Vincent Price plays Henry Jarrod, a late 19th century wax sculptor of great promise; when his greedy backer sets his figures alight for the insurance money, Jarrod is crippled trying to rescue his "people". Years later, the wheelchair-ridden Jarrod opens the House of Wax, with strikingly lifelike figures created under his direction, as the fire left his hands twisted, useless claws. Concurrent to this, a young lady (Phyllis Kirk) stumbles onto the murder of her best friend by a hideous fiend, who then seems to dog her every step. Worse yet, the House of Wax's new Joan of Arc figure bears an uncanny resemblance to her dead friend, and she begins to suspect that Jarrod may be... um... cheating in the creation of his new figures...
House of Wax is the movie that catapulted Price into his career as the go-to guy for macabre protagonists for the next 30 years. Though these days, House seems rather quaint - are we really supposed to believe that anyone other than Jarrod is the misshapen killer? - the low-key proceedings and lack of a strong male good guy in order to concentrate on Kirk's quandry lead to a certain sense of dread. We already know what Kirk suspects, which produces more than one "Don't go in there!" moment. Price, as always, manages to engage our sympathies even through his character's misdeeds.
As gothic entertainment goes, House of Wax is hard to beat; several of director Alex deToth's setpieces are still being ripped off years later, and though much of the cast is steady but unmemorable, the main characters - including a young Charles Bronson - are perfectly cast and manage to turn a somewhat silly concept into a classic horror movie.
Though House of Wax stands as one of the most prestigious productions made in that early 50s fad, 3-D, Warner claimed that they could not satisfactorily reproduce the 3-D experience on a home system, so we must be satisfied with a flat print... but what a print! This transfer is almost shockingly clear and sharp, with absolutely gorgeous color... it would be a shame to adulterate that color with a red lens over one eye and a blue over the other. Admittedly, having seen Spy Kids 3-D shortly before viewing this disc, I had a better eye for what would have worked well in three dimensions, and there was surprisingly more than the famous paddleball-straight-at-the-camera sequence. The ultra-sharp ruffles on the can-can dancers' petticoats, for instance.
House of Wax is followed by an excerpt from a Pathé newsreel entitled Round the Clock Premiere: Coast Hails House of Wax. This black and white segment shows various folks attending a 6am "Breakfast Premiere" of the movie, including Bela Lugosi leading some guy in a gorilla suit on a chain, Shelley Winters, and a certain future President and First Lady. This is presented silently, with music cues from the movie playing, the eerie trilling adding a strange undertone to an appearance by Danny Thomas. There is also a theatrical trailer, which has lots of large, pretty type on it, but not a single moment from the movie.
But the greatest extra - if, indeed, you could call such a thing a mere "extra" - is the movie House of Wax remade: the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum, starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. For most of my life, this was considered to be a "lost" movie, and to have it arrive on my doorstep is... well, remarkable. The print shows some occasional damage, but is overall in amazingly good shape. The 2-strip Technicolor gives the proceedings the feel of a hand-tinted postcard with a riot of pinks and blues, but a steady hand at the audio has also given it a fine, clear soundtrack. Though achingly of its time, the movie was made pre-Code, so the story has a certain amount of sauce and crackle. In contrast to House's gaslight setting, Mystery evidences a more futurist, art deco design, reminiscent of the Karloff/Lugosi The Black Cat.
Which, come to think of it, is long overdue for DVD. That's the problem with discs like this - they make me greedy for more.
Dr. Freex, 2/4/2004