No doubt that a gloulish wax museum backdrop makes for good horror. Too bad this TV-pilot-turned-feature-film didn’t evolve into a TV series. If nothing else, Chamber of Horrors would’ve made a fitting counterpoint to the mid-60s spy/espionage craze. The sumptuous color cinematography gives a slightly over-the-top look at late-Victorian Baltimore. Patrick O’Neal as Jason Caroll/Cravatte is especially reptilian; an archetypal horror villain in the Vincent Price or Jack Palance mold. Caesar Danova’s Anthony Draco is his worthy antagonist as the museum curator.
There’s something uniquely horrific about the concept of a wax museum. What’s on display are simulations of dead people; realistic, yet, given the nature of the wax medium, corpse-like. In effect, it’s a graveyard brought back, not to life, but a ghostly existence. Plus, at least in cinematic incarnations, the subjects are usually notorious criminals and sadists, including sexual deviants. Then there’s the quasi-carnival atmosphere of these places, with an assortment of eccentric, perhaps evil creators of the wax mannequins and their underlings. Although I suppose this craft had been around for some time, it seemed to peak in Victorian/Edwardian times, perhaps because wax museums could provide likenesses of historical figures in an age just before the advent of movies. Events that occurred 100 to 150 years ago seems to earn creepy points anyway, adding to our suspension of disbelief.
Another device that works well here is the slick array of weaponry that Caroll has attached to his sawed-off stump hand. Kind of like the early-modern tech on display in the 60s series The Wild Wild West–which portrayed the same era as Chamber of Horrors. The other genre at play is the detective story. There’s no mystery per se, but we don’t know how and if Caroll will be caught. So that sets up the Poe-Conan Doyle-style killer leaving literary clues. In modern jargon, he’s an ‘organized’ serial killer; he has a clear revenge motive, plans carefully, adds a ‘signature’ to his victims (the body parts), and indicates his next victim with the poems. Weirdly, art imitates life, thanks to the ability of the museum to recreate the victims’ body parts as they are discovered.
As much as I like the wax museum setting, with all of its otherworldly connotations, and Danova’s forceful character, it hardly makes sense that the police in effect deputize Draco to help solve the crimes. That issue only points out the relatively flat performances by the supporting cast. To make the detective aspect work, at least one of the policemen needs to be more believable. Carroll’s escape from the train was pretty cool, and sets up the convincing pretext that he’s dead–therefore he’s off-the-hook, so to speak. That sets up the New Orleans scenes, which could’ve been expanded on. His virtual kidnapping of Marie (Laura Devon) is a bit histrionic, given that they barely know each other. As someone else said, too many of the characters act dumb.
A couple of scenes are really great: when Caroll reappears at the judges house, and the climactic fight scene between Caroll and Draco. The contrast of the judge’s alarm with Caroll’s droll menace personifies the meaning of horror. The fight scene, on the other hand, is another Wild Wild West-type display of exotic weaponry and machismo. As others have noted, the lurid courtroom scene is stunning, and unexpectedly abstract. The ‘cliffhanger’ ending was also a surprise; is there a copycat killer? Having the ‘Fright Alert’ wasn’t a bad idea, as tricks like that were in vogue at the time, but, to repeat others’ complaints, it doesn’t really alert us to anything really nasty.
Despite the problems with Chamber of Horror, it’s fun and entertaining. Though it lags a bit in the middle, the atmosphere and tone are consistent. Worth watching for the visuals alone. 7/10.