House of Wax (1953)
The movie that set star Vincent Price's career on a course with horror movie destiny, House of Wax was Warner Brothers' first 3D film and proved a massive success for the studio. Director Andre de Toth gives this modestly-budgeted period piece a lavish, colorful look, and it moves along at a nice clip, yet I couldn't help feeling just a little disappointed with the film.
Price plays Prof. Henry Jarrod, a gentle if eccentric sculptor of taste and genius who runs a small and unsuccessful wax museum. His partner and investor, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) wants to get his hands on the $25,000 insurance money on the building and so callously sets fire to Jarrod's painstakingly-crafted exhibits. The two men struggle, and Burke leaves Jarrod to a fiery fate. Of course, Jarrod survives to plot his revenge, albeit now a disfigured wretch of a man, driven to madness by the loss of his precious life works.
Phyllis Kirk, soon to play Nora Charles in THE THIN MAN TV series.
The murderous Burke has little time to enjoy his spoils, as Jarrod, clad in black cloak and slouch hat, sneaks into his office, strangles him, and arranges his body to drop down the elevator shaft in a semblance of suicide.
Next, he targets Burke's mistress, social climber Sally Gray (Carolyn Jones). Sally's friend, down-on-her-luck Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), comes upon Sally's dead body just in time to witness Jarrod's monstrous appearance, and is pursued by him through the fog-lined New York streets, until she reaches the safety of the family home of her beau, young sculptor Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni).
With the financial backing of kindly art critic Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanaugh), a seemingly normal - if wheelchair-bound - Jarrod opens a new, grislier and sensationalistic gallery. His badly burned hands no longer capable of doing fine sculpting work, Jarrod is assisted by mute, hulking henchman Igor (Charles Bronson, in unconvincing pancake make-up) and an alcoholic ex-con in creating new figures for a series of tableau reenacting famous crimes and scenes of torture and death, which make the new House of Wax a notorious and immediate success. Only sensitive Sue, gazing upon a figure of Joan of Arc which bears a striking resemblance to her dead friend Sally, suspects the truth - that Jarrod is using actual corpses to imbue his new wax figures with their uncanny life. Unfortunately for Sue, Jarrod sets his sights on turning her into his newest wax masterpiece, Marie Antoinette.
This remake of the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum is an enjoyable potboiler, buoyed by a fine, reigned-in performance by Price, as well as a pleasing depiction of turn-of-the-century New York, replete with gas lamps and carriages clattering down cobblestone streets. Aside from Kirk, who makes for a lovely and sympathetic heroine, the other cast standouts are Frank Lovejoy Jr. and Dabbs Greer as detectives who prove far more able than those in the later Dr. Phibes films. The impossibly wasp-waisted Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family) has a few brief scenes as the ill-fated Sally. Poor Chuck Bronson looks uncomfortable but mugs gamely as Igor.
The movie basically belongs to Price and he carries it through to its moderately suspenseful climax, but the story overall seems too simple and rather truncated, like certain important story beats were left out.
I suppose my main problem is the almost casual, throwaway dispatch of the villainous Burke. I expected at least a bit of delicious, Grand Guignol-style mayhem as Price goes on his revenge spree, but he merely garrotes his enemy in seconds, without even a single moment of threatening conversation or time taken to revel in Burke's comeuppance. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the elaborate deaths featured in the Phibes films and Theater of Blood, but I can't help feeling that Jarrod's lack of panache in taking out his victims robs House of Wax of a good deal of potential power.
And while it's a nice visual conceit, the idea of the disfigured Jarrod being able to maintain his smooth public facade under a wax mask of his original, aristocratic face is pretty ludicrous. Jarrod's murder of Sally also seems to lack proper motivation. We can assume that the new, older gentleman friend she goes to meet is indeed Jarrod, though this is only hinted at and not spelled out in any way, nor his reason for wishing her dead given its proper due. Still, we fans of fantastic cinema are used to overlooking these sorts of plot inconsistencies, and in the end they didn't really bother me much.
House of Wax is a fun, old-fashioned horror story told with a certain flair and skill. In light of the recent release to 3D Blu-Ray of contemporary classics Creature from the Black Lagoon and Dial M for Murder, here's hoping this stately chiller gets a similar treatment sometime soon.
10/13/2012 10:02:44 pm
Nice write-up Jeff - personally I much prefer the Michael curtiz original though the one time I did see the remake in the cinema was in 3-D and the effects very often highly impressive - the audience whooped at the ball-and-bat sequence before the intermission (necessary the re-load the two synched projectors) and some of the really clever shots like Bronson's character suddenly emerging into view from beneath the camera really made everyone jump!
10/15/2012 04:18:18 pm
Thanks, Sergio! The original MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was on the B-side of the DVD I viewed, but I didn't have the chance to watch it. I did give it a cursory look and it does appear ibnteresting, so will try to get to it later. You're right about the famous paddleball scenes, they are impressive enough in 2D, I can only imagine their effect in 3D.
10/15/2012 04:16:08 pm
Hiya, Ruth! Yes, isn't that a terrific poster? They really knew how to lure 'em in back in the day (pity that most of the time, the movies never lived up to the garish promises of theie poster art...) And you're right, Vincent Price pretty much is the whole enchilada here.
10/18/2012 02:58:01 am
The first time I tried to watch "House Of Wax", I was unable to get past its opening fire scene but the movie haunted me & months later when it was shown again, I managed to watch the whole movie. Oddly enough, the first version I saw was a censored version where Price's disfigured face looked like it was covered with a black hood up until the final unmasking. This was a case where censorship improved the scares. When Phyllis Kirk finally unmasked Price, I nearly jumped out of my seat! For years I wondered why Price's unmasking wasn't considered in the same league as "The Phantom Of The Opera", then I finally saw the 3-D version at a theatre & found out Price's disfigurement had been shown from the very beginning ! Definitely a case of censorship improving the scares.
10/18/2012 07:43:59 am
Very interesting story, Jim - thanks! I hadn't heard that before re: Price's disfigurement make-up being kept hidden until the final reveal. I think you're right, that would have added to the surprise and shock of that final sequence greatly, as well as adding an air of mystery to the film, if the filmmakers had held off on showing it. As it is, his face is shown right away, in a rather perfunctory manner. Also, there's something about the make-up itself, perhaps the twist in the lip and the sad eyes, that makes me feel more pity than horror.
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