Halloween Horror Movie Marathon: ‘House of Wax’ and ‘House of Wax’

You know what’s creepy? Wax statues. With the right mixture of texture and color wax can be melted and molded into close resemblances of people, so close that it can be jarring.  Once when I was in Las Vegas at the Venetian casino I happened to catch a quick glimpse of, oh my god! Elton John! I took a second look and, ah, it was merely a wax statue from Madame Tussauds. I stopped and stared at the amazing likeness of Sir Elton. It was so well done I briefly balanced on that fine, uncomfortable line of cognitive dissonance before finally understanding it was just a statue made of wax.

It’s this sort of creepiness that might have inspired the filmmakers of our double feature. Let’s enter and explore these two Houses of Wax. Or is it two House of Waxes…? Never mind… wax on!

House of Wax (1953)

To you they are wax, but to me, their creator, they live and breathe.

House of Wax (1953) Directed by Andre de Toth. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Bronson, Roy Roberts.

Do you find yourself scoffing at Hollywood remakes and the use of lame gimmicks such as 3D to jack up ticket prices while you lament the precious “golden age” of Hollywood when true artists would never do such a thing? Well my friend, you’d better bone up on your Hollywood history as it’s an old practice and House of Wax is one shining example. In the early 1950s Hollywood was afraid of losing audiences to this strange new invention in people’s living rooms called “television”. House of Wax was one of the earliest color 3D films released in an attempt to provide something to customers they wouldn’t get at home and keep them coming to the theater. It is also a remake of a 1933 film called Mystery of the Wax Museum. 3D technology… remake… put that in your nostalgia pipe and smoke it!

Vincent Price plays Henry Jarrod, sculptor of wax figures for a museum in New York during the early 20th century. His business partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), is looking to sell his share of the investment but the profits can’t come soon enough so instead he opts to burn the museum down, with his partner in it, in order to collect on the insurance money. But a disfigured Jarrod survives and opens a new museum that includes the “chamber of horrors” he once dismissed. The new attractions are quite popular but some of the statues in his gallery might just seem a little too lifelike…

House of Wax is not only notable for being one of the earliest 3D movies but for propelling Vincent Price into the long run of horror films for which he is most famous. Price is great in the role, eliciting the right amount of sympathy in the outset to carry us through the rest of the film as he staggers around the screen in burn victim makeup, exacting his twisted revenge. It is also interesting to note that the director, Andre de Toth, had the use of only one eye. A successful 3D film directed by someone with no depth perception? That may account for the minimal usage of things flying in your face that some 3D films overuse.

While I enjoyed House of Wax I can’t get overly excited about it. Perhaps it just hasn’t aged very well. Some of the visuals are effective, including Vincent Price’s makeup and the eerie melting of the faces on the wax statues during the fire. There is some tangible suspense during the third act. However the scenes with Carolyn Jones, who plays Burke’s fiancée, are bafflingly incongruous. She’s so out of place and annoyingly ditzy that I had no idea I was watching the actress who would play Morticia Addams and later go on to win an Academy Award. There is also a scene with a can-can dance that is strange to see in a horror film; perhaps it translates better as a 3D gimmick.

Speaking of which, there is one exchange worth pointing out. During the grand opening of the new museum, Jarrod has hired a performer with paddle balls to draw people in. “I hope you don’t think I’ve gone too far bringing this fellow in,” Jarrod tells the new investor, perhaps simultaneously making a sly meta comment on the film’s use of 3D. “Let’s try him for a week or two. Once we’re established, we won’t need that sort of thing.”

House of Wax 2005

House of Wax (2005) Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, Jared Padalecki, Paris Hilton.

The 2005 version of House of Wax is not a remake of the 1953 version. Instead it follows what some of us horror buffs have recently labeled the ‘urbanoia’ sub-genre. The pattern of such films typically is as follows: a group of middle class city folk, usually a family or group of youngsters, travels to a remote, rural area only to stumble into a violent encounter with the locals, who are often portrayed as deformed, stereotypical rednecks. Examples of ‘urbanoia’ films include Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

House of Wax brings us a group of teens, two couples and a tagalong,  driving out to watch a football game who end up camping overnight in the woods by the side of the road. A series of events transpire such that one of the young couples, Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and Wade (Jared Padarecki), are off on their own while looking for a place to buy a replacement fan belt for Jared’s car. In a nearly deserted small town called Ambrose they find a wax museum called ‘House of Wax’ that is entirely made of wax: the statues, the furniture, even the floors and the walls are made of the stuff. As you can probably guess, things are not what they seem in Ambrose and we’re not just talking about the figures in the wax museum.

Obviously the teenagers are annoying during the first parts of the film, though Elisha Cuthbert is always fun to watch. I scolded myself for watching this merely because it has the same title as an older, better movie and wondered why I wasn’t going the other direction and watching Mystery of the Wax Museum instead. The plot was obvious, the kids were annoying and, yes, Paris Hilton is there although now she’s such a non-entity that she fails to annoy me the same way she did six years ago.

In between moments of teens bickering and making poor choices there were a couple of effective moments that held my interest. But it was the final part of the House of Wax that took me by surprise. A fire breaks out in the basement underneath the ‘House of Wax’ and the building melts while the remaining teens are chased by the bad guy within. It’s a fascinating and dream-like sequence… the characters struggle to move through the environment as their feet sink into the soft floor or slip on the stairs. They even push their way through wax walls. For the most part it looks fantastic; almost everything looks like it’s really made out of wax and cgi is only resorted to when absolutely necessary. Not all of the effects in this portion are convincing, in fact some shots are downright laughable, but House of Wax ’05 might be worth a look for this section alone.

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