André de Toth, 1953
Starring: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Charles Bronson, Carolyn Jones, Phyllis Kirk
In the late nineteenth century in New York, Henry Jarrod is a brilliant sculptor at an art and history themed wax museum, but his partner, Burke, thinks they could make more money if they opened a sensational, horror-themed exhibit. Jarrod refuses and hopes a local art patron will buy out Burke’s share of the museum. Before that can happen, Burke sets the museum on fire, including Jarrod’s beloved sculptures, and knocks Jarrod unconscious so that he will die in the fire and Burke can collect all the insurance money himself.
Years later a crippled and disfigured Jarrod, confined to a wheelchair, reopens his wax museum, the House of Wax, but this time it is focused on scenes of horror and violence. His hands were damaged in the fire, so he can only sculpt with the aid of assistants. In the museum is a replica of his former partner, Burke, was was recently hanged in an elevator shaft. The police are unsure if it is murder or suicide, but his body has gone missing. Burke’s girlfriend, Cathy, is also murdered and her body is also stolen from the morgue. Cathy’s sweet and innocent roommate, Sue, witnessed the murder and was chased through the streets by a dark clad, deformed man. At Jarrod’s museum, Sue is horrified that his statue of Joan of Arc looks exactly like Cathy. Jarrod, meanwhile, is obsessed with Sue’s resemblance to his favorite sculpture, Marie Antoinette, one that he has yet to recreate...
Based on Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which was in turn based on Charles Beden’s play The Wax Works, House of Wax was one of the most popular color 3-D films of the ‘50s and also one of the first from a major studio. It was also the first 3-D film to feature stereophonic sound. Director André de Toth (Passport to Suez, Thunder Over the Plains, Crime Wave) could not see out of one eye and thus, somewhat hilariously, could not appreciate the film’s 3-D effects. These include things like bodies and wax figures falling towards the screen, a carnival barker bouncing ping pong balls on a paddle, and other campy effects.
In addition to the 3-D, de Toth changed a number of elements in the plot, lessening some of the melodrama and comedy and making this more of a direct horror film. There’s some great make up from George Bau and Price’s deformed sculptor looks far more gruesome here than in Mystery of the Wax Museum. While Mystery of the Wax Museum was essentially driven by the plucky (and often drunk) female reporter, this is entirely Vincent Price’s film. By this point he mostly cast aside numerous roles as a whiny, spoiled, and somewhat effeminate playboy and brought out his more menacing, though still charismatic side, seemingly with relish.
House of Wax was a huge hit and helped solidify Vincent Price’s career. Up until that point he had been somewhat under the shadow of another tall, imposing, and often menacing actor, Laid Cregar (The Lodger, Hangover Square), but with House of Wax and his other horror films of the late ‘50s with William Castle, he made a unique name for himself. It also helped boost the career of Carolyn Jones (the unfortunate Cathy) who would return a decade later as the first Morticia Addams on The Addams Family looking and acting the complete opposite that she does here. There is also another familiar face present: a very young Charles Bronson, billed here as Charles Buchinsky, as Jarrod’s mute assistant Igor. Yes, that really is Charles Bronson and yes, of course he has a fight scene where he nearly manages to decapitate someone with a guillotine.
Most of the other performances are somewhat forgettable. Phyllis Kirk (Crime Wave, The Sad Sack) is the paranoid, goody-two-shoes heroine and Paul Picerni (Capricorn One, The Age of Violence, and lots of television) is Scott Andrews, her bland love interest and protector. The likable Frank Lovejoy (The Hitch-Hiker, In a Lonely Place) is memorable as lead detective, Lt. Brennan, fortunately not a bumbler like so many of the Universal horror detectives.
House of Wax comes highly recommended and was one of my early Vincent Price favorites. It’s a lot of fun and represents and important transitional moment in his career. This might be a bit dull for fans of his later, flashier films like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but anyone who loves ‘50s horror and wants a break from the endless mad scientists and giant creatures will find a lot to love about House of Wax. It is out on DVD from Warner, which nicely includes Mystery of the Wax Museum, as well as on Blu-ray.