House of Wax (1953)
James Cameron has a lot to answer for, off the back of Avatar’s success film fans have been subjected to a decade of shoehorned 3D features. The only films still clinging on to this concept are the superhero mega-blockbusters, otherwise, 3D has well and truly left the building. This decade wasn’t the first cycle and it won’t be the last, looking back though, there was also pocket of 3D films in the 1950s, the most well known of which are Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Andre De Toth’s House of Wax – the latter of which has joined HMV’s Warner Archive series.
De Toth’s 1953 film features the inimitable Vincent Price before his renowned collaborations with Roger Corman, as such this features as one of his earlier horror roles. Price is Prof. Henry Jarrod a prodigiously talented waxwork artist who loves every creation like a living being. Only his associate, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), isn’t quite as convinced; he wants more salacious and sensational exhibits for greater profits. This proposition is declined and the new, potential investor is 3 months away – impatient for a financial return, Burke burns down this wax museum with Jarrod inside. Assumed dead, Burke benefits from the insurance pay-out; a new found fortune which doesn’t last long as he soon turns up dead. Jarrod also re-emerges with a new, fully funded museum called the House of Wax with exhibits that are violent and more real than ever. When creating new pieces of art, especially historical figures like Joan of Arc or Marie Antoinette, Jarrod is inspired by real people for the foundation of these models, people that he kills and claims for his own. Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) is the friend of one of these people who goes missing, she is our way in and the target of Jarrod for one of his displays.
Although frightfully insane, Vincent Price’s Jarrod only ever wanted to create beautiful art and give people a glimpse into the past, through the greed of one man that passion was stripped from him. Back from the dead after being burned alive, Jarrod wants to pick that up again only he uses living humans as the foundation for his models with the assistance of two subordinates. While every bit as sadistic as the gallery of rogues he embodied under Corman’s direction, he always just wants to create art, that is nothing if not sympathetic. That can be extended to the extremes he goes to with his scorched hands and beaten body, he stalks these early 1900s streets town almost preempting the slasher villain.
House of Wax is also known as House of Wax 3D, and those scenes that fit the bill make Andre De Toth’s film a weird one. At the halfway mark, a card pops up – retained in this release – calling for a 10-minute intermission. After which we are greeted outside a new location and a grand display for the house of wax [museum] and a man outside with two ping pong paddles on an elasticated string batting the balls back and forth, both at the crowd surrounding him and at us watching the film. He addresses the people watching, asking us to be careful with our popcorn before batting the ball over and over again. Vincent Price addresses the need to get people through the door by any means necessary, but at no other point does the film break the fourth wall with its 3D tricks. So out of place it is, this scene feels like a sketch played during the intermission before getting back to the film – a real distinctive touch.
Look at many a 1950 horror movie and their power will have undoubtedly waned, very few from that decade still maintain their credibility to modern audiences – those few that do are all-time greats. House of Wax should be counted among those greats. There is the aforementioned, relatable antagonist and the films preemptive ways, but there is also a real sense of sadism which will still impact a contemporary audience. Getting his revenge on Burke, Jarrod hangs him in an elevator shaft, slowly and clumsily, to make it look like a suicide. Like any horror film new or old, it builds up to a crescendo with all the nastiest stuff happening in the final scene; here Jarrod starts to cook a living person alive in Wax. That also happened in the dire and ill-considered remake, but here we have sumptuous period detail, a strong cast, bold ideas that informed the future of horror and more.
Andre de Toth did the same with the western in Day of the Outlaw and that film has been rediscovered and reappraised as a legitimate classic of its era, it’s about time House of Wax received the same treatment and was welcome into the horror hall of fame rather than on the fringes where it currently resides.