House of Wax (1953)

Gimmicks have been around as long as movies have.  There was always a fight to get people to come out to see a film, and 3-D was one of the earliest innovations, being developed in the early 1920s.  It was primitive and headache-inducing, but it was an innovation.  Despite that the usual way of getting butts in the seats - showing as much sex and violence as possible - has always won out.  That hasn't stopped studios from trying it again every few years.

In the 1950s movie studios began to feel the pinch from a completely new medium: television.  Television had started to make small steps and a bit of an impact, particularly in Germany and the UK, in the 1930s, but it wasn't until the late 1940s that it started to really catch on in the U.S.A.  Early televisions were expensive and not known for great quality, but that changed going into the 1950s and, faced with the idea that more Americans might just want to so save a few bucks and sit at home around the tube, Hollywood had to think about what to do next.  

One of those innovations has stuck with us for the last 60-some years.  That would be Cinerama and the other forms of widescreen projection that, until the advent of flatscreen televisions becoming the norm, was the exclusive domain of the movie theater.  Before the mid-1950s movies - House of Wax included - were in what was known as "Academy Format", which is a square projection on a square screen.  A recent example of a movie purposely made that way would be Zach Snyder's Justice League, while The Shining was also one of the rare films meant to be presented in that form since movies like How the West Was Won proved how much more movie could be up on a screen.  However, before lucking into widescreen project, Hollywood once again dragged out 3-D.  It had come a long way since the 1920s, but, in the end, was still just a gimmick.

Despite that, House of Wax was still a bit of an innovation.  3-D had previously only been used for black and white films.  A new process was developed for this film, which was in technicolor.  It was a remake of The Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 two-strip Technicolor film featuring Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill, with horror icon Vincent Price taking over Atwill's role.  In addition it featured a stereo soundtrack, which has unfortunately been lost to time.  It is at its heart a horror film, but a classy one, meant to try to reel in audiences that typically would consider the subject matter schlock. 

Prof. Henry Jarrod (Price) is a renowned wax sculptor who, unfortunately, doesn't bring in the crowds that his competition does.  That's fine with him as he is looking for a partner who is more in line with his artistic attitude.  Unfortunately his current partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), doesn't want to wait around to be bought out and decides to take the easy way out through arson and insurance fraud.  Jarrod, horrified at his creations being destroyed, puts up a fight, but is overpowered and left for dead.

Some time after his supposed death Jarrod resurfaces and opens a new museum.  Unlike before he is willing to include a chamber of horrors, although his goal is to still restore his original creations.  Unable to sculpt due to the state of his hands, he relies on his assistants, a deaf-mute named Igor (Charles Bronson) and a skilled alcoholic artist named Leon (Nedrick Young).  At the suggestion of his new benefactor Sydney Wallace (Paul Cavanagh) he also takes on a young artist named Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni).  Only problem is Scott's girlfriend Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) thinks that Jarrod's statue of Joan of Arc looks way too similar to her former roommate Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), while Jarrod thinks Sue Allen looks remarkably like his lost statue of Marie Antoinette.  Sue Allen is the one that found Cathy dead and saw the murderer, who pursued her through the streets of New York.  The more she looks at Joan of Arc the more she believes that Prof. Jarrod may not be what he seems. 

I understand why so many people like House of Wax over The Mystery of the Wax Museum.  While I like Lionel Atwill's more reserved performance (named Ivan Igor in the original), Vincent Price, even if he isn't the center of the film, always had a certain appeal.  He could appear for a couple minutes - or do just a voiceover - and it could be the highlight of the whole film.  The action this time around is moved back from being in contemporary times (the original movie takes place around New Year's Day 1933) back to the turn of the 20th century, allowing to add a more gothic appeal, particularly when Sue Allen is pursued through the abandoned streets of Manhattan in the middle of the night. 

Despite Price's presence, as well as appearances by Charles Bronson and Carolyn Jones long before their most famous roles, House of Wax seems like a step backward from the original.  Part of the problem is that the Production Code, though a lot of directors pushed the envelope when they could, was still quite in effect in 1953.  Twenty years prior there wasn't as much of a concern for the level of violence or sex (although there wasn't much of the latter in the original), but there is another big difference.  Though Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill were billed as the leads, the actual lead was Glenda Farrell, playing a tough-as-nails female reporter.  Having all the ladies once again in corsets and skirts and constantly fainting shows that, in some ways, the U.S. regressed societally after World War II. 

There is also way too much emphasis on the 3-D gimmick.  While it has the usual pop-out titles and things being thrown at the screen it also includes a barker with a paddle ball that turns to the audience and talks about aiming for their popcorn.  It somehow turns out to be more awkward watching that without the context than it does having some of William Castle's gimmicks still integrated with his films.  Even worse it takes one right out of the movie and goes on for way, way too long even without the fourth-wall breaking.  This tendency to call attention to the use of 3-D is partially why, for a good deal of its existence, it wasn't taken seriously as creating an immersive cinema experience until Avatar.  

Despite all this it is still an enjoyable film.  Though made by Warner Bros. and a largely bloodless affair it feels kind of like a bridge between the Universal horror films and the more garish Hammer and American International films that would do their part to help put an end to the production code that hamstrung this remake.  

House of Wax (1953)
Time: 88 minutes
Starring: Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Paul Picerni
Director: André De Toth



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