Monday, November 1, 2010

House of Wax (Warner Bros., 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’m more familiar with the original version of House of Wax, the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum, even though that version was thought lost until 1970 (when a copy turned up in Jack Warner’s private collection) and the later version is far more widely shown, since it was the first major-studio production released in 3-D (Arch Oboler’s independently-made Bwana Devil had preceded it) and it was the movie that “typed” its star, Vincent Price, as a horror actor instead of the lounge-lizard supporting player he’d been in Laura and most of his previous movies. House of Wax is actually a pretty dull movie, especially seen “flat.”

The earlier Mystery of the Wax Museum is a far better film, with faster-paced direction by Michael Curtiz (although House of Wax director André de Toth — it’s so like Jack Warner to have assigned his first 3-D production to a director who had only one eye and therefore could not watch his own movie in 3-D — did get a few effectively noir-ish compositions into his movie, notably in the scene in which Phyllis Kirk enters the room of her roommate, who we know has been murdered but she does not), a more incisive “star” performance by Lionel Atwill (he acts the part of the mad monster artist with real conviction and panache, whereas Price seems to be “phoning it in” through much of the film) and far better casting of the female roles.

Fay Wray’s casting as the woman in distress in the original is probably predictable, but at least she portrays the role as a credible human being — Kirk speaks all her lines in a dead monotone that suggests a casting-couch hire on her first day in acting class. And the elimination of the reporter character played by Glenda Farrell in the original really hurts the film, not only in making it considerably more plodding (the use of the reporter enables the “mystery of the wax museum” to be solved far more quickly and incisively in the earlier version) but also in depriving it of the energy the original film gained from her rapid-fire performance. The best moments in House of Wax are the ones taken most directly from the original movie: the burning of the original wax museum at the beginning and the near-incineration of the heroine under a spray of molten wax at the end — both with so many setups and cuts taken almost directly from the original movie that it’s hard to believe de Toth hadn’t seen the original when he made this one! — 6/24/95


I ran Charles the 1953 House of Wax as a follow-up to seeing the original version, Mystery of the Wax Museum, the night before. My impression that the original was much the better movie was only confirmed this time around — though had the video offered the film in its original 3-D format (if a reissue label like Rhino could do that for Cat Women of the Moon and the 1961 Mask, certainly Warner Home Video could have offered a 3-D print and two pair of glasses with every copy of this DVD!) the difference might have been a little narrower, In 3-D the famous paddle-ball sequence (staged by a performer playing a carnival barker Vincent Price, in the role played by Lionel Atwill in Mystery, has hired to drum up interest in his museum, which is actually called “House of Wax”!) is absolutely stunning; in 2-D it just looks gratuitous and a bit silly.

Crane Wilbur’s rehash of the original Carl Erickson-Don Mullaly screenplay (they don’t get credit on the remake but Charles Belden, who wrote the original story, does) moves the film back from a contemporary setting to the first years of the 20th century, changes all the character names (though “Igor,” now pronounced “EE-gor” instead of the first version’s “EYE-gor,” is no longer the name of the mad sculptor but his mute assistant — and that, not the addict sidekick, is the role Charles Bronson played under his birth last name, Buchinsky) and, most damagingly, eliminates the Glenda Farrell reporter character altogether. Instead the damsel in distress, Phyllis Kirk (who as a version of ethereal loveliness hardly competes with Fay Wray!), unravels the mystery herself after the murder of her roommate (Carolyn Jones, who unlike Monica Bannister in the original, actually does get to appear on screen as a live person before being waxified and put on exhibit as Joan of Arc).

House of Wax launched Vincent Price on his career as a horror star; he’d worked in the genre before but this was the film that “typed” him the way Frankenstein “typed” Boris Karloff — though at this juncture it’s hard to see why; while Karloff, Lugosi and Atwill took their horror parts seriously Price, even this early, camped his way through his, turning in an entertaining but superficial performance here whereas Atwill in Mystery had achieved real pathos and even a certain level of sympathy. (At the same time I can appreciate the difficulty of delivering lines telling an actress you’re about to drown her in molten wax and you sincerely believe you’re doing her a favor!) House of Wax is one of those remakes that would seem like a perfectly good film if you hadn’t seen the original, but if you have it can only come off a poor second best — and it also doesn’t help that despite the major effort they took to film this in 3-D (even though the director they hired, André de Toth, was not only better known for Westerns and noirs than horror films but he only had one eye and therefore wasn’t able to see the 3-D effects himself — how Jack Warner) they used the cheap in-house WarnerColor process and therefore the color isn’t much better than the two-strip Technicolor of the original! — 10/18/03


By one of those freak mischances that happens to long-time film buffs, I happened to see the long-lost original version of House of Wax, the 1933 horror thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum, well before I saw House of Wax itself. Film historian Tino Balio describes Mystery of the Wax Museum as “a typical Warner Bros. newspaper drama dons a fright wig and tries to pass itself off as a Universal picture,” and there’s something to that: the story of Mystery opens in 1920 and its main portion is set in 1933 (in fact the 1933 New Year’s celebration in Times Square, complete with the dropping ball of lights, is shown in the movie — and it’s fascinating to see what it looked like then as opposed to now), and the recognizably contemporary setting helps set off the horrors and makes them seem more immediate.

I saw Mystery in 1970 right when the last surviving print had one of its initial showings at the San Francisco Film Festival (it was a midnight double bill that also included James Whale’s magnificent original version of The Old Dark House, also newly rediscovered then) and House of Wax in 1971 when a reissue company licensed the rights to the original 3-D version and showed it theatrically, also in San Francisco. House of Wax was ballyhooed as the first 3-D feature produced by a major studio; remembering what going to sound had done for his company in 1927, Jack Warner was always interested in technological advances, especially ones with high-level exploitation value, and as soon as he saw the grosses for the independently produced 3-D feature Bwana Devil he grabbed hold of the rights to the process and launched a heavy 3-D production program.

He also shot his 3-D films in color — albeit the cheap in-house “WarnerColor” process (actually Eastmancolor — the Eastman Kodak company, trying to extend their dominance of the home-photography market into the movie business, allowed the studios to use Eastmancolor and name it after themselves, which is how we got things like “WarnerColor” and “Metrocolor” — though Eastmancolor won a lot of business from Technicolor simply because it was easier and cheaper, since it only used one strip of film and could therefore be shot the same way as black-and-white instead of requiring a special camera to accommodate multiple strips of film) — and intended to expand the 3-D market from exploitation films like this one to serious movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial “M” for Murder (which actually was shot in 3-D, though once the early fad was followed by an intense backlash that made “3-D” box-office poison it wasn’t released that way until 1982, when a surviving 3-D print had a special week-long exhibition in L.A.) and George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (though doing that in 3-D was never more than a vague intention; as 3-D’s popularity evaporated while CinemaScope’s burgeoned, Jack Warner switched the movie over to widescreen, originally trying it in his in-house “WarnerScope” process but eventually licensing CinemaScope when it turned out he couldn’t get his own anamorphic lenses ground in time).

As an exploitation of 3-D, House of Wax is quite good — even though every time I’ve seen it since 1971 it’s been “flat” (and I was disappointed when Warner Home Video put both it and Mystery of the Wax Museum out on DVD but didn’t give us the 3-D version of House of Wax); director André de Toth (who ironically had only one eye and therefore couldn’t see the film in 3-D himself) effectively stages the action, having the characters heave a few things at the camera in the course of fighting each other and including the novelty sequence in which the barker at Professor Henry Jarrod’s (Vincent Price) wax museum bounces paddleballs at the audience (that was great fun to watch in 3-D!), but he mostly gives us a straightforward-looking movie and doesn’t go overboard with the dimensional effects.

The problem is that Crane Wilbur, who rewrote Charles Belden’s original story for the remake, took out a lot of the elements that made the original film seem interesting. His biggest mistake was eliminating the reporter character, played memorably in Mystery by Glenda Farrell, who puts together the clues and ultimately figures out that the bodies in the wax museum are actually real corpses dipped in wax by its insane owner (in the earlier version the proprietor was named “Ivan Igor” and was played by Lionel Atwill, a far subtler and less campy actor than Price; and the ingénue who suffers the indignity of almost being bathed in wax because she reminds Igor/Jarrod of his old statue of Marie Antoinette was played by Fay Wray in the second of her three films with Atwill: the others were Doctor X and The Vampire Bat); instead the ingénue, here played by Phyllis Kirk (later the first Mrs. Mort Sahl), more or less stumbles on the truth herself. Without an energetic character like Farrell’s reporter to give the film life and drive, it pretty much stumbles along from one climax to another.

Part of Farrell’s function in the original is given in the remake to Carolyn Jones, who plays a woman who lives in the same boarding house as Kirk and who gets murdered by Jarrod and his equally bonkers assistants, the mute Igor (played by a young and barely recognizable Charles Bronson under his original last name, Bushinsky) and the alcoholic Leon Averill (an uncredited Nedrick Young — he was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and so his Academy Award-winning script for Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones was credited to one “Nathan E. Douglas”), because she resembles Jarrod’s old statue of Joan of Arc. In the original this part was “played” by Monica Bannister, who was never seen as a living character in the movie but who was shown standing stock still in the wax museum as Joan (a lot of the “wax figures” in both films were actually live humans because real wax statues would have melted if exposed too long to the harsh, powerful and very hot lights needed for filming); in this version Jones gets a scene with a sugar daddy she’s hoping will marry her and she’s not only made up in a blonde wig but she’s cooing and delivering her lines in a low-grade imitation of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy style. (Later Phyllis Kirk discovers the truth about her when she lifts the black wig adorning her corpse in the Joan of Arc exhibit and sees her “real” blonde hair underneath — ironic because Carolyn Jones was raven-haired in real life and in her most famous role as Morticia on the TV show The Addams Family.)

House of Wax also suffers from some Production Code-mandated compromises; Averill, a hopeless alcoholic in this version, was a heroin addict in Mystery — and somehow the plot gimmick of the cops getting him to confess by offering him a drink if he does just doesn’t have the power of the original version, in which they offered him a fix — though somehow another Vincent Price movie, Dragonwyck (made in 1946, seven years before House of Wax), managed to escape the usually ironclad Production Code provision against the mere mention of drug addiction. It’s a good movie but the original is just better — better directed (by Michael Curtiz), scripted and acted (Atwill brings to his role something of the demented sincerity of Boris Karloff’s portrayal in The Mummy — both films feature surprisingly moving scenes in which the madmen try to persuade their love interests to let them kill them so they can be “immortalized” in a twisted, life-threatening way — while Price, in the film that “typed” him as a horror star, already shows signs of the campy approach to the genre that later became his trademark), and with marvelous Caligari-esque sets by Anton Grot instead of plain, overly “realistic” ones by Stanley Fleischer.

House of Wax also suffers from the decision to move the action to the 1900’s, which allows the women to wear flattering period costumes but also distances us from the action instead of hurling it in our faces the way the 1930’s setting of the original did. Still, House of Wax is a good movie (and one which would be well worth a theatrical 3-D reissue!); it’s just not as good as the earlier version. — 11/1/10