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Film / Waxworks

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Waxworks (German title: Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, lit: The Wax Figure Cabinet) is a German Expressionist film released in 1924. It was directed by Paul Leni.

The main character, an unnamed poet played by William Dieterle, is hired by a wax museum's proprietor (John Gottowt) to write stories for three wax figures. With the proprietor's daughter (Olga Belajeff) leaning over his shoulder, the poet spins a series of fanciful tales. Each one stars himself and the girl while the wax character is cast as an antagonist of some kind.

The first story, which is by far the longest, focuses on Harun al-Rashid (Emil Jannings), the Caliph of Baghdad who features in several of the Arabian Nights stories. Portrayed here as an infantile, capricious tyrant, Harun wants to hook up with Zarah (Belajeff), the beautiful wife of Assad the baker (Dieterle). At the same time, Assad wants to steal Harun's magic wishing ring.

The next story follows Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), portrayed as a blood-soaked despot of Tsarist Russia. When Ivan becomes paranoid about his poison-mixer plotting against him, he has him executed, but the poison-mixer leaves behind a little surprise for the Tsar. Meanwhile, Ivan takes over a wedding, claiming the bride (Belajeff) for himself and arresting the groom (Dieterle).

The last story is very short, running only a few minutes. Its leading character, played by Werner Krauss, is interchangeably referred to as Spring-Heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper. In short, the poet falls asleep while trying to write the last story and dreams that he and the girl are being terrorized by Jack.

Not to be confused with The '80s horror film Waxwork.

This film has the examples of:

  • Amusement Park: The wax museum is located in Berlin's Luna Park, which was the largest amusement park in Europe during the 1920s. The park was later demolished by Those Wacky Nazis, who presumably hated fun.
  • Historical Domain Character: Harun al-Rashid, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper are all real historical figures, although their depictions here are much more fantasy than history.
  • The Ingenue: Every character played by Olga Belajeff, naturally.
  • No Name Given: The poet main character is never named.
  • One-Word Title
  • Villain Protagonist: Each wax figure is the focus of his respective segment, but each also plays a decidedly antagonistic role in the storyline of that segment. Harun is treated as the least villainous.

Tropes exclusive to Harun al-Rashid's story:

  • Adipose Rex: Harun al-Rashid is portrayed as quite overweight.
  • "Arabian Nights" Days: The setting, obviously. Note the actual Arabian Nights stories use Harun al-Rashid as a character, albeit they portray him more heroically than this film does.
  • Ash Face: Harun has an ash-covered face when he comes out of his hiding place in the oven.
  • Dub Name Change: Zarah is called Maimune in the original German version.
  • Evil Chancellor: Notably averted, considering Harun's Grand Vizier was the original Jafar. In this film, he's unnamed and is portrayed as a loyal Dragon instead.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: We never find out if Harun's wishing ring has actual powers or not. If it does, it's certainly never used in the story, and it could have been pretty useful when Harun was looking for a hiding place in Assad's house. Zarah's "wishes" are clever manipulations, but she's using the imitation wishing ring, so that doesn't prove anything.
  • Match Cut: Harun's story starts with the poet and the girl fading into their story counterparts, Assad and Zarah respectively.
  • Nobody Calls Me "Chicken"!: When Assad says that he will steal the Caliph's magic ring, Zarah replies that he would have to be "a man" to do that. Assad then declares, "I'll show you - before the dawn - that I am a man!"
  • Off with His Head!: Harun orders Assad beheaded for annoying him with the smoke from his chimney.
  • Sleeping Dummy: When Harun sneaks out at night, he leaves a wax figure of himself in his bed.

Tropes exclusive to Ivan the Terrible's story:

  • Astrologer: Ivan has one. He advises Ivan to be wary of his poison-mixer, as though Ivan wasn't paranoid enough already.
  • Death's Hourglass: Ivan likes to poison his victims and use an hourglass to count down the last moments of their lives. Shortly before he's executed, the poison-mixer writes Ivan's name on an hourglass. When this hourglass is found, it creates the impression that Ivan has been poisoned. Ivan tries to thwart it by flipping the hourglass over because that's how that works. But since he wasn't actually poisoned, this does seem to work, and he goes mad flipping the hourglass over and over again for the rest of his life.
  • Droit du Seigneur: On what was supposed to be her wedding night, the bride is forcibly brought to the Tsar's bedroom. But before he can get down to business, Ivan is interrupted by the news that he's supposedly been poisoned.
  • King Incognito: Worried about getting assassinated, Ivan trades clothes with a nobleman when he leaves the Kremlin. The nobleman promptly gets assassinated while dressed as Ivan, so it appears Ivan was Properly Paranoid in this case.
  • Master Poisoner: The czar takes physical delight in watching his victims die, after poisoning them. Ivan's "Poison-Mixer" writes the name of the victim on an hour glass, and once they are poisoned, the glass is turned over, the man dying just as the last sand falls.
  • Skeletons in the Coat Closet: The opening text to Ivan's story says that, "his crown was a tiara of mouldering bones, his scepter an axe." Ivan doesn't literally have these Halloweenish accessories in the actual story, so this description was obviously meant to be metaphorical.
  • Torture Cellar: The groom is sent here when he objects to Ivan taking his bride.

Tropes exclusive to Spring-Heeled Jack/Jack the Ripper's story: