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Michael Curtiz
Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell
Writing Credits:
Don Mullaly, Carl Erickson

The disappearance of people and corpses leads a reporter to a wax museum and a sinister sculptor.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English DTS-HD MA Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 78 min.
Price: $21.99
Release Date: 5/12/20

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Alan K. Rode
• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Scott MacQueen
• “Remembering Fay Wray” Featurette
• Restoration Featurette


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Mystery of the Wax Museum [Blu-Ray] (1933)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 26, 2020)

Born Manó Kaminer, director Michael Curtiz began his cinematic career in his native Hungary in 1912, and he moved to Hollywood in 1926. Curtiz earned his most enduring fame via 1943’s legendary Casablanca.

Curtiz churned out dozens of movies over his career, including six credited films in 1933. One of these endures in the public consciousness: Mystery of the Wax Museum, a flick that enjoyed the presence of actor Fay Wray, also found in that same year’s seminal King Kong.

In London circa 1921, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) sculpts extremely life-like wax figures. When this enterprise fails to make money, though, financier Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) sets fire to the museum to scam the insurance company. As the two men brawl among the flames, Joe leaves Ivan to perish.

Fast-forward to 1933 and Ivan resurfaces in New York, a pretty good sign he survived the blaze. He opens a new museum despite the fact that the fire in 1921 left his hands maimed.

Reporter Florence Dempster (Glenda Farrell) pursues a story about Joan Gale (Monica Bannister), an heiress who died under suspicious circumstances. Florence wants to learn the autopsy results, but Gale’s body goes missing.

Florence’s roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray) dates Ivan’s assistant Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent), so she visits the museum. There she sees a wax figure that bears a remarkable likeness to Joan Gale, and she sets about to discover the secrets of Ivan’s methods, all while Ivan himself develops an unhealthy fascination with Charlotte.

Movies fans enjoy a greater familiarity with the story of Mystery via 1953’s House of Wax. That film remains noteworthy if just because it became known as the first major studio 3D effort.

In my ever-so-humble opinion, that remains the only potential claim to fame for House. The movie camps up a storm and brings little other than cheap melodrama.

I never saw either House or Mystery until both appeared on the same Blu-ray in 2013. As implied above, House came as a definite disappointment, a movie that failed to live up to a good reputation.

Because I didn’t care for House, I figured that Mystery wouldn’t do much for me either, as they seemed similar enough that the original would be the tree from which the subsequent apple didn’t fall too far. However, I was wrong, as Mystery delivered a significantly more enjoyable experience.

Honestly, I can find virtually nothing that I like better about House. Mystery tells its tale in a more logical manner and more successfully hides the identity of the fiend.

It comes with more interesting characters and a moodier, more suspenseful narrative. There’s a creepiness at work here absent from the milquetoast House.

Perhaps this results from their respective directors. Whereas Mystery enjoyed a true Hollywood legend behind the camera, House came from André De Toth.

Ironically, both Curtiz and De Toth grew up in Hungary, though the former already launched his work in films a year before the latter was born. National origins seem to be their most compelling commonality, as their careers took different paths.

While Curtiz became a legend, De Toth developed into nothing more than a journeyman, one without any obviously strong credits in his filmography. House remains the best-known effort De Toth can claim, whereas Curtiz probably made at least a half-dozen movies better remembered than Mystery.

Though not necessarily better made than this skillful little horror movie. Deft, unassuming and effective, it turns into a strong piece of work.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

Mystery of the Wax Museum appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Due to the photographic processes, this became a challenging image, but the disc rendered it well.

The two-strip Technicolor process tended to impact sharpness the most heavily, as it left us with a movie that leaned toward the soft side of the street. Within the constraints of the photography, the film looked fine, but it still lacked particularly great delineation.

No issues with jagged edges or moiré effect materialized, and I saw no signs of edge haloes. Given a layer of grain, noise reduction didn’t become a problem, and the image cleaned up potential print flaws.

The two-strip Technicolor process meant a restricted palette, one that favored greens and pinks. That meant a less than realistic sense of hues, but the Blu-ray reproduced them within the limits of the format – even if that technology meant Mystery tended to look more like a colorized movie shot in black and white than a native color project.

Blacks appeared fairly dense, while low-light shots offered pretty good delineation. No one will use Mystery as a visual showcase, but for an 87-year-old movie shot with a problematic film process, I thought the results worked well.

As expected, the movie’s DTS-HD MA monaural mix seemed dated but acceptable. Though speech displayed a thin quality typical of the era, dialogue usually sounded reasonably accurate and distinct.

As with dialogue, effects and music seemed flat and lackluster and they failed to demonstrate much dynamic range. However, those issues often appeared during older movies, so I had no great worries about them. All in all, I thought that the soundtrack of Mystery appeared to be typical for its era.

How did this Blu-ray’s transfer of Mystery compare to the version on the 2013 House of Wax disc? Audio felt a bit clearer, though this area didn’t turn into a major upgrade, as the restrictions of the source limited improvements.

As for visuals, the 2020 Mystery felt a bit better defined and cleaner. The 2013 version could shows lines and marks, and it also tended to look somewhat blocky at times.

Colors also improved with the 2020 transfer, as the 2013 edition veered toward even more extreme pink and green. All in all, the 2013 Mystery looked acceptable, but the 2020 image became an obvious step up in quality.

We get a few extras here, highlighted by two separate audio commentaries. The first comes from film historian Alan K. Rode, who delivers a running, screen-specific look at cast and crew, sets and locations, censorship issues, the movie's release and connected areas.

Rode delivers a pretty standard "film historian commentary", with a broad look at the participants and various specifics about the production. He turns this into an informative and effective chat.

For the second commentary, we hear from film historian Scott MacQueen. He provides his own running, screen-specific discussion of the source story, its adaptation, cast/crew and different parts of the production, with some emphasis on technical areas like cinematography and effects. This track also includes quotes from cinematographer Ray Rennahan as well as archival recordings from interviews with actors Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell.

A veteran of the format, MacQueen brings us a useful commentary. Happily, he avoids much repetition with Rode's piece, so we get a good array of fresh details in this engaging track.

Remembering Fay Wray offers an 18-minute, 49-second featurette that brings notes from actor’s daughter Victoria Riskin. She chats about her mother’s life and career, with some emphasis on Mystery. This becomes a pleasant and moderately informative piece.

A Beforeand After Restoration Comparison runs seven minutes, 11 seconds and includes notes from MacQueen. As we view shots in their unrestored and restored versions, MacQueen tells us about the changes and processes. Some of this feels informative, but like most shows of this sort, it can seem a bit self-congratulatory.

A quality horror tale, Mystery of the Wax Museum holds up after almost 90 years. Creepy and effective, the movie gives us an efficient take on its subject matter. The Blu-ray comes with generally positive picture and audio along with some useful bonus materials. Fans will enjoy this quality release.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3 Stars Number of Votes: 2
0 3:
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