Often incorrectly cited as the picture that ignited the 3-D craze in the 1950s, 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX should nevertheless cause a wildfire reaction amongst classic movie collectors with its Special 3-D Blu-Ray release from Warner Home Video.
The pic that actually begat America’s brief but first potent fascination with third-dimension cinema was Bwana Devil, a B-movie from UA, released a year earlier. The brainchild of Arch Oboler, Bwana Devil, with no real name cast or budget, caused the best visual effect the process could bestow upon Hollywood: money comin’ at ya from all directions.
It didn’t take a still TV-fearful gaggle o’moguls to grasp the possibilities. Soon the majors (Universal-International, Columbia, RKO) and the minors (Monogram/Allied Artists) were scrambling like frenzied monkeys, angling to throw their celluloid feces into the eager faces of their patrons. Even the lofty likes of MGM, Paramount and Fox got into the act, but it was Warner Bros. that pulled out all the stops with the announcement of “the first 3-D movie from a major motion picture studio”: HOUSE OF WAX.
Still a bit wary, however, most of the cautious producers chose projects already owned by the studios (often scripts rejected as “unshootable”) or remakes of long-forgotten gems. HOUSE OF WAX was a refurbishing of the great 1933 Michael Curtiz horror classic Mystery of the Wax Museum.
“Everything’s been thrown at the camera except a good story,” boldly stated RKO producer Edmund Grainger whilst on-location in Mexico for his 3-D thriller Second Chance, costarring Robert Mitchum, Linda Darnell and Jack Palance. The overall quality of the choices made to promote the process are likely a prime reason for its demise, and not that old chestnut that audiences tired of the headache-inducing joyride (in fact, very few customers ever complained about the Excedrin effects of stereoscopic flickers; likewise, the advent of the glasses-free widescreen splendors of CinemaScope and VistaVision no doubt also played a large part in the en masse exodus abandonment of the process).
HOUSE OF WAX turned out to be an inspired choice on many levels – way more pertinent than Jack Warner’s proud boast of “we already own it.”
The Grand Guignol chiller offered a plethora of ways to use the process for jolting, shocking and even cajoling audiences into uncomfortable laughter, all of which it did admirably. It gave star Vincent Price one of his signature roles, and unquestionably steered him into his remaining career path of horror icon. It’s also the movie most identifiable with director Andre de Toth (although he was an expert in a variety of genres, specifically film noir and westerns).
De Toth was truly a strange pick for director, as he was blind in one eye, and therefore couldn’t physically experience the 3-D effects. Yet, he was a great filmmaker and dived into the project with relish (and ketchup on the side; in fact a lot of ketchup…in fact Max Factor Stage Blood # 5). De Toth worked laboriously with the Milton Gunzberg and Dr. Julian Gunzberg from the Natural Vision company, visual consultant Lothrop B. Worth, as well as with the three wonderful veteran d.p.s assigned to the picture, Bert Glennon, J. Peverell Marley and Robert Burks. De Toth was determined to get every ounce of gotcha out of the technology – and then some. Not content with exploiting a gimmick, De Toth strived (and succeeded) in cinematically utilizing the process to its best potential. This is most notable in a spine-tingling sequence where the cloaked killer stalks the heroine through the deserted, nighttime fog-bound streets. The angles and tracking shots are downright creepy and magnificently showcase in-your-face photography. But the high point comes when the woman (nicely played by Phyllis Kirk) turns a corner and a building seems to jut out at her (and does into the audience). Have to admit, I jumped, recoiled and then chuckled while I thought: “De Toth, you sonofabitch!,” a thought many folks in Hollywood often mouthed out loud).
The idea of a 3-D movie set in a wax museum is in and of itself a brilliant one. 3-D effects are best realized when shot with an abundance of high-key lighting (a necessary artificial technique for museum tableaux). The lousy WarnerColor (here restored to near-perfection) rendered dull images unless it was doubly-flooded with lights. Long story short, HOUSE OF WAX must have been one hot shoot!
The pic’s narrative, now legendary, is a keeper. Genius wax sculptor Henry Jarrod prides himself on his flawless depictions of great figures in history. Matthew Burke, his scumbag partner/financier, is anxious for a return investment and when Jarrod refuses to go the Jack the Ripper exhibit route, decides to torch the joint for the insurance, even though a kindly millionaire (yeah, right!) has indicated that he will buy him out upon his return from abroad. Killing Jarrod’s “children” isn’t the only tragedy. Burke (a thoroughly despicable Roy Roberts) has also left the unconscious artist to burn with his creations. Jarrod survives, horribly disfigured physically – and even worse mentally. He’s now a raving psychopath, intent upon seeking revenge on all who wronged him. His hands useless, Jarrod uses underworld dregs to fashion his new models, covering human bodies with layers of wax. Sounds fair to me.
Eyeing Kirk (a virtual replica of his beloved Marie Antoinette) finally sets him into total WTF mode and he can think of nothing else but pouring hot molten wax over her nude living body.
While this may sound a bit severe, it’s like Henry Jarrod on Abilify compared to the antics of de Toth. Costar Paul Picerni told me (still with terror) about how de Toth almost killed him during the production – and this was nearly fifty years later!
De Toth loved danger, and had no qualms exposing himself to rather unorthodox (and generally unnecessary) ways and means of making movies. If he could do the same (or worse) to cast and crew – even better. He, himself, recounted the delights of working as an A.D. on 1942’s Jungle Book, willingly volunteering to tempt fate by practically sleeping with the many wild (non-SAG) members of the animal kingdom recruited for the production. Nothing pleased him more, he recalled with rose-colored euphoria, than those early morning arrivals when the aroma of the soundstage was filled with the intoxicating “…sweet smell of urine.” Okie-dokey.
De Toth thought nothing of plunging Price into perilously burning sets (that frequently ain’t a double, folks). The idea of roasted, melting flesh sent the director into swoon gear; while this wasn’t CGI possible in 1953, De Toth more than compensated by having lengthy montages of realistic looking wax heads tumbling off their torsos, eyeballs lovingly rolling out of their sockets as cheeks and chins peel, leaving only skeletal grimaces. Ah, ars gratia artis!
The script to HOUSE OF WAX is by former silent-screen star Crane Wilbur (who also coproduced). While it naturally is censored from many of the sexual innuendoes that permeated the pre-Code Curtiz version (which took place in modern New York City; the ’53 edition is a period piece played out in Big Apple, ca. 1905), there is a sprinkling of risqué/amusing lines. When evil Roberts flashes his ill-gotten gains in the face of giggly (and equally mercenary) mistress Carolyn Jones, he offers her a trip to anywhere she wants. Right away we’re thinking Paris, London, Rome, but no. In addition to being a murderous slimeball, Roberts is also a cheap bastard, suggesting Atlantic City. Jones counters with Niagara Falls. Roberts, simultaneously ogling his trophy GF while contemplating the concept of legal tender, replies with the hilarious capitulation: “Who knows, might be fun.”
When two morgue attendants wheel in a new arrival, they macabrely discuss the advancing lethal qualities of the horseless carriage. When one remarks that he didn’t think they went fast enough to hurt anybody, his buddy gleefully counters with, “They’re getting better all the time.”
Other departures from the earlier version comprise the hybrid combination of the two lead female characters. Kirk is both Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell; one of the perks of the ’33 version was that fast-talking news reporter Farrell was actually the hero of the piece, a role now delegated to Frank Lovejoy as the detective assigned to the case. Like its time period, another step backwards.
Finally, the derelict artist working for Price (Lionel Atwill in the original) was a cocaine fiend in Mystery. In HOUSE, the addiction is alcoholism.
The jaw-dropping cast member in HOUSE OF WAX is Igor, the snarling mute lunkhead played by Charles Bronson (still billed as Buchinsky). His realistic portrayal of a grunting and groaning dummy was an ideal run-through for his later work for Golan-Globus.
Some grainy shots aside, HOUSE OF WAX looks spectacular. Even in its standard 2-D version (also included in this set), it’s a lot of fun. The sets, the lighting, everything works like a charm.
But let’s face it – it’s the 3-D that makes this picture the classic it is. Every shot in HOUSE OF WAX is geared for three dimension – and at least 95-98% of it works. Again, the lion’s share of credit must go to de Toth, who correctly mastered the format by sandwiching his prime action between foreground and background planes (not as obvious as it sounds, as evidenced by his many failed contemporaries and even current 3-D schlock-meister efforts).
Probably the most famous sequence is the opening of psycho Jarrod’s new museum wherein paddleball meistro Reggie Rymal bounces rubber balls into the audience. 3-D-wise, that never worked for me. Even in the good 3-D prints I’ve seen, it was an effect that my eyes couldn’t adjust to. But it does in this Blu-Ray! I mean, not all the time, but midway through his demonstration, I did find myself ducking. Honestly, one can never have enough balls in their lives (although, admittedly, perhaps not in one’s face).
A later sequence is much more amusing. Picerni takes Kirk out on a date to a local beer hall/nitery. For entertainment, a lineup of Warners cuties perform the can-can. Ads for the movie showed some curvy female gams kicking out into the audience. While this indeed does happen, like the initial paddleball FX, it didn’t really work. Ironically, the tail end of the segment, wherein some arguably method-trained starlet shoves her posterior into the camera does indeed deliver the goods. I have to bluntly say it: her ass was in my face; it was like I could reach out and touch it. Truly, it is cinema’s greatest booty shot ever! A variation on this image is achieved during the exciting climax. As Igor and Picerni’s character battle it out, Buchinsky lets loose with a haymaker that beautifully pops right out of the screen.
The audio on HOUSE OF WAX is as good as it gets. Warners was always known for their great sound department, and this movie underlines it with thumping bass dynamics. Originally recorded in WarnerPhonic Stereo, the multi-tracks were long-thought lost. Well, either they found them or replicated the tracks from existing cue sheets, ’cause the stereo on this Blu-Ray, like its lead, is a killer. And, like its visuals, it comes at ya from all sides.
While Warner was confident that they had a winner, he was also concerned that the competition would beat him to the punch. Columbia, going neck-and-neck with their first 3-D outing, the noirish Man in the Dark (shot quickly in eleven days), rushed the modestly budgeted B-plus pic into theaters just prior to HOUSE OF WAX‘s premiere. Suffice to say, it cleaned up – but did nothing compared to the business HOUSE OF WAX generated. WAX is still on many All-Time Box Office Champs lists, some calculating that, in 2017 terms, it has amassed close to a billion dollars in ticket/TV/home video sales. If there was any doubt as to whether this fad was big-studio worthy, HOUSE OF WAX squelched it, opening the floodgates for 3-D movies helmed by A-list directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh, George Sidney) and stars (Rita Hayworth, John Wayne, Mitchum, Martin & Lewis, Kathryn Grayson).
Cyclopian de Toth himself would helm another pair of 3-D pics, both excellent Westerns starring Randolph Scott: The Stranger Wore a Gun and Bounty Hunter (the latter being an interesting historical footnote, as it was produced by Judy Garland and Sid Luft via their Transcona company, part of the package deal with Warners for A Star is Born).
Warners stacked the deck by having the WAX premiere presided over by Bela Lugosi and a guy in a gorilla suit, which, for me, is the psychotronic equivalent of Lunt-Fontanne. In classic blooper fashion, Lugosi’s cue cards got mixed up and he ended up talking gibberish to his simian pal, occasionally announcing punchlines followed by their jokes.
Lugosi had nothing on the biggest and worst joke: a re-issue of HOUSE OF WAX in 1972 by the thoroughly disreputable Sherpix Corporation. Sherpix ditched the two-projector Polarized system for a cheap single strip, bogus widescreen mess (the movie was shot in standard 1.37:1) that resulted in soft, bleeding images with virtually no 3-D effectively discernable. This actually did cause headaches and basically ruined the beautiful cinematography, as the smeary color looked like a faded snapshot exposed to the sun. Worse, the deceptive posters and promotions copped the ads from Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, which featured a naked Jane Asher (as a nose) caressing Vincent Price’s face. Insult to injury was the billing – listing Charles Bronson third above the title with Price and Kirk. It’s as if this travesty had been orchestrated by the Roy Roberts character. I vividly recall hearing a couple exiting in disgust, grumbling, “No wonder this process died. What a piece of s#$t!”
Trust me, this isn’t the case by a long shot with the Warners Blu-Ray. Again, I can’t commend this disc enough. HOUSE OF WAX is what 3-D is all about (the packaging, in a lenticular 3-D slipcover, adds to the hoot factor). Like the earlier standard DVD, this B-D also includes the original two-strip Technicolor Mystery of the Wax Museum (never looking better), premiere newsreel footage, audio commentary by David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr, the 1953 3-D promo trailer and a documentary House of Wax: Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before! They ain’t kidding!
HOUSE OF WAX. Color. Full screen [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition; 2.0 stereo-surround DTS-HA MA. CAT # 1000413340. SRP: $35.99.