People may have turned out to House of Wax in droves to see a street performer paddle a rubber ball in their faces for what seems like minutes on end, but as far as film history is concerned, Vincent Price’s scintillating central performance may have been the movie’s most enduring legacy. The film is now cited as the first big studio 3D feature (with stereophonic sound gilding the lily), and its outsized success secured its legacy as the film that kicked off the short-lived 1950s fad of three-dimensional movies, just like The Jazz Singer did for synchronized soundtracks.
In congregation with the whiz-bang gimmickry of House of Wax’s delivery is a scenario that seems ripped from the pages of the then-cresting EC horror comics. Price plays Henry Jarrod, a fussy artiste who dotes over his wax sculptures in 1890s New York City. His partner reasons the two could turn a tidy profit if only Jarrod would give into the public’s basest cravings whip up a few gruesome Grand Guignol displays, but Jarrod is adamant that his artistry has a higher calling, and continues to sculpt noted historical figures, including his prized pieces of Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette. (The double irony is, of course, that both women earned their place in history from their violent fates, and that the sensationalistic mentality of Jarrod’s villainous partner matches that of the Warner Bros. executives who put House of Wax into production.) Frustrated, Jarrod’s partner sets the studio ablaze in an attempt to collect on their insurance. Jarrod, attempting to rescue his creations, is horribly burned, but miraculously appears months later, now apparently on board with the macabre showmanship of his former partner, who was found murdered in the interim.
Why the about face? And why do so many of his grim new wax figures seem even more realistic than ever before, in fact resembling people who have recently died? As with many of the Tales from the Crypt stories the film so strongly resembles, the answers to those questions are both horrible and obvious, but director André de Toth (a legendarily ironic choice to helm the 3D film given his one working eye) is consistently astute about the layers of sensationalism within and without the proceedings, albeit under studio duress. Hence, that damned ball-paddling sidewalk barker and the spectacle of a can-can dancer’s rump thrusting its full mass into the center of the screen.
But shameless devices like that are knowingly paralleled against the ostentatiously foggy night corridors of yesteryear (hearkening to Jack the Ripper’s reign), the contours of the neo-phantom’s burn-scarred face, and the miracle of Carolyn Jones slipping into the dozen ruffled layers of her evening outfit. However, it’s Price that gives House of Wax its characteristic balance of elegance and lurid theatricality. The movie launched a new phase of his career, during which he served as the stark antithesis to the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and every other actor whose Method had them stuffing wax into the smalls of their mouths while Price himself masticated over each and every elongated syllable. Speaking contemporaneously, Price’s purple diction may have been the film’s most truly otherworldly effect.
And once again, House of Wax is being asked to sell its audience on a new entertainment paradigm that could, in the end, emerge as so much snake oil. 3D films fell out of vogue pretty fast in the ’50s, but Warner Home Video, not to mention anyone else with a stake in home-entertainment futures, no doubt hopes to validate the viability of 3D TVs. This Blu-ray 3D disc is mastered from a 4K scan, and given the movie’s 60-year age, the results are as good as can be expected. So much so that the soft focus in the occasional shot seem all that much more noticeable, especially given the grain retention. The color levels are understandably well to the left of natural, but there doesn’t appear to be many artifacts in the image, which is sort of amazing given how cumbersome the 3D filming process was in the 1950s. As for the 3D itself, it’s frankly quaint compared to the reference discs minted for films that were made with 60-inch home-theater screens at least partially in mind. (I’ve no doubt the movie will look like a postage stamp next to the impending Gravity release.) Unfortunately, the stereophonic soundtrack from 1953 has been lost to time, and so monophonic Master Audio will have to suffice.
Criterion couldn’t have done any better than this set’s informed, comprehensive bonus features. The commentary track is split between film historians David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr, who were recorded together (it’s always nice when the track resembles a conversation rather than an assemblage). One of the two claims a close personal friendship with Vincent Price, and it’s clear both have nothing but the highest respect for his professionalism. They put the movie into its proper historical context without ever coming off as too dry or academic. If that’s not enough, there’s also a 50-minute documentary on the movie’s legacy that includes interviews with some of the all-stars of horror cinema—Rick Baker, Wes Craven, Larry Cohen, and Joe Dante—and of film scholarship in general, foremost among them Martin Scorsese. It actually almost overstates the film’s historic value, if that’s even possible to say now that every single tent-pole blockbuster arrives in 3D. Also included is the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum, which House of Wax drew its inspiration from and which frankly put me to sleep. Rounding out the set is a newsreel and the exclamatory theatrical trailer.
No paddleball could possibly contain as many dimensions as Vincent Price’s silken voice.