House of Wax
Dir. André De Toth
This month marks the centenary of the velvet-voiced Vincent Price. Born on May 27, 1911, Price would have turned 100 years old this month. What more reason could you possibly need to revisit one of his classic chillers… Like House of Wax!
In House of Wax, Price plays oddball wax sculptor Henry Jarrod, who seemingly perishes when his financial partner deliberately sets their wax museum on fire, intending to claim the insurance money. Miraculously, he survives with severe injuries, and builds a new wax museum. His "Chamber of Horrors" exhibition coincides with bizarre deaths and the disappearance of bodies from the local morgue. Could it be that Jarrod’s waxworks are the wax-coated bodies of his victims? Of course it is! When Jarrod notices a startling resemblance between down-on-her Sue Allen and his wax model of Marie Antoinette, which perished in the fire, he intends to dunk her in wax and immortalise her in his museum… Cue much maniacal laughter in the inimitable style of Mr Price.
House of Wax is a remake of The Mystery of The Wax Museum (1933) and was produced at the height of the short-lived 1950s craze for 3D films. Indeed, much of the film seems to have been deliberately created to showcase 3D technology. Throughout the duration we’re treated to prolonged shots of Can-Can dancers kicking their legs into the camera, a carnivalesque barker with a bolo-bat and various waxworks looming into view. All no doubt amazing; if you happen to be watching House of Wax in 3D. In the 1950s. When such things were all sparkly and new.
House of Wax may be light on plot, but it is high on lively set-pieces and it moves along briskly. The pacing in the second half slows somewhat though, as narrative emphasis shifts to the police investigating the murders. The film is routinely structured and few surprises wait to lunge out of the shadows. The climax revolves around the imperilled Sue (Phyllis Kirk) strapped to a table while Jarrod attempts to pour molten wax on her, while he ‘waxes lyrical’ (sorry) about how he wants to immortalise her beauty.
While not particularly scary, there are a number of pretty atmospheric moments, including the creepy bedroom encounter and the final unmasking of Jarrod when his wax mask is forced off by a hysterical Sue to reveal the hideously disfigured visage beneath it. De Toth peppers the film with shots exploiting the uncanny, eerie nature of wax dummies. The shots of the dummies melting in the fire are effectively creepy: their fixed smiles and cold staring eyes dripping off to form a kind of animated death grin. Another insidiously sinister moment comes when Cathy’s body is delivered to the morgue. The room is filled with gurneys holding bodies under white sheets, one of which sits bolt upright.
There are traces of a dark humour evident throughout, particularly in the scene in the morgue when the corpse sits up suddenly under a white sheet, and the attendant explains to his assistant that its just the embalming fluid and that “suicides are just like women: always have to have the last word.” De Toth also has a lot of fun surprising us with ‘moving waxworks’ in the scenes where various characters explore the Chamber of Horrors. We see figures in the shot standing still and assume them to be dummies, only for them to move. There’s also a typical mad-scientist type lab in the cobweb hewn, crumbling basement, complete with furnaces, bubbling cauldrons, vats of molten wax, glowering test tubes and a plethora of wax ‘body parts’ strewn about the place for good measure.
The characters are all fairly bland with only Jarrod, Sue and tragic Cathy (Carolyn Jones) afforded any kind of development. As Jarrod, Vincent Price once again plays the tortured artist and though character development is thin, he still imbues the character with a swathe of dark pathos. Sue, while down-on-her luck, is also conveyed as headstrong and assured. During a genuinely creepy scene in the guesthouse where Sue encounters a shadowy figure lurking over the body of her friend Cathy, she doesn’t do what many of the horror heroines of this time would have done, namely scream and faint. Yes, she screams, a lot, but she then evades death by pitching herself out of the window, onto the roof, along the ledge and down into the foggy street below where a well mounted chase scene plays out. A young Charles Bronson is quite watchable as a limping mute ‘Igor-type’ assistant, called, surprisingly enough, Igor. Shocker.
Shades of Burke and Hare abound and the film touches on a number of interesting concepts. Instead of medical experiments, Jarrod steals the corpses for art and entertainment. His “Chamber of Horrors” features exhibitions based on historic crimes of violence. The film in a roundabout way appears to be making a wry comment on the nature of horror and what attracts audiences to it – our fascination with the macabre. A few interesting jabs are made at horror entertainment too, as Jarrod’s financiers constantly harass him to make his wax exhibits more sensational and shocking, whereas he was initially more concerned with creating beauty. He retorts with: “The morbidly curious? I won’t cater to them.” When he returns after his accident, the twisted exhibitions he creates depict the brutality of humanity and include recreations of scenes from the French revolution, the execution of William Kemmler (the first person in the world to be executed in an electric chair), torture chambers, cavemen pillaging and Bluebeard’s secret, blood-soaked room.