House of Wax (1953) ***
This remake of 1933ís The Mystery of the Wax Museum marked the real beginning of Vincent Priceís association with the horror genre. Heíd already had a long and busy career going all the way back to the 1930ís, but it wasnít until he appeared in House of Wax that he started getting lots of work in horror movies, with the ultimate effect of completely re-making his public image as an actor. Indeed, I bet if you grabbed some random person off the street and asked them, they probably wouldnít realize that Price had ever been anything but a horror-film star. House of Wax was also first in another department; it was Warner Brothersí first ever 3-D movie, and the fact that it was shot in very expensive color says something, I think, about how highly the studio regarded the money-making potential of the then-new technique, which had hitherto been employed almost solely on low-budget, minor-studio pictures, where it had served mainly as a ploy to distract the audience from the amazing stupidity of what they were watching. But then again, leave it to one of the majors to do something like entrusting their debut foray into 3-D to Andre De Toth, a director with only one eye... (And no, Iím not making that up!) I think my favorite thing about House of Wax is the frequency with which elements appear in the film which could serve no imaginable purpose other than to look cool in 3-D.
The set-up for this movie suggests in a number of ways the scenarios of later Vincent Price vehicles, like The Mad Magician and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Price plays a talented, if eccentric, sculptor named Henry Jared, whose preferred medium is the wax dummy. Jared is very good at what he does, but the wax museum he has set up on the ground floor of the building that also serves as his home and studio isnít making very much money. This is because of Jaredís somewhat snobbish refusal to use his talents to create the sort of wax sculptures the public wants to see. Anthony and Cleopatra, Abraham Lincoln, and Marie Antoinette have a certain appeal for some, I suppose, but as anyone who has ever been to a wax museum will attest, the big draw is the house of horrors. Simply put, the public doesnít want to be edified and educated; the public wants filth! The public wants the lurid, the gruesome, and the salacious. Jaredís business partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), tells him as much, and if Jared is not willing to alter his approach, Burke wants out of the partnership. Unfortunately, the earliest that Jared could possibly find someone to buy Burke out is three months from now, by which point it will be too late for Burke to invest in another promising venture, the nature of which he doesnít go into. Burkeís solution to the problem is insurance fraud. He and Jared have a $25,000 policy on the museum and its contents (an almost inconceivable sum of money at the turn of the century, when House of Wax is set), and if the place were, say, to burn to the ground, both men would be set financially for anything they wanted to do for the foreseeable future. Jared will have nothing to do with the idea, though; he regards his creations almost as living beings, with feelings and personalities of their own. In his mind, to destroy them would be tantamount to murder. But Burke is determined to have it his way, and he sets Jaredís studio ablaze anyway, leading to a fight between the two men which Jared loses. When the gas lines to the building explode, the sculptor is still inside.
Burke wastes no time spending the insurance money, which, of course, is his alone now. In particular, heís been spending a fair amount of it on a pretty young floozy named Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones, better known as Morticia from ďThe Addams Family,Ē and who showed up much later in Tobe Hooperís Eaten Alive). Before the two can run off together, though, Burke is killed by a man in black whose face appears to have been burned beyond recognition. Hmmm... Cathy is the man in blackís next victim, strangled to death in her bedroom one night while her roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) is out at a job interview. Sue comes home and finds Cathyís body and, more importantly, the man in black, who chases her out of the room, down the street, and ultimately to the home of her life-long friend Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni).
Scott is a sculptor, and professional curiosity leads him to take Sue (who is in desperate need of some harmless recreation in the days following her friendís death) to a newly opened wax museum. The proprietor of this new attraction is-- you guessed it-- Henry Jared, reports of whose death were obviously greatly exaggerated. The fire has left him a cripple, however, along with rendering his hands useless for anything more delicate than signing his name. The waxworks in his museum are thus not of his own creation, but he closely supervises the work of his apprentices, Igor (Charles Bronson, who was still going by Charles Buchinsky in those days) and Leon (Dead Men Walkís Nedrick Young), and their work approaches his own in sophistication. But more has changed about Jared than that; his new museum, though its main room recreates very closely the exhibits he formerly displayed, has attached to it a large and elaborate house of horrors, which is of course the museumís cash cow. Thereís something funny about the place though. When Sue sets eyes on Jaredís sculpture of Joan of Arc, she notices that it bears an uncanny likeness to Cathy. Now ordinarily, this would merely be a little creepy, but you see, somebody (the man in black, naturally) stole Cathyís body from the city morgue the night before, and Sue canít shake the idea that this Joan of Arc waxwork really is Cathy. She thus finds it more than a little alarming that Jared wants to use her as the model for his new Marie Antoinette, which he wants Scott to sculpt for him.
Sue isnít the only one whoís noticed something suspicious about the wax dummies. Though his lieutenant has little patience with the idea, the detective sergeant (Dabbs Greer, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Vampire) investigating Cathyís murder and the subsequent disappearance of her body, who claims to have an unerring memory for faces, believes he recognizes in the waxworks several other missing people. To begin with, the John Wilkes Booth in the Lincoln diorama looks to him an awful lot like a city prosecutor who vanished recently under suspicious circumstances. And in the current crime section of the house of horrors, there is an exhibit depicting the death by hanging (Murder? Suicide? Who can say?) of Matthew Burke, a case which the police department has not yet solved. Not only is the likeness of Burke truly astonishing, Burkeís body has also gone missing from the morgue!
I think you can see where this is going, and events really begin speeding toward that conclusion when the sergeant realizes that Jaredís apprentice Leon is really a parole jumper from Sing Sing, whom the cop had met while he was serving as a prison guard years ago. Meanwhile, Sue (who is supposed to meet Scott at Jaredís museum) has become increasingly obsessed with the idea that Jaredís Joan of Arc is actually Cathyís body, and while she waits for Scott, she decides to have a look under the dummyís wig. When she lifts it up, she sees not a bald wax pate, but a full head of curly, blonde hair, just like Cathyís. Her discovery naturally adds an extra level of urgency to Jaredís plans to incorporate the girl into his exhibit, and it isnít long before Sue finds herself bound beneath a vat of boiling wax by the now-unmasked Henry Jared (his normal face proves to be just another of his remarkable wax creations), while Scott and the police race separately to rescue her.
All things considered, itís a fitting start for Priceís second (and more famous) career. Heís already got his evil genius shtick down pat, and itís clear from the moment he appears onscreen that this is what Price was born to do. The one notable difference between his role here and the majority of the very similar characters he would go on to play is that his comparative youth in 1953 (he was in his early 40ís at the time) allowed him to give a much more physical performance than he would in such later films as The Last Man on Earth or the various AIP Poe movies. Itís neat to see him involved in one of those stiffly-choreographed fist-fights that I mainly associate with old Westerns. But of course, what really steals the show are all the ďWait! Hold everything-- itís time for a 3-D effectĒ moments. My favorite is probably the barker at the museum, who for no reason other than that the movie is in 3-D makes his pitch while frenetically playing with a pair of those solitaire ping pong things with the ball attached to the paddle by an elastic cord. When Scott throws a punch into the camera during his fight with Igor near the end, it makes sense in the context of the story. That ping pong guy, though, is another matter altogether.