It all had to start somewhere. The Wax Museum has been fertile ground for a number of successful horror films including Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), House of Wax (1953), and Waxwork (1988). Each one of these films has their own merits and all draw inspiration from this 1924 film which is done in a German Expressionistic style. For those who don’t know what this means, it means sets with delightful abstract proportions and lines, exaggerated make-up and a dream-like quality to the film. My favorite examples of this style are definitely Nosferatu (1922) and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The print of Waxwork I watched is the Kino restoration. The picture quality is very good, the best I’ve ever seen. Furthermore, the piano score that accompanies it fits the visuals quite well.
Director Paul Leni [The Cat and the Canary] takes us on a thrilling ride through exotic locations. The action begins in a wax museum where a writer is hired to invent the backstory of each figure in the museum. As the writer begins his work, the viewer is taken on three separate journeys, the last of which puts the writer himself in the scene. Leni tells each story so well that the intertitles are not even necessary. Yes, they help, but the viewer can figure out what’s happening without them.
The cast includes Conrad Veidt who stole the show in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as Cesare the somnambulist. Werner Krauss is his partner in crime who also starred with Veidt in Cabinet. They work their magic and work it well. Lil Dagover rounds out the trio with her feminine charms. She also appeared in both films.
Waxworks may be a little slow for modern audiences who are used to crazy hyper-exaggerated action, but I believe silent films have their rewards if we are patient enough to enter into the story and relax a bit. While Waxworks is not as iconic as Nosferatu or Cabinet, it is excellent and is a great example of the amazing, pioneering work that was done by a number of German directors. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it! It’s a visual delight.
For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.