House of Wax from 1953 has the distinction of being one of the first color 3D films released by a major studio. In the new 60th Anniversary Blu-Ray from Warner Brothers, you can watch the film in its original format; if, that is, you happen to be in possession of a 3D television and Blu-Ray player. Even without the benefit of 3D, House of Wax is a enjoyable and lurid slice of 1950s cinema, featuring Vincent Price and numerous severed heads.
Price is Professor Henry Jarrod, a brilliant wax sculptor who’s a bit too attached to some of his creations. He’s a decent person, though, right up until his wax museum partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) burns down the exhibit for the insurance money, trapping Jarrod and his creations. Alive but horribly scarred, Jarrod transforms into a murderous madman. He takes his revenge on Burke and then sets about recreating his exhibitions in a House Of Wax horror show, this time through diabolical means.
Aside from Price, I’m sorry to say that House of Wax does not boast great performances. Director Andre de Toth underuses Carolyn Jones as a giggling victim. Phyllis Kirk bears the responsibility of the damsel in distress as Sue Allen, whom Jarrod longs to use as a – ahem – live model, but unfortunately Kirk has all the personality of a doorknob. The two detectives, played by Frank Lovejoy and Dabbs Greer respectively, are entertaining in their own right, but most of the cast are there to give Price some innocents to exploit.
So the stars of the film really are Vincent Price and 3D, which is argument enough for House of Wax. Price is at his diabolical best, playing a character that is already right on the edge of madness who receives a rather violent push. While House of Wax does not showcase Price’s more extreme talents for the deliciously macabre, he’s an enjoyable antagonist as the erudite and mad Jarrod.
Then there’s the 3D, arguably the reason for the whole enterprise. It’s patently obvious what scenes were meant to make the most out of the 3D experience: the scene in the can-can where women’s legs (and other parts) come shooting out of the screen; another scene where a severed head is thrust directly at the camera. Most famously there’s the ‘paddle-ball man,’ who serves as a sort of carnival barker at the opening of the House of Wax, whacking two paddle balls at the camera as he announces the horrors within. This scene in particular breaks the fourth wall, as the barker talks about people eating popcorn in the audience while hitting his paddle ball ‘out’ of the screen.
The parallel between the creation of sensational subjects in wax, and the use of 3D primarily to achieve a sense of spectacle and cheap thrill in the audience, makes House of Wax an interesting meditation on its own form. Following the fire, Jarrod turns to murder to complete his projects, and begins sculpting famous killings to satisfy the public’s bloodlust. The artist turns to cheap thrills just as the film turns to 3D for spectacle. The barker more or less tells us that while we might enjoy the little moments of surprise provided by 3D, the entertainment value of the film would quickly wear off were it not for the performances, the make-up, the mis-en-scene, the color and all the other elements that make up the film as a whole.
For all its gimmickry, House of Wax continues to stand up as a film ; as a Blu-Ray, it’s a wonderful experience. The 1080p HD picture is excellent; the colors pop luridly from the screen. The DTS-HD audio is crisp without being overwhelming. The major special feature on this disc – and the one which is meant to justify its $39.99 asking price – is the complete restoration of the left eye/right eye experience of early 3D. This is only the second vintage film to be released on Blu-Ray in 3D, coming hot on the heels of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder last year.
Other special features on this disc include:
- House of Wax: Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before documentary
- Commentary by David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr
- Theatrical Trailer
- 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum
The commentary is informative, despite at times sounding as though the film historians are reading off a script. Still, it’s an effective history lesson and a testament to how important House of Wax was to the development of 3D technology and Vincent Price’s career.
Even if you’re not ready to head out to buy yourself a 3D Blu-Ray player and 3D HDTV, House of Wax still has a lot to offer. You can watch the film in regular 2D and enjoy Price gleefully leering at the camera. The Blu-Ray showcases House of Wax in the finest manner possible, in as close to the original experience of watching it in Stereoscopic 3D as we’re ever likely to get. Even in 2D, the depth of field is remarkable – some contemporary filmmakers could learn a thing or two.
House of Wax is a delightful, creepy slice of 1950s horror that has stood the test of time … in any format.
One of the first 3D films to be made by a major studio, House of Wax still stands the test of time. Starring Vincent Price as a mad sculptor intent on rebuilding his wax creations using any means necessary, the film is horrifying, lurid and immensely enjoyable.