House of Wax 3D (1953)
Dir. André de Toth
Written by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles S. Belden,
Starring Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Charles Bronson, Carolyn Jones, Phyllis Kirk
|Poster from the 1982 re-release.|
In the role that cemented his career playing demented villains, Vincent Price (THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE) plays wax sculpter Henry Jarrod, a great artist who has his work destroyed by a dastardly investor and nearly dies in the ensung fire. Later, he recovers somewhat, but can no longer ply his craft due to his ruined hands, requiring a mute assistant (a young Charles Bronson, unrecognizable without his mustache!) to aide him in rebuilding his wax museum. Sounds like an inspiring story, except that there’s a mysterious fire-scarred madman about Price’s height and build who’s going around murdering Jarrod’s enemies. But who? And why?
This highly enjoyable early slasher movie has always been fun and pretty to look at, but watching it in Blu-Ray 3-D is absolutely jaw-dropping. Painterly images abound; rich colors, gorgeous framings, and luxurious deep focus gives the film an eye candy effect that turns an already highly watchable mystery into something close to art. This was the first major studio color 3D movie (after the indie color sensation BWANA DEVIL and the major-studio black and white MAN IN THE DARK) and its enormous success helped prompt the deluge of 3-D movies which would follow in 1954 and straggle into 1955. And that’s not hard to understand, because it’s honestly a joy to look at. Ironically, director André de Toth (mostly known for Westerns and crime tales before this) was the one person unable to appreciate what a success he’d created with this new technology: having lost an eye as a youth, he was unable to see in 3-D. Though it means he may not have been able to enjoy the extended extraneous scene where a man outside a theater plays tricks with a paddleball that leaps out of the screen in 3-D, his handicap may have helped him focus on color and texture instead of depth, resulting in handsome images which look even more striking and textured with the added dimension. Paddleball hijinks notwithstanding, the movie (mostly) avoids 3-D gimmickry and just focuses on telling an intriguing story, and is all the better for it.
Pleasantly, once you recover from the initial thrill of the images, there’s actually a pretty unique idea for a horror movie here. You assume immediately that you know who the disfigured killer is -- it’s gotta be Jarrod, disfigured from the fire and now menacing those who have wronged him. But then the movie shows Jarrod himself again, now wheelchair-bound but facially unscarred. What the heck is going on here? Price is really great in his first attempt at a classic horror madman --he’s funny and charming, with just an edge of casual menace-- and already seems to have the perfect cadence which would make him such a beloved fixture playing this kind of role. If anything, he’s perhaps a tad too sympathetic and nuanced for the movie. But it’s all in good fun. The rest of the cast is basically window dressing, but they serve their role of advancing the plot along just fine. Look for blacklisted Academy-Award-Winning Screenwriter* Nedrick Young as Jarrod’s other assistant if you’re in the mood for some good trivia.
At its heart this is a pretty creepy idea, although the movie is too breezy and charming for you to really realize it while watching. For a 50’s film there’s some surprisingly perverse stuff with corpses, and man, that veiny scarred face on the killer still looks absolutely repulsive. Lotsa times you get a film on Blu-Ray and start to see the seams, the cheats, the fakery that wouldn’t show up on something with lower definition. This makeup job, though, just looks better the clearer you see it. Well done. Anyway, this one was already a delight, but seeing it in glorious 3-D blu-ray manages to make it better still. It’s totally my favorite movie called HOUSE OF WAX, though I gotta confess, I actually sort of enjoy the remake, too. Am I the only one?
*For THE DEFIANT ONES in 1958, he also wrote INHERIT THE WIND and… uh... JAILHOUSE ROCKS.