Because color was not common until the late sixties, it’s easy to mistake House of Wax as being “colorized.” But not only was it in color, it was also 3D and featured a stereo soundtrack, the first 3D movie to do either. The original trailers promised that the result was like being in the middle of the action. And although I have never seen the movie in its original 3D form, I can’t help but think that’s probably overselling it a bit.
Since Dark Castle remade House of Wax in 2005, it’s also tempting to think of this as being the “original.” But the 1953 House of Wax also a remake. 1933’s pre-code Mystery of the Wax Museum was also in color. In fact, it was the last two-color Technicolor feature film. Contrary to popular belief, both color and remakes came early to Hollywood.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Price plays sculptor Henry Jarrod, a man who treats his waxwork creations as art rather than spectacle. He gets the respect of critics but few paying visitors. This frustrates his financial business partner, Matthew Burke, into fantasies of insurance fraud. When Jarrod refuses to go along with him, Burke knocks the artist out and burns the museum down around him.
The story picks up several years later, just after authorities have declared Jarrod dead. This means Burke can get his payout, a fact which he brags about to his perky, blonde, child-voiced dancer girlfriend Cathy. In a later scene, we discover Cathy’s voice is an octave or two lower. She’s putting on a bimbo act to get at Burke’s money. It’s less gold-digging, though, and more about paying the rent. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, but she promises she’ll share some of Burke’s gift with her struggling, but more straight-laced, best friend Sue.
Before the night is out, however, a shadowy and misshapen Jarrod will have murdered Burke by hanging him in an elevator shaft, killed Cathy in her bed, and chased Sue through the deserted streets. Once the police have cleaned the crime scenes, he and his mute assistant Igor (really) steal the bodies from the morgue. He preserves them in wax and displays them in his new wax museum, then sets out to add Sue to his collection.
1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum had King Kong’s squeeze Fay Wray. 2005’s House of Wax featured Paris Hilton, who had just earned fame for her short-form independent performances. This House of Wax stars an accomplished but not-yet-legendary Vincent Price on the verge of his horror-movie stardom. This film is arguably what put him over the top, and he’s in classic form as a gentle artist turned vengeful troll. Price’s roles are often very talky, but when he’s in full mutilated-artist getup he’s unable to act with either his voice or heavily made-up face. Left only with gesture and posture, he channels Lon Chaney, Sr.
You might struggle to place Igor. That’s Charles Bronson, fifteen years away from super-stardom. He’s credited instead as Buchinsky, Bronson’s birth name. He changed his name soon afterwards, worried it sounded too communist in the age of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Carolyn Jones does not look familiar until Jarrod turns her into his serious-faced Joan of Arc exhibit. That’s when you might realize the bubble-headed blonde is actually the future Morticia Addams. Jones was just beginning her career. Roy Roberts, who plays the fraudulent murderer Burke, was all over everything in the 50s and the 60s.
Besides being in color, House of Wax is considerably more gruesome than I expected. It’s also much better acted than I’d expect from any 3D movie. There are a few scenes in the movie that are clearly there just to take advantage of the effect. Hero Scott takes his girlfriend — and eventually the Damsel in Distress — Sue out to a bar where women dance a can-can, kicking at the screen. Sue says “It doesn’t seem proper, all those girls showing their … talents.” The opening of the Wax Museum features a prolonged scene of a hawker playing a paddle ball towards the camera. But other than that, director Andre DeToth focuses on his story. It’s not like DeToth saw any benefit in 3D. He was blind in one eye.
Besides the eventual remake, the plot of House of Wax would get reused many times over. “Mad villain turns real corpses into exhibits” is practically a sub-genre at this point. Although none of the movies manage the real-life unsettling experience of seeing a Body Worlds exhibit.