Halloween Endurance Test: Waxworks (1924)

From way back in the vaults we find the 1924 German Expressionism classic horror film, Paul Leni’s Waxworks. (Okay, hands up, how many thought the answer was going to be the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?) Waxworks was actually one of the first films I watched for the, at the time, still new Halloween Endurance Tests. [Circa 2007.] Comprised of three stories (Spring Heeled Jack, Ivan the Terrible, and Haroun-al-Raschid), Waxworks might be the earliest example of a “trilogy of terror” formatted film.

In a nice touch, the stories are narrated by a young man who accepts a job writing the wax villains’ tales. It’s amazing how, in just 20 years, the whole concept of the house of wax horror film would shift 180 degrees from the wax figures actually doing the deeds in flashback, to becoming the deeds’ (hidden) victims.

This is clearly a low-rent house of wax. Mid-interview, Haroun-al-Raschid‘s arm falls off; catapulting us into the first tale. As our protagonist wastes no time in securing his job by immediately penning the story about how the arm was lost; rather than wait for maintenance to, I don’t know, fix it. (It turns out maintenance men were just as frustratingly slow 100 years ago!)

Haroun-al-Raschid (Emil Jannings), the Caliph of Baghdad, “hates monotony” and thus starts lusting after the local baker’s wife. Under cover of darkness, the Caliph and his Grand Vizier sneak around sets that would serve as artistic inspiration for Douglas Fairbanks’ classic Thief of Baghdad.

A trilogy tale of two thieves, the baker tries to steal the caliph’s “wishing ring” for his gluttonous wife, while the caliph is looking to kidnap the baker’s wife. 15 minutes into the film, and there’s absolutely no one to cheer for. The “Don’t worry, dear, I’m not a robber, I’m a rapist” Caliph? Or the henpecked husband who goes out to steal from Muhammed’s second-in-command? Maybe the golddigging wife, who, after sending her hard-working husband out to his certain (future) death, doesn’t seem to mind when the Caliph shows up in her window?

Jesus, er…Muhammed! I guess the Caliph is the hero. The baker catches him sleeping, and cuts his arm off to get the wishing ring. The baker is soon beset by a platoon of guards, and is saved by his wife, who uses the fake wish ring to “resurrect” the Caliph (actually hiding in an oven) and give her husband a more noble job (as the Caliph’s personal chef).

The second tale wastes no time in starting off, informing us, via title cards, that Ivan is indeed Terrible (Conrad Veidt), as he enjoys watching his subjects die from poisoning in the Kremlin’s cellar. (Doubly shocking as this is 20 years prior to the Cold War!)

Again there’s no clear hero, as Ivan is planning on killing his personal poison-mixer next. Suspecting a trap, the poison-mixer takes the hour glass that tells how much time each of Ivan’s victims has to live, and writes “Ivan” on it. Check-mate; even though the poison-mixer is caught moments later and disposed of. It’s hard to feel bad for him, as his title is “poison-mixer.”

The poison-mixer does have a bit of a conscience though, and swaps out Ivan’s damning hourglass with a normal, if slightly exaggerated one, one shortly before the doomed Russian Czar arrives. Ivan, believing himself to be poisoned, thus spends out the rest of his days madly turning the hourglass over and over in an effort to prolong his life.

Sadly the film’s most Expressionistic piece, Spring Heeled Jack, is also the shortest. Now tiring and still tasked with penning the final story, the young writer falls asleep while at work. Dreaming of Spring Heeled Jack lurking from all sides; attempting to murder the writer and take his wife. The constant morphing between Jack and the writer’s boss clearly underlines this tale as a dream sequence, undercutting any sort of tension it could hope to elicit.

It’s brevity is also puzzling. Perhaps the idea of a “trilogy of terror” was too new at the time for anyone to make all the stories roughly the same length. As it is, the Spring Heeled Jack story is barely five minutes long, while the other tales are roughly three times that length. Creating quite an uneven feel for the film, not to mention an abrupt ending.

Not to mention that the title cards clearly call the villain “Spring Heeled Jack,” although the character is obviously modeled after Jack the Ripper. And he dispatches his victims with a knife, rather than by leaping upon them and belching out blue and white flames.

My only guess is that, given how this film is from 1924, Waxworks used to play longer, and the Spring Heeled Jack footage has been lost.


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