*. The premise of a murderer who makes wax effigies of his victims apparently goes back to a short story by Charles S. Belden titled “The Wax Works.” The story remained unpublished however, and I’ve never been able to track a copy down. So these are obscure beginnings.
*. For all intents and purposes, however, things really got started with Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 film that seems to have been a kind of afterthought following up a similar production the year before (Doctor X). Nevertheless, the hook was set in the popular imagination, especially with the success of the 1953 remake House of Wax starring Vincent Price. But I think the movies were only tapping into something deeper. We are used to seeing mannequins in store windows that we might initially mistake for real people. Well, what if they were real people?
*. The story also draws on another horror archetype: that of the deranged artist obsessed with his muse. It’s the direct offspring of Phantom of the Opera, and has had nearly as long a life. The artist-muse connection would continue in minor variations on the waxworks theme such as this film and Crucible of Terror, but would oddly disappear from the 2005 production of House of Wax, which opted for the rustic psychotic-family plot.
*. Now let’s turn to a consideration of Nightmare in Wax. We won’t be long. This is an ultra-cheap Crown International flick that makes for an ugly and poorly constructed retelling of the myth.
*. The idea had promise. It’s not just a remake of the earlier House of Wax movies. In particular there are two big differences.
*. (1) It’s a Hollywood movie. Evil genius Vincent Rinard (Cameron Mitchell) is a make-up man and his nemesis Max Black is the mogul in charge of Paragon Pictures. The museum is the Movieland Wax Museum, a real place in Buena Park, California, acknowledged in the end credits as “the authentic Hall of Fame in wax of the world’s great stars.” I think a lot more could have been done with this angle (aren’t Hollywood stars all plastic people in the first place?), but as it stands at least it’s an interesting update on the original story.
*. (2) The figures aren’t in fact waxen corpses but rather living models injected with a hypnotic paralyzing agent. This is as creepy as it is ridiculous, though in the end it tends to come down heavier on the ridiculous side. Just for starters, since the victims can’t even blink how do their eyes not dry out?
*. One other positive worth noting is the way Vincent is disfigured. Max throws a glass of wine at him while he’s lighting a cigarette and this ignites his face. Would this work? Probably not, but it is kind of weird and surprising.
*. Outweighing all of this, however, is the lack of talent involved. At the top of the list are those two banes of most low-budget film productions: poor lighting and dismal sound. You can’t see anything in all the dark. Or in all the sunlight. Check out the scene of the two cops driving around during the day where the car’s interior is like a black hole. Then you can barely hear a damn thing given the gummy sound. There are some howlers of bad lines in this movie but you have to really strain to make them out.
*. The effects are predictably bad as well. Vincent’s melted face consists of an eyepatch and a bit of plaster on his cheek. That’s it.
*. Despite the interesting new wrinkles added to the traditional story everything moves at an awkward pace. There’s a lot of talk where nothing important is said. We get the point of what’s going on, but further elaboration just makes things less clear.
*. Then there’s the ending. Spoiler alert! But how can you spoil an ending this bad? Basically Vincent wakes up and we find out that the whole movie was a bad dream. Pre-marital jitters. Why they went with this when they had a decent enough ending available — Vincent falling into the vat of boiling wax, much as his predecessors Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price had done — is beyond me. It turns the whole movie into a joke, albeit one that isn’t funny at all.