Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: House of Wax (1953)
Vincent Price is a not just a big name but an iconic staple of horror movies. There’s something about him that is interesting yet memorable. The sly and ghoulish yet humorous tone in his voice and the way he acts sinister while a noble gentleman at the same time. There’s just no justice I can do to explain how great he is. But would you believe that he was nearly blacklisted at one point. Truth be told, the McCarthy era was not a good time as many writers, directors and even actors were questioned to see if they were communists. Thankfully, Vincent was safe but he had two options. Either take part in a play or go back into some film work but nothing too major. Well, the play in question got great reviews but if it wasn’t for him, House of Wax wouldn’t be what it is today.
Now in order to understand the plot, I might have to go into some deeper details and it might result in some major spoilers. So I’ll try to maintain the bigger ones but just saying, read with caution. Set in 1890s New York, Vincent Price plays a wax sculptor named Henry Jarrod who is very talented and deeply invested in bring historical figures to live with his own two hands. And you can’t blame him seeing how much detail and spectacle is placed into each one. Unfortunately, his business partner played by Roy Roberts is not pleased with the mere measly earnings from Jarrod’s wax museum and sets it on fire to get the insurance money.
Jarrod somehow survives with his hands burned and attempts to recreate his lost work with a new wax museum. However, unlike focusing on the craft and beauty, this particular museum is more shock and less awe with crimes and murder of the past and present. From the guillotine to the first man to sit in the electric chair, he pertains to public taste and less art. I guess I should also mention Charles Bronson plays his mute assistant named Igor that does the sculpting. Its interesting to see a gunslinger be a lackey to a prince of horror films. Meanwhile, a disfigured man goes around and starts killing people one by one. His first victim is Jarrod’s business partner who gets strangled and then hanged from an elevator shaft. The first kill along is very eerie and well shot. There’s question to who this mysterious killer truly is but nothing is explained until the very end.
I probably should address that House of Wax has one major flaw. The opening scene is so well done that it really feels like the climax. As Jarrod’s wax museum goes up in flames, we see one figure burn after another and it becomes exciting, intense and unnerving at the same time. And to top it off, a fight between Jarrod and his business partner that really raises the stakes. It so tight and well shot that everything else after that feels laid back. The climax is nail-biting as well but the middle portion feels very laid back and quiet. But personally, that is a good thing. You start with a bang and then end it with something on the edge of your seat. Its a nice idea but I wish there something big in the middle to bring up the pace a bit. Also with the death of his business partner, it feels the film should already be satisfied seeing it was the only kill that served justice. But unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.
I should probably bring up that this film is actually a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum which was more noir and comical while less horror based. I took the opportunity to view both versions and while Wax Museum was good too, I felt House of Wax had more improvements. Wax Museum does explain a few plot holes like how the new wax museum was able to be re-built but it also feels lacking in spots. Its set in 1933 (with the exception of a prologue set in 1921 London) and has a very metropolis feel to it in the shape of the buildings and how twisted and bent the wax figure workshop looks. But the biggest thing that keeps more coming back to House of Wax and not Wax Museum is the wax sculptor himself. Lionel Atwill plays the sculptor Ivan Igor with a more tense and angry feel. You really don’t have much sympathy with him and easily you have a certain dislike toward his attitude.
Vincent Price’s take is given more time to build sympathy even though we know he is that crazy. That was the magic of his acting. He knew how to make villainous characters but the kind you want to love. You really do feel sorry for him but at the same time, a bit disturbed about his intentions. But still, Vincent always knew when to put in his effort and loved every minute of it. While Wax Museum relied on certain characters for comic relief, Vincent provides the laughs dropping a comment line that is darkly funny and subtle at the same time.
I also have to give props to director André de Toth for making this movie. House of Wax has a grand yet simple comic-book tone to it that feels like a living EC comic right down to the cinematography and great use of sets. The foggy New York streets are eerie while the wax museum in the second half of the movie looks fascinating as it does when it needs to look menacing. I should also address this film is best remembered for being filmed and screened in polarized 3-D and at times, you can tell when its doing its tricks like a paddle ball to the viewer or close-ups of the killer. But even without the 3-D, it still looks like a well-shot movie. Director André de Toth was unfortunately blind in one eye and couldn’t see the 3-D. So when everyone was seeing the dailies and marveling at how great the 3-D effect looked, André was left feeling puzzled over why it would get THAT great of a reception.
While I can’t say House of Wax is a dead on masterpiece, I do stress that this is a really good movie. 3-D or 2-D, the eye-popping effect is in the production, Vincent Price and the overall film in general. It has a tongue-in-cheek approach that is neither too self aware of itself or even too cheesy. Its a perfect blend that balances out the comic-book horror tone that would later be used for other films like Army of Darkness or Creepshow. To best describe the effect this movie had on viewers back then and today, let me refer to a humorous story. Vincent Price was seeing a screening of the movie when he just happened to be behind two teenagers who were jumping and dodging from the horrors that were popping out of the screen. When the movie was over and the lights went up, Vincent leaned in-between their faces and asked ghoulishly, “Did you two enjoy my movie?” Their response was something he would never forget. The two teens could do nothing but scream of fright.
Posted on October 6, 2014, in Horror-Wood 2014 and tagged 1953, 3D movies, Andre de Toth, Comic Book, Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon, House of Wax, Mystery of the Wax Museum, remake, Vincent Price, wax. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.