House of Wax (1953)

*. I wonder why we keep going back to 3-D. It gets reborn every generation or so, only to be abandoned as a gimmick after a run of a few years. The first go round kicked off with Bwana Devil in 1952 but had run its course by 1955 and The Revenge of the Creature. Studios were responding to the competition posed by television, and initially audiences were taken by the novelty of 3-D. But things soon ran their course.
*. House of Wax was one of these original 3-D movies, and it did great box office. But who cares about that today?
*. The technology it used was stereoscopic 3-D, which required special projectors and a special screen. This is why, by the way, such a short film has an Intermission: because each projector of the theater’s two projectors was dedicated to one of the stereoscopic images. Nobody sees it this way today. It also came with a stereoscopic soundtrack that is now lost.
*. Of some significance also was the fact that director André de Toth was blind in one eye and unable to experience any of the 3-D effects. So he just went ahead and made the best movie he could and ignored the trickery. Which, when you get down to it, doesn’t amount to much. The barker with the paddleball is the main 3-D effect, and it’s completely gratuitous.

*. In short, the technical innovations (or gimmickry) hasn’t lasted, but the movie has. Why? I think mainly because of Vincent Price, really introducing himself here as the refined connoisseur of terror in what I believe was his first leading part in a horror film. When he poses as the sardonic tour guide to his museum of horrors you seen an actor who has really found his niche.
*. How refined is he? When, expecting guests, he hears a knock on the door he exclaims “That should be they now.” Grammatically correct, but who talks like this? I can only remember ever hearing something like it in one of the Thin Man movies.
*. It’s a bit odd that his burned face is revealed so early. Usually, as in any of the Phantom of the Opera movies, which it closely resembles, the villain’s face is built up to as a shocking reveal. It’s not often a film like this will lead with its trump card (though in the 1933 version, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Lionel Atwill’s disfigured face is also shown right away).

*. The rest of the cast strike me as entirely forgettable but for an early appearance of Charles Bronson as the deaf-mute assistant Igor. Yes, Igor (as in “Ee-gor”, not the “Mr. Eye-gor” that Lionel Atwill played in the original). Zero points for originality there. Bronson does get to show his muscles off though, and manages to fight his way through a lot of coppers.
*. Apparently Price was in real danger during the fire scene, and I can believe it. It looks great, and had me wondering several times how they were managing to do it. There were a lot of flames on that set.
*. There isn’t a whole lot of story, and I think they knew it so they filled things out with some comic bits. The morgue attendants, for example, or the man mistaken for a waxwork, or fainting Millie, or the paddleball man breaking down the fourth wall by hitting his ball straight into our popcorn.

*. Speaking of the morgue attendants, when did we first see wise-cracking morgue attendants or pathologists in a movie? Any scene involving a trip to the morgue is guaranteed to have some gallows humour, but when did this get started? They’d been in Mystery of the Wax Museum twenty years earlier and I don’t think they were original then.
*. Speaking of fainting Millie, I thought this movie had an odd way of presenting women throughout. Gone are the days of the fast-talking Glenda Farrell. It’s not even that the women here are innocent victims but rather that they’re something less. Cathy is only a giggling gold-digger and it’s hard to get upset at her fate. Millie seems a little too easily given to passing out. And Sue . . .

*. Sue strikes me as a prude, what with her being the good girl to Cathy’s tramp and being so upset by the dancers showing their underwear. But this prudery perhaps accentuates the ending, where she is stripped naked and bound in a box for her waxing. All things considered, this was pretty daring for 1953. In 1933 they gave Fay Wray a blanket.
*. It was so daring the script has to make a joke of it. At the end Sue has to think the police chief for the use of his coat (which is something we don’t see, so it hardly needs to be mentioned). He responds that she wasn’t “dressed too warmly, [and] I didn’t want you to catch a cold.” There’s something almost leering about this, and it also underlines the erotic nature of the finale.
*. The house of wax concept is a decent premise for a horror movie, and it’s been done several times. But it does have its limitations, especially as the story always has to play out in pretty much the same way. The big upgrade they thought they were making with this version, 3-D, means nothing today. Still, I think I’d rate this the best of the wax museum movies. For that almost all the credit belongs to Price, and from this point on his course was set.

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