Waxworks is a German Expressionist “anthology” film, featuring three stories told about certain wax figures. The first story is not really horror, it has some somewhat disturbing moments, but is mostly played for laughs. The other two though, fit comfortably within my understanding of horror, and play on common themes of German expressionist filmmaking. The middle story, is probably the best, and is about Ivan the Terrible’s torture chamber and paranoia. The whole thing is incredibly claustrophobic; the sets have low ceilings, closed walls, long passageways… the performance of Ivan is by Conrad Veidt, the actor who was Cesar in Caligari… and he is freaky. Ivan’s paranoia is not completely unwarranted and an attempt is made on his life, to which he forces begrieved people at a wedding to celebrate despite the fact that the father of the bride has just been murdered in the Czar’s place. Then he tries to rape the bride, tortures her husband and eventually goes mad when he thinks that he has been poisoned. The final chapter is a fantasized nightmare about being chased by Jack the Ripper through an amusement park.
The whole film is very baroque and expressionistic, lots of darkness, altered perceptions, and villainous/disgusting men who abuse their power. It highlights especially, a fear of that kind of authority, especially as it preys on youth and innocence. Even the lighter, first story utilizes this theme, and plays on a sort of distorted perception of a world that seems to trap you like a cage… it’s not in the same league as somehting like Nosferatu, but a fairly unsettling film nonetheless. The Ivan chapter is easily the strongest.