Horror movies, or at least their progenitors, have been haunting audiences since the silent era, and the best ones can still make us shriek a hundred years later. With their sinister killers, hazy nightmares, and pointy-fingered vampires, all wrapped up in the menacing mise-en-scène that came to define German Expressionism, it’s no wonder that films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu are still so popular, especially around Halloween. But there’s a strong case for adding Paul Leni’s carnival of unease Waxworks to that list. Not exactly a horror movie, it has some undeniably eerie elements.
Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) was written by Nosferatu screenwriter Henrik Galeen and has the added curiosity of being an anthology film, with a frame story that anchors and occasionally bleeds into the chapters that follow. After this early example of the format, the horror genre has since returned to it again and again, with examples as varied as Mario Bava’s 1963 Black Sabbath, 1982’s George A. Romero-Stephen King collaboration Creepshow, 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, and the more recent V/H/S and ABCs of Death films. Anthology movies keep the pace moving, which for horror fans ideally means a higher frequency of scares, as well as a variety of monsters, styles, and moods, depending on the contents of each segment.
As the title suggests, Waxworks begins amid the chaos of a fun fair, a ghoulish environment that’s already enough to put anyone on edge—even without the presence of wax figures so lifelike they’re obviously actors holding very, very still for Leni to get the shot. Hungry for greater publicity, the proprietor of a wax museum and his enthusiastic daughter (Olga Belajeff) hire a writer (Wilhelm Dieterle, who soon left Germany for Hollywood and made his name as a director, with a filmography that included 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to let his imagination run wild and come up with “startling tales” to bolster three of their history-inspired figures.
First up is the rotund, gloriously mustachioed Harun al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad (Emil Jannings), who has seemingly stepped straight out of Arabian Nights, except he’s missing an arm. No matter; it’s a flaw that the writer incorporates into an energetic tale about a baker (Dieterle), his alluring wife (Belajeff), and the lascivious ruler who pursues her. Next, we follow along as Ivan the Terrible (Dr. Caligari star Conrad Veidt) spreads his poisonous brand of cruelty among his subjects, including wrecking the wedding of characters again played by Dieterle and Belajeff. Finally, as the writer begins to succumb to fatigue after a long night’s work, the wax figure of Spring-Heeled Jack (or Jack the Ripper, in the original German; either way, he’s played by Werner Krauss) comes to life and chases the other characters around a version of reality that holds its own mind-bending secrets.
Obviously, the presence of a mad monarch and a knife-wielding fiend more than qualify Waxworks to wave the horror flag, but that first segment—the longest; it takes up nearly half the film—has a comedic, almost slapstick tone, particularly during a madcap chase sequence involving that freshly severed arm. Audiences in 2022 might be less inclined to guffaw at the sight of the “mischief-loving” Caliph sneaking into a house, locking the door behind him, and leering at the sleeping woman he finds there, but everything that happens between them is clearly playful, and Jannings’s performance is so exaggerated there’s no mistaking the whole thing is meant to be humorous. (Later, when Ivan the Terrible kidnaps a bride with unwholesome intentions, the tone is far less mirthful.) It’s interesting to note that when the film premiered on November 13, 1924, the segments actually appeared in a different order, with Ivan the Terrible first, followed by Spring-Heeled Jack, and finally the “Baghdad burlesque,” as film scholar Joel Westerdale calls it. Soon after Waxworks’ first screening, Leni returned the order to that of Galeen’s original script, thus sealing the film’s tonal shift from light to dark.
Westerdale also gives an explanation for that unexplained fourth wax figure, impossible to miss alongside the other three in the museum (look for the pointy hat, which has the approximate dimensions of a traffic cone) but oddly never remarked upon. It was intended for use in a segment focusing on Corsican highwayman Rinaldo Rinaldini, which was never filmed for that most time-honored cinematic reason: budget cuts. According to the original script, Westerdale says, the Rinaldo chapter would have featured a zany gunfight, built around a penny dreadful character who was more heroic than villainous. If it had been included, the entire tone of Waxworks would’ve been more evenly balanced between comedy and horror—and since Dieterle was to have played the dashing Rinaldo, it would have made for a more substantial arc for his writer character, who purposefully casts himself in bigger and bigger roles in his stories as the film goes on.
Of course, we’ll never know what Waxworks would’ve been like had Leni been given enough funds for location shooting in Italy, as he’d originally intended for the Rinaldo interlude. We’ll also never be able to witness the original German version of Waxworks, since the only negative was lost in a Paris custom office fire in 1925. The digitally restored English version that premiered at Berlinale in February 2020 was created from nitrate prints of the existing English, French, and Czech language versions, with the title cards and the color concept in particular coming from a print housed in the British Film Institute. Even knowing that some frames are lost, and others never created in the first place, doesn’t lessen the majesty of the film’s lavish sets and exotic costumes, nor does it take away from certain key moments—like anytime Veidt burns through the screen with his piercing Ivan the Terrible glare.
Paul Leni’s last film in Germany before moving to Hollywood where he defined the “Old Dark House” genre, Waxworks is often cited as striking a balance between art-house and genre film, which almost makes it a precursor to the so-called “elevated horror” movies, Hereditary and Us being two examples that drew big audiences just a few years ago. But Waxworks is also a more direct ancestor of the enduringly popular “creepy waxwork” horror subgenre, which delights in plots about murder victims being transformed into suspiciously lifelike wax statues, or wax statues coming to life and murdering people. Or both!
The most obvious starting point is 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum—a movie later remade twice as House of Wax, first in 1953 with Vincent Prince, then in 2005 with Paris Hilton; both have their merits, despite what you’re thinking. All the films in this mold (see also: 1969’s Nightmare in Wax, 1973’s Terror in the Wax Museum, and 1988’s Waxwork; maybe even throw in 1979’s Tourist Trap if you never want to look at a mannequin the same way again) obviously skew far more gruesome than Waxworks ever does. But there’s no denying Leni’s film helped plant the idea that wax figures possess an inherent macabre quality that can inspire a writer’s imagination and a filmmaker’s lens—and thrill audiences for generations.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius