trapped in a truly horrible conceptual world: one in which there can be no death and no escape either: he has now gone mad. This segment compares in impact with the ventriloquist and dummy segment of 'Dead of Night', though that one is placed as the culmination of the 1945 movie rather than its centre. Michael Redgrave probably thought that, with Veidt's performance as precedent, he had a lot to live up to, and indeed he too turns in a career-best performance. Veidt shows what silent acting is all about, with mesmerising glassy gaze and off-centre body postures, and he uses his hands as his 'voice'. If a Chamber of Horrors waxwork really came to 'life', this is how it would behave physically (and morally too perhaps): convincingly all too human and with evil fears and needs geared up to white heat. But at the same time Veidt creates the haunted Tsar as something that is somehow off-centre: not quite 'right' in terms of representing a living human character - more a wax figure passionately seeking to hoard what fierce life it possesses. Like the dummy in 'Dead of Night', the inanimate as character has more power and command than the merely animate.
In the third and last section of the movie, the Poet and his girl, now as their fairground selves rather than fictional historical characters, are pursued through the fair by a knife-wielding Spring-heel Jack in a blizzard of double exposures, montages and distorted images. It turns out to be a dream though, and all ends happily. Both movies come out of world wars, and were made by people who had recent experience of what evil and madness might consist of, and with firm artistic views on how this might be conveyed with conviction and style. What is really monstrous about being human and condemned to mortality, and how will history be remembered in the mental theatre of the waxworks?Read more ›