Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of House of Wax (1953) is that its director, Andre De Toth had only one eye, thereby denying him the depth perception grossly exaggerated in this rather gimmicky, but lavishly mounted turn-of-the-century 3D fright-fest. House of Wax is a remake, of Michael Curtiz’s two-strip Technicolor classic, Mysteries of the Wax Museum (1933); the plot basically the same, but given the added on-the-nose touch of stereoscopic depth - objects and people being hurled at the screen – to its own artistic detriment. I suppose I ought to preface this review by stating that I am decidedly not a proponent of the third dimension. 3D draws the viewer away and out of the traditional cinema narrative; unnecessarily interrupting plot and, in general, sacrificing dramatic integrity for the thirty-second ‘in your face’ surprise that makes the audience duck, dodge or otherwise cringe in their seats. Like three camera Cinerama, 3D is really about the process rather than what’s being featured on the screen. You could shoot a flock of geese migrating south so long as they appeared to pass from the proscenium into the theater and at least half the audience would pay just to see the illusion. But in the end, one is reminded of the silliness of the exercise rather than awed by the propensity of its staying power.
3D, in its initial run had a very short life – basically from 1952 to 1954 – with perhaps a handful of titles worthy of mention or resurrection today; House of Wax among them. 3D was actually a novelty invented in Britain for still images in the late 1890's; resurrected in North America by various competing interests in 1922 on celluloid. Even then 3D had no real credible purpose: certainly, not as a way of producing full-length movies. Hollywood in its heyday paid the stereoscopic process virtually no mind at all. They didn’t need it. And 3D, because of its two-camera projection, could not accommodate a full feature anyway without imposing an intermission - awkward and unnecessary for any movie running less than two hours. But in cash-strapped post-war Hollywood, with the threat of television looming large on the horizon and theater attendance dropping by half 3D suddenly looked like a good investment to get patrons back into theaters. After all, it offered audiences something they could not see in the comfort of their own living rooms. The desperation inside the studios’ front offices must have been very great indeed, the marketing campaign behind 3D almost as queer as the process itself.
At least in hindsight, 3D bastardizes the concept of ‘a night out at the movies’; devolving its artistic importance from the status of a major event on par with live theater, and, geared mostly to adults (who used to dress up for it), to a popcorn-munching carnival sideshow, catering to the relative ridiculousness of the oddity itself. Movies in 3D owe more to the traditional freak show than cinema art. So perhaps Warner Bros. was hedging its bets with House of Wax – the horror genre already considered something of a red-headed stepchild in an industry whose moguls frequently aspired to produce high art, but were not above trading on the appeal of a low-brow trickery to make a quick buck. Thus, House of Wax promised chills and shudders along with the added enticement of 3D. And unlike other movies shot quick and dirty, merely to capitalize on the process, House of Wax featured a solid cast and Stanley Fleischer’s production values photographed in lurid color.
I’m probably one of a handful who can still recall seeing House of Wax projected in 3D during 3D’s brief renaissance back in 1982. The polarizing effect then was quite good. But seeing the movie several years later on late night television (obviously projected flat) I was struck by the fact that apart from its more obvious and exploitative moments encumbered by the gimmick (the carnival barker’s bouncing paddle balls, as example), House of Wax really didn’t need 3D to function as basic storytelling (the same way Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and George Sidney’s Kiss Me Kate work just as well without it) – the trumpeted ‘depth perception’ marginally interesting at best.
House of Wax marks the first full-fledged ‘horror’ movie in Vincent Price’s illustrious career; Price, a 2oth Century-Fox favorite as the perennial ‘male beauty’ in the mid-1930’s and throughout the 1940’s, tempted us with his obsessive, mentally deranged Nicholas Van Ryn in Dragonwyck (1946) – a superior melodrama that in some ways seems to foreshadow Price’s rise to prominence as the more menacing middle-aged ghoul: in retrospect the perfect segue into his Henry Jarrod in De Toth’s flashy and flavorful grand guignol. House of Wax can be fun. But most of its melodrama tends to creak like an antique rocking chair, the movie’s original directionalized stereo (long since lost or destroyed) now rechanneled to mono with a very heavy-handed mixture of loud thuds and bombastic chords screeching David Buttolph’s ominous score. 3D doesn’t seem to augment House of Wax so much as it just adds more noise (visual, this time) to the presentation
The story of a mad disfigured artist embalming cadavers from the city morgue, but then graduating to live victims encased in wax in order to mount his lavish chamber of horrors was rather tawdry and perverse fare in 1933. But by Puritanical 1950’s standards House of Wax grew ever more salacious and – in 3D – obnoxious – especially when De Toth tries too hard for it to be a 3D movie, completely forgetting that it’s also supposed to be a really good show. Personally, I have always been perplexed that the highlight of both House of Wax and its 1933 original (the torching of the wax museum for insurance money) occurs roughly eleven minutes into the start; the rest of our story a rather conventional and occasionally tepid ‘who done it?’ in which the audience already knows ‘who did’ and is merely waiting for the rest of the characters in our story to catch up. None of the resulting machinations – not even with the added ‘appeal’ of 3D - ever rivals the level of shock experienced during this opening spectacle; watching figures in wax, applied with intense heat, ‘decompose’ before our very eyes.
Apart from Vincent Price the rest of House of Wax’s cast is largely forgettable, save a brief appearance by a, as yet unknown Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) as mute sculptor, Igor. Phyllis Kirk, who would briefly find prominence on television’s The Thin Man (1957-1959) and, in fact, steadily appeared on other TV shows throughout the 50’s and 60’s, but who never made much of a splash in the movies, is prominently featured in House of Wax as the probing and inquisitive ingénue, Sue Allen; the only one to suspect Jarrod is using real people for more than mere inspiration to build is museum. Another TV alumni Carolyn Jones, isn’t quite so lucky. De Toth’s roster is rounded out by the Warner stock company; Paul Picerni as gifted sculptor, Scott Andrews; Roy Roberts - schemer Mathew Burke, and, Frank Lovejoy as Lt. Tom Brennan. It’s a solid cast to be sure. Yet, none of the principles apart from Vincent Price have their ‘break out’ moment. This leaves the story curiously off balance; the audience neither invested in the plot nor its characters, merely tolerating their dumb show until the equilibrium-altering effects of 3D have their more flamboyant moments. As such, House of Wax remains a rather artifice-stricken and graceless movie whose most grotesque element remains its stimuli-stiffening special effects.
We begin our excursion, typically, on a windswept/rain-soaked eve; Prof. Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) toiling in his wax museum. Jarrod is a true artist. His figures are not of horror but genuine beauty – recreations from history brought magnificently to life; so life-like in fact that they illicit awe and admiration from wealthy patron, Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanagh) who offers to ‘consider’ backing Jarrod’s venture and possibly even investing in a new exhibit. Regrettably, Jarrod’s partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) remains unimpressed. In fact, he’s rather desperate to recoup his own investment, electing to torch Jarrod’s museum for the insurance money. Horrified, Jarrod attempts to prevent the destruction of his beloved creations. After a rather brutal fight (in which no opportunity is wasted to hurl furniture and other props at the screen), Jarrod is left unconscious and trapped amidst his burning figures. He stirs and rushes into the adjacent stockroom, the museum’s paraffin and open gas main igniting in a hellish fireball.
Time passes. Jarrod resurfaces, having survived his ordeal but seemingly wheelchair-bound with outlandishly disfigured hands. Nevertheless, with Wallace’s money and the aid of his mute assistant, Igor, Jarrod has managed to resurrect his dream of opening the House of Wax. This time, however, Jarrod’s creations cater to the more salacious moments in human history; murders, suicides, and other heinous acts of violence. The place is a huge hit with audiences; particularly after the debut of Matthew Burke’s wax figure dangling from a rope – the most recent ‘headline gripping’ suicide brought shockingly to life. What the attendees do not know is that a hideous fiend (actually, Jarrod) broke into Burke’s apartment, strangled him and then dumped the body down an elevator shaft to make it look like a suicide. Later Burke’s corpse was stolen from the morgue and taken back to Jarrod’s museum where it was preserved in wax.
Jarrod becomes transfixed by the beauty of Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) – a failed chorine and Burke’s ex-girlfriend, living in the same boarding house as art student, Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Not long after, Cathy dies and Sue, haunted by the memory of their last conversation, is equally disturbed to discover an uncanny ‘likeness’ of Cathy on display inside Jarrod’s wax museum, reconstituted as his Joan of Arc about to be burned at the stake. Sue’s boyfriend, Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni) assures her that the resemblance to Cathy is just that. Matthew introduces Scott to Jarrod as a great sculptor and Jarrod decides to take him on. Sue, however, cannot rid herself of the unsettling feeling that Jarrod has not merely captured Cathy’s portrait in wax but has, in fact, somehow managed to embalm her best friend.
Jarrod now becomes enamored with Sue as the epitome of his waxen ‘Marie Antoinette’ lost in the blaze that consumed his original museum. He begs Sue’s indulgence to pose for him. No time like the present, I suppose. For later that same evening Jarrod’s fiend stalks Sue along the midnight vacant Victorian streets, terrorizing and chasing her to Scott’s family home. Mrs. Andrews (Angela Clarke) is empathetic. But when Sue tells both she and Scott of her suspicions about Jarrod neither believes her. Still, Scott turns to the kindly Lt. Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy) for answers to quell Sue’s fears. Brennan humors Sue by casually investigating Jarrod at his museum.
The fiend returns the next evening, almost successful at whisking Sue from the Andrews’ upstairs bedroom where she sleeps. Sue’s terrific screams ward him off at the last possible moment. Brennan becomes suspicious of Jarrod and decides to have Sgt. Jim Shane (Dabbs Greer) shadow his movements. But Jarrod has been particularly clever in arranging his isolation of Sue. Sending Scott on an errand to fetch some last minute supplies Jarrod now awaits Sue’s arrival at the museum to meet Scott after hours. She enters the House of Wax alone and, in the darkened recesses, is compelled to approach the Joan of Arc figure, removing its black wig to reveal Cathy’s blond tresses beneath. Jarrod emerges from the shadows, rising from his wheelchair and taking hold of Sue. As they struggle she breaks his wax mask, revealing (just in case the audience hasn’t already figured it out for themselves) that Jarrod and the disfigured fiend are one in the same.
Stricken with paralytic fear Sue passes out, is carried by Jarrod to his wax embalming facility beneath the museum and prepped for the procedure. But Scott has returned, along with Lt. Brennan and Sgt. Shane; the trio saving Sue by knocking Jarrod into a bubbling vat of smoldering pink paraffin. Given the monstrous nature of the plot, the tacked-on ‘happy ending’ involving Sue and Scott joking about the discovery of a wax head in Lt. Brennan’s likeness, is rather absurd.
House of Wax is at times comically perverse. Its best moment is undeniably the destruction of Jarrod’s first museum. But De Toth also establishes some good spine-tingling moments as Sue begins to suspect Jarrod’s figure of Joan of Arc as the body of her former best friend, Cathy. Fitting the pieces of the puzzle together superficially works – but it has no spark of mystery. We already know Cathy and Joan of Arc are one in the same. If only the screenplay didn’t suffer from ennui; the characters too homogenized or, at times, even discernible from one another. The dialogue is pedestrian at best, with only Phyllis Kirk sporadically rising above the banter to at least seem genuine in her investigative probing. Vincent Price is, of course, exquisite as the seemingly mellifluous and cultured proprietor of the wax museum. But as his alter ego – the disfigured fiend – Price tends to go way over the top. With his oddly attempted half-limp/part-shuffle, skulking about the deserted streets after Kirk’s screeching ingénue, Price’s malignant gimp takes on the flavor of an over-sized Quasimodo.
It is also something of a curiosity that De Toth and his screenwriter have relocated House of Wax in the never-never-land of Victorian New York – actually looking very much like Edwardian England; its capricious assortment of flickering gaslights, top hats, opera cloaks and corsets set against a misty backdrop of wrought iron and shutter clan streets. The setting for the original movie was actually contemporary Manhattan circa 1933. Stanley Fleisher’s art direction occasionally falters; as in the romantic moment between Matthew and Cathy – presumably at an outdoor beer garden that never goes beyond the remedial trappings of an obvious indoor set; sterile, artificial and looking as though it was cobbled together moments before the actual shooting of the scene began. Perhaps the biggest problem with Fleisher’s sets is that they look more fake and uninviting than anything outside of Jarrod’s wax museum.
And then, of course, there is the stereoscopic theatrics to either admire or contend with; the hurling of chairs and other objects at the screen during the fight between Jarrod and Matthew; the toppling of Matthew’s cadaver toward the camera (and thus, out into the audience), the museum’s street barker (Reggie Rymal) and his incredible ping-pong paddle and balls attached to strings, the latter directly addressing the movie audience with the interminable threat to strike one of them in the head with his ricocheting balls. It all works very well as a wild display of nonsense to show off 3D to its best advantage. But it also detracts from the grand guignol of the movie – repeatedly taking the audience out of the story. Gimmick in place of story, and style (such as it remains) eclipsing substance; House of Wax takes its place as the archetypal amusement park ‘dark ride’. It’s fun in the moment but utterly forgettable once it’s over.
Warner Home Video has finally come around to debuting House of Wax in 3D. The illusion has been well preserved, but I still think the 2D rendering suits the movie’s nimble plot better. Without 3D one can concentrate on the story unencumbered by the anticipation of the next object or human entity about to burst forth from the screen. Regarding the transfer quality –virtually identical in either format – House of Wax exhibits a robust, colorful and consistently contrasted image that is extremely grainy throughout and can look marginally soft from time to time. This is as it should be, since the movie was photographed in rather inferior WarnerColor. Bottom line: House of Wax was never going to look like a vintage Technicolor feature with razor-sharp detail and lurid colors. It does, however, manage to give a faithful representation of the ‘opening night’ thrills one might have expected from the original theatrical engagement. Warner has done a fine job tempering age-related artifacts too.
The newly mastered DTS-HD 2.0 mono is very engaging. House of Wax was originally presented with 4-track magnetic stereo (played off an independent spool of magnetic tape synced to the visuals). The stereophonic version was screened only in limited engagements as many theaters were not equipped for it. So a mono mix was also created to give the movie wider distribution. Apparently, only this mono mix has survived. As ludicrous as it may seem by today’s standards, it was not uncommon in the cost-cutting 1950’s for studios to keep only the bare essentials archived while reusing what they could for other pending features. I suppose we could criticize the dream merchants for their shortsightedness, except that no one could have conceived of a time when movies would be considered more than disposable first-run entertainment. Certainly, none could have envisioned the creation of ‘home video’ back then, or the public’s insatiable desire for nostalgia and need to ‘collect’ film art as we take for granted today. When Warner released its DVD back in 2000 it featured a re-channeled stereo 4.0 track. Apparently, for this Blu-ray Warner thought it best to stick with preservation elements from the mono mix rather than this faux stereo which, after all, was not indigenous to the original presentation. Regardless, House of Wax sounds very impressive.
Warner Home Video has decided to augment this Blu-ray with other goodies instead and they’re all worth the price of admission, beginning with a very informative audio commentary from David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr. We also get almost an hour of Behind the Scenes: House of Wax: Unlike Anything You've Seen Before in HD; a documentary with a host of Hollywood alumni weighing in on 3D and its lasting impact. It also features vintage snippets of Vincent Price. The rest of the extras are direct imports from the old Warner DVD, including the garish two minute vintage junket, Round-the-Clock Premiere: Coast Hails House of Wax as well as Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Regrettably, Warner has seen no validity in remastering the original movie in 1080p. Instead, it’s 480i and predictably lacking in clarity and color fidelity. Badly done!
I’ve gone on record before and I’ll do it again herein to reinforce the logic that if original movies and/or documentaries are going to be offered up as ‘extra features’ for the hi-def market then there really is NO point other than to release them in hi-def; doing an up-conversion when no original elements survive. Just slapping out old footage in whatever condition merely to advertise it as a ‘bonus feature’ doesn’t cut it anymore – period! Not that it ever should have been considered ‘the norm’ in the first place! Finally, we get House of Wax’s trailer, showing no scenes from the movie, but a series of painted title cards trumpeting the new technological wonder of 3D. Bottom line: recommended for those who love this movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)