House of Wax (1953, André de Toth)

This year’s SHOCKtober screenings are dedicated to a late acquaintance, a huge fan of Vincent Price. In his honor, I’m catching up with some of the actor’s more famous horror movies.

Fun horror premise turned into a corny movie, partly because it was shot in 3D so we’ve got a carnival barker playing paddleball in our faces, and partly because the 1950’s hadn’t quite figured out horror yet. Price is a wax artist running a museum focusing on historical beauty, not cheap thrills, which is not drawing customers from the competing wax museums (it was the 1890’s), so his chief investor burns the place down for insurance money. This is actually the craziest scene in the movie, this normal-seeming guy (Roy Roberts, James Mason’s crook boss in The Reckless Moment) suddenly starting fires and trying to murder his business partner.

After some months, the creepy partner has just received his insurance money when he’s murdered by a stalking Price in heavy burn makeup. For good measure Price also murders the girl his partner was dating (Morticia Addams!), later steals both of them from the morgue with his criminal assistants Leon (Nedrick Young, later an oscar-winning writer) and Igor (Charles Bronson!) and turns their bodies into wax sculptures, a shortcut to lifelike creations. But when killing the girl, Price left a witness: Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk, Nora in The Thin Man TV series), who visits the new museum and notices Joan of Arc looking suspiciously like her murdered roommate.

“It’s the embalming fluid makes them jump,” says a coroner after a corpse sits upright in a dimly-lit morgue. We’ve also got Sue being spooked by a skeleton, Charles Bronson trying to guillotine Sue’s sculptor friend (everyone in the 1890’s was a sculptor), and naturally the monster falls to his death into a vat of boiling wax at the end.

Years later when Roger Corman made A Bucket of Blood, which seems to be mocking House of Wax‘s storyline, Corman was just a year away from his run of Poe-and-Price films. Price himself had just appeared in a couple of William Castle movies, so perhaps he was comfortable with camp/parody, but it’s curious that when he teamed with Corman, that’s not the sort of thing they made together at all. Besides A Bucket of Blood, Darkman came to mind – another serious actor in a campy role, his character badly burned in a fire and wearing “masks” of his own face.

Mouseover to envision meddling Sue Allen as your lovely Marie Antoinette:

First movie I’ve seen by De Toth, one of the classic eyepatch-wearing film directors. From the look of this one, he’s not going to be confused with Ford or Ray anytime soon. This cheapie 3D movie somehow had three oscar-winning cinematographers – Peverell Marley (Swamp Water, Hound of the Baskervilles) and Robert Burks (Vertigo, North by Northwest) and Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, The Scarlet Empress, Underworld). There’s some nice shadowplay and low-light chase scenes (wonder if those were any good in 3D). The story was first filmed in 1933 with Fay Wray, and in 2005 it was remade with… no, scratch that. It has only been filmed twice, ever.

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