Waxworks is an anthology film directed with great German expressionism flair by Paul Leni. The horror element is liberally mixed with irony, humor and amazing escapes. The three stories, one quite short, start out with a young man (Wilhelm Dieterle) answering an ad: "Wanted - An imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibition." The exhibition is a sideshow at a carnival, and the waxworks are life-size figures of some legendary human monsters. There's Harun al Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Spring-Heeled Jack -- no, not Jack the Ripper -- (Werner Krauss). The daughter (Olga Belajeff) of the waxworks creator and the young man are attracted to each other. He picks up a pen and begins writing his stories while she watches enraptured.
Harun al Raschid was a ruler who "hated monotony, so he had a different wife for every day in the year." He's a corpulent, spoiled and lascivious potentate played with a fierce mustache, leering eyes and wandering hands by Jannings. When he becomes entranced by the baker's wife (Belajeff), she inspires the baker (Dieterle) to prove his worth by stealing the caliph's wishing ring. After attempted caresses ("Don't let that bother you, my nightingale," the caliph tells the baker's wife when her gown becomes disarranged, "your lack of clothes doesn't bother me in the least."), barred doors, leaping escapes, a severed arm and the baker's oven used as a hiding place, all comes to a close with a happy and ironic ending.
Ivan the Terrible was a "blood-crazed monster on the throne, who turned cities into cemeteries. His crown was a tiara of mouldering bones, his scepter an axe." He "loved to gloat over the dying agonies of his poisoned victims," using an hourglass to measure out their last minutes. This story is genuinely unnerving. The sight of Veidt as Ivan, followed by his astrologer, stalking down the passage to the torture chambers in a long white gown, bent at the waist, elbows back and hands on his hips, each step measured, is something to see. This ending is ironic and disturbing.
Spring Heeled Jack -- "the notorious character -- pounced suddenly and silently upon his victims." Our writer has finished his first two stories. The young girl has fallen asleep. He looks at the waxworks figure of Jack, starts to write but falls asleep. Or is he. Suddenly the girl is holding him, telling him Jack had tried to kill them. They flee into the carnival with Jack after them, a frightening figure in an overcoat, a long scarf around his neck, a hat set at a jaunty angle on his head and a knife in his hand. Is this a dream or reality? Well, watch the movie, but don't blink. This sequence is over in just two or three minutes.
Probably the greatest pleasure of the movie is its look. In Waxworks, there's not a straight line or a right angle to be seen. Bagdad is an odd wonderland of domes and crooked ladders, veils and shadows. Anything solid seems to have been made out of rough clay. The staircases in the palace look like the ribcage of some exotic creature. The Kremlin looks to be a cross between a dark, crazed fantasy and a grotesque stage set. The carnival grounds are a fantasm of double exposures, shadowy lighting effects and fog. This is an unusual and entertaining film, with two over-the-top yet skilled performances by Jannings and Veidt, and with all the strange visuals you could hope for in a film by Paul Leni.
If you like anthology films which feature stylish dread, watch Dead of Night, a British film from 1945. There are stories in the film that will make you think twice about looking in mirrors, watching a ventriloquist's act or staying with friends for the weekend.
The Kino presentation of the restored Waxworks has a very good DVD transfer, chapter stops for each sequence and an unobtrusive piano accompaniment composed and played by Jon Mirsalis. There are a couple of minor extras.