EMPIRE ESSAY: House Of Wax Review

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A sculptor of wax figures for a museum is horrified when his partner wants to torch it for insurance. They fight and the sculptor is accidently knocked out in the scuffle and left to "perish" among the flames. He resurfaces many years later for the launch of his own wax museum. The opening coincides with the sudden disappearance of some dead bodies from the city morgue.


"He makes his blood-curdling brothers, Herr Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde, seem like friendly folk," wrote the Hollywood Reporter of Professor Jarrod, the hideously scarred, murderous sculptor in this remake of Michael Curtiz's 1933 shocker, The Mystery Of The Wax Museum. "He" was Vincent Price, who was returning to horror for the first time since headlining The Invisible Man Returns (1940) — although he had contributed a vocal cameo, as the same character, to Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948.

Weary of essaying sneaky villains, Price was keen to alter his image. Critically, in the same week producer Bryan Foy contacted him about House Of Wax, he was also offered a pivotal role in the original Broadway production of We're No Angels, which later became a successful screen vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. Opting for the more lucrative Warners' contract, Price took his first steps towards becoming a horror icon. However, it's not the fact that it transformed the fortunes of a journeyman actor that makes this film so memorable. More significantly it was shot in 3D by Andre De Toth, a man whose perception of three-dimensional imagery was nullified by his having only one eye.

Part of Hollywood's increasingly desperate search to lure punters away from their newly acquired television sets, the short-lived "depthie" boom had been launched by Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil in 1952. But rather than trot out another novelty movie, De Toth (who had written a learned article extolling the process in 1946) distanced himself from the predictable flaming arrows, pouncing lions and bouncing boulders by shooting a feature that was "third-dimensional" rather than simply 3D. Consequently, the effect was sparingly used throughout — the street hawker playing with his paddle ball, the can-can dancers strutting their lacey stuff—and was all the more effective for it.

However, opportunistic mogul Jack L. Warner was not prepared to undersell the gimmick and proudly announced that this Natural Vision spectacle would not only be the first 3D picture to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, but would also be the first to be released in WarnerPhonic stereo. Costing a mere $680,000, House Of Wax was scripted by Crane Wilbur, a onetime matinee idol who had enjoyed fleeting fame as the rescuer of Pearl White from the railway tracks in the seminal silent serial The Perils Of Pauline (1914). Subsequently, he had earned a crust writing and directing low-budget movies along Poverty Row.

A sublime sculptor and genial sophisticate, Henry Jarrod is feted by both the intelligentsia and the aristocracy. But when his grasping partner torches their museum for the insurance money, he crawls from the wreckage with his face disfigured and his artistic refinement corrupted into an embittered lust for the macabre. Thus, having fashioned himself a face-saving mask, he re-opens the gallery as a Chamber Of Horrors. But instead of being handcrafted models, his exhibits are murdered dopplegangers of his lost "children", who have been dipped in wax and arranged in grotesque tableaux — thus, in death, becoming eerily lifelike.

Ultimately, Jarrod's quest for perfection proves his undoing, as his obsessive plan to cast the spirited Sue Allen (Kirk) as his new Marie Antoinette goes awry. Having made such a chilling job of Jarrod's cloaked pursuit of Allen through the foggy city streets, De Toth possibly missed a trick in revealing the extent of his monstrosity before she pulls away his mask during their do-or-die struggle.

The shoot proved an arduous one for Price. As the 3D technique required two cameras to be running simultaneously, he had to perform many of his own stunts, and the collapse of a balcony during the conflagration scene almost ended in disaster after it caught fire and nearly crushed him.
But the major source of discomfort was the make-up. Modelled on actual burns cases by George and Gordon Bau, the various layers of rubber and pure alcohol took three hours both to apply and remove. While encased, Price was forced to subsist on liquids and once fainted from oxygen deprivation. Yet the irritation caused by lingering skin rashes was somewhat eased by the film's critical and commercial success. A young Charles Bronson (still billed under his real name, Buchinsky) and Carolyn Jones (who would later play Morticia in TV's The Addams Family) also benefited from their involvement. A sequel, The Man Of Wax, was abandoned following copyright wrangles, leaving the irrepressible De Toth to embark on a 3D Western, The Stranger Wore A Gun (1953).

As for Price, he was condemned to a lifetime of playing sympathetic horror heavies, driven by grief or unrequited love to commit acts of sadistic, and often blackly comic, barbarism.

A film in which just about every technical and dramatic gambit has been judged to near perfection.