The Masters of Cinema Series has often offered the amazing opportunity to experience horror films throughout the history of cinema and with its release of the 1924 silent classic Waxworks they have added another example ripe for discovery by amateur horror historians.
An anthology by one of the greats from the period Paul Leni, Waxworks is his final movie made in Germany before he was invited by Universal’s Carl Laemmle to come to Hollywood where he filmed his most famous works The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs, and The Last Warning.
The set up is superb as a fresh faced poet played by William Dieterle finds himself at a fair and spotting a sign in front of the waxworks museum for a writer, he journeys inside. Meeting the owner and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff) he sees the striking figures on display including Caliph Harun al-Rashid (Fausts Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Casablanca’s Conrad Veidt) and Spring Heeled Jack (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s Werner Krauss).
The job for the inventive scribe is to create backstories for each of the three exhibits and the young man sets straight to it casting himself, Eva and the old man in all of his fantastical tales. Beginning in Baghdad we see the story of how the Caliph lost his arm meeting a baker and his delightful looking wife who catches the eye of the Grand Vizier.
Informing the lustful and larger than life Caliph of this hidden beauty the ruler decides to take her for himself setting off for the bakers home. Little does he know that the loving couple are in the midst of an argument with the dutiful lady unhappy at her boring life and her spouse desperate to prove his worth.
As the husband goes off to steal the magic ring owned by the Caliph the sovereign himself shows up to unwontedly woo the wronged woman. Full of jealousy and drama the everyday emotions of the main characters is offset by the stylised sets and extravagant costumes on show. Emil Jannings Harun al-Rashid is a giant caricature in both belly size and the various gurning expressions that flash across his face adding a mask of frivolity to the nasty molesting intentions he actually has.
Far darker and far nastier than the bawdy and slapstick filled first story we travel to Russia next where we meet Conrad Veidt’s villainous Ivan the Terrible described by the poet as a blood crazed monster who enjoys torture and death. Best of all for Ivan is watching the sands of time slip away in the hour glass marked up by his personal Poison Maker while the captives slowly die.
Invited to the nuptials of one of his subjects who happens to be the father of the bride the paranoid Czar switches places with his host who is assassinated on the way to the wedding. Distraught when she sees her father dead the bride weeps hysterically however Ivan insists the celebrations commence forcing the guest to dance when death still lies on their door step.
From here things get a lot worse as Ivan takes the bride and groom captive both so he can play out his perverted pleasure upon them. Surprisingly all is saved when an ironic twist forces Ivan to face his own fate. By far the best section of Waxworks the tale is full of menace and tension propelled frighteningly forward by a stunning performance from Veidt that is compelling even by todays acting standards.
Chillingly concluding the theme of powerful and evil men snatching away any female victims they set their sinister sights on the final part sees Eva and the poet having a nightmarish encounter with Spring Heeled Jack, who here seems to also be Jack the Ripper, pursuing them through the fairground with murder on his mind.
With no surviving original negatives of the film Eureka Entertainments special Blu-ray edition was newly restored from contemporary prints and additional film materials from archives around the world. Presented with two new scores to accompany the film: one by the Ensemble Musikfabrik and the second by composer Richard Siedhoff, there are also some great extras including animated shorts, features and an in-depth, on-camera interview with journalist, film critic, and fiction writer Kim Newman about the legacy of Waxworks.
A great example of German expressionism Waxworks features stylised sets (designed by Leni), fantastical costumes, chiaroscuro lighting, and startlingly bold performances which are all paragons of the cinematic movement and contribute heavily to the film’s lasting appeal.