Silent Film Series: Waxworks [1924]

Everyone has an irrational fear.

Spiders, bugs, toilets, feet, their grandfather's underpants, we all have them, it's just how we are as flawed life forms. However, in some cases, some irrational fears are more justifiable than others, such as ventriloquist dummies, mannequins and waxwork figures. Maybe it's a latent fear we all have of being in the presence of the Uncanny Valley, but I don't blame people for getting uneasy around these things.

Waxworks are made to pay homage and affection to influential individuals and more often than not a lot of care is placed into their creation, but imagine if you were stuck in a room with one of those things with no way of escaping with just you, your waxy companion and an overactive imagination, how long would it take for you to swear those glassy eyes were following you around, watching you... waiting for you to turn your back? I saw you look furtively over your shoulder, don't pretend you didn't.

Waxworks, directed by Paul Leni, makes for a decent case regarding this phenomenon by taking a campfire story-esque approach and creating one of the earliest anthology films to hit the screen. Inherently campy, endearingly charming with a heavy dose of horror mixed with fantasy, shows such as the V/H/S series, Masters of Horror and Trick 'r' Treat but to name a few owe their existence to Waxworks. I love it how all of these things add up, don't you?

The general story line is as follows; A typically nameless and penniless poet (Wilhelm Dieterle) enters a wax museum where the proprietor works with his daughter. The proprietor hires the poet to write a back-story for his wax models of Harun al-Rashid (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss) in order to draw patrons into seeing the museum. With the daughter by his side, the poet writes a series of stories for each waxwork, each filled with excitement, danger and maybe a little bit of horrifying truth all the while installing himself and the daughter into each story as characters who interact with each historical figure.

Okay, so this movie doesn't so much have straight-up horror all of the time, that is until the final segment which also happens to be my personal favourite. Krauss's Jack The Ripper makes for a fairly compelling avatar of Jack the Ripper. You can envision this man stalking the lonely streets of Whitechapel, hunting his prostitute prey who had no alternative but to roam his hunting ground because money was worth more than their lives. I will admit, I have a tremendous fascination in Jack simply because of the fact nobody has found out who the Hell he was and most likely never will because the case is as ice cold as Retief Goosen's blood. Seeing an early cinematic depiction of one of history's most notorious and terrifying serial killers is an undisputed bonus as far as I'm concerned... and maybe that's because I'm a little Ripper-biased. Additionally, Krauss plays a character based off Jack The Ripper known as Spring-Heeled Jack who had an annoying tendency to leap out of graveyards and scare the sparkles out of passers-by and sometimes kill them if he felt like it. He would later become associated with the French equivalent Fatomas who was a symbol for terrorism and societal paranoia. This was some serious shit.

Despite most actors involved delivering charismatic and compelling performances, my personal favourite was Conrad Veidt as the demented Russian tyrant. Unstable, cruel and mercurial, he commands every scene he prowls through with his opulent costume as his wild, crazy eyes almost hypnotise you. If you ask me, you get some serious Nicholas Cage vibes from the man. Veidt had a rich and diverse career and it's little wonder why he got so much work thanks to his expressionistic face and peepers.

Now, as this film was made way back in 1924, one can predict that a certain level of racial insensitivity can come from the portrayal of several characters, namely Jannings portraying Harun al-Rashid. However, much to my surprise as well as relief, he is not portrayed as the stereotypical white-washed Mad Arab type of character- while still capricious and childish depending on the circumstances, he does not prove himself the type of irredeemably murderous psychopath that xenophobes at the time were so content in portraying people of the East to be. However, the make up, prodigious belly, facial hair, excessive eyeliner and costume of the character are predictably Westernized. Can't win them all. 


Waxworks clearly benefited from earlier German Expressionism titles which we have already had a squiz at (Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari) and what we have here is no exception. It is a self-contained tempest of imagination that may not always sincerely scare, but perfectly capable of entrapping the audience for it's swift and assured run time. Think of it as a prototypical version of some of Disney's darker live action movies combined with a dark dream you have just before dawn. It's not fantastic, but for those of you who love a good yarn, a dash of fun and a light seasoning of bygone innovation, give Waxworks a spin. 

You'll still probably be wary of wax figures though. 

Hey- I didn't say this review would change that.

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