House of Wax (1953)
House of Wax (1953)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 28 min.

Release Date: April 25th, 1953 MPAA Rating: GP

Director: Andre De Toth Actors: Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Frank Lovejoy, Carolyn Jones, Paul Picerni, Roy Roberts, Angela Clarke, Paul Cavanagh, Charles Bronson

 


 

E

erie yet historical wax sculptures adorn the turn-of-the-century New York museum of Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), who works tirelessly to craft pleasant personas – not the horrifying stuff that sells tickets at competitor establishments. He’s most proud of his Marie Antoinette, followed by a staging of Lincoln’s assassination, Joan of Arc, Antony and Cleopatra, and many others. “She’s very real to me.”

“Do you really hear what they say, Jarrod?” Business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) tires of Henry’s failures at advertising and promotion, insistent that the money could flow in if he focused on more exciting works. Visiting art critic Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanagh) poses an opportunity to buy out Burke’s share, but Matthew is impatient and opportunistic. Rather than waiting for an offer, he opts to burn the place down for the hefty insurance payout. But Jarrod’s sculptures are like his children; he would be devastated to have to start from scratch again. Over the immoral proposition, a fistfight breaks out – along with Burke’s blaze, melting the statues in a spectacularly grotesque introductory sequence.

Matthew escapes, but struggles to collect the insurance claim due to a lack of a body when it comes to his missing – but presumed dead – partner. Burke’s girlfriend, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones, brandishing an impossibly thin waist and a most obnoxious little giggle), is delighted to hear of the eventual settlement, immediately planning a marriage and honeymoon. But Jarrod returns, cloaked in black to conceal his hideous disfigurement from severe facial burns, and he’s expectedly hellbent on revenge.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s good friend Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) struggles to secure a job, finding herself in hot water with the landlord – and then with Jarrod, as he pursues everyone connected to his old partner. Like a phantom from an opera, Price stalks his prey, though here he’s unafraid to regularly show off his deformed visage. Thanks to exceptional makeup effects, the monstrous murderer gets to be a continual source of visual fright, rearing his scarred face frequently as plenty of light bounces across it.

“Have you turned your back on beauty?” In the vein of Universal’s classic horror pictures, the mystery of the marred killer plagues the authorities but not the audience, as they’re surely well aware of who is responsible for the slayings. Adding to the unsolved crimes is a chamber of horrors as a new House of Wax is erected, this time devoted to torture and execution, but with the added nastiness of an innovative wax-coating procedure – itself rooted in death. “I just don’t understand how it can seem so real.”

Plus, the film includes the silliness of a guillotine enactment; an explanation of embalming fluids that make the bodies in the morgue move on their own; and a grunting, muscly, mute assistant (played by a then unknown Charles Bronson), as if Frankenstein’s lackey. If these gimmicks weren’t enough, “House of Wax” also exploits the era’s 3D capabilities via superfluous scenes of objects being thrust toward the screen. Strangely, despite the brief running time, extra padding appears with an extended dance hall sequence (again, something to make use of 3D techniques), a sluggish police investigation, and Sue’s unconvincing romance with artist Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni). Fortunately, the finale is loaded with thrilling stunts.

Far more enticing is Price, who can’t help but to be perfect as an evil mastermind, tossing about ominous stares and deceptively gentle chatter. His climactic reveal – not only of his ability to rise from his wheelchair but also the shattering of his Vincent Price mask – is the stuff of cinema legend (as wonderfully shocking, perhaps, as Lon Chaney’s Phantom or Al Hedison’s insect parts from “The Fly”) – and a striking precursor to his abominable Phibes. “The whole place is a morgue!”

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10