Friday, December 22, 2017

House Of Wax (1953)

A remake of Warner Brothers’ MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, this Vincent Price potboiler is well remembered for two reasons: it was the first color and stereo 3D feature to receive a major studio release (from Warners) and it co-stars a young actor named Charles Buchinsky, who soon after changed his surname to Bronson and became one of the world’s most popular movie stars. HOUSE OF WAX was a very big hit that earned more fans on television and in popular theatrical re-releases in the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, its director, Andre de Toth (THE BOUNTY HUNTER), had only one eye, and so could not see the 3D effects that excited audiences so.

HOUSE OF WAX was not Price’s first horror movie, but it was such a smash that he rarely appeared in any films except horror for the next forty years of his career. The role of a crazed sculptor who creates wax figures of murderers and other human monsters, played by Lionel Atwill in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, is a rich one and seems tailormade for Price’s unique acting style. As in the original, Price’s character is a sensitive, talented artist whose museum is destroyed in a fire set by his business partner (Roy Roberts) for the insurance money. It’s a heck of a sequence with Price and Roberts (and their doubles) trading punches among some dangerous looking flames, as immaculate wax figures melt and the building falls apart around them.

Unknown to anyone, Price survived the blaze, albeit with his hands crippled and unable to create new wax figures. He murders Roberts and his fiance (Carolyn Jones, pre-ADDAMS FAMILY), steals the insurance settlement, and opens a new museum with the aid of a deaf-mute partner (Bronson). More unsolved murders follow, which are investigated by cop Frank Lovejoy (THE HITCH-HIKER). Phyllis Kirk (THE THIN MAN on TV with Peter Lawford), playing Jones’ roommate, becomes suspicious when she notices the new museum’s Joan of Arc looks a lot like Jones. Her nosing around leads to her boyfriend’s (THE UNTOUCHABLES’ Paul Picerni) head in a guillotine and an exciting climax set in Price’s laboratory.

HOUSE OF WAX repeats the shocking revelation at the end of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, but while de Toth shoots it with passion, the suspense is leavened by the many scenes of Price in (very good) scarred makeup stalking his victims. It’s likely de Toth expected the audience to be surprised that Price is the killer, but that’s wishful thinking, as there is no doubt Price is the actor beneath the makeup. Crane Wilbur (THE BAT) is credited with adapting the original film, and he does a nice job updating the story with 3D effects that enthralled audiences.

Kirk is both strong and vulnerable, expressing sincere terror in an atmospheric chase scene down damp cobblestone streets. Neither Jones nor Bronson have a lot to do, though both are effective. Less so are Lovejoy, doing the best he can in a standard cop role, and Picerni, all smiles as the bland romantic lead. Bronson made over 100 pictures, but HOUSE OF WAX was his only true horror film. HOUSE OF WAX received a remake of its own in 2005, but director Jaume Collet-Serra (THE SHALLOWS) and his writers ignored its story.

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