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House of Wax Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

Image This is not a remake of the famous Vincent Price horror movie of the early 1950s, which helped kick off the 3D craze. All that’s left is the title, the practice of encasing corpses in wax and putting them on display, and a character named Vincent. Although the Price film isn’t a classic, it’s much better than this steadfastly routine slasher movie that, sigh, again pits late teens/early 20s types against a murderous fiend (or here, two of them). On the other hand this movie boasts an exuberantly bizarre climax, a jaw-dropping combination of on-set and CGI effects that’s not like anything else you—or anyone—has ever seen. The movie scores big points for originality in the last 15 minutes or so, but to get to those 15 minutes or so, you have to sit through the whole damned thing. And that’s not much fun.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra does a surprisingly good job for most of the film; suspenseful scenes really are suspenseful; sudden-shock scenes (often called “busses”) work the way they should, and there’s an inventive variety to the ways the basically unknown cast (and Paris Hilton) get killed off one by one, until the only two left are a brother and sister squared off against the murderous former Siamese twins of the House of Wax. (When shown in theaters, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Paris Hilton’s death—a pipe through the skull—brought thunderous applause.)

The setup is primitive enough. Somewhere in the south, six college-age friends set out for a ball game in a city a day’s drive away. These include our heroine Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), her surly, ne’er-do-well brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray), who describes himself as “the evil twin;” her handsome boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki), Paige (Paris Hilton), a pretty blonde, her black boyfriend Blake (Robert Ri’chard), and required nerd Dalton (Jon Abrahams). The screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes at least tries to generate more rounded characters than usual for this sort of thing, but their efforts show and really don’t lead anywhere. That is, when the killings start, it doesn’t matter who was the Prom King and who was the Bad Kid; their attributes are of no help, and the killers never notice them anyway. They stop both cars in a meadow for the night; in the morning, one isn’t working—a broken fan belt. Carly and Wade get a ride to the nearest town from a local yokel (Damon Herriman) whose job seems to be to toss road kill onto a reeking pile in the woods. (This mass of rotting flesh seems to be a setup for something later in the film, but once it’s left behind, it’s never even mentioned again.) The two are creeped out by the body-tosser and walk the short remaining distance to town by themselves. The town consists of a main street with a church at the end, and one side street with two houses. Where did everyone else live? The design, by Graham “Grace” Walker, is unusually well integrated with a look that combines aspects of the 1930s and 1950s. (The movie was shot entirely in Australia, though it’s set in the U.S.)

On a side street is the House of Wax; they’d seen signs for it earlier. To their surprise, they find it’s literally a house of wax—the building itself is made of wax which seems immune to warm temperatures. Inside, it’s like the downstairs of a modest mansion with wax statues everywhere, frozen in the act of normal, everyday life. The sound of prayer from the church draws the two there; they look inside to see they’ve disturbed a funeral in progress, and withdraw, embarrassed, only to be even more embarrassed when Bo (Chad Michael Murray), about their age, emerges to complain. The two go to his gas station nearby, hoping to find the fan belt, and he joins them later, saying the one they need is up at the house.

And then things start to go very wrong. It turns out that Bo has an insane twin brother, Vincent (also Murray), who wears a wax mask to cover his face, scarred by the operation that separated the Siamese twins, conjoined at the face. (Does that ever happen?) While Carly waits outside in Bo’s truck, Vincent stabs Wade but doesn’t kill him, and then in an elaborate contraption in the waxworks workshop in the tunnels that run between the twins’ home and the House of Wax, covers him in wax.

Of course, Carly gets nervous, Bo reveals himself to be as much of a villain as Vincent, the other friends show up wondering where Carly and Wade are, and so on and so on, until Carly and Nick are left alone to face the murderous twins.

Until this point, the movie is an acceptable but very routine slasher movie, with the very routine cast of young people that studio execs seem to think are absolutely required for contemporary horror movies. It used to be that all these terrible things happened as much or more to adults as to college-age kids, but that was long, long ago.

As the battle rages between the two sets of twins, legs are stabbed, fingers are snipped off, crossbow bolts penetrate arms, and Bette Davis sings on the screen of the local movie theater. (It’s unaccountably showing “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”) Then a fire starts in that wax workshop, and spreads to the House of Wax itself.

This is where the stuff that’s not only good but unique kicks in: the battle continues in the house as it and everything in it begins to melt. Floors soften, staircases turn into slow cascades of molten wax, long-encased bodies are revealed, even a bed softens into a quicksand-like slurry of wax. And as it keeps getting hotter, everything gets worse and worse. Trust me, you have never seen anything like this. This climax is damaged by the predicable, uninteresting ending.

Most of the film is reasonably well enhanced by being presented in Blu-Ray’s high definition, though the CGI is often given away. When Vincent’s wax mask is torn away, we see that his very face was also torn away—part of it is missing. As this can’t be accomplished by ordinary makeup techniques, this was done (as one of the ancillary shorts shows) by CGI. Unfortunately, high definition makes it look more like effects than it does in standard DVD.

But otherwise, the melting house, the crumbling bodies, sagging pianos, vanishing walls—all these are made that much more impressive, even awesome, than they are in standard-definition DVD. There’s nothing special about the sound here—it’s a standard, big-studio mix—but visually, this is one of the small handful of inexpensive movies which look notably better in high definition.

The same extras that appeared on the standard-definition DVD, released last year, are repeated on this Blu-Ray. There’s a trivial sequence of several of the actors, including Hilton, sitting on a couch watching a TV play the movie’s blooper reel while we see the same footage inserted below them. They seem to be having a very good time, but the footage isn’t especially interesting, nor are any of the actors exactly skilled at sparkling repartee. Much of this footage appears again in a separate Blooper Reel featurette.

“Wax On: The Design of House of Wax” features several talking heads, including coproducers Susan Levin and Joel Silver, designer Grant Walker and others. “A House Built on Wax” focuses on the effects of the meltdown sequence, featuring the director, effects head John Breslin and Herb Gains. There are also some clips from the Vincent Price “House of Wax.” There’s a short segment featuring Joel Silver in a director’s chair on the town street set that has a surprising, funny ending. There’s a lengthy, completely edited, deleted scene of a character mentioned but never seen being murdered by one of the house of wax twins.

“House of Wax” is the latest in a series of medium-budget horror movies made by Dark Castle, a production company allied with Warner Bros. It was set up to remake William Castle movies, but only did two: “House on Haunted Hill” and “13 Ghosts,” before veering off into non-Castle territory with “Ghost Ship,” “Gothika” and “House of Wax.”

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