8/11/09

Terrifying Tuesday : House of Wax (1953) plus The Cyber Horror Elite Fire Off Their Canon

After the success 1952’s Bwana Devil, the independent feature that heralded the coming of 3-D, Warner Brothers wanted to get a piece of that action. So they hired the same company, Natural Vision, to shoot the film with director Andre De Toth. Production went along smoothly, and each time footage was shown people “ooohed” and “aaahed” over it. De Toth had no idea why. The film was just a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. It starred a man who was a leading actor, not someone to bury under a rubber mask. De Toth just could not figure out what was so special, but Andre De Toth only had one eye and could not see the effect.

House of Wax (1953) introduced most of America to the wonders of 3-D and started the craze which would last almost three years. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the film in 3-D myself (I enjoy it in 2 dimensions like Mr. De Toth), but I would really like to. From what I can tell, the 3-D effect looks to have been subtle and confined to a few scenes. Since the technique was the gimmick, perhaps it was better that the director could not get carried away with it. House of Wax is a film that does not require flashy tricks to keep it interesting, and it also surely never required a remake starring Paris Hilton either. (Even if she did get satisfying split in two.)

Recently, I was asked by B-Sol to take part in the Cyber Horror Elite present The Horror Canon, and one of my choices was House of Wax. It did not make it to the list (Mr. Price was recognized with his other house, the one on Haunted Hill) The list is quite well done, well organized, and I thank B-Sol for involving me in it. The fact that The Orphan appears on it… well, I have not seen it, but I find it hard to believe that in a few weeks release it catapulted into canon status. Otherwise, it seems to have everything that should be there with the one exception. What makes House of Wax such an important film is that it bridges that gap between the gothic and the modern horror film, and while it was doing it, the film made Vincent Price a horror icon for the ages.

The story is quite simple, and in some ways feels like a riff from the Phantom of the Opera vein. Vincent Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, a brilliant sculptor, a lover of history, and curator of the wax museum. His business partner is concerned because the museum isn’t making any money. He proposes they the burn the place down for the insurance money, but Jarrod refuses. After a struggle the sculptor is left to die as his creations melt in the fires around him.

A few months later, Professor Jarrod is back, along with his two assistants Igor (Charles Bronson) and Leon (Nedrick Young), and though his hands are no longer of any use, he intends to reopen the museum. People are stunned by his exhibits, this time no longer confined to history, but also now containing a chamber of horrors and all they can do is comment about how lifelike the figures seem to be, almost like they were real people.

Vincent Price tackles some serious transitions with the character Henry Jarrod. The character has already gone under one transformation when his name was changed from Ivan Igor so as not to alienate the German audience. At the beginning of the film, Jarrod is a normal fellow. He was perhaps a little too into his work and maybe his obsession with the Marie Antoinette statue was a little weird. An artist none the less, something Mr. Price could surly relate to. Passionate about his work he fights tooth and nail to save his creations, and that’s where things start to go wrong. After he’s horribly scarred and unable to do his work, Price seethes insanity even when his character’s deformity is hidden. When the grand reveal of the extent of the sculptor’s scarring arrives, it plays out as terrifying as the unmasking of the Phantom in the Lon Chaney classic. Each of the stages of the character as totally believable, and this helps the outcome of the total package.

The film works best in the moments where it seems most plausible. One way the film created this veracity while keeping in the milieu was to give Jarrod a couple very realistic creeps to hang around with. Old Stoneface Charles Bronson (billed Charles Buchinsky) surely makes an impression with the deaf mute strongman Igor. I assume it to be no coincidence that the character was given a traditional henchman name, but this Igor was a new kind of henchman. Gone was the hunchback, the crazy eyes, or the gimp leg, and instead in their place we get a hardened, fearsome, but still equally devoted servant. His other crony, Leon, was played by Nedrick Young, but he didn’t get any billing because he was blacklisted. Leon is far less imposing a figure than Igor, but still dark and mysterious. Unlike the almost supernatural sycophants that follow horror villains about, these two were at their core violent men, not comic relief, and not to be trifled with.

If the film has a weakness, then it lies in the forces of good at work in the picture. While Phyllis Kirk, as Sue Allen the object of Jarrod’s obsessions, is quite a good looking woman, her performance mostly boils down to how wide she could open her eyes. At least her character was written with a strength and determination not often found in the ladies of early ‘50’s horror. Her boyfriend, who is hired by Jarrod to sculpt for him, is nearly a non-character until he’s called upon for heroics. Paul Cavanaugh was fine for what was required of him, but he was bringing little to the picture. The only protagonists that were really interesting were the two policemen, Lt. Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy) and Sgt. Jim Shane (Dabbs Greer). Not only did they provide some much needed lighter moments in the film, but I could have watched a whole movie about those two. Square jawed Lovejoy made a career out of playing cops, and his face is one I’m sure to be on the lookout for. Greer was a lifelong character actor who also had the distinction of being the first person saved by George Reeves’ Superman in TV’s The Adventures of Superman (1952).

The atmosphere of House of Wax also has a lot to do with the film’s success. The cinematography was handled by three men, Bert Glennon, Perverell Marley, and an uncertified Robert Berks. The last of those names may well be familiar to anyone who’s been keeping up with my Hitchcock review, and it piqued my interest as to how involved he was with this film. Unfortunately, I could not dig anything up, but House of Wax does have the same dreamlike qualities seen in films shot by Berks such as Marnie or Vertigo. The other two men, Glennon and Marley were veterans of the business with resumes stretching back to the early twentieth century. Most of the action of House of Wax occurs in the museum itself which is given a dark and ominous pallor as if it were a castle. I’ve been in quite a few wax museums, and they all kind of feel like that. Now is it because they brought that through the screen so well or because I’ve seen this film too many times?

House of Wax transformed something that was old, literally in the case of the script and figuratively for the genre. Apart from the technical aspects of the 3-D, House of Wax was a horror film for the modern era. There were no monsters, no aliens, and no demons. There was just a man who had lost his mind. It began the horror career of one of the genre’s most beloved actors, and for that reason alone it should be remembered. Speaking of Mr. Price, starting this Saturday, Fran Goria will be hosting a new bi-monthly feature called For the Love of Price spotlighting Vincent. This week she’ll be starting off with Confessions of an Opium Eater so make sure you come back by to check that out.

As for House of Wax, I think this is a title that often gets forgotten or lost in the shuffle of classic horror films. Take a chance and check it out again, or heaven forbid, for the first time. Even though it may not have been voted as canon, I think it most certainly is.

Bugg Rating

6 comments:

  1. I love it(obviously). One of my all time favorite Price films. I really think you hit the nail on the head with your review. And, FYI, Paris Hilton was not the only problem with the remake...the whole thing was a disaster!

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  2. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobAugust 11, 2009 at 12:25 PM

    The paris hilton remake is a brilliant film, one of the most ludicrously under-rated horror movies of all time. The burning down of the wax museum in the vincent price movie is still an impressive sequence even 56 years later.

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  3. I did see it in 3-D on a re-release in the early 70's. The effect is used quite often, including the great paddle-ball scene (my favorite was a chair that flew out of the screen during the wax museum fight in the beginning... i actually ducked!) HofW and Creature From the Black Lagoon are considered the two best genre 3-d movies from the 50's; having seen them both in 3D I give the clear edge to WAX

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  4. Man you are hitting my entire wishlist lately, looking forward to seeing this one, especially now that I am more well versed in Price's work. I never realized the film was originally shot in 3D until I finished the 100 Years of Horror anthology. Would have loved to see it in theaters upon its release

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  5. I got to see House of Wax in 3D on television, believe it or not, in the early 80's. 7-11 gave out the 3D glasses in preparation. A really terrific movie, and I can't even explain how let down I was when they finally released it on DVD but neglected to take it from a 3D print. So sad.

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  6. Has to be seen at a theatre in full 3-d to be really appreciated. Amazingly well done for 1953.

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