Because the horror genre has always embraced short film, the horror anthology has always been hugely popular. Whether it’s a simple excuse to stick a bunch of shorts together into a feature length film or a purely organic set of episodic storylines, horror anthologies provide frightening entertainment for the attention-deficit crowd. Although it hit its peak in the seventies with Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, and The Vault of Horror, the fad is actually much older; it dates back to the silent movie era with 1924’s Waxworks.
Waxworks begins with a poet (Faust’s William Dieterle) stumbling upon a wax museum run by a showman (John Gottowt from Nosferatu) and his daughter (Olga Belajeff from It Illuminates, My Dear) at a carnival. The showman introduces the poet to the prides of his exhibit: the wax figures of Haran al Raschid, Ivan the Terrible and Spring-Heeled Jack, aka Jack the Ripper. The showman asks the poet if he can write stories to go with each of his statues and, being smitten with the man’s daughter, the poet agrees. He crafts a clever yarn about betrayal and adultery to explain why Haran al Raschid (The Blue Angel’s Emil Jannings) only has one arm. Next, he comes up with an intriguing story of deception and double-crossing about Ivan the Terrible (Casablanca’s Conrad Veidt). Before the poet can write his story about Spring-Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss, the doctor himself from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), however, the statue of Jack comes to life, and the poet and the daughter must keep one step ahead of the brutal killer as they evade him in the museum.
Waxworks was born out of the same period of German expressionism as Nosferatu, The Golem, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In fact, Waxworks writer Henrik Galeen also wrote Nosferatu and The Golem. The plots of the different tales, while slow and dragging at times, effectively mesh the world of horror with fantasy, and are linked together by the Poet’s storytelling in a way that feels natural and organic. However, it is not the story that makes Waxworks such a fine example of the period; the technical aspects of the film are unforgettable.
The direction on Waxworks is credited to Paul Leni (The Man Who Laughs), but the on-set duties were split between him and producer Leo Birinsky (Flirtation). Leni, also credited as the art director, focused on the look and tone of the film while Birinsky worked with the actors. The double direction seems to have been a success, as both the visual and performance elements of Waxworks are mesmerizing.
Waxworks was shot by influential expressionist photographer/cinematographer Helmar Lerski (Nerves, Opium). Lerski’s style of photography is simultaneously abstract and realistic, capturing both the authenticity of the actors and the surrealism of the set pieces. Lerski frames Leni’s warped buildings and elongated doorways perfectly, never letting them distract from the characters yet always keeping them in view. The artist in Lerski also comes out in several places where he employs cutting-edge (for the time) trick shots, like having the camera look through a ruby at a jewel thief or double-exposing the Spring-Heeled Jack segment, reminding the viewer that they are watching the birth of narrative cinema. Primarily a still photographer, Lerksi appears to be having a lot of fun with motion pictures, and his contagious energy is transferred to the audience of Waxworks.
The experienced cast in Waxworks undoubtedly made Birinsky’s directorial work easy. Even as early as 1924, actors like Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss were already seasoned professionals. Acting without sound uses a completely different set of skills, and the cast of Waxworks pulls it off well with a minimum of title cards. Their movements are bigger, their faces are more expressive, and their timing is absolutely impeccable. The exceptional acting helps Waxworks overcome its lack of a soundtrack, and the film is elevated because of its cast.
Anthology films have grown into one of horror’s most beloved subgenres, and the trend continues to this day with great collections like V/H/S and The Theatre Bizarre. The origins of episodic horror movies date all the way back to the silent era and German expressionism, and Waxworks has served as the blueprint for all of the Twilight Zone and Tales from the Darkside movies that have come since.