There’s a saying that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. No one would have expected that a one-eyed man could become the king of 3D. But that’s exactly what happened with House Of Wax. The film has become one of the definitive films in the 3D format. To look at it on Blu-ray now, it holds up quite nicely in a day where 3D has become almost passé. Still, it’s hard to believe that Warner Brothers would choose a man with only one eye to shoot their 3D film. That man was Andre’ De Toth, and he was at the forefront of 3D filmmaking. He had written a 1946 article on the potential of the format, and it’s likely what got him the job. The result is a horror cinematic masterpiece.
Vincent Price plays Henry Jarrod, co-owner and the genius behind a small wax museum. His figures are so lifelike that patrons almost expect them to reach out and touch them. Unfortunately, the public mind has drifted to the macabre, and the museum is losing money. Jarrod considers the figures to be real enough that he has developed a fatherly love for them, particularly that of his Marie Antoinette. Business partner Matthew Burke (Roberts) has a different feeling for the museum pieces. They are worth more to him burned in a fire for the insurance money. Unable to convince Jarrod, he burns the museum down along with Jarrod.
Jarrod survives and resurfaces years later about to start a new museum with a more friendly backer. But his hands are burned to the point he is no longer able to create his lifelike figures. Some of the work is done by students like Igor, played by a young (and mute) Charles Bronson. He has other ways to reproduce his favorite Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette figures along with others. He takes to murder and using the bodies, covering them in wax to create perfect likenesses. First it’s starlet Cathy Gray, played by The Addams Family‘s Morticia, Carolyn Jones. She coincidentally looks exactly like his Joan of Arc. Her friend Sue Allen (Kirk) happens to look like his beloved Antoinette. Sue is also very suspicious of the Gray/Joan resemblance. Now she’s scheduled as Jarrod’s next figure.
House Of Wax is an almost shot for shot remake of the 1933 Mystery Of The Wax Museum. That film was itself groundbreaking as one of the earliest horror films to be made in color. It starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray in the same year she would face King Kong. Except for the addition of a woman news reporter who makes the unhappy discovery, the staging and even the dialog are often identical.
The 3D work is exceptional even by today’s standards. Most of the film relies on the method to add depth. It’s this depth that really brings the startling wax figures to life so well. Of course, Toth did enjoy a few gimmick moments that were likely demanded by the executives at Warner Brothers. A paddleball exhibition is the most obvious. You’ll find it both before and after the intermission. The second is more clever. Charles Bronson appears to be sitting in the theater front row and jumps up. It’s as if he’s entered the motion picture from the audience. It’s one of the neatest 3D tricks I’ve ever seen.
You may have noticed the word intermission in that last part. Yes, this 88-minute film does indeed have a 10-minute intermission. While it does not last the full 10 minutes, the intermission card is included in this version. The film was projected with the use of two projectors running at the same time. Most theaters only had two projectors, so there could not be a seamless reel change, thus a short intermission to allow for the cumbersome change.
It’s not just the 3D that makes the film so special. It was the earliest horror film to be presented in stereo sound. Actually, it was really an early version of the surround sound we enjoy today. In addition to the stereo tracks there was a rear track called a scream track that made it appear as if the film’s screams were coming from a member of the audience behind you. It was called Warnerphonic sound and actually cost more for theaters to reproduce at the time than the 3D did. How cool it must have been to see the film in 1953 in all of that “high” tech glory. This release certainly comes the closest.
The movie also works because of the brilliant performance of Vincent Price, and his fans can thank this film for his wonderful horror career. The studio wanted Boris Karloff in the role, and I’m sure he would have been just as wonderful. But then we might never have had Price in the many horror classics that would follow. Price was considering a career in theater at the time and was at a crossroads. We’re all thankful he took the film. Not only because of the presence he brought here but for The Tingler, House On Haunted Hill, the Dr. Phibes movies and all of those wonderful Poe AIP films that followed. Price was quite an expert on the subject of art and was a bit of a dabbler in art himself. He once considered a career in teaching the subject. Who knows how much of that art knowledge and appreciation added authenticity to Jarrod? Price also brings a unique air of aristocracy to his role. His characters are just as evil, but they always carried themselves with that certain touch of class.
For much of House Of Wax, Price is in the brilliant makeup of George Bau. His brother Gordon actually received the screen credit because he was running the department for Warner at the time. But it was George who came up with the convoluted look of the burned Jarrod. Wes Craven credits the makeup here for partly inspiring the look of Freddy Kruger. George invented the foam rubber that has been used for decades on Hollywood. He was certainly Warner’s version of Jack Pearce. The effect is startling enough that we forgive the fact that it is revealed later to be a hard wax covering that somehow Jarrod manages to manipulate like genuine skin. If the film has a flaw, it’s this Phantom Of The Opera moment that can’t be near as shocking to us as Eric was because we’ve already seen the horrible deformed face quite a bit throughout the movie.
House Of Wax is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p 3D image is arrived at with a duel MVC codec at an average 30/18 mbps. Fortunately, the DNR guys didn’t get crazy here. The grain is intact and actually enhances the 3D image. The film pops with reds particularly. It’s part of an atmospheric style that would later be so well defined by Hammer Studios. There are few artifacts from the aged print, and the image looks far better than its 60 years might imply. Black levels are a little uneven, but you can still make out the images in shadow just fine. It’s crucial for the Bronson jumping-out-of-the-audience gag. Most importantly, it looks exactly like I remembered it. This one holds up quite well.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is faithful to the original material. The score has some rather dynamic moments, and dialog is just fine. There is no hiss or distortion that often plague older films. You can hear the short breaths that Phyllis Kirk takes as she’s being prepped for her date with immortality.
Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933)
Behind The Scenes – House Of Wax Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before: (48:23) HD Film gurus like Joe Donte, Martin Scorsese and Wes Craven help to tell the film’s story. They also talk about seeing it for the first time and its influence on their careers.
Vintage Premier Footage: (2:16) It’s unfortunately silent. Ronald and Nancy Reagan attended the film’s premiere.
I was fortunate enough to share the screening with a friend who happens to be as enthusiastic as I for these classic pictures. I had never seen it in this form of 3D before. The best I had gotten was a blue/red version that just doesn’t live up to the original process. You just can’t call yourself a horror fan if this one doesn’t end up on your video shelf. I can promise you this: “You never saw a show like this in Provincetown!”