House of Wax (1953)

Synopsis: In the wicked performance that crowned him the movie’s master of the macabre, Vincent Price plays a renowned wax sculptor plunged into madness when an arsonist destroys his life’s work. Unable to use his flame-scarred hands, he devises a new – and murderous – way of restocking his House of Wax.

The sweet dread and sheer fun of this creepy classic, co-starring Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones and Charles Bronson and directed by Andre de Toth, had its roots in a Warner Bros. chiller from 20 years before: Mystery of the Wax Museum.

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House of Wax (1953) 7.25

eyelights: Vincent Price. its core concept. its creepy vibe.
eyesores: Vincent Price. its plot gaps. its weak make-up effects. the gimmicky 3D photography.

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

Vincent Price was born on May 27, 1911. Though he’s mostly renowned for his latter-period film work, by his passing in 1993, he’d left an enduring legacy in various mediums, including the stage, visual arts, and even the culinary arts.

But it’s as a horror icon that he’s best remembered, and it’s the 1953 motion picture ‘House of Wax’ which inadvertently helped him transition from secondary parts to playing the lead in some of the horror genre’s most defining pictures.

The Warner Bros. picture is a remake of the 1933 motion picture ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum‘, which was itself an adaptation of an unpublished short story. It takes the core aspects of the original film and gives it a relatively new spin.

The plot remains the same: a wax sculptor is betrayed by his business partner, who burns down the museum for the insurance money. The sculptor, who’d been thought dead, later reappears preparing to open a brand new House of Wax.

But deadly secrets are buried deep in this mysterious museum…

The biggest changes in this picture are in the tone: Firstly, it’s focused on providing thrills, omitting completely the humourous component that plagued its predecessor; this time, it serves up longer action sequences and far more horror content.

It also cuts out a few key characters, notably the strong female lead: In Florence Dempsey’s stead, we are given Sue Allen, a more typical, demure damsel in distress. This one skews the balance in favour of the villain, who gets more screen time.

That’s a double-edged sword, as it gives Vincent Price more time to chew the scenery. As much as I’m a fan of the actor (as evidence by overstuffed DVD collection), he plays it a bit broad here, weakening the credibility of the piece in the process.

Of course, ‘House of Wax’ is hardly a clever film to start with: it’s filled with huge gaps in logic that are motivated by the need to thrill audiences. For instance, why would the mysterious villain repeatedly kill and leave the bodies behind?

Why not just take them along in the first place, instead of later stealing them from the morgue?

Answer: thrills.

It’s not only a waste of the villain’s time, but it attracts far more attention than just whisking away the victims without anyone ever finding out what had happened to them. After all, time would be wasted trying to find them, not the killer.

On a similar note, the fiend makes other mistakes, like inexplicably sticking around after committing a murder – as in the case of Cathy, who, according to the coroner, had been dead at least a couple of hours when they first found her.

And yet, they found her right after the masked creep ran away from them…

Obviously, this was just an excuse and it surprisingly works: as ridiculous as it all is, the action sequences do pepper the pot nicely; there are plenty of fights, the arson sequence is much longer, and there are more creepy shots of melting statues.

Warner Bros also invested in another gimmick for the occasion: 3D. Though ‘House of Wax’ was hardly the first film in this new process, it was one of two big releases that year that helped cement the public’s interest in the burgeoning fad.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t make the most of the technology, relying on a few cheap effects to wow its audiences. The most dramatic one finds a masked barker smacking a paddle-ball outside the House of Wax to entice people in.

Yeah, a paddle-ball… whoopteedoo.

And that’s a recurring problem with this picture, which tries to impress but lacks the sophistication to truly succeed. A perfect example is in the crappy-looking statues and their uninspired presentations. Heck, even the 1933 film did better.

Similarly, the sets are pretty elaborate, but at no point is one convinced that it’s real life – we know full well that these are sets and that they’re on a soundstage. It very much diminished the impact of the picture since we remain incredulous.

…uninvolved.

The only exception is in the villain’s lair, which is actually more realistic than its predecessor’s, but instead lacks the ostentatiousness that made the other one so remarkable. It’s like, “Okay, here’s the villain’s lair… and who cares?”.

That’s too bad.

Despite all the unevenness, ‘House of Wax’ remains entertaining. It’s in no way believable but it’s wild enough for its audience to get carried along with it. Given how unremarkable horror cinema was at the time, it’s no wonder that it stood out.

Sadly, watching it as intended, in 3D, and in the first stereoscopic sound, is no longer possible. While the 3D version still exists, it’s only available on home video in some markets, and no print with the 4.0 stereo track has been found in decades.

But it’s a film worth viewing none the same. It’s not just a turning point in Vincent Price’s career, it’s also a game-changer in the horror genre, sparking sufficient interest that the next decade would bring forth a number of all-time classics.

It’s worth waxing nostalgic over.

Post scriptum: look out for Carolyn Jones (i.e. Morticia Addams in ‘The Addams Family’ TV show), in an early role as the ditzy Cathy, and Charles Bronson (‘The Magnificent Seven’, The Dirty Dozen’, ‘Death Wish’) as Jarrod’s mute henchman, Igor.

Story: 7.0
Acting: 7.0
Production: 7.5

Chills: 3.0
Gore: 2.0
Violence: 3.0

Date of viewing: March 21, 2017

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