House of Wax aims low and hits the mark. It has all the gory bloodshed you could ask for and all the right special effects.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

In my experience the two film genre that seem to evoke the most controversy are comedies and horror. They appear to be the kinds of films that viewers are most apt either to love or hate, with little in between, which is no surprise considering that laughter and fear are such strong emotions. Understandably, these genres are also the ones most likely to evoke passionate reader response to a positive or negative review: "Why did you like that?" or "How could you not have liked such-and-such?" I mention this at the outset because of the history of "House of Wax" and the varied responses there have been to the many films of that title over the years.

Disregarding for the moment some inferior fare like "Midnight at the Wax Museum" (1936), "Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum" (1940), "Nightmare in Wax" (1969), and "Terror in the Wax Museum" (1973), the first serious wax-museum horror film was WB's "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), with Lionel Atwill as a sculptor in wax who became horribly disfigured in a fire and crippled for life. He resorted to reopening his wax museum using real corpses under the wax, going so far as to murder several people for their bodies. A wonderfully creepy premise. Warner Bros. remade the film in 1953 as "House of Wax," starring Vincent Price, and it had two results: It became the most popular 3-D movie ever made, and, after seeing it as a child, it kept me awake at night for weeks. I still can't visit a wax museum without wondering if maybe, just possibly, under the wax.... Nahhh.

With the film's distinguished background and with today's CGI special effects capable of reproducing virtually anything on the screen, is it any wonder the Warner Bros. studios were tempted to try their luck again? Unfortunately, they only had a title this time and not enough story.

The two previous WB wax-museum films I mentioned were based on fairly preposterous premises, to be sure, but they were at least credible within their own right. There was nothing impossible about the idea of crazed sculptors killing people and covering their bodies in wax; it's an unpleasant idea, surely, repulsive and scary, but it's not completely out of the realm of believability. In the new "House of Wax" we get a similar premise but carried to such extremes that it's hard to suspend disbelief. And bowing to the cinematic whims of our day, the premise is updated with a group of college kids lost in the woods, making the tale a sort of "Mystery of the Wax Museum Meets Friday the 13th." If it weren't done so straight, it might have made a fairly amusing spoof.

Here's the deal: Six college students from Florida decide to take a road trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a football game. The drive will take them all night, and they plan on driving straight through. But somewhere along the way, just before sunset, they are forced to take a detour off the main road and into the woods. Eventually, they decide to pull over and camp for the evening, but the next morning they find one of their two vehicles with a broken fan belt, so several of them make their way to the small town of Ambrose for help. There, all hell breaks loose when they discover almost nobody living in the seemingly placid and well-ordered place. In the center of town is a "House of Wax," a building made completely of wax--the walls, the doors, the furniture, and the people.

OK, you've probably already guessed what's going on and what's going to happen to our little band of merrymakers. After a decent buildup, the movie turns about halfway through into a typically violent slasher flick, with little but chase-and-run to keep our interest. As with most of these affairs, the only interesting diversion for the audience is guessing the order of the characters' demise.

Jaume Collet-Serra directed the movie, and his is a name that probably doesn't ring bells with most viewers because before "House of Wax" his work was exclusively in music videos and TV commercials. At least this means Collet-Serra is competent at creating visual images, which is the best thing about the film. The interior of the wax museum is appropriately creepy, and the climactic scene therein is well worth waiting for. However, beyond a few of the visuals, it's business as usual in these affairs, with nary a cliché left untouched.

The young people are all in their mid twenties, handsome and beautiful as the case may be. Funny-looking or even ordinary-looking people are seldom permitted to go into the woods alone on dark, stormy nights, and no one over thirty is ever allowed. The actors involved are Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray, playing a brother and sister who have always been competitive; Robert Ri'chard and Paris Hilton, playing a boyfriend and girlfriend who are more interested in sex than football games or road trips; Jared Padalecki and Jon Abrahams as a couple of friends; and Brian Van Holt as one (or two) of Ambrose's leading citizens.

Given the director's penchant for making music videos, expect an abundance of quick edits and extreme close-ups, with the screen often occupied by a succession of gigantic heads and a few too many "Blair Witch" type, handheld camera effects. Yet he does manage to inject a modicum of suspense on a couple of occasions and some genuine tension on a few others. It isn't much, mind you, but if you look for it, you'll find it. You'll also find a number of red herrings in the plot and plenty of cleavage, as evidenced by the picture insert of Ms. Hilton. Collet-Serra is a director who knows his audience. (And speaking of Ms. Hilton, while she mainly gets to run around a lot in her underwear and is never actually called upon to do much acting, she does not embarrass herself, either.)

If the movie is good for anything, it's for the incidental advice it dispenses. For instance, we learn never to take detours through Southern backwoods. Yeah, I know we should have learned this a long time ago, way back in the days of "Deliverance," but it's always good to be reminded. Next, when alone in the woods at night and you experience a horrible smell, you should never run off trying to find out where it's coming from, particularly when there may be pits full of animal carcasses scattered about. Along the same lines, when alone in the woods at night and a mysterious pickup truck stops and shines its lights on you, it's not the best idea to throw a beer bottle at it. Also, do not accept lifts from strange folks who demonstrate the IQ of a lamppost and the looks of a Leatherface from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Then, when you and a friend are in a big, old, unfamiliar building made entirely of wax, it's not a good plan to split up and go your separate ways; nor is it ever good to walk backwards. Finally, and most important, remember that you can never, ever, keep a good monster down. Always, always, make sure he's dead; and even then make sure he's good and dead!

"House of Wax" is rated R for all the regular reasons: Blood, gore, mayhem, maimings, knifings, impalings, finger snippings (ouch, that's gotta hurt!), and decapitations. Don't you just love it.

I can't tell if this is a so-so DVD reproduction or a so-so original print. In any case, the end result is that the video quality is only so-so. On the plus side, the image retains much of its 1.85:1 ratio theatrical-release dimensions in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer. Colors are reasonably natural, and facial tones are realistic. On the minus side, the picture is somewhat grainy, especially in darker scenes, which also tend to obscure inner detail. Often, the director uses a pastel-tinted color palette, with hues that are sometimes soft and slightly blurred. Even though the image is not at all objectionable, it doesn't have a state-of-the-art look about it.

Maybe we're all beginning to take 5.1 surround sound for granted because there's not a lot about the audio that impresses one on first listening. Yet it does everything that can be reasonably expected of it. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics are tonally well balanced and well spread around among all the speakers. In the film's favor, it's relatively quiet for a modern horror production, and the soundtrack is rather subtle in its use of creaky doors, crackling fires, melting wax, and musical ambiance in the rear channels. There is nothing spectacular about the sound, and it is all the more effective for it.

Warner Bros. provide the single disc with a decent complement of bonus materials. First, there's what's called a "B-Roll and Bloopers Video Cast Commentary." Here we find four of the cast members sitting in a living room discussing the movie for twenty-six minutes in a split-screen affair, with them at the top and the movie rolling at the bottom. It's all very chatty and informal, with a lot of giggling. Next, there's "Wax On," a seven-minute featurette in which the filmmakers discuss the movie's production design, surely the best part of the picture. Then, there's "The House Built on Wax," ten minutes in which the filmmakers discuss the visual effects in the film. This was one of the better things to watch, too. After that is a three-minute gag reel; a short, minute-and-half alternate opening, "Jennifer Killed," very bloody; and a another minute-and-a-half "From Location: Joel Silver Reveals House of Wax," which ends appropriately (trust me).

The extras conclude with thirty-one scene selections, but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer for "House of Wax"; a trailer at start-up for Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly"; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The keep case comes enclosed in a fancy, embossed slipcover that repeats the front-cover design. But, frustratingly, mine came with a large, square sticker on the outside of the slipcover advertising some kind of money-back offer, a sticker I could not remove without peeling off the ink beneath it. So the studio went to all the trouble of providing an attractive slipcover and then defaced it with an ugly promotional sticker that wouldn't come off without marring the package. Couldn't WB's marketing people have slapped the sticker on the outside of the shrink-wrap?

Parting Shots:
"House of Wax" aims low and hits the mark. It has all the gory bloodshed you could ask for and all the right special effects. If that's what you're looking for and all you expect, the movie does its job with the efficiency of a well-oiled amusement park ride.


Film Value