by Jay Seaver
SCREENED IN "NATURAL-VISION 3-D": Were wax museums considered creepy before this movie? Certainly, the visitors to Henry Jarrod's second wax museum are coming for the macabre, but so were the people seeing the movie, and that doesn't make the Coolidge Corner Theater creepy. "House of Wax" takes place at around the turn of the twentieth century, and for all I know, buildings full of wax statues were fun, family entertainment before horror movies and pulp fiction pointed out how creepy statues that still and lifelike could be. This movie in particular does a pretty good job.The film starts with Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) showing the painstaking recreations of historical figures in his wax museum to Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni), a critic and Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), his partner. The critic is impressed, and likely to write a glowing review upon his return from Europe, but the partner wants a more immediate return on his investment, and if Jarrod won't create grotesqueries to compete with the other wax museums, well, collecting on the fire insurance is just fine. Jarrod tries to stop him, but is knocked unconscious as the fire consumes the museum around him. Of course, with such suspicious circumstances, it takes months for the insurance to be collected, and soon after, Andrews and his girlfriend Cathy (Carolyn Jones) are killed by a mysterious, silent attacker. At the same time a wheelchair-bound Jarrod reappears, planning a new museum where he'll give the public what they want, and accompanied by a hulking, silent assistant. Soon, bodies are going missing from the morgue, and Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) swears that one of the statues bears an uncanny resemblance to Cathy, her former roommate. Hmm...
"Great fun, in two or three dimensions."
House of Wax is a straightforward little tale, with Crane Wilbur's script adhering to a tried and true template: A peaceable man of intellect is struck down by a bully, returns to take his revenge, and goes too far, becoming a monster in the process. A girl who would be his victim finds herself admiring his artistic ability, though not to the point where she can justify his madness. She is romanced by a staunch, trustworthy policeman (Frank Lovejoy), who arrives just in time when she needs saving. There's a secret chamber where the madman commits his atrocities, and even the dead aren't safe.
The template is used because it works, of course. It seldom works as well as it does in House of Wax, though, and as a commercial and artistic success, it has spawned imitators. The recent remake with Elisha Cuthbert is the most obvious, but other imitations came fast (the screening I saw was a double-bill with The Mad Magician, which was released the next year and shared writer, story, star, plot devices and gimmick). And Sam Raimi's Darkman is only one of many films to come out in the last fifty years to be obviously influenced by this one.
And, of course, this is the role that more than any other launched Vincent Price into a long career of horror-movie villains. He was, of course, perfect for them, even from the start. Even in his younger years, he was lean, to the point of appearing frail, which made his quick, feverish movement even more of a surprise. His gravely voice with its clear enunciation sounds educated but sinister, and yet also can convey affection and warmth. He's a perfect fit for this genre, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, when the object was more to send a chill up your spine rather than shock you out of your seat. It can be argued that saying he was a national treasure is not much of an exaggeration.
The rest of the cast is good, but it's tough to share the screen with Price. Lovejoy and Kirk are good-looking young people and pleasant enough in their roles, but certainly can't compete with Price. It's the victims and villains who draw the most attention, such as Jarrod's henchmen: The hulking Igor is played by a young Charles Bronson (under his given name of Charles Buchinsky), while Nedrick Young plays Leon Averill, an alcoholic ex-con. Carolyn Jones's Cathy Gray is rather appalling in how she treats her friend Sue, but that bitchiness does make her memorable. Roy Roberts's best moments are when he clearly isn't interested in her for more than her body and she's talking marriage.
Director André de Toth does a fine job of pacing the movie and choosing the right shots. Though he only had one eye and was thus lacked depth perception, he and cinematographers Bert Glennon and Peverell Marley are assisted by some of the men who developed the Natural-Vision 3-D process, and the results are very impressive indeed. A scene where a barker hits a paddleball in the audience's direction is wholly gratuitous, but done in a tongue-in-cheek manner. I imagine the film as a whole works just as well 2-D as it does in 3-D."House of Wax" is one of the most famous 3-D movies, and easily one of the best (mostly because people forget that "Dial M For Murder" was filmed in 3-D). It's a quality thriller, no matter how many dimensions you see it in.
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originally posted: 07/01/05 21:00:24