“Professor” Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is a sculptor who works in wax. He’s living in New York City in the late 19th Century, and he’s displaying his handiwork in a wax museum. When his partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Robert)–really his primary investor–balks at Jarrod’s receipts and tries to talk him into moving in a more commercial direction, perhaps with a “Chamber of Horrors”, Jarrod protests that he’s creating meticulous works of art, not cheap sensationalism. Jarrod tries to interest a new investor, but when the prospect says he can’t make a decision for a few months, Burke says he can’t wait. He suggests torching the place and collecting the insurance money. When Jarrod refuses, Burke torches the museum anyway, and the two fight. Jarrod supposedly dies in the fire, leaving Burke to collect. However, when a mysterious, disfigured stranger shows up, the resolution may not be so simple.
The debate that Jarrod and Burke have in the opening scene of this remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) is particularly ironic in light of the film’s history. House of Wax was made as a 3D film–a fact made more than obvious from the film’s opening credits, which are presented in a font made to look like it is bursting forth from the screen.
In the early 1950s, movie theater box office receipts were down because of television. Film studios and movie theaters were looking for gimmicks that would make films seem more special. They were looking to do things that television couldn’t do. According to film editor Rudi Fehr, “The House of Wax was made because the theaters were empty, people were staying home to watch television. In order to lure the audiences back to the theaters, Warner’s came out with 3D.” While this wasn’t the first commercial 3D film–1952’s Bwana Devil holds that honor, this was certainly one of the more popular ones.
Studio head Jack Warner told Fehr that he would have five weeks to edit the film after shooting was done. Fehr said they could get it done even quicker if director Andre De Toth would shoot the film in sequence. So Warner demanded just that, despite De Toth’s protests. Shooting in sequence is unusual and can make the on-set crew’s job much more difficult. But it certainly didn’t negatively affect the performances or De Toth’s direction, which are both outstanding despite a couple strangely truncated bits of exposition.
Like many 3D films, there are a few shots in House of Wax that might otherwise be inexplicable. The most prominent example here is a huckster who stands in front of the revamped House of Wax doing tricks with three paddleballs. We linger on him much longer than we normally would so that he can bounce the ball into our face. This shows part of the difficulty of 3D–it’s difficult to reconcile the most impressive effects from the audience’s perspective with narrative needs. Viewed now, in simple 2D on a television screen, the obligatory 3D shots of House of Wax play as quirky, campy curios. For me, that adds to the charm of the film.
Price has an unusual role here in that he plays a good portion of the film with disfigurement makeup, half-limping, hunched over, covered in bulky black cloaks in a manner that somewhat prefigures John Hurt’s turn as John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980). De Toth is excellent at building atmosphere, especially in the “external” shots, which frequently feel more like we’re watching a version of the Jack the Ripper story set in London.
Most of the script by Crane Wilbur, based on a play by Charles Belden (which also served as the basis for 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, of course), is deliciously flagitious–degenerate in a more over the top manner than was usual for the period. The conflagration at the end of the opening is particularly unexpected and twisted, as is Jarrod’s modus operandi throughout the film. It’s only too bad that the self-enforced Hollywood “moral code” at the time could not have allowed for a more nihilistic ending. I for one was cheering on Jarrod and his assistant Igor, played by none other than Charles Bronson in one of his earlier roles, when he was still using “Charles Buchinsky”.
Although it’s difficult to say whether Belden, Wilbur or De Toth intended a message or subtext, it’s easy to read a number of interesting angles into the film. To begin, the use of the name “Igor” for the assistant suggests a number of twisted turnabouts on Dr. Frankenstein. Jarrod is even more depraved than the good doctor as he “creates death” out of life, in the service of art. At least it seems depraved if you’re not an artist. If you are, you might simply note that one must suffer to be beautiful. That’s more than just a flippant remark, as Jarrod suffers financially for beauty early in the film, and Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) suffers physically for beauty as she nearly suffocates herself to make herself thin. And of course there’s the literal, sinister sense in which the artist makes others suffer to create his beauty. There are also very interesting subtexts available related to goals of realism in art, and of course, the ironic messages noted earlier in the beginning of the film, where we are debating aesthetics versus financial, or more material considerations.
Although House of Wax was popular at the box office in 1953, there was no shortage of critical devaluations of the film as a cheap gimmick, and no shortage of complaints about image quality and eyestrain when trying to view the film in 3D. 3D was only prominent for another year or so (to make periodic returns later, often for “number 3” films in series), but House of Wax is a much better film than it was given credit for at the time. It’s not Vincent Price’s best, but it’s well worth viewing.