The famous story about 1953’s House of Wax is that although it was made during the 3D craze of the 1950s, director Andre de Toth was blind in one eye, and could only see it in 2D. Whether for that or for other reasons, House of Wax has a legacy that’s outlasted many other ’50s 3D films like, say, Bwana Devil or A Day in the Country. It’s a classic fright flick with thrills that still hold up today, and now House of Wax 3D (Blu-ray) debuts courtesy of Warner Bros.
Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price, The Bat) is a sculpture whose wax museum is the talk of the city. While everyone admires his recreations of historic figures, he refuses to be commercial by adding an audience-pleasing chamber of horrors. When a meeting with some sleazy investors goes bad, those investors decide to burn down the museum, taking Jarrod with it.
Months later, Jarrod resurfaces, now with mangled hands and confined to a wheelchair, just as a series of murders and disappearances sweep across the city. Jarrod’s new wax museum has frightening recreations of the murders, just after they happen, and this draws in the crowds. Sue (Phyllis Kirk, The Thin Man) suspects a connection, and she investigates, putting her life in danger.
The big selling point here is supposed to be the 3D, so let’s talk 3D. First thing you should know is that even though this is an older 3D film, it’s not the kind that comes with the glasses. Instead, it’s been converted to today’s modern 3D, which means you’ll need a 3D HDTV, a 3D Blu-ray player, compatible 3D glasses, and a high-speed HDMI cable—all sold separately—for the full experience. Online sources have varied on the quality, with some saying the illusion is miraculous, while others argue that the image is not aligned, causing a “double vision” effect. I spoke to the guy at my local Best Buy (who, by the way, looks and talks exactly like Napoleon Dynamite), and he agreed that the more advanced, and expensive, your home theater setup, the better 3D experience you will have. All this is to say, if you’re looking to recreate the sensation of the 1953 3D experience, your mileage might vary.
That’s how the movie was meant to be seen, but not how it’s been seen. For a whole generation of us, if not multiple generations, our first exposure to House of Wax was on TV and home video, where we were drawn in not by a gimmick but by the old standbys of plot, acting, and production value. These days we get a lot of 3D movies like the unwatchable offal of Piranha 3DD, where 3D is all the movie has to offer. House of Wax, on the other hand, is such a great movie that you can put it in your measly old prehistoric 2D Blu-ray player and still fully enjoy it.
There’s so much to enjoy about this movie. First among these is a career-making performance by Vincent Price. He was just starting to fall out of celebrity at this time, after a string of failed “leading man” roles. House of Wax reinvigorated his career as a master of fright, and making him a household name. He earns such with this performance. Professor Jarrod is sinister through and through, with Price emphasizing the character’s dark side with an icy coldness. When he says to Sue, “You shouldn’t have done that, my dear,” you know all kinds of dark thoughts are raging in mind, even as the “my dear” part shows a sort of sick playfulness. This macabre sense of humor serves Price well, and adds richness to both the character and the performance. Still, Jarrod is also a sympathetic villain at times. The movie’s opening set piece is a real crowd-pleaser, in which Jarrod poetically speechifies about his passion for his art, only then to see it all go up in flames in a most spectacular manner. The movie doesn’t ask you to condone Jarrod’s murderous evil, but thanks to that whiz-bang ending, you do at least understand it.
The supporting cast does a good job as well. Phyllis Kirk makes a great, plucky female hero, determined to get at the truth no matter what the cost. Caroline Jones, famous as Morticia from TV’s The Addams Family, appears as a blonde bombshell who’s an early target for the killer. Then there’s an unrecognizably young Charles Bronson (Death Wish 3), playing Jarrod’s hulkingly muscular toadie, who is, of course, named Igor. A group of detectives are also on hand, investigating the murders, but they serve more to move the plot forward than be romantic leads.
There’s no filmed-in-front-of-a-green-screen business in this movie. House of Wax features lush visuals and production values. The opening set piece, as I mentioned above, is an eye-popper, with two guys fighting among real flames, and the super-creepy images of the wax figures’ faces melting off. (It’s just not a wax museum-themed horror movie without slimy face-meltings!) Additionally, there are elaborate costumes, fog-shrouded nighttime streets, and huge vats of bubbling hot flesh-colored liquid wax. The overall “world” of the movie is a huge part of why it works so well.
House of Wax 3D (Blu-ray)‘s picture quality is quite good, bright and colorful when the scene requires it, and deeply dark and shadowy when another requires it. The movie’s original experimental three-strip surround track has, sadly, been lost to history, so instead we have the 2.0 track, but this too has been beefed up to DTS-HD. It sounds clean, with clear dialogue and a booming score.
For extras, there is a commentary with film historians David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr, who discuss the film’s historic importance. A featurette contains more anecdotes and stories from the production, and its impact on filmmaking at large. A classic trailer and newsreel footage from the era are included as well. Oh, there’s one more extra—a whole other movie. Mystery of the Wax Museum, made in 1933, was the inspiration for House of Wax (yeah, yeah, it’s a remake). The movie stars Lionel Atwell (The Vampire Bat) and scream queen Fay Wray (King Kong). The movie follows many of the same beats as its 1953 counterpoint, but with a slower, stodgier pace. Still, it’s interesting to see for the ol’ compare-and-contrast. The sound and black-and-white picture have been nicely restored.
The 3D gimmick is only really noticeable in three scenes—an obnoxious carnival barker with a paddle ball, a bunch of high-kicking dancers, and the “coming at’cha” opening credits. The credits are charming and add to the overall mood of the film, but the other two are a distraction. After a few seconds of the paddle ball guy, you’ll be screaming at him to shut up so the movie can get back to Vincent Price.
The concept of 3D can be a fun toy to play with, but it doesn’t automatically make a good movie. Fortunately, House of Wax rises above such superficialities to stake its claim as one of the all-time great horror flicks.