Henry Jerrod is a rare bird, a wax figure sculptor of aesthetic refinement and class, though maybe a wee bit eccentric. Desiring insurance money, his callous philistine business partner Matthew Burke burns down their museum with Jerrod trapped inside. Assumed dead, the sculptor survives but as a murderous wretch who repopulates his new museum with wax-coated corpses.
It’s a tale befitting the desperate desire of early ‘50s Hollywood to fill theater seats emptied by television, the newfangled device having cut the movie-going audience in half; in response came widescreen and stereoscopic 3D, innovations still with us today. Of course House of Wax utilized the latter of the two developments, though due to myriad 2D “flat” screenings since the flick is now just as often thought of as a star vehicle for Vincent Price.
The actor was previously terrific in Otto Preminger’s Laura, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck, John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven and Samuel Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona, but even though he’d appeared in horror films prior it was really House of Wax that resulted in Price’s genre typecasting. And he’s outstanding as Jerrod, exuding eloquence that’s never hammy in stark contrast with his disfigured victim turned villainous.
Elsewhere, Phyllis Kirk is appealing as the female lead, Carolyn Jones plays Burke’s fiancé with comedic relish before getting bumped off/waxed-up, and Frank Lovejoy and especially Dabbs Greer solidly embody their roles as detectives; a young and gangly muscular Charles Bronson conjures an oddness intensified by the non-speaking nature of his part.
3D was the gimmick however, and it took a true artist to utilize it expressively while retaining the sensationalist facets desired by Warner Brothers. André de Toth, a key auteur of the old school known for his quirky noirs and westerns and for having lost an eye, a malady leaving him unable to see in three dimensions, was recruited for the job.
De Toth’s direction is simply essential to the film’s success; 3D stunts are certainly in evidence, and many of them work surprisingly and admirably well. I frankly dug Bronson coming out of the front row and can’t deny enjoying the screen-filling music hall derrière, but honestly would’ve been happy with a little less paddleball.
House of Wax’s most impressive aspect of lay in how these jump thrills transcend general artistic bankruptcy through their integration into de Toth’s disciplined visual scheme, with the mise-en-scène possessing an immersive quality that lingers and lends distinctiveness to the quieter moments of the story.
The narrative, borrowed from Michael Curtiz’s 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum (notably the last fiction film in two-strip Technicolor as House of Wax was the first 3D movie in color) is enjoyable though far from scary. Instead it toys around with the idea of scary (with perhaps a smidge too much humor), an unsurprising tactic as the goal was to pack as many adults and children into the theater as lawfully permitted by the fire code.
The combination of Gothic-lite atmosphere and the museum’s sideshow sensibility blends marvelously with the carnival attraction aspect of the 3D visuals, de Toth and his cast and crew generating a uniquely cinematic experience. No other 3D film I’ve watched, not even splendid auteur-driven counterparts like Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (still hoping to one day see Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury and Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise) unspools quite like House of Wax; finally seeing it as intended was a revelation.