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?
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).
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It's fair to say that WAXWORKS is one of the first anthology films. The movie starts off in a waxwork musuem where a young writer is hired by the owner to write about some of his waxworks including Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper etc. There are some light touches of humour along with fear and dread and some of the sets especially in the first segment look quite fantastic.
As with all silents this really is cornered off for either film historians or fans of silent cinema. The majority won't get through the first 10 minutes. The one problem on a personal note with Waxworks was the piano score- much too repetitive. So I stuck on John Barry's greatest hits soundtrack- which made the film far more watchable, it really did and I would recommend.