House of Wax (2005)

JULY 11, 2021


Even if I disliked 2005's House of Wax, I'd be forever indebted to its existence, because in the Fangoria writeup on the film around the time of its release, director Jaume Collet-Serra noted that it was actually more of a remake of Tourist Trap than its Vincent Price namesake. Knowing next to nothing about Tourist Trap, I tracked down a copy and quickly fell in love with it; in fact it's one of the very few DVDs in my collection that I've watched more than once or twice, as there's almost always another good excuse to revisit it. But, sort of as a bonus in retrospect, I quite liked House of Wax too, and watching again for the first time in over fifteen years (Jesus...) proved it has held up nicely.

In fact I'd almost say it was the best Dark Castle movie if not for Orphan, which is, incidentlly, also from Collet-Serra. I credit him with 50% of Wax's succes, if I'm being honest, as the script (by the Hayes brothers) is nothing particularly special on its own. While it admirably moved away from the Price film (naming a character "Vincent" is about the only connection it has beyond the title) and even Tourist Trap (albeit to a lesser extent), it's for the most part a fairly generic slasher on the page. Our characters run through all the cliches: taking a shortcut, having car trouble, poking around creepy places... in some ways it's almost admirable how unambitious it is on that level, as if they knew whatever flourishes they added would be ignored and any such ideas should be saved for another screenplay where inventiveness might be better received (as any Friday the 13th filmmaker can tell you, the more you divert from the formula, the more you risk angering the fanbase). The one thing they do bring to the table is allowing cell phone use and even letting someone be alerted to danger by a phone message, instead of going the usual "no service" route early on like most of these things. So I'll give the writers that much.

But Collet-Serra is giving 110%, so that you might not even notice how on-rails it can be at times, especially to anyone who had seen the then-recent Texas Chainsaw remake, which it often resembles right down to surprisingly killing the heroine's boyfriend first (a move that might even play better now since said boyfriend is Sam Winchester himself, Jared Padalecki, i.e. a guy you'd think would outlast the three other dudes). Crane shots, diopter shots, long lenses... at a time when TV directors were getting these gigs and giving the movies no personality at all, this newcomer was clearly fired up, doing the sort of work that should make it no surprise he'd be helming big budget Liam Neeson movies in a few years. That he wasn't afraid to hold back on the gore/violence (even against the heroine, who loses a finger and probably wouldn't want to apply lipstick anytime soon after her ordeal) was just icing on the cake; even if shot for PG-13 I suspect his efforts would have been noticed and put him on the list of people to keep an eye on in the future.

The other half of the movie's strength comes from the production design. By now this was sort of a guarantee with the Dark Castle movies, but they hit their apex here with the titular house, which (unlike the original) was indeed made entirely of wax, allowing the fiery finale to showcase some truly icky visuals even though blood/violence wasn't really a factor by that point. There's something incredibly gross about seeing our heroes endlessly sinking and clawing through the mud-like house as it slowly caves in around them (I think I heard on one of the bonus features that it was peanut butter), and after seeing a million scenes of the angry killer smashing through a door to get at his would-be victims, it's kind of great to watch one casually slice through it and then peel it apart without really breaking a sweat. Even if you hated the rest of the movie, that ten minute climax would be something you'd dig, I think.

And the wax figures (read: corpses covered in wax) are no slouches either, as Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray run across well over a dozen as they make their way through the town and give us closeup looks at many (one of which the camera lingers on for a bit as if setting something up, but turns out was a *payoff* for a deleted prologue showing her demise). As we learn on the behind the scenes, most if not all of them were actually living people wearing wax masks, as opposed to just dressing up mannequins or whatever. While this may have been a needless expenditure (not to mention set the filmmakers up for gaffes when the actors inadvertenly moved a bit), it pays off - we've seen dummies/corpses propped up in any number of movies, but the unspoken fact that they're legitimately alive gives their scenes (particularly the movie theater sequence) an extra dose of atmospheric creepiness.

As for the cast, they're, you know, doing their job. Even Paris Hilton seems to "understand the assignment" as the kids say today, and I can't tell if it's funny or sad that, despite her notoriety (and the film's "See Paris Die!" ad campaign) she's actually more likeable than anyone in, say, Texas Chainsaw 3D or some of the other films in this vein that came along later. Hell, I'd root for her over most of the people in the two Fear Street movies that have been released thus far, and it ain't out of any particular fondness for the woman - she's just more sympathetic. Her death IS great though, and I'll always wonder if they pumped it up a bit after she was cast. Also, having not seen it since it came to DVD (i.e. long before Friday the 13th 2009), it was funny to see that Chad Michael Murray's role in the film is a lot like the one Padelecki played in F13, as if he took that role if only to make up for being killed off so quickly here. "Now it's my turn!"

Scream Factory's blu-ray has a new transfer that looks fine to my eyes (as I've noted in the past, I'm not particularly diligent when it comes to tracking these things; as long as I don't have to adjust my existing settings or say "Hey, this looks like shit", I think it's a good presentation) and carries over all of the bonus features from Warner's own DVD/Blu. They also add four new interviews, including one with Hilton, who is very proud of her work here and speaks highly of the cast, Silver, etc. Unfortunately, as was the case before there's almost nothing from Collet-Serra across the board; he pipes in with a few soundbites on the fluffy making of, but that's about it. I would have loved to have known why they cut the original opening, as not only did it have a great kill but the movie took its time to get to the carnage, so it would have bought it some goodwill for those who were getting impatient.

Somewhere on those older features Silver notes that the movie will be in theaters on Halloween, but that ended up not being the case as it was moved up to May, and I'd love to know more about that. Not only did that potentially eat into their post production time, but it also may have cost the movie a few million at the box office, as if they waited they would have the star of Supernatural as another marketing hook (the show premiered that September) but also nabbed the people who tend to get more excited about horror movies in October than they do in May. I assume it was because the October schedule ended up being sort of competitive with IP offerings (The Fog, Doom, and Saw II, all with far more built-in awareness than a 50+ year old Vincent Price movie offered), but again, this is the sort of thing the director would probably address if he was on hand to give his thoughts. Oh well. Maybe for the eventual 4K UHD? I'd be down to get it again; that peanut butter wax will look more viscous than ever!

What say you?


  1. I often mention this movie when talking about over looked horror movies, It was a pleasant surprise when I first watched it, think ill watch it again now that I have read your review. Tourist trap is new to me so ill check that out too, thanks

  2. I thought it was a fun movie, and I like Tourist Trap too. I think some of the excessive criticism at the time was just because it was fun and cool to trash Paris Hilton


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