On April 25 1953, Warner Bros Studios released House of Wax. It was the first Hollywood color film to use 3-D technology. Additionally, it marked Vincent Price’s first foray into the horror genre, paving the way for what would become a legendary career. Its story of a brilliant wax sculptor, driven mad by betrayal and disfigurement, who uses real human bodies to create his wax figures horrified audiences in the 1950’s.
Sixty-five years later, House of Wax is still embraced by critics and older horror fans as an atmospheric classic of its era. For this edition of Re-Animated I take a look at the original horror classic and the inevitable remake that followed 52 years later.
House of Wax (1953) Still Terrifies
A box office hit for Warner Bros Studios, House of Wax marked an interesting transition for the horror genre. By the late 1940s, the Gothic Monsters of Universal Studios had been replaced by the atomic monsters and alien invaders of the 1950s. With its 1890’s New York setting and winding, shadowy streets, House of Wax embraced Gothic horror while its deformed, tragic killer anticipated the human monsters that films like Psycho would later popularize.
With its 1890’s New York setting and winding, shadowy streets, House of Wax embraced Gothic horror while its deformed, tragic killer anticipated the human monsters that films like Psycho would later popularize.
Director Andre DeToth created a taunt, atmospheric horror film that made full use of its Gothic setting and haunting wax figures. The disfigured Jarrod’s pursuit of Phyllis Kirk’s Sue Allen through dimly lit New York streets still can still elicit suspense. DeToth’s choice to reveal the killer’s scarred face so early in the film reduces some the shock of the climatic final reveal, but it still delivers an appropriately dramatic punch. As the first colorized Hollywood film to employ 3-D technology, DeToth’s integration of the technique is still surprisingly good. Whether it’s a street performer launching a paddle ball at the audience or a killer’s shadow running out of the screen, the 3-D in House of Wax feels fun and innovative.
One of the most significant aspects of House of Wax was its introduction of Vincent Price to the horror genre. Prior to the release of House of Wax, Price’s Hollywood career was in decline. Despite finding some early success with supporting roles, Price had yet to find a breakout starring role. Following the success of House of Wax, Price would go on to enjoy a long, successful career in horror films including The House on Haunted Hill and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Today he is rightly considered a horror icon by critics and fans alike.
House of Wax (2005) – A Different Attraction
First, Jaume Collet-Serra’s House of Wax is not really a remake of the Vincent Price classic. Aside from retaining the title and concept of a killer transforming victims into wax sculptures, Collet-Serra’s House of Wax feels more like a spiritual remake of obscure 1979 film Tourist Trap. Price’s disfigured, tortured artist is replaced by psychopathic twin brothers turning unsuspecting lost travelers into wax figures in an abandoned rural town. Gothic horror is displaced by a slasher film mentality with a little ‘hillbilly rural horror’ thrown in for good measure.
Gothic horror is displaced by a slasher film mentality with a little “hillbilly rural horror’ thrown in for good measure.
While the 2005 House of Horror was poorly received by critics it’s actually not a terrible film. In fact, Collet-Serra’s distancing of his remake from Price’s House of Wax by adopting slasher film tropes was probably a smart decision. Even in 2018 the original film holds up quite well and is rightly considered a classic. Collet-Serra also has an eye for staging effective thrillers with a filmography that includes The Shallows, The Commuter, and Orphan.
Like most remakes, a do-over of House of Wax was a bad idea but Collet-Serra commits to his film and goes all in with the concept. Slasher film fans will get exactly what they expect out of this remake. It’s a slickly made horror film with a few good jumps and some surprisingly effective death scenes. Watching a character trying to peel wax off of an encased, still-living victim, is particularly gruesome. In addition, the killers’ “creation” of their living wax figure also deliver on the creepy factor. In fact, across the remake, the set designs in the abandoned town far exceed expectations for this type of film.
To be clear, the House of Wax remake is more aptly described as a “guilty pleasure” rather than a “good” horror film. It’s largely generic, from its slasher plot points to the casting of “young”, “attractive”, and “it” actors from the time period. Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, and Jared Padalecki are all fine in their roles, delivering performances that are better than what you would normally find in this type of film. Even Paris Hilton is fine, turning in exactly what is expected of her role.
Perhaps the biggest complaint about the House of Wax remake is its length. The film clocks in at just under two hours. There is nothing about House of Wax that justifies that kind of run-time and, ultimately, it hurts the pacing and suspense. For its opening 40 to 45 minutes, House of Wax is a bit of a slag to sit through.
The Original House of Wax is Still Worth the Price of Admission
Younger horror fans will probably gravitate towards the remake, which is unfortunate. The original House of Wax is still worth the price of admission – it’s a tightly paced, genuinely suspense film with a fun premise. That being said, the 2005 remake is far from a terrible film. While it doesn’t offer much new to the slasher film formula, it takes all the usual tropes executes them with some visual flair. The 2005 House of Wax has all the hallmarks of a “guilty pleasure”.