Vincent Price (Professor Henry Jarrod), Phyllis Kirk (Sue Allen), Paul Picerni (Scott Andrews), Frank Lovejoy (Lieutenant Brennan), Paul Cavanagh (Sidney Wallace), Charles Buchinsky [Bronson] (Igor), Roy Roberts (Matthew Burke), Ned Young (Leon Averill)
Director – Andre de Toth, Screenplay – Crane Wilbur, Based on the Play The Mystery of the Wax Museum by Charles Belden, Producer – Bryan Foy, Photography (3-D) – Bert Glennon & Peverell Marley, Music – David Buttolph, Makeup – Gordon Bau, Art Direction – Stanley Fleischer. Production Company – Warners. USA. 1953.
In 1952 Arch Oboler’s film Bwana Devil (based on the same story that would later be produced as The Ghost and Darkness), and starring Robert Stack, became a surprise box office sensation spawning a short-lived spate of several dozen movies shot in 3-D. The process required that audience members wear special glasses in order to witness the three dimensional thrills promised such as “a lion in your lap.” Although there were many very good 3-D films, most of them were forgettable, offering nothing more than the visual gimmick and these motion pictures killed off the novelty as much as the various problems with the process, which were mostly on the exhibition end.
Over the years 3-D has periodically re-surfaced either as one-shot endeavors — The Stewardesses, The Mask, Arch Oboler’s The Bubble – or even a full fledged trend as it did in the 1980s when several movies — Jaws 3-D, Friday the 13th 3-D, Amityville Horror 3-D, among others — were shot in the process. Lately, a new 3-D trend, sporting vastly improved technology, has gained momentum with special 3-D versions of The Polar Express, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Beowulf and Journey to the Center of the Earth along with special sections of films like Superman Returns and Spiderman 3 converted to the process. It would seem the time is ripe to re-examine one of the greatest of all 3-D motion pictures, the 1953 Warner Bros. production House of Wax.
In dollars adjusted for inflation House of Wax is the box office champ of 3-D movies, accruing a blockbusting $250 million in ticket sales. In many ways this is not surprising as the film is not only a spectacular showcase for the 3-D but an extremely well thought out and crafted piece of cinematic entertainment. It has influenced a couple of other wax museum films like Nightmare in Wax and Chamber of Horrors not to mention getting it’s own remake in 2005.
House of Wax was a remake of an earlier Warner Bros. Hit, the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum which starred character actor Lionel Atwill and King Kong’s leading lady Fay Wray. This earlier film was famous as one of the relatively rare two-color Technicolor sound productions and for a certain pre-code grisliness that would disappear once the Catholic Legion of Decency pressured Will Hay’s to enforce the Motion Picture Production Code.
The story, based on Charles Belden’s play, concerned a London sculptor who manages a financially strapped wax museum that features recreations of historical figures. When his partner tries to burn down the showcase, the artiste presumably dies in the fire. Shortly afterwards, the sculptor pops up in New York with a new museum and seemingly none the worse for his experiences. However, as the story progresses, we learn that he is unable to create new masterpieces due to injuries received in the fire. Instead, he must find human replicas who, after giving their lives for his art, can be displayed in his museum as wax figures. Elements of this story have given rise to other films such as A Bucket of Blood in which a sculptor similarly uses corpses covered with modeling clay to achieve his goals.
House of Wax, set in the gaslight era and with a script by Crane Wilbur, hews closely to the original story. Vincent Price plays Prof. Henry Jarrod, a gentle artist interested in the creative expression of his work and the lifelike qualities of his creations that make them real people for him. When his partner (Roy Roberts) attempts to burn down the museum, Jarrod seems to perish in the conflagration. But not long after he is back at work busily preparing to open a new museum, this time with a more commercial focus centering on sensationalized representations of famous murderers and murder victims.
Meanwhile, a horribly disfigured man wearing a cloak and opera hat prowls the streets of New York City. He kills flighty Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones, the lovely Morticia on TV’s The Addams Family) but is scared away by her roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Later, her body is stolen from the morgue and an incredible likeness of her turns up as Joan of Arc in Jarrod’s museum. Noticing the similarity, Sue is pursued by the misshapen, hunched over killer in a particularly effective foot chase through the deserted, fog enshrouded streets of London. Sue eventually finds herself in the clutches of Jarrod as he plots to use her for his ultimate version of Marie Antoinette. Only by dint of her boyfriend Scott (Paul Picerni) and the police, Lt. Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy) and Sgt. Jim Shane (Dabbs Greer), does she escape being immortalized under a covering of hot wax.
The movie was directed by Andre De Toth, who, like another director, Raoul Walsh, only had one eye. Yet, lacking the ability to see three dimensions, De Toth, with cinematographers Bert Glennon and J. Peverell Marley, created a motion picture that most perfectly captures the thrills and possibilities of the process.
The aforementioned street chase makes terrific use of depth by shooting down narrow, fog choked, night time streets. Fog and smoke are especially effective in 3-D movies because they often appear to permeate the air in the theater, often hanging over the heads of the audience. De Toth’s blocking of the actors is also perceptive, the director having them run from downstage to upstage and bringing them into close-up or mid-shot, their closeness to the camera emphasizing the distance behind them.
There are two particularly startling uses of 3-D in the movie. One is a rather obvious breaking of the fourth wall as a street barker (Reggie Rymal), attired in tux, tails, hat and white gloves attracts customers to the museum not only through his loud, incessant spiel but also by dexterous trick work with some paddle ball toys. You’ve seen these, the wooden paddle with a rubber ball attached to it by an elastic band. You hit the ball and the elastic band pulls it back to the paddle for another whack. The barker skillfully lobs the balls directly at the camera keeping them within the frame. This is vital to the success of 3-D effects emerging from the screen because should they pass any of the four corners of the frame they immediately appear to be inside the frame rather than out in the auditorium. Many potentially good 3-D effects have been spoiled by this failure to keep objects firmly within the borders of the frame. The illusion in this case is that the balls are coming out of the screen and stopping at the rear of the seat in front of you.
The other example is arguably the most spectacular 3-D effect ever. Late in the picture Scott rushes to the aid of Sue. He reaches a door which he must break open to reach her. My own experience of this scene, echoed by others who enjoyed the same illusion, began when a man stood up in front of me. I leaned around this black silhouette to continue watching the movie. Fortunately, the rude theater patron moved off to the right down his row of seats. In my peripheral vision I was vaguely aware that instead of going to the back of the theater, perhaps to get some refreshments, the man instead moved towards the front of the theater. In fact, he ran down the aisle towards the screen and leapt into the picture. He immediately emerged into the light, attacking Scott and revealing himself to be Jarrod’s mute henchman Igor (Charles Bronson, then billed as Buchinsky). The nearly full house let out a collective, “Whoa!” in astonishment. I sat through the movie three times in order to enjoy this magnificent illusion. Unfortunately, it only works in movie theaters when you are sitting well to the left of an aisle.
The world of horror fandom has often debated whether or not the audience was meant to connect the horribly burned murderer with Vincent Price. Many find it inconceivable that audiences of the day would not have figured out the “twist” almost immediately. In hindsight, the presence of Mr. Price would no doubt tip off an audience, but in 1953 he had not yet acquired a reputation as a horror actor. That would come later. It’s safe to say that some would have figured it out, but many other viewers would only guess that Price was the monster from having seen the original film.
Frankly, since I think the film was structured as a friendly horror film, nothing more than a cinematic version of a carnival haunted house, knowing the identity of the killer doesn’t detract one bit from the film as entertainment. Which is to say that the filmmakers didn’t want to make it too rough on the audience, in contrast to some horror films of today which become a near endurance test. It’s supposed to be a fun movie. Therefore, the scares are only momentarily shocking or scary, the moody lighting and spooky music (by David Buttolph) meant to provide safe thrills and fun chills, like those on a roller coaster ride.
Price’s make-up (by George Bau) is quite grisly, to be sure, but the rest of the movie is very light in tone. First, there is Carolyn Jones’ insistently perky character, a likeable young woman on the prowl for a husband or, at least, a sugar daddy. She doesn’t speak so much as chirp. And she is perennially upbeat.
With Jones we see a second facet of this motion picture. It weaves details of turn of the century living into the fabric of its story. For instance, one key scene demonstrates, much like a similar scene in Gone With The Wind, the difficulties and mechanics of getting into a corset. Jones’ philosophy also reflects real concerns of a woman in her time. Another “learning” moment for the audience occurs when a citizen blows a police whistle and then explains he blew it to call the police.
And the film is strewn with moments guaranteed to keep the proceedings light and frothy. Price’s tours of the museum are clearly conducted in a tongue-in-cheek manner, Price all but winking at the audience. There is running gag with some women who tend to get “the vapors” or swoon rather easily, either by some suggested horror in the museum or just watching the paddle ball barker pop three of the rubber orbs into his mouth. The barker himself is a garish touch that tends to remind the viewer that they’re watching a movie. As if 3-D wasn’t enough of a fourth wall breaker, the barker, looking into the camera at us, even warns us to watch our popcorn as he fires a paddle ball volley right between our eyes.
More humorous uses of 3-D involve Charles Bronson‘s character Igor. At one point in the film, Sue is watched by a row of mute wax heads. When she moves away one of the head moves — it’s Igor, the real mute, not a replica of his head. (This “surprise” really doesn’t work in 3-D. Because of the depth the viewer can tell that the Igor head is set further back from the other heads and is actually behind the shelf unit.) And at the end of the film, accompanied by comical music, a replica of his head is thrust at the camera.
Oh, yes, House of Wax has its creepy moments. Price, in his make-up as the disfigured monster chasing Kirk through the streets is suspenseful and exciting. The scene in the morgue, Price crossing the rooftops to invade Kirk’s bedroom at night, killing Roy Roberts in his office, and the famous unmasking scene all work their magic in producing goosebumps. David Buttolph’s score, originally heard in four track stereo sound, aids immeasurably in aiding and sustaining the mood, his music a symphony of madness with its distinctive, high pitched trills (and much in need of a CD release). It is this dynamic between humor and horror that gives House of Wax a unique tone.
Some complain that this lightness interferes with the horror, preferring the more straight forward horror of the original film. However, the original had its own share of humor in the bickering banter between reporters Florence (Glenda Farrell) and Joe (Frank McHugh) and the newer film reminds us of these hardened, cynical reporters in the hardened, cynical cop played by Dabbs Greer. True, the humor is more pronounced in the latter film, but it is the expert weaving of the two elements, along with its excellent 3-D, that has made House of Wax a popular favorite for over fifty years. Perhaps it’s time for a reissue using the new, improved technology?
Meanwhile, House of Wax is available on Warner Bros. DVD. One release included the original Mystery of the Wax Museum as a bonus. In Japan, a sequential 3-D version was available on video.
REVIEW: Ryan Brenan
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks
REVIEW: Ryan Brenan
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks