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Friday, October 11, 2013

House of Wax (1953) review


Vincent Price (Henry Jarrod), Frank Lovejoy (Lt. Tom Brennan), Phyllis Kirk (Sue Allen), Carolyn Jones (Cathy Gray), Charles Bronson (Igor), Roy Roberts (Matthew Burke)

Directed by Andre De Toth

"I'm going to give the people what they want. Sensation. Horror. Shock. Send them out into the streets to tell their friends how wonderful it is to be scared to death!"

The Short Version: Warner's hugely entertaining 3D horror show succeeds for a myriad of reasons; and not all of them are attributed to the participation of Price. It's big, loud and ghoulish, and makes great use of color and studio sets to capture a grandly, (and grand guignol) atmosphere of the macabre. The films sense of sideshow hucksterism is seemingly a lost art today. Vincent Price is vastly restrained here, but his piercing stare and facial hair are as overpowering as any of his other more boisterous performances of other productions. Buy a ticket, get some popcorn and enjoy the show.

Henry Jarrod, a wax museum sculptor and proprietor loses his priceless creations in a fire after his callous business partner sets his establishment ablaze for the insurance money. Presumed dead in the accident, a wheelchair-bound Jarrod resurfaces nearly a year later in preparation of an all new museum. But instead of historical figures of note, Jarrod now showcases waxen creations of murderers in sensational, lurid displays. Meanwhile, a deformed killer is on the loose, stealing the bodies from a local morgue.

This gloriously gruesome color horror from Warner Brothers was heavily ballyhooed at the time for its 3D presentation and Stereophonic Sound. It was a remake of the 1933 two-strip Technicolor spooker MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Both films are products of their time, but the '53 version edges out the original mainly because of the participation of Price. Outside of a few alterations (the main character being a spirited female reporter), Andre De Toth's version is very faithful to Michael Curtiz's picture -- even down to some of the dialog.

Arguably the greatest difference between the two films is that the original is more of a murder thriller while the '53 version wallows in its horror elements. In fact, the film wastes no time in showing you the films monster early on; and this ends up being a slight detriment to the movie. Any horror fan worth their salt will know who it is, but it would have been nice to have a late-blooming reveal of the monsters true identity. A PHANTOM OF THE OPERA style reveal is reserved for the finale, though.

Vincent Price's cinematic niche began in the 1950s. He'd been in horror films before, but HOUSE OF WAX got him well on his way to becoming America's next big horror star picking up the monster mantle previously held by the likes of Karloff and Lugosi. The following year, Price starred as THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954) for Columbia in what was essentially a more sordid reworking of HOUSE OF WAX. His roles in THE FLY (1958), RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) closed out the decade. His career in fear snowballed from there.

The centerpiece of it all is the waxen house of horrors -- which is an extension of Jarrod's personality. He began the film interested only in figures of respectability and social significance. Yet once he's suffered physical deformities and nearly died, he becomes a monster. The extended shots of his life's work melting in a fiery inferno are emblematic of his transformation. Jarrod's resultant creations are an extension of that hatred. The one strand linking Jarrod with his depleted sanity is his obsession with Marie Antoinette -- his prized creation. 

There's likewise something Draculean about Jarrod's fascination with the controversial royal lady, and his persistence in preserving her for all time. The character of Sue Allen is the living embodiment of Jarrod's Antoinette, and he'll do anything to possess her.

Greed is as integral to the narrative as the ghoulish activities of the mad museum proprietor. Initially, Jarrod's interests lie in the passion for his work. The monetary aspect is secondary, if even at all. His money yearnings extend only so that he may continue his work. However, his partner Burke is dissatisfied with Jarrod's choice of waxen exhibitions, favoring far more gruesome displays; as well as making good on his investment, and quickly. Upon learning an outside interested party won't be able to decide on buying out Burke's share, the greedy stockbroker strikes on the idea of setting the place on fire to get a return in a quicker, if devastating fashion. 

Jarrod, thought dead for months, resurfaces some time later. Now wheelchair bound and his hands disfigured, he reopens his wax museum, but this time creating a literal Chamber of Horrors to coincide with his less violent displays. Greed in turn becomes a part of his psyche. Greed for his work in that he's driven to murder to realize a greater, more ghastly realism for his wax creations. At one time a passive, passionate man of his craft, Jarrod now becomes as soulless -- even more so -- than those that drove him to his madness; and few actors have captured madness on screen as good as Vincent Price.

Price is often accused of overacting in his movies, but here, and like others in his 50s oeuvre, he's restrained. There's a hint of sardonic wit in his line delivery that masks the rage he feels for having lost the use of his hands -- this rage channeled in his turnabout stance on his wax figure preferences. With that said, there's also something Frankensteinian about Price's Jarrod character. However, the film doesn't spend enough time with him prior to his crippling accident to maintain much pity for him.

Charles Bronson (using his real last name of Buchinsky) is on hand in a supporting role as Price's doting, deaf-mute servant, Igor. Reportedly, neither man got along very well, but they did appear onscreen together in 1960 for AIP's MASTER OF THE WORLD. In that film, Bronson was the protagonist as Price was the title madman. Of course, Bronson would go on to worldwide fame essaying gun-toting vigilantes and tough, hard as nails cops in a variety of films.

HOUSE OF WAX succeeds not only as a horror film, but also in its depiction, and glorification of old style showmanship. This is perfectly exemplified with the paddle ball practitioner who not only entices patrons into the establishment, but also breaks the fourth wall and sells the 3D effects to the audience watching in the theaters. The picture was hugely successful, and was influential on other movies over the years. Below is a list of films that used wax museums, or borrowed, or paid homage to its concept.

Giorgio Ferroni's sepulchral, eerily atmospheric MILL OF STONE WOMEN from 1960 is an underrated Italian variation on the ghoulish concept of HOUSE OF WAX (1953). 

One of the best examples of Mexi-horror and Lucha Libre cinema was SANTO EN EL MUSEO DE CERA from 1963. Alfonso Corona Blake's movie took elements of both HOUSE OF WAX and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) to create an enjoyable experience. Oh, and there's wrestling, too! It was released here under the title of SAMSON IN THE WAX MUSEUM.

In 1966 there came the very similar CHAMBER OF HORRORS that was originally intended to lead to a TV series, but unfortunately, nothing came of it. 

1969s NIGHTMARE IN WAX starring Cameron Mitchell was a virtual remake of the two earlier WAX films. 

A segment of the exemplar Amicus anthology, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970) dealt with a wax museum harboring a sinister secret uncovered by Peter Cushing. 

The finale of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) hearkens back to the ending of HOUSE OF WAX (1953) in that two females are in dire peril of having their bodies soaked in an uncomplimentary, life-threatening fashion.

In 1979, David Schmoeller's TOURIST TRAP (one of the scariest movies to ever garner a PG rating) had elements akin to the wax museum movie motif. 

A 2005 remake called HOUSE OF WAX felt more like a re-imagining of the aforementioned TOURIST TRAP (1978) than it did the 30s and 50s films.

Aside from the presence of Price, the sights and sounds sell the movie. Nearly every frame is drenched in vibrant colors, accentuated by fabulous art decor. David Buttolph's score is as rich as the photography. You don't need to see it in 3D to derive enjoyment here. There are a few light, macabre comedic moments that never feel out of place (also in the original 30s version), and serve to accentuate the exposition. It's a large scale, if morbid movie. One of the best horror pictures of its time, HOUSE OF WAX (1953) is among Vincent Price's best films; although not technically, nor solely for his performance, but for all the bells and whistles used to formulate a memorable piece of genre entertainment.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD.

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