House of Wax (1953)Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/20/05 23:35:33
“That look of horror spoils your lovely face. What if it should show through the wax?”Arguably the best of all 3-D movies, “House of Wax” is a masterfully dizzy slice of 1950s horror moviemaking. Remembered most for its gimmicky “paddle ball scene,” in which a carnival barker slaps paddle balls toward the camera to illustrate the magic of the 3-D format, “House of Wax” was the first major studio release to use the new technology. And as a 3-D movie, it’s great fun.
But whereas most other 3-D adventures slipped away into history to be fondly remembered as nothing more than novelty items, “House of Wax” survives. Credit for this goes to director Andre de Toth, who, as trivia hounds already know, was blind in one eye and therefore could not see the very 3-D effects of the film he was helming. This is why the movie translates so well into 2-D; unlike so many other movies, which put the gimmick at the center of their stories, “House of Wax” is a gripping thriller that’s enhanced by but not reliant on 3-D. Yes, a few scenes, like the paddle ball one, come off as corny and out of place without the 3-D enhancements, but the rest of the film barrels ahead with the gusto of a wonderfully creepy spookhouse joy ride.
No matter the number of dimensions for your own viewing, you’re bound to have fun. After all, this is the film where Vincent Price made his mark as the new king of terror, crafting his trademark mix of creepiness, refined charm, and dark humor, presenting a personality that winked at us while getting us to scream like crazy.
Price stars as Professor Henry Jarrod, a master sculptor who’s an expert in wax recreations of historical figures. In turn-of-the-last-century New York, his creations - among them Joan of Arc, John Wilkes Booth, and, his masterpiece, Marie Antoinette - are on display in a well-received yet rarely visited wax museum. His aversion to turn his gallery into another house of horrors that are all the rave elsewhere in town has put his business partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), at odds. Jarrod only wants to work for the art, but Burke demands more profits.
With every other moneymaking scheme used up, Burke decides to burn the museum down and collect the insurance money. In the movie’s first all-out creepy sequence, wax figures melt, their “skin” dripping from their faces as their eyes fall to the floor. They’re human, but not quite, and the image is disturbing and eerie, a great horrific effect.
Jarrod is presumed killed in the blaze, so imagine our surprise when he shows up again later, bound to a wheelchair, hands burned beyond any artistic use, working with a few apprentices (a young Charles Bronson among them). He’s tracked down an old potential investor (Paul Cavanagh) to help him finance a new wax museum, only this time Jarrod has decided to give in to public demand and create a house of horrors. But unlike other museums, Jarrod’s house of wax will feature a twist: in addition to the usual exhibits featuring classic scenes of terror (torture, murder, Bluebeard, etc.), there will also be new pieces added showcasing recent crimes.
The first of these exhibits is Burke himself, who seemingly hanged himself days earlier. But wait - didn’t we see a disfigured, shadowy man sneak through the night and strangle Burke? And hey, why does the new Joan of Arc figure look so much like a recently murdered woman? Needless to say, the disfigured shadowy figure’s out borrowing corpses from the city morgue, but not until he puts them there himself, if you catch my murderous drift. Could this figure be connected somehow to Jarrod?
Do I really need to answer that for you? No, “House of Wax” offers few surprises in the plotting department, but the movie’s not about getting us with a good twist as much as it’s about offering up a fun ride at the spook show. Here’s a movie that’s simply a darn good time, with gripping suspense (a nighttime chase through the gaslight city streets is a real nailbiter), fast-paced action (the final scene is played in all-out adventure mode, to wonderful effect), and plenty of comic relief (a running gag involving three female visitors to Jarrod’s new museum supplies a good number of laughs). It is, plain and simple, A Vincent Price Movie, made to scare you a little, thrill you a little, leave you smiling and wanting to hop back on and go again.“House of Wax” is a remake of the 1933 thriller “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” and it’s one of the rare remakes that improves on the original. “Mystery” is a fine creeper for its time, but it hasn’t aged as well and stands more as a curiosity in early sound and color filmmaking than as a top-grade fright film. “House of Wax,” on the other hand, puts so much into its efforts to entertain that it lives on to this day as a grand example of light horror. And whether you see it in a theater in full three dimensions or on home video in only two, it’s bound to provide enough thrills and chills, as they say, to please anyone looking for a deliciously creepy time.
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