In the early part of 20th Century, a sculptor named Jarrod is horribly burned in a fire that destroys his wax museum. Unable to sculpt with his hands anymore, he “collects” other people to put on display in his new exhibit – a Chamber of Horrors.
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“I’m going to give the people what they want: sensation, horror, shock.”
André De Toth, the director of “House of Wax,” certainly knows how to give the people what they want. He’s made a treasure-house of horrors as meticulously sculpted as the figures in a wax museum. In addition to being a superior piece of genre filmmaking, the movie is an excellent showcase for Vincent Price, in one of his great prince-of-darkness roles.
Released in 1953, the movie is famous for being one of the first color pictures to be photographed in Natural Vision 3D. Even without the enhancements, “House of Wax” is a highly pleasurable viewing experience. A few scenes seem specifically designed for 3D – like when a paddleball man bounces a ball directly at our faces, or when the camera lingers over a chorus line of beautiful girls doing the can-can dance. But even those scenes are entertaining to watch.
Price – with his velvety, unmistakable voice and air of mischievous sophistication – plays Prof. Henry Jarrod, a gifted sculptor who runs a wax museum with his partner, the greedy Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts). The museum is filled with eerily lifelike effigies of historical figures, like Marie Antoinette and John Wilkes Booth. Business is bad, and Burke wants to sell the place off and open a “Chamber of Horrors”.
Later in the film, the sculptor says: “Jarrod is dead, I’m a reincarnation.” The theme of reincarnation crops up again and again. After the fire, Jarrod is reborn as a vengeful killer dressed all in black with a horribly disfigured face. The eccentric, innocent man who talked to his sculptures is now a monster who “has been badly used by the world and despises all the people in it.” Given his new outlook on life, Jarrod has no qualms about killing innocent people. The dead are, in turn, reincarnated as figures in Jarrod’s new museum – a full-on Chamber of Horrors, just as Burke proposed.
“House of Wax” shares the fatalistic worldview of the modern horror film, in which a wronged man develops a bottomless lust for bloody revenge. But the movie is a lot more fun to watch than the “Saw” series and its ilk, because of the carnival-like atmosphere De Toth creates.
The filmmaker exploits the eerie quality of wax figures to maximum effect. What was slightly unsettling in the first scene (all those lifeless eyes staring at us) becomes by the end something genuinely terrifying (those are real people encased in Beeswax!). Jarrod takes to wearing a mask that makes him look like his old self again, and when he gets punched in the nose, his face literally cracks. The highlight comes when Jarrod chases a young woman through the streets of New York City. The girl, named Sue Ellen (Phyllis Kirk), has replaced Jarrod as the film’s central figure of uncorrupted innocence. It’s a brilliantly edited chase scene, with images of a horrified Sue looking back and seeing a ghastly figure in black coming right at her.
In addition to Price’s grandly evil portrayal, likable actors such as Frank Lovejoy and a young, beefy-looking Charles Bronson round out the superb cast. The makers of “House of Wax” sure knew how to put on a show. Dark as it is, the film is not without a sense of humor. When a visitor to his new museum remarks how real the wax figures look, Jarrod quips, “You’d be surprised!”