House of Wax (2005)

*. There was a fairly common and consistent critical response to this movie when it came out. In a nutshell: it wasn’t as bad as most people thought it would be. That was not to be mistaken as saying it was good, but rather as relief on the part of most reviewers that it at least wasn’t total garbage.
*. I felt the same way. My initial response was that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. But then, it is a dead-teenager movie. So the bar to be cleared is lying on the ground somewhere.
*. The title might have you thinking of 1953’s House of Wax starring Vincent Price, itself a remake of a 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. But it has little to do with those movies aside from the killer’s nasty method of preserving his victims.
*. Instead, we are back on the most familiar ground in all of American horror: the car full of young people who find themselves in danger when they drift off the highway into redneck territory. Before you can say “Not another Texas Chain Saw Massacre clone” you are, indeed, watching another Texas Chain Saw Massacre clone.
*. The set-up is a cliché, and the clichés stick to the rest of the film like burrs. Elisha Cuthbert is a capable actress, but she’s just the twenty-first century version of the last girl here. Which is to say she’s tits in a tank top. The other characters include the boyfriend, the sexy girl (Hilton, who gets to run around in her underwear), the jock, the bad boy, and the superfluous comic dude who holds the camera (literally). They all behave very, very stupidly. Meanwhile, the villains are a degenerate family who preserve their mama’s corpse in a perpetual shrine. They like heavy metal music and indulge in gratuitous sadistic cruelty. One of them wears a mask. They have superhuman strength and are very hard to kill. You know the drill. Rob Zombie keeps making this movie, and it’s almost a surprise not to see his name in the credits here.
*. One of the guys is killed after having his Achilles tendon severed with a scalpel, and later the same trick is done to Hilton. That’s become another cliché. Who did this first? It gets done in Hostel, which came out the same year, and I’m sure I’ve seen it in several other films as well. Pet Sematary (1985) was earlier (the scene when Gage kills Jud) but I don’t know if they can lay claim to being the first. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I’m always curious about these things.
*. Most of it sticks to the usual script. A. O. Scott thought “the victims don’t die in precisely the order you might expect, but everything else goes pretty much according to formula.” This is, again, setting the bar pretty low. It’s set up clearly at the beginning that Carly and Nick are the good twins who are meant to mirror the evil twins who run the wax town. So we can be sure we’re going to be left with the two of them at the end. As for the precise order of the other deaths . . . who cares?
*. And yet despite all this I still thought House of Wax above average, at least for this genre. There are two reasons for this.
*. The first is Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction, which isn’t what I would call inspired but at least handles all the basics well. He understands suspense and how to squeeze an audience’s discomfort level into the red.
*. More than that however, what I really like about House of Wax is its design and look.
*. In the first place, the effigies are great, meaning they look like people who have been coated in wax. In many cases this is because that’s what they actually were. But what’s even more impressive, and delightful in a gruesome way, is how they extend the wax museum conceit to the point where the killers have created an entire Art Deco museum made of wax, and even a wax town: a multimedia necropolis of off-road performance art complete with mechanized dummies, music and even film. Put to one side any questioning of just how probable or possible such a thing would be and enjoy it.

*. Its surreal otherworldliness makes Ambrose feel a bit like the town in Two Thousand Maniacs!, which would in turn have made a better movie to show at the local picture palace than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (misspelled on the marquee as “Whatever Happened . . .“). The two movies even came out within a couple of years of each other — which, by the way, was well before the brothers’ memory, so I’m not sure what was going on there.
*. More realistic effects don’t always make a horror film scarier, but the potential behind the sinister art of the mad wax artist and just what he does to the bodies he uses as models had been skipped over in earlier films. Here it is dwelt on, showing us living bodies sprayed in wax and turned into exhibits. We might think of the low-budget flick Nightmare in Wax, but House of Wax adds a level of morbidity, especially when we see what’s happened to Wade.
*. Too often these movies end in a disappointing and predictable manner, but the climax here is the best part. The melting house is a nightmare all its own, and looks terrific. It’s a good example of what can be done by taking today’s effects and using them to expand on traditional concepts in ambitious and original ways. I even love the way the streets of the town the morning after are still deep in congealed wax that the emergency vehicles have to churn through like mud.
*. It’s a shame really that this movie is remembered today mainly for being the one with Paris Hilton in it. It’s a lot better than that. The early twenty-first century saw a whole lot of remakes and resets of slasher franchises, and though House of Wax doesn’t really belong among them (it had no late-’70s-early-’80s predecessor), it has a lot of the same characteristics while doing a better job. It’s certainly a movie I’d rate much higher than the remakes of Friday the 13th, Halloween, Last House on the Left, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. None of those movies are worth seeing again, even if you’re a fan of such fare. This one, however, is a roadside attraction that’s worth another visit.

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