Thursday, October 31, 2013

Classics: A Review of House of Wax By Lauren Ennis

Nothing suspicious about this...

When one hears the phrase “movie star” one most often imagines the glamorous images of leading actors. Some of film’s most talented and versatile stars, however, are character actors who defy the stereotypes that often restrict leading players. One such character actor is the consistently entertaining master of horror, Vincent Price. Through his combination of dry wit, commanding presence, and an unforgettable voice, Price rose above the restrictions of character roles to become an icon in his own right and the face of horror for a generation. In honor of horror’s high holy day, Halloween, I’ll be presenting a review of one of Price’s earliest and most well known forays into the genre, House of Wax.

The film begins innocently enough as struggling sculptor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) presents a potential buyer, Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanaugh), with his impressive museum of historical wax works. Jarrod lovingly shows Wallace each of his masterpieces, which he regards as his prized possessions. Wallace expresses interest in the pieces and offers to settle on a deal upon his return from a trip abroad in three months. The film takes a sinister turn when Jarrod gleefully informs his business partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), of the impending deal. Rather than chance Wallace changing his mind during the three month trip, Burke insists that the most assured way for both of them to prosper is to embark upon an insurance fraud scheme. After Jarrod refuses to take part in the scheme, Burke takes matters into his own hands by setting the museum on fire; with Jarrod still inside. Miraculously, Jarrod survives the fire but is crippled and disfigured by his injuries. Rather than resigning himself to his seemingly hopeless fate, Jarrod uses his sculpting skills to start over with a new, macabre, wax museum aimed at procuring ticket sales rather than attaining artistic value. Life seems to be taking a turn for the better for Jarrod until his party girl date, Cathy (Carolyn Jones), and several other people are found murdered, and later disappear from the local morgue. When Cathy’s roommate, Sue (Phyllis Kirk), sees that Jarrod’s sculpture of Joan of Arc bears an eerie likeness to Cathy, she becomes convinced that there is more to the wax museum than manufactured horrors and sets out to find Cathy’s killer.

Horror is a genre that is often unfairly maligned as trivial and mindless. While some horror movies unfortunately fall into this category, many earlier efforts at the genre avoided this trap by utilizing implied scares in favor of pandering to audiences with cheap shocks. Although it does delve into some frightening sequences, most of the violence in House of Wax is carried out off screen. Although this relatively bloodless approach is likely due in large part to the Hay’s Office Production Code, it provides the film with a more subtle and genuinely unsettling plot. While the acts of murder and corpse desecration certainly make for horrifying visuals, the implication of such acts can often be far more disturbing. When viewing violence on screen, viewers are often prevented from being fully engaged in the scares that they are seeing by knowledge of the fact that what they are viewing is fiction. This lack of engagement would only have been exacerbated in House of Wax by the limitations of 1950’s special effects, which would have prevented any on screen violence from looking realistic enough to cause any actual thrills. As a result, the film incurs far more fear by allowing viewers to create their own images of violence, uninhibited by studio effects, than it ever could have through the use of graphic or explicitly violent scenes.
A possible reason the movie is no longer in 3D

The film also rises above horror’s stigma by taking a unique approach to its villain. While most horror films feature villains that are either mindless monsters or one dimensionally evil, Henry Jarrod is a complicated and sympathetic figure. By showing Jarrod’s near rise and tragic fall, the film enables viewers to identify with him and see him as a person rather than as a stock villain. During the film’s exposition, the audience becomes familiar with Jarrod as the mild mannered artist that he is before his disfigurement, and is meant to view him as tragically wronged man. Even after his escape from the museum fire, the film continues to show Jarrod as a cultured man about town and invites audiences to root for his renewed success. Similarly, when Jarrod executes Burke in an act of vengeance, it is difficult for audiences to condemn his actions given the damage that Burke inflicted upon Jarrod’s life. As a result, when Jarrod does start inevitably taking in fresh corpses to supply his museum, the audience is clearly meant to view him as an anti-hero rather than as an outright villain. By utilizing a sympathetic character foundation, the film provides audiences with an even more disturbing prospect; if circumstance could change a seemingly average person like Henry Jarrod into a twisted maniac, couldn’t the wrong circumstances do the same to each of us? It is this notion of the evil lurking in all of humanity that creates the most lasting and effective scares in House of Wax.

Overall the cast provides the script with ample support through solid performances. Phyllis Kirk is a refreshingly strong and resourceful heroine, especially for a 1950’s horror film. Similarly, Carolyn Jones does well as a gold digging ditz, making her character both daffy enough to be an ideal target for Jarrod’s schemes and likeable enough for the audience to want her killer brought to justice. Paul Picerni provides an adequate performance in his underwritten role as Sue’s artist boyfriend and eventual rescuer. Despite the fine quality of the supporting cast’s performances, Price completely steals the film with his by turns mild mannered and chilling portrayal of the vengeful sculptor. Price alternates between his character’s extremes with ease, lending credibility to both the cultured, Dr. Jekyll-esque, artist, and the tormented, deranged, killer.

Through its combination of layered characterizations and subtle thrills, House of Wax is a bit of Halloween horror that the whole family can enjoy. The story avoids the typical genre tropes of monsters and gory mayhem and instead takes on the more complex task of making us examine the dark side lurking within us all. The film cemented Vincent Price’s place as the face of horror in the 1950’s and 1960’s, providing audiences with a true genre icon. Get into the Halloween spirit by taking a trip into Price’s wax museum for a night of thrills, chills, and vintage horror frights…if you dare…

Wax women are the best listeners


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  2. You mean to tell me the the actor who was the voice of Professor Rattigan in "The Great Mouse Detective" manages to off and make a sculpture out of the original Mrs. Addams from "The Addams" Family TV Series??? Sounds to me like the "Price" is Right (Ba dum ch!). I very much enjoyed this film. The 2009 remake doesn't come close to it, but at least we all got the satisfaction of seeing Paris Hilton's (character) get killed

  3. I'm ashamed to admit that I had no idea that was mind is now blown!