For KN Winiarski’s 1st Annual Spooky Classic Movie Blogathon, I chose to write about a film that was recommended to me by one of my fellow bloggers. As the title states, I will be reviewing the 1953 film, House of Wax, which was suggested by Patricia from Caftan Woman. This is a movie I’ve heard of, but had never seen. Since the film was released between 1920 and 1960 (one of the blogathon’s requirements), it gave me a good excuse to check it out! Even though I have seen and reviewed three of Vincent Price’s movies, only one of them was released during the Breen Code era. Because House of Wax premiered in the early ‘50s, it allowed me to view more of his films from that time period. Based on the synopsis, House of Wax is considered a “revenge film”. It made me curious to see how this type of story would work within the Breen Code era. I was also interested in comparing House of Wax to a project like The Crow, which I reviewed back in May.
The acting: House of Wax is the fourth film of Vincent Price’s I’ve seen. While I enjoyed his acting performances in The Whales of August, House of the Long Shadows, and Shock, I really liked his performance in the 1953 film! When his character, Henry, is talking about his wax figures, the passion he has for his craft can be seen on his face and in his eyes. Vincent makes the audience feel bad for Henry when these figures and the museum burn to the ground. As time moves forward, Henry evolves into a man of sophistication. Through the power of his acting talents, Vincent makes this transition feel believable. Prior to watching House of Wax, I was not familiar with Phyllis Kirk as an actress. However, I really liked her portrayal of Sue Allen! The emotional intensity Phyllis brought to her role is what made her performance stand out! When she is chased through the city by a murderous criminal, the audience can see and feel the fear Sue is experiencing. This helped raise the intensity of that scene. After she reaches the safety of a neighbor’s house, she immediately bursts into tears. Sue’s emotions show just how emotionally exhausted she is from constantly looking over her shoulder.
The wax figures: Because this film is called House of Wax, a showcase of various wax figures is to be expected. What was unexpected for me was the overall quality of these wax figures! All of them were so well-crafted, they looked like real-life individuals. In fact, there were times when I was waiting for at least one of them to start moving on their own. Throughout the film, facts about the people these figures were representing and the artistic process were shared within the dialogue. One example is when Henry is explaining how he created his Marie Antoinette figure. He tells a potential investor that Marie’s eyes are glass and were inserted through a hallow part of the head before it was attached to the neck. I found this part of the story fascinating! I also wish there was a documentary about this particular art form.
The historical accuracy: House of Wax takes place during the early 1900s, with the time period influencing every aspect of the film. What works in this movie’s favor is how the visuals looked and felt like the time period the film’s creative team was striving for! As Henry’s wax museum is burning, a fire truck appears to put the fire out. A noteworthy point is the model of the truck resembled one from the early 1900s. Another way the time period was reflected was through the set design! The exterior of the House of Wax museum looked like a movie palace from decades past, commanding the attention of passers-by. The beige and red marble alcove leading to the museum reminded me of an outdoor market, with the museum itself selling a form of entertainment to potential customers. These design choices made the overall film feel immersive!
What I didn’t like about the film:
The 3D effects: One of House of Wax’s claims to fame is featuring one of the earliest forms of 3D in cinematic history. Any poster of the film and the movie’s opening credits boast this detail enthusiastically. However, the 3D in this movie stayed in 1953. In the scene where Henry opens his House of Wax museum, a spokesperson uses paddle-balls to get patrons’ attention. During his routine, the spokesperson breaks the fourth wall and tells a man in the audience that he is trying to hit his popcorn bag with one of the paddle-balls. When the paddle-ball moved toward the audience, the moment itself looked like it was filmed in 2D. The 3D in House of Wax comes across as an outdated gimmick that felt awkward and out of place.
A protagonist I can’t root for: More often than not, “revenge films” feature a protagonist who represents the opposite of the horrors committed against them. Eric Draven from The Crow is a perfect example. While he kills the villains who have wronged him and his fiancé, Shelly, Eric is fighting fire with fire when his city’s justice system is ineffective. He also chooses to keep his moral compass intact by helping those who are innocent. I won’t spoil House of Wax for those who haven’t seen it yet. But all I’ll say is that as time goes on, Henry throws away his moral compass and takes his mission too far. Because of this, I couldn’t bring myself to root for this character.
Scares that aren’t consistent: There are several moments in House of Wax that are truly unsettling to watch. Seeing Henry’s wax figures burning is just one of them. However, I expected the film to be much scarier than it was. The most terrifying moments happened toward the beginning and end of the movie. Everything in-between felt like a juggling act of darker and lighter moments. Right after Henry’s wax museum burns down, a happy dance party is shown. This feels like a major tonal shift from the ominous tone that was set up in the film’s opening scene.
My overall impression:
As a movie, House of Wax is good! It is a horror title that relies more on tone and atmosphere. But as a “revenge story”, I feel a film like The Crow does a better job at expressing that type of narrative. One major difference is how the character of Henry is not worth rooting for, as he abandons his moral compass within the course of the film. I found this to be a surprising choice for a Breen Code era film. While it doesn’t overpower the movie, the 3D aspect of the project did not work. It was obvious that 2D filmed moments were waiting for the 3D effect to kick in. Sadly, the 3D failed to show up. I would say House of Wax is an interesting choice for Halloween viewing, as it utilizes wax figures to provide elements of horror. It eliminates the use of blood/gore and has the ability to put the audience on edge.
Overall score: 7.5 out of 10
Have you seen House of Wax? Which film of Vincent Price’s is your favorite? Share your thoughts in the comment section!
Have fun at the movies!