Synopsis: An associate burns down a wax museum with the owner inside, but he survives only to become vengeful and murderous.
Stars: Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Frank Lovejoy, Charles Bronson, Paul Cavanagh
Director: André De Toth
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: There are a lot of firsts that House of Wax can lay claim to. It was the first color 3-D feature from an American production company and the first 3-D film presented in a theater boasting the multi-dimensional stereophonic sound. We’re a bit too used to an enhanced movie-going experience now, but try to put yourself in the place of audience members back in 1953 when this horror classic was released. Before things got too bloody and gross, it didn’t take much for audiences to shriek in terror…now add in the new-fangled technology and the frights truly leaped off the screen. Not only does this make excellent use of the 3-D effects, it’s a way above average movie on the whole.
The prologue of the film takes place in a wax museum curated by Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), a man possessing an eerie ability to construct life-like historical figures in wax. Though he’s looking to buy-out his ne’er-do-well business partner so he can make the masterpieces he wants, the partner has a quicker plan in mind and burns down the museum for the insurance money. All of Jarrod’s pieces are lost and though he’s severely disfigured, Jarrod survives and begins a plan of mysterious revenge.
For the remainder of the film, we watch as Jarrod emerges from the ashes with a brand new wax museum that becomes a hot ticket in town. Too bad not everyone that wronged him is around to see the fantastic displays of recognizable faces from history. Then again, underneath the costumes and adornments don’t those faces look sort of…familiar? Figuring out what’s really going on and who is truly behind it all is just part of the fun to be had here.
What sets the one apart from the bunch is not only its well-executed 3-D effects but its care for storytelling and characterizations. At 88 minutes, there’s a lot of ground to cover but everything feels nice and lean, with no extra fatty sections that drag the action to a halt. In addition to Price’s typically benevolent investment in a tragic character, there’s a lovely leading lady in Phyllis Kirk and even appearances from future Morticia Addams Carolyn Jones and a young Charles Bronson. The finale manages to stick its landing with two different race against time action sequences happening at once.
The history behind this one is interesting as well. Originally written as a play, it was first made into a movie back in 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum starring Fay Wray. This 1953 production is nearly a shot for shot remake of that movie, a very impressive feat. Some may recall this was remade in 2005 with the plot drastically altered and, Paris Hilton’s performance notwithstanding, it acquitted itself nicely if not overly memorably.
Unlike many 3-D movies released in the subsequent years, House of Wax is one that could still be enjoyed even without the added ‘oomph’ that the 3-D experience provided. While there are a few sequences where the filmmakers were clearly showboating, they aren’t as eye-rolling as the tired gags seen in Jaws 3-D or Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3-D. What ultimately makes the film worthy of its recent inclusion in the National Film Registry is that even taking away all of the 3-D hoopla there are numerous swell scares to be had. If you have the capability to watch this in 3-D, by all means, do so! If not, it’s still one to seek out for the classic that it is.