House of Wax is the film that really made the 3D boom in the ’50s a viable concept. It was only the second studio-funded film in 3-D, and came out two days after the first, the noir Man in the Dark. The next year would see the release of Hitchcock’s sole 3-D feature, Dial M For Murder, which, along with House of Wax, is considered to occupy the peak of the 50 or so classic 3-D made around this time.
The origins of House of Wax came much earlier, with the pre-code horror The Mystery of the Wax Museum, which is included with this release. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct Casablanca and Mildred Pierce, and is arguably more explicit in some aspects than its ’50s follow-up. The plots are similar, but each film focuses on different aspects of the story: in the original, the twisted sexuality of the artist takes centre stage, while the remake focuses on the more gothic horror stylings.
The version that came out in 1953 was directed by André De Toth, who was a damn fine Hungarian-born genre filmmaker. At the time De Toth was much-loved by the French critics. He was even married to Veronica Lake for awhile, and lived a long life before dying at the age of 89 in 2002. The famous joke about House of Wax is that was made by a director who couldn’t see 3-D, because he only had one eye. The film’s leading man was Vincent Price, who had this to say about De Toth and his 3-D deficit: “When they wanted a director for [a 3-D] film, they hired a man who couldn’t see 3-D at all! André de Toth was a very good director, but he really was the wrong director for 3-D. He’d go to the rushes and say, ‘Why is everybody so excited about this?’ It didn’t mean anything to him. But he made a good picture, a good thriller. He was largely responsible for the success of the picture. The 3-D tricks just happened—there weren’t a lot of them. Later on, they threw everything at everybody.”
At the time that he took the lead in House of Wax, Price was at a career crossroads. He could’ve gone back to the theatre, but he chose to make House of Wax which revitalised his career as an actor in horror films. He was perfectly cast as the truly twisted Professor Henry Jarrod, who makes his waxworks from corpses of his victims. He was clearly having a ball in the role, and would always speak fondly of the film. House of Wax also provided early roles for Carolyn Jones, who would go onto star as Morticia Addams in the original Addams Family TV shows, and a mute Charles Bronson, who appears as Jarrod’s helper Igor, and who at one point in the ’70s was the biggest box-office draw around the world.
Over the years the film’s reputation has grown, and it had a clear influence on the films Hammer made as well as on the later Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films, which Price so often starred in. Later on, the underrated cult classic Waxworks updated the basic concept and added inter-dimensional travel and classic monsters into the mix for good measure. House of Wax even spawned a terrible remake of its own in 2005, which starred Paris Hilton—but the less said about that, the better.
The original film has also enjoyed being featured in various revivals of the 3-D theatrical experience, mainly in the ’70s and ’80s, but sadly I’ve only watched the 2D “flat” version on DVD and now Blu-Ray. The infamous gratuitous paddleball sequence, which was clearly thrown in to highlight the fact the film is 3-D, is still fun to watch in 2-D. The French cancan sequence later on served a similar purpose, but at least there was some point in helping the narrative along there.
Overall, House of Wax remains André De Toth’s most famous film, though possibly not his best. It’s a fun gothic horror story with a classic performance by everybody’s favourite horror-movie star. It’s also full of great darkly comedic dialogue, like “Matty? Wasn’t that the man you were going to marry?” “Yes, but he hung himself instead. [giggling] Oh, Matty was such a card.” The disc includes the film in 2-D or 3-D (if you have a 3-D TV), and also includes an excellent retrospective doc with interviews with Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese, who both I could listen to talk about film for hours; a commentary track by David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr; a newsreel of the premiere; the trailer and the aforementioned bonus film, The Mystery of the Wax Museum.
It’s currently an HMV exclusive in the store’s Premium Collection range, and the Premium package includes the film on Blu-Ray and DVD along with a digital download and some postcards.