Director: Maurice Tourneur
"The wind howls and the darkness lends the static forms a sense of mystery and danger..."
A grisly tale from Paris's Grand Guignol theatre comes to the screen as a man wagers he can spend the night locked in a wax museum. Of course, he has nothing to fear -- the gruesome yet lifeless figures within cannot harm him... or can they...?
Following a discussion about the nature of fear at a dinner party, Pierre de Lionne blithely accepts a wager of 100 francs from his friend Jacques that he could spend a night in any place, no matter how terrifying. The pair stroll through a funfair, and Jacques persuades the proprietor of a waxworks museum to lock Pierre in for the night. At first, Pierre is unperturbed, but being among the sinister, shadowy wax figures soon begins to fray his nerves.
|Pierre (Henry Roussel) succumbs to the|
waxworks' oppressive atmosphere
Meanwhile, Jacques and his other friends are carousing until the early hours. When his fellow revellers go home, Jacques decides to pay Pierre a surprise visit, not realising the gruesome fate that waits for him in the darkness of the waxworks...
Frenchman Maurice Tourneur, father of (fellow director and Val Lewton alumnus) Jacques, cemented his reputation as a director when his employers Eclair transferred him to the American branch of their studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1914. A string of popular dramas such as The Wishing Ring, Trilby, Poor Little Rich Girl (with Mary Pickford) and The Blue Bird saw him acclaimed as a successor to the great D.W. Griffith. Tourneur brought his own working aesthetic and elegant visual style to his American films, for which he is still rightfully praised by film historians today.
While still working at Eclair in Paris, the young director produced two short horror subjects based on plays by Andre de Lorde. The first, Le Systeme du Dr Goudron et du Prof. Plume (released in the USA as 'The Lunatics') was based on an Edgar Allan Poe story and concerned inmates overrunning an insane asylum. It contained the memorably chilling image of a victim's blood seeping under a doorway... an image that Jacques Tourneur was to reprise for a scene in 1943's The Leopard Man.
|Waxworks owner Henri Gouget|
shows his true colours
The second, Figures de Cire, was likewise based on a play written by de Lorde for the notorious Grand Guignol theatre, a long-standing Paris institution whose patrons were treated to a nightly feast of bloodthirsty one-act plays involving mutilation, torture and violent death in varying degrees. Both film adaptations starred Henry Roussel and Henri Gouget, the latter of whom was also a regular on the Guignol's stage. Both adaptations, one can assume, were considerably toned down for cinema presentation.
Figures de Cire was presumed lost for many years, a tinted copy resurfacing as recently as 2007 and restored by Lobster Films to the 11-minute version seen here. While one can't expect so short a film to sustain much of an atmosphere, its structure is sound, and there's enough visual variety here to offer at least a hint of the style that Tourneur would later become famous for. The wax figures themselves, which often appear to be made-up actors rather than mannequins, are well-lit rather than shadowy and indistinct , providing just the right amount of understated menace.
Interestingly, and rather surreally, the damage to the film negative becomes more prominent at around the eight minute mark. Rather than being a distraction, it almost seems appropriate; just as an intertitle announces "Deep into the night, the wax figures become more terrifying...", the celluloid disintegrates into a blurry mass of corrosion - a fitting visual metaphor for the final stages of the not-so-brave Pierre's final breakdown...
Henry Roussel (Pierre de Lionne), Emile Trament (Jacques), Henri Gouget (Waxworks Owner)
Scenario: Andre de Lorde, from his play.
Eclair, FranceRunning Time 15 mins.
No official release, though DVD copies can be found here.