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.
Opinionated ramblings about new and old movies (mostly old, as that's the way I like 'em!)
Blogs of Note
Stuart Galbraith IV's World Cinema Paradise
Movie Morlocks (TCM's Classic Movie Blog)
50 Westerns from the 50s
Riding the High Country
Tipping My Fedora
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Classic TV and Film Cafe
Just a Cineast
She Blogged By Night
Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema
Out of the Past -
A Classic Film Blog
Pretty Sinister Books
They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
In So Many Words...
Greenbriar Picture Shows
My Love of Old Hollywood
Tales of the Easily Distracted
Another Old Movie Blog
Lasso the Movies
Kevin's Movie Corner
Films From Beyond the Time Barrier
Carole & Co.
Rupert Pupkin Speaks
Vienna's Classic Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
ClassicBecky's Brain Food
Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed below, to be informed of new postings!