HOUSE OF WAX - DVD review

...the film is still a crowd pleaser, its dusky shadows, turn-of-the-century setting, menacing villain, and bizarre museum as creepy as ever.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

The year 1953 was pretty scary for me. First, I was frightened by Martin and Lewis in "Scared Stiff," but only momentarily; and then I was frightened by "House of Wax," semi-permanently. I was in third grade.

The Martin and Lewis film was a comedy, and it was the only the last few minutes that startled me. But "House of Wax" terrified me all the way through, and I couldn't go into a wax museum for the next decade without wondering if there weren't dead bodies under the wax. In fact, I wouldn't go into a wax museum at all for the next decade. Even today the thought of a wax museum conjures up memories of that movie.

Of course, "House of Wax" being in 3-D helped, too. It was the first movie in three-dimension I ever saw, and it's still the biggest 3-D moneymaker of the period. My family drove all the way to Oakland, CA, to see it at the Paramount Theater, where we sat with the little cardboard glasses perched on our noses and watched as things almost literally flew out of the screen at us. Combine the horrors of a creepy old setting, a scarred and deformed maniac, and human bodies under wax, and I couldn't sleep by myself for days afterwards.

A couple of years ago I recommended to Warner Brothers that they might sell a ton of these things if they issued "House of Wax" on a double-sided disc with the 3-D version on one side and the regular 2-D version on the other. After all, it has been the relatively blurry state of normal television viewing that has prevented the old 3-D process from showing up well on the small screen. But I figured the better resolution of DVD would be a perfect medium for showing 3-D, and the disc case would be ideal for storing a few pairs of 3-D glasses. Warner Brothers politely acknowledged my recommendation and finally issued this double-sided disc with "House of Wax" on one side and the movie it was based on, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" from 1933, on the other. Well, at least the disc is two-sided.

"House of Wax":
After years of playing straight dramatic roles in Hollywood, Vincent Price started on his way to becoming a horror-movie legend with "House of Wax." Of course, it would still be a few more years until "The Fly," but "House of Wax" was his real start. In it, he plays a genius sculptor in wax, Professor Henry Jarrod, who is driven insane when his partner burns down their gallery of wax creations for the insurance money. Horribly disfigured in the blaze and mad for revenge, the professor sets up a new wax museum, this time using the dead bodies of his murder victims beneath the waxy glaze. Scenes of real-life crime and violence are exhibited while they're still fresh in the public mind.

Dressed in black with a hat pulled down over his face, it's easy to see where Sam Raimi got his "Darkman" inspiration. Also in the story are Phyllis Kirk as Sue Allen, a young woman who becomes suspicious of the professor when her roommate, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), is murdered and then turns up as a wax figure in Jarrod's exhibition. Allen's boyfriend, a sculptor named Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni) helps with the investigation, as does a policeman, Lt. Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy). You'll even find a very young Charles Bronson (listed in the credits as Charles Buchinsky) as Igor, a deaf mute, one of the professor's ominous assistants.

The Warner Bros. movie was based on an earlier WB film, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" from 1933. But this time, WB wanted not only to one-up but two-up itself. First, they made the film in the brand-new 3-D process, dubbed "Natural Vision," and, second, they used stereo sound. If they waited another year, they could have done it in widescreen, too, which was just introduced about the time the film was in production. In any case, the evidences of 3-D are still prominent throughout the movie, although not in 3-D anymore. The most famous scene is one of a man advertising the opening of Jarrod's new House of Wax by banging away on elastic-tethered paddle balls in front of the building. Needless to say, the fellow would often aim the balls right at the movie audience, and in 3-D you'd see viewers actually duck their heads! There are also many other things flying through the air--falling bodies, kicking and dancing legs, and feet shooting out all over the place--as well as several young ladies in tight corsets whose upper torsos protrude invitingly outward.

As a whole, the film is still a crowd pleaser, its dusky shadows, turn-of-the-century setting, menacing villain, and bizarre museum as creepy as ever. And the film's climax in the bowels of the darkened House of Wax remains a fiendish delight. Expect no blood or gore, however, nor few outright shocks. The film relies largely on atmosphere for its frights.

"Mystery of the Wax Museum":
Controversy will always continue about which movie version of Charles Belden's play is more effective, the 1933 rendering or the later 3-D version. "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is set at the time of its making rather than at the turn-of-the-century, taking away a little of the period mood; but it has more strikingly frightening sets, many of them, especially those of the museum's basement, displaying marked elements of German Expressionism in their design.

Both films follow the same general outline, the opening sequence in the two films being almost identical. The professor this time is named Ivan Igor and played Lionel Atwell, who played a whole string of nefarious characters in the thirties and forties. Although Atwell doesn't seem quite as sinister as Price, he's got a great speaking voice. The biggest difference between the movies is in the lead female character. Instead of the relatively helpless young lady of the later film, this older one features a breezy, fast-talking, hard-drinking newspaperwoman named Flo Dempsey, played by Glenda Farrell. In this regard, the movie's quick-paced dialogue makes it a combination "Front Page" and "Frankenstein," representing two genres picking up steam in the early thirties.

Others in the cast include Fay Wray as Flo's friend and neighbor, Duncan Charlotte, whom the professor wants to cast as his next Marie Antoinette; dead, naturally. Ms. Wray would shortly become even better known in "King Kong" the same year. And Frank McHugh plays Flo's hard-edged, wisecracking editor, Jimmy. The director, by the way, was Michael Curtiz, who would go on to fame and glory with "Captain Blood," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Casablanca" and a host of other big-name pictures. He moves "Mystery of the Wax Museum" along in commendable fashion, but I wish he had excised some of the characters, who tend to clutter up so short a film.

Video:
Presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.37:1, edged minutely to 1.33:1 to fit a standard television screen, "House of Wax" in 2-D displays well-balanced WarnerColor. Hues are rich and bright and mostly natural. Unfortunately, the screen also displays an uncommon amount of grain, particularly in nighttime scenes, which are frequent. I applied the highest degree of DNR (Sony's Dynamic Noise Reduction) and mitigated the problem somewhat, but the grain was still noticeable. Most of it, no doubt, can be attributable to the print, some of it perhaps to the transfer, and some again to the original 3-D process, I don't know.

"Mystery of the Wax Museum," using an early, two-strip Technicolor process, doesn't have anywhere near the brilliance of its remake, yet because it conveys less grain it's actually easier on the eyes. For so old a film in color, the detail is remarkably good, if a bit soft and smooth (read blurred, if you like), so be prepared for dull, almost mono-toned color.

Audio:
"House of Wax" used stereo in what was called at the time "Warner-Sonic 3-D," obviously a promotional gimmick to tie the sound in with the three-dimensional image. Its most conspicuous feature today is its noise. The background noise is really quite high, noisier than I can remember hearing from any major studio release in years. How much of this noise can be attributed to the early stereo reproduction, and why Warner Bros. didn't apply at least a little noise reduction to the disc are questions we might well ask. Anyway, in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, the dynamics are good, and the stereo spread is reasonably wide for so old a film; there's even some rear-channel sound that makes its way to the back speakers on occasion. One advantage of two-channel sound, incidentally, is that voices will often move back and forth realistically across the sound stage with the movements of the actors, rather than always being centered as in so many new DD 5.1 releases. A disadvantage of straight two-channel sound, however, is that unless you're centered yourself between the two front speakers, voices will not always maintain their proper positions. Nothing is easy.

"Mystery of the Wax Museum," needless to say, is in a single-channel monaural. But Dolby Digital helps to clarify the sonics quite a bit, and the movie is much less noisy than its remake. Whilst being clear, however, the older film's sound is also edgier and harsher than "House of Wax" in its loudest passages. Don't expect a lot from either soundtrack.

Extras:
"House of Wax" comes with a pair of extras: a two-minute newsreel, "Round the Clock Première: Coast Hails House of Wax," featuring a load of Hollywood stars attending the movie's opening, and a theatrical trailer. Otherwise, there are thirty scene selections for the eighty-eight minute "House of Wax" and twenty-five scene selections for the seventy-seven minute "Mystery of the Wax Museum." English, French, and Spanish are provided as spoken language options, with English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese for subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
Considering that "House of Wax" was one of Warner Brothers' biggest, most-lavish productions of the early 1950s, the studio's audiovisual treatment of the movie on this DVD seems awfully shabby. When the sound quality of the twenty-year older "Mystery of the Wax Museum" surpasses the newer version in quietness and the video of the older film offers less grain, one has to wonder if Warner Bros. made the right decision allowing the public to note the differences.

In any case, both films are fun, but as a camp classic "House of Wax" would have benefited from being seen in its original 3-D. Alas, some things are not to be. I suppose having both horror films on the same bill is entertainment enough, and we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
5
Extras
3
Film Value
7