House of Wax (1953)
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The year was 1953. The relatively new medium of television had the big motion picture studios scared. How were they going to entice viewers away from the comfort of their living rooms and back into movie theaters? It was going to take a gimmick.
In late 1952, a crude and cheaply made safari adventure called Bwana Devil showcased a new filming technique called 3-D that required special glasses for viewers. A few months later, the honchos over at Warner Brothers decided that they were not only going to make a big-budget 3-D flick, but they were also going to introduce the world to WarnerPhonic Audio, a primitive precursor of Surround Sound. The result of this savvy move was House of Wax (1953).
Directed by Hungarian-born Andre de Toth, House of Wax is actually a remake of Warner's 1933 flick The Mystery of the Wax Museum (interestingly enough, also directed by a Hungarian, Michael Curtiz). De Toth, better known as Mr. Veronica Lake (he was married for eight years to the blonde actress), was an unusual directorial choice because he only had one eye. This handicap made it virtually impossible for de Toth to actually see the 3-D process he was creating but, like other gifted but visually impaired filmmakers of his era (Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang, etc.), his complete understanding of the medium resulted in one of the most effective 3-D films ever made. At the time, though, studio head Jack Warner warned de Toth not to wear his eye patch on the set; he didn't want the director or House of Wax to be the butt of jokes in Hollywood.
The by-now familiar plot of House of Wax, which owes more than a nod to The Phantom of the Opera, goes something like this: sensitive sculptor lovingly creates historical figures out of wax, which he displays in his New York-based wax museum. Sculptor's greedy business partner wants to burn down said museum. Fight follows, fire breaks out. Assuming that sensitive sculptor is dead, greedy partner collects insurance money. But sensitive sculptor isn't dead! Instead he's hideously disfigured and more than a little loony. Wacko sculptor goes on killing spree, fonduing the bodies of his victims in boiling wax and using them as exhibits in his new museum. Will the police catch the fiend before he kills again? Will Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni) rescue Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) from becoming the next wax attraction - Marie Antoinette? Will the busker with the paddleball ever work in Hollywood again?
Vincent Price, who had only dabbled briefly in the horror genre before this film, plays Professor Henry Jarrod and the role marked a major turning point in his career; afterwards, he found steady work in the movies playing a variety of homicidal maniacs and cursed aristocrats. In The Horror People by John Brosnan, Price admitted that House of Wax was "very demanding as I had to get to the studio every morning at 5:30 a.m. to put that makeup on. It took three hours to put on and it was agony, absolute agony." He also added that the film "was made with two enormous cameras photographing in a mirror, so that you could get two tracks, and because of the unwieldy camera I had to do my own stunts. They couldn't do a close-up of me and then cut to a double. The most difficult stunt was at the beginning when the fire starts in the museum, and I run under this balcony that's in flames just before it falls. I actually did that. I worked it out with a stuntman. Anything on the floor that I might trip over or slide on was moved away and we figured out a course for me to take around these burning figures so that I could get into a tiny closet when this 3,000 lbs of burning balcony fell. It was scary."
In addition to Price, House of Wax co-stars Phyllis Kirk, who went on to play Nora Charles in the hit TV series The Thin Man (1957-59), and Frank Lovejoy, in the role of Lieutenant Tom Brennan. Lovejoy made a career out of playing no-nonsense authority figures in films like I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. (1951) and Retreat, Hell! (1952). Also look for Carolyn Jones (aka Morticia Addams of TV's The Addams Family, 1964-66) in a brief but memorable performance as both blonde victim Cathy Gray and wax centerfold Joan d'Arc. And Igor, Professor Jarrod's Neanderthal deaf mute assistant, is none other than Charles Buchinsky. Don't recognize the name? Well, Buchinsky later went on to star in a slew of '70s action hero roles like Death Wish (1974), under the name Charles Bronson.
Today, the then-innovative recording techniques of House of Wax are all but lost on the television screen. As for the 3-D technology? Well, without the benefit of cheap Polaroid glasses, today's audiences won't see what the fuss was all about. Yet, even without the special glasses, viewers will notice camera set-ups where images are thrust toward the screen, such as the wild fight scene in the museum at the beginning which climaxes with a fiery wax meltdown. (This sequence obviously inspired the makers of The Devil's Rain, 1975.) There's also a completely random and overly long paddleball gag. And, of course, what would any period horror movie be without an extended cancan sequence? While the high-kicking chorus line looks dazzling in Technicolor and 3-D, it also brings the plot to a screeching halt. But, House of Wax is great fun, nonetheless. As the film's worldly Scott Andrews says to the prim Sue Allen, "You can't get entertainment like this in Provincetown."
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Andre de Toth
Screenplay: Charles Belden (story), Crane Wilbur
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Cinematography: Bert Glennon, Peverell Marley, Lothrop B. Worth
Makeup: George Bau, Gordon Bau
Film Editing: Rudi Fehr
Original Music: David Buttolph
Principal Cast: Vincent Price (Prof. Henry Jarrod); Frank Lovejoy (Lt. Tom Brennan); Phyllis Kirk (Sue Allen); Carolyn Jones (Cathy Gray); Paul Picerni (Scott Andrews); Charles Buchinsky, aka Charles Bronson (Igor); Roy Roberts (Matthew Burke); Paul Cavanagh (Sidney Wallace).
by Lang Thompson & Jeff Stafford