Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Waxworks (1924)

Waxworks (1924)
Dir. Paul Leni
Written by Henrick Galeen
Starring Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, William Dieterle

Back when I reviewed director Paul Leni’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, I had to politely point out that despite its grotesque imagery and macbre subject matter, it wasn’t really a horror movie. It’s mostly a kind of gothic melodrama, adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name (which was apparently originally intended as a socially-conscious work of political criticism, though one which does not appear to have a great deal of enduring relevance to our time) which begins with some right proper gothic horror (the horrifically deformed face of its protagonist is said to be the inspiration for The Joker) but gradually decamps into an opaque political thriller and finally an over-the-top action set piece spectacular. It’s still really durn good, though, and appropriately harrowing when it sets its mind to be. So even though LAUGHS was only horror-adjacent, director Leni obviously had such a strong command of the cinematic langauage of horror that I was excited to give him another shot, this time with his 1924 anthology WAXWORKS. Not only was I excited to see Leni take a swing at out-and-out horror, but I’d read multiple places that WAXWORKS was the first-ever anthology horror movie, which as you know is a subset of horror film so dear to my heart that I’m pretty much physically incapable of not enjoying any given outing.

Unfortunately it turns out WAXWORKS is also not really a horror movie. Instead, it’s a two-and-a-half part anthology film which begins as some kind of comic fantasy and segues into something like a gothic historical tale before finally, in its last six minutes, arriving at genuine horror. So calling this the first anthology horror film isn’t quite right; in fact, even if it were more straightforward horror, there appears to be at least one earlier anthology horror/fantasy film, 1919’s EERIE TALES (which as near as I can tell is the first anthology film of any kind; oddly, getting a definitive answer to this question proves quite difficult, and a medium-effort online search seems to reveal no immediate authoritative source on this topic. I swear, as soon as I’m done reviewing the 90,000 horror movies I watched in October I’m gonna have to fix that). That probably makes it slightly less valuable as a historical curiosity, but fortunately thanks to Paul Leni’s German Expressionist mastery, it has plenty of value on its own, even if could use a lot more horror and a lot less uncomfortable brownfaced sex romp.

This is what a Nazi looks like playing a comically buffoonish Arab of great religious significance. I hope to never have to type that particular sentence ever again, if that's OK.

Allow me to explain: the framing story finds a young writer (William Dieterle, better known for his later career as director of such films as THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER and DARK CITY [1950]) hired to craft stories for the four figures in a wax museum (although calling a building with only four wax figure a “museum” seems a little generous, but whatever). These figures are first-century Islamic Golden Age Caliph Harun al-Rashid (Emil Jannings, THE BLUE ANGEL, various Nazi propaganda films), 16th-century Russian Tsar Ivan The Terrible (Conrad Veidt, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, CASABLANCA), a threatening British character alternately referred to as “Jack The Ripper” and “Spring-Heeled Jack” (Warner Krauss, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, more Nazi propaganda films), and the fictional swashbuckler Rinaldo Rinaldini (Dieterle again) from the 1797 novel Rinaldo Rinaldini, The Robber Captain by Christian August Vulpuis. Amusingly, Leni ran out of money and decided to ditch the planned Rinaldini segment, meaning the poor lad only gets 75% of the job done before bailing. While he writes, we get to see the fruits of his imagination, which tend to feature himself as the hero and the museum owner’s beautiful daughter (Russian actress Olga Belajeff) as a romantic interest.

The first, and unfortunately the longest of these imagined tales, concerns Dieterle as first-century brownfaced baker Assad, a hard working stiff who can’t catch a break. When smoke from his bakery irritates Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the ruler quickly decides that he’d like to steal the baker’s beautiful wife, and so he sneaks into the house while Assad is gone to try and steal her away. Coincidentally, Assad is actually simultaneously sneaking into the Caliph’s palace because he’s attempting to steal the “wishing ring” worn by al-Rashid in an effort to win his wife’s affection by ameliorating the grinding poverty she’s always whining to him about. Comic complications ensue which involve an in-story wax figure of the Caliph, a mistaken identity, etc, etc. Or at least a single etc. Frankly it’s a little short on whammy. Even setting aside the now-extremely-uncomfortable brownfacing, stereotyping, and debasing female objectification on display here (and that’s pretty much the whole story), this segment suffers from a lax pace and an unnecessarily protracted setup, taking far too long to even get to the middling slapstick which appears to be its goal. The performances are broad and stilted without being especially fun, and so really the only thing left to enjoy is Leni’s deliciously skewed expressionist production design. That is a joy to look at, and no small one, but probably not quite enough to justify a labored 40 minutes, especially when there are really only a handful of sets to be had here.

Fortunately, the second segment is much better. It introduces us to notorious Russian tyrant Ivan the Terrible, and he’s played by Conrad Veidt, so right away you know whatever happens it’s gonna be pretty good to watch. I mean, the guy is just an arrestingly intense presence on screen, with his piercing eyes and expressive pre-sound physical acting. He’s also pretty much the only person on-screen who didn’t end up having his career tainted by enthusiastically appearing in Nazi propaganda films (he fled Germany in 1933 with his Jewish wife), so that’s a nice bonus there too. Gaunt and wild-eyed, and sporting a wicked mephistopheles beard t’boot, Veidt definitely looks every inch a madman, but somewhat runs afoul of a script which doesn’t give him anything to do which quite measures up to the intensity of his performance. Most of the segment just involves him wandering around acting like a total fucking asshole to everyone he encounters, particularly when he crashes a wedding with the corpse of the bride’s father in tow (!) and impulsively decides he’d actually like the bride for himself thank you very much (in a particularly grim reimagining of the first segment’s central conflict). There’s plenty of bad behavior, and a smattering of grim, expressionistically-enhanced torture scenes, but that doesn’t exactly add up to a story in any meaningful way. The result is that Veidt’s fierce performance is somewhat blunted by its lack of narrative direction, though admittedly the climax -- which finds Ivan getting his comeuppance in an appropriately psycho-sadistic German fashion-- has some real bite to it. Disappointingly, Leni also doesn’t go as wild on the production design in this segment as you might hope; aside from Ivan’s fabulous faberge-egg-shaped bed, the sets are the minimalist sort of expressionism, cool-looking but not independently stunning. Nothing here is exactly bad, mind you, and a lot of it is pretty damn good, but it’s also kind of hard to not feel like this was something of a missed opportunity considering the talent involved. The upside is that supposedly Sergei Eisenstein liked the segment so much that he pilfered a lot of its imagery for his own 1944/1957 two-part epic masterpiece IVAN THE TERRIBLE; I’ve seen that tidbit repeated all over the web, though I can find no independent verification. Then again, I’ve also seen it said repeatedly that the al-Rashid segment influenced Douglas Fairbanks to make THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, which at least one source points out is impossible since THIEF actually premiered a few months ahead of WAXWORKS in Germany (and a full two years in America). So I’m starting to think some of the trivia here is a little suspect.

Fortunately, after a weak opening and a decent but uninspired second segment, WAXWORKS finally gets to the good stuff. Unfortunately it’s only for the last six minutes of the movie, but hey, we take what we can get. After behaving himself with the broad al-Rashid story and the serious-minded Ivan bit, Leni finally lets his freak flag fly with the Jack The Ripper / Spring-Heeled Jack sequence (even though the script uses both names interchangeably, I’m pretty sure they mean Jack The Ripper since Spring-Heeled Jack is pretty, uh, distinct) and we get some true horror goods out of him, at long last. There’s really not much story here at all, just an abstract nightmare of persecution, where the Ripper seems to be appearing everywhere and nowhere to the terrified writer, as he stumbles through a disassembled cityscape of layered, superimposed imagery and menacing shadows. Narratively simple but stylistically audacious, you’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect bit of pure cinema in the horror genre. It’s a supremely bold, absolutely avant-garde use of the medium, and lest we forget, it was fucking 1924. If there was any doubt that Leni was an absolute master visualist, check out this bit where the lurking shadow of the Ripper is reduced to cubist chaos by the spinning ferris wheel skulking somewhere in the indefinite background:

Unfortunately Leni would never quite get a chance to deliver on the promise of this final segment; he would make only one “true” horror film, THE CAT AND THE CANARY, before his untimely death in 1929 at the age of 44. Supposedly (and, again, I’m finding a lot of “supposedly” in the writing which surrounds this movie) Leni and Veidt were Universal’s top picks for their newly-acquired rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Leni’s death put the production off for around a year while they searched for a new director.* The mind reels to imagine what he could have accomplished if he’d really been set loose on American horror as the genre started to become more distinct. Alas, it was not to be. But the slim six minutes here are a stunning monument to an imagination and a mastery of craft, combined with solid horror instincts, that in many ways remains peerless to this day.

*I’m not sure how much of that I believe, considering Lugosi was hired off the hugely successful stage production of the book which seems certain to have been a big inspiration behind the movie version, but whatever. This is exactly the kind of legend I’ll happily believe over the truth.

Good Kill Hunting

Yup, there’s totally a waxworks.
None listed, although the intended fourth segment (apparently never filmed) was to adapt the 1797 novel Rinaldo Rinaldini, The Robber Captain by Christian August Vulpuis
Anthony Hickox’s 1988 horror-comedy WAXWORKS isn’t a direct remake, but is surely inspired by this one.
Slasher/stalker / Torture Porn
Kind of hard to determine how famous these actors were at the time, but obviously Veidt is a beloved classic actor today. And Dieterle would go on to be a highly respected director.
Yeah, both of the longer sections allow the villain to sexually menace a young lady, though it’s 1924 and obviously they couldn’t actually show anything going too far.
Yes, Ivan’s
Don’t die in 1929 at the age of 44, for fuck’s sake. Nobody needs that shit.

The filmmaking on display here is just too strong to go less than four, although the entertainment value varies. 

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