How do you revitalize the career of a horror legend? Cast him in the first major studio film to be shot in color 3-D, and tap a one-eyed director who famously couldn’t see any of the 3-D effects – that’s how!
House of Wax (1953) Synopsis
“An associate burns down a wax museum with the owner inside, but he survives only to become vengeful and murderous.“
Celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2023, House of Wax stars the incomparable Vincent Price (you know, if you aren’t familiar with any of his films, just stop reading now…) as talented wax artist Professor Henry Jerrod, who, after refusing to bend to the sensationalist whims of the public, is betrayed and murdered by his unscrupulous business partner Matthew (Roy Roberts; Chinatown) for the insurance money. However, Jerrod isn’t quite dead, he opens a new museum with a new partner Wallace (Paul Cavanaugh; Jungle Jim), and changes his tune on the paying public’s demands, but not after first dispatching those who wronged him.
Soon intrepid Detective Brennan (Frank Lovejoy; In A Lonely Place) is on the case, racing against time to find out where some missing bodies are, and trying to protect Jerrod’s reluctant muse Sue (Phyllis Kirk; The Twilight Zone).
Upon its release, House of Wax, despite being trashed by critics, was a resounding box office hit, earning almost $24 million on a $1 million budget (in adjusted numbers). Audiences were thrilled by the lavish colors and the surprisingly effective 3-D, as well as with the reemergence of the “master of menace” Price. House of Wax is also notable for being the first film appearance of Charles Bronson (Death Wish, billed here as Charles Buchinsky) as Igor, and a blond, bubbly Carolyn Jones, in her first credited film role, a decade or so before her career-making turn as proto-goth queen Morticia Addams in The Addams Family TV series.
And how can you not love that producer Alex Gordon, in a bat-shit-crazy moment of marketing inspiration, somehow managed to get a down on his luck Bela Lugosi to stand outside L.A.’s Paramount theater, wearing a Dracula cape and dark glasses, while holding a leash attached to a guy in a gorilla suit at the premiere??? They don’t do ’em like this anymore!
Featuring some superior storytelling by director Andre De Toth, an amazing musical score from David Buttolph and a near-perfect cast, House of Wax holds up really well today. For a 1953 feature, it boasts some pretty creepy subject matter, what with bodies covered in wax, and some pretty graphic melting sequences. The film itself is a remake of the 1933 Lionel Atwill-Fay Wray thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum but achieves so much more than its predecessor on the strengths of its sharp color, excellent performances, and yes, the 3-D effects.
Definitely, one of my top films from the 50s, House of Wax is now widely regarded as a classic. Rightly so. It’s genuinely scary in parts, terrifyingly fun, and extremely well done. Apparently, the viewing public has changed its mind in the past 70 years as House of Wax now has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2014. Price, of course, riding the wave of House of Wax, went on to fright film glory in his many Roger Corman-produced Poe adaptations that came after. He even managed to revisit the “disfigured genius out for revenge” trope to great effect in the Dr. Phibes films.
House of Wax is definitely worth a watch by any self-respecting horror fan. Heck, the 2005 re-boot is even worth a watch!
House of Wax is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archives and to rent and own on Amazon Prime video.