There is a small, but wonderful, sub-genre of films which replace the mad scientist with a mad artist. I have carefully selected this month’s picks. Now, grab that beer and pastry of choice, and enjoy!
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
Dir: Michael Curtiz,
Wri: Charles Belden, Don Mullaly,
Cast: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell.
This classic horror film, remade countless times (most famously in 3-D as House of Wax with Vincent Price), is about a once masterful sculptor of wax effigies who was nearly burned to death along with his work in a dispute about money. Years later, he opens another wax museum, though is unable to sculpt due to the old injuries to his hands. To compensate, he devises a new way of casting corpses in wax, thus creating the most life-like sculptures ever seen. As a pre-code horror picture, this has a lot of shocks and adult qualities that some viewers may not be expecting from an older horror film. For instance, Arthur Edmund Carewe’s character is an outright junky, and references to sex, drugs, drink and perversion are peppered throughout the movie. Though Glenda Farrell’s wise-cracking character’s jive talk may be off-putting and annoying to some, you’ve got to love the scene where she asks one of the cops, “How’s your sex life?” as he reads a magazine called “Adult Stories.” The striking two-strip Technicolor process used in this movie really solidifies its other-worldly, freaky atmosphere; Mystery of the Wax Museum looks like very few movies ever made before or since. It’s hard for this fan girl to resist gushing over this one. If you’re at all into classic horror and haven’t seen Mystery of the Wax Museum yet, you’re in for an emotional experience.
Scarlet Street (1945)
Dir: Fritz Lang,
Wri: André Mouézy-Éon, Dubley Nichols, Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea
No collection of artist-gone-mad movies would be complete without some reference to Scarlet Street. Starring Edward G Robinson and Joan Bennett, this is the story of Christopher Cross, a pathetic little man, whose only joy in life is his paintings. Married to a castrating wife, and shackled to a job and life he hates, Cross finds hope for a better future in Kitty March, a no-good woman who will do anything to please her abusive boyfriend Johnny. Together, Johnny and Kitty bleed Cross dry of money that he has secretly embezzled just to appear rich to Kitty, and steals his masterworks, all under the false pretense of love. During one scene, Kitty finally reveals the truth to Cross, telling him that he’s “old” and “ugly’” and that she’s sick of him. Cross, having believed himself to be loved, snaps from the shock, and decides to murder Kitty, and let Johnny take the blame. This is a tragic movie about a person who is destroyed and hobbled by the rest of the world, so that even the tinniest chance at happiness gives him reason to do just about anything.
La Sindrome di Stendhal
aka Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Dir: Dario Argento,
Wri: Dario Argento Franco Ferrini,
Cast: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi
This movie’s namesake, Stendhal Syndrome, is a real physiological disorder that causes some people to experience seizure-like symptoms when in the presence of beautiful art. Cases have been especially common at the Uffizi gallery, where many people have been known to completely pass out in the presence of the innumerable masterpieces displayed there. Though one would probably not have the same experience while watching Dario Argento’s Stendhal Syndrome, it is nevertheless an interesting oddity, both as a movie and as an Argento picture. Dario’s real-life daughter (Asia Argento) stars as a police officer who is simultaneously being hunted down by a crazed rapist and experiencing extreme symptoms of the syndrome. A little more than half-way through the film, however, Asia’s symptoms have passed, and the rapist has been killed, but Asia is left completely insane. She begins making god-awful paintings (ain’t art therapy grand?) and believes that the rapist is a part of her psyche, able to control her actions. The problem with this movie is that the transition between being the hunted and believing herself to be the hunter is far too unclear, which was a jarring and highly unbelievable element. Bad dubbing (which most editions of this film have) doesn’t help matters much. Over all, Stendhal Syndrome is not a bad effort, but difficult to view objectively if you are familiar with other Argento films.
Santo contra el Dr. Muerte (1973)
(Santo vs. Dr. Death)
Dir: Rafael Romero Marchent,
Wri: José Luis Navarro, Rafael Romero Marchent,
Cast: Santo, George Rigaud, Carlos
This is a Mexican wrestling movie starring the great El Santo, about a mad art restorationist, who restores priceless paintings with cancerous tumors found on the bodies of super models, whom he keeps locked away in his cellar. Like most Mexican wrestling films, it also includes many musical sequences. Nuff said right there.