House of Wax-1953
Director-Andre De Toth
Starring-Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk
Scott’s Review #1,081
Reviewed November 13, 2020
House of Wax (1953) is a classic horror film that should be watched by anyone with a fondness for the genre as the macabre elements make it a must-see. Be sure to watch the 1953 version and not the mediocre 2005 remake that starred Paris Hilton with a severely changed storyline. Interestingly, the 1950’s version is a remake of a 1933 film named Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I was not aware of until recently. Pre-code 1930’s horror is brilliant, so I cannot wait to watch this offering soon.
The production has the honor of being the first color 3-D film released by a major film studio and the result is stylish and impressive for that early in cinema. If this isn’t enough, the incomparable Vincent Price also has the starring role. With these riches, one could anticipate a masterpiece like Frankenstein (1931) or King Kong (1933). It’s not quite on that level with a B-movie vibe but rises immensely in respectability with exquisite human art, a chilling premise, and a lesson in historical figures of long ago. The film is a very short eighty-eight minutes.
The haunting and atmospheric opening titles, to immediately showcase the 3-D, appear in the first shot, alongside a rainy and dreary New York City set. The time is the early 1900’s. Director, Andre De Toth makes clear to his audience that it’s a 3-D film with the bold title leaping out of the screen within seconds. This sets the tone perfectly as the illustrious wax museum set is up next. Wax creations like Marie Antoinette, John Wilkes Booth, and Joan of Arc pose in the vast gallery.
Henry Jarrod (Price) is a Professor who views his creations as his children, each unique and human-like to him. Marie is his ultimate masterpiece and one wonders if she is his fantasy wife. His business partner, Burke (Roy Roberts) wants out of their partnership and goes to drastic measures to gain insurance money. He sets fire to the museum which burns to the ground, horribly disfiguring Henry. The Professor goes off the deep end and rebuilds the museum using real human beings that he steals from the morgue! Frankenstein’s influence is obvious.
Other than Price, the star of the film is the wax museum, almost a character, but never upstages Price. Henry is both sympathetic and menacing, and I felt sorry for the guy. Not only is his house of wax destroyed, but he has a disfigured face for life. His insurance policy benefit is of little comfort, nor is killing the man responsible for his misfortune.
I guess we are supposed to root for Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) and Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni), who are the main couple, and attempt to solve the mystery of why the wax figures look like dead people they know. They are not the strongest element of the film, though. Like other famous horror villains Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, Henry is appealing, and we like him.
I would have liked to learn more about Henry before his ruination. Besides a brief tour of his museum, where he cleverly describes each work, we don’t know much about his life. He is creepy, but what else? Has he ever married? What are his parents like?
Charles Bronson and Carolyn Jones have small roles as Henry’s mute assistant Igor and Burke’s gold-digging girlfriend, Cathy, respectively. This is fun since both went on to legendary careers in film and television.
A must-see for anyone studying cinematic technique or good horror trimmings, House of Wax (1953) contains state-of-the-art effects for the time, illuminating gas-lit streets of New York City, and a finale that includes a boiling hot vat of molten wax (what else!) that clearly inspired a James Bond film. These facets are nice, but any horror film starring Vincent Price is worth the price of admission.