House of Wax is a 1953 American warnercolor 3-D horror film about a disfigured sculptor who repopulates his destroyed wax museum by murdering people and using their wax-coated corpses as displays. Directed by Andre DeToth and starring Vincent Price, it is a remake of Warner Bros.' Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), without the comic relief featured in the earlier film.
House of Wax was the first color 3-D feature from a major American studio and premiered just two days after the Columbia Pictures film Man in the Dark, the first major-studio black-and-white 3-D feature. It was also the first 3-D film with stereophonic sound to be presented in a regular theater. It premiered nationwide on April 10, 1953 and went out for a general release on April 25, 1953.
In 1971, it was widely re-released to theaters in 3-D, with a full advertising campaign. Newly-struck prints of the film in Chris Condon's single-strip StereoVision 3-D format were used. Another major re-release occurred during the 3-D boom of the early 1980s.
In 2005, Warner Bros. distributed a new film also called House of Wax, but its plot is very different from the one used in the two earlier films. The film starred Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Paris Hilton and Jared Padalecki . This version received largely negative reviews from critics.
In 2014, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is a talented wax figure sculptor with a wax museum in 1890s New York City. He specializes in historical figures, featuring sculptures of John Wilkes Booth, Joan of Arc, and one of Marie Antoinette, which he considers his masterpiece. When his business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) demands more sensational exhibits to increase profits, Jarrod refuses. Jarrod then gives a private tour to renowned art critic Sidney Wallace. Wallace, deeply impressed with Jarrod's sculptures, agrees to buy Burke out, but will not be able to do so until after he returns from a continental trip.
That same night, Burke deliberately sets the museum on fire, intending to claim the insurance money. In the process, he fights off Jarrod, who is desperately attempting to save his precious sculptures. Burke splashes kerosene over Jarrod's body and leaves him to die in the fire.
Miraculously, Jarrod survives, but with severe injuries including crippled hands. He builds a new House of Wax with help from deaf-mute sculptor Igor (Charles Bronson) and another assistant named Leon Averill. Jarrod now concedes to popular taste and includes a "Chamber of Horrors" that showcases both historical crimes and recent events, such as the apparent suicide of his former business partner Burke. In reality, Burke was murdered by a cloaked, disfigured killer who then staged the death as a suicide. Burke's fiancée, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), is murdered soon afterward. Her body mysteriously disappears from the morgue.
Cathy’s friend Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) visits the museum and is troubled by the strong resemblance of the Joan of Arc figure to her dead friend. Jarrod explains he used photographs of Cathy when he made the sculpture. Unsatisfied, Sue returns after hours and uncovers the horrifying truth behind the House of Wax: many of the figures are wax-coated corpses, including Cathy and Burke. Sue is confronted by Jarrod, who proclaims her his new "model" for a sculpture of Marie Antoinette (both Jarrod and Wallace had earlier noted Sue's striking resemblance to the original sculpture). Sue tries to fight him off, striking his face, which is revealed to be a wax mask that shatters and exposes fire-scarred flesh beneath; this in turn reveals that it was Jarrod who was the cloaked figure who murdered Burke and stole Cathy's body. He subdues Sue and straps her to a table, preparing to coat her living body with wax. The police, having learned the whole truth from Averill, arrive in time to save her. Jarrod tries to escape, but, fighting with a police officer, dies when he is knocked into the vat of molten wax he had prepared for Sue.
- Vincent Price as Professor Henry Jarrod
- Frank Lovejoy as Lt. Tom Brennan
- Carolyn Jones as Cathy Gray
- Phyllis Kirk as Sue Allen
- Paul Picerni as Scott Andrews
- Roy Roberts as Matthew Burke
- Paul Cavanagh as Sidney Wallace
- Dabbs Greer as Sgt. Jim Shane
- Charles Bronson (credited Charles Buchinsky) as Igor
- Angela Clarke as Mrs. Andrews
Like CinemaScope and other wider-and-larger-screen formats, stereoscopic 3-D was an alternative technology that Hollywood turned to in the early to mid-1950s in an attempt to compete with the proliferation of television, which had halved theater attendance.
Just over 50 feature films were released in 3-D during the formats first emergence, which dawned with the premiere of Bwana Devil in late November 1952. The fad began in earnest with the first major-studio 3-D releases in the spring of 1953, showed signs of faltering in the fall, seemed to be recovering in the winter, then rapidly faded and died early in 1954, with a belated last gasp provided by the spring 1955 release of Revenge of the Creature. Except for a very few occasional independent productions, such as September Storm (1960), The Bubble (1966), Andy Warhol's Frankenstein (1974) and some X-rated "adult" films, there would be no new English-language 3-D feature films until the early 1980s.
All of the 1950s US feature-length 3-D films were originally shown by the polarized light method and viewed through gray-lensed polarized glasses, but in the 1970s a few were theatrically re-released as red-and-blue-glasses anaglyph 3-D prints, which, unlike the original format, did not require special projection equipment and a non-depolarizing screen. Beginning in the early 1980s, anaglyph versions of several 1950s 3-D films were broadcast on television and released in home video formats. House of Wax was never theatrically shown, broadcast on television, or sold for home use in anaglyph form in the US, but an unauthorized anaglyph version on bootleg video or even 16 mm film may exist.
During its original release, House of Wax used the two-strip Natural Vision 3-D format, which employed separate 35 mm film prints for the left-eye and right-eye images, projected by two separate but interlocked projectors. This required making substantial alterations to the theater's projectors. In 1971, House of Wax was re-released in the convenient 35 mm StereoVision single-strip format, which squeezed both images onto one strip of film and required only an external projector attachment and a non-depolarizing screen. StereoVision's deluxe 70 mm version of their format, which made possible a clearer and brighter image, was used for engagements at large and prestigious venues such as Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood and the 4300-seat Metropolitan Theatre in Boston. After the initial heavily advertised 1971 re-release, StereoVision prints remained available for theatrical rental for several years and were occasionally shown later in the 1970s. A new wave of 3-D films in the early 1980s, which resulted in many theaters being equipped with the correct type of screen, increased interest in the 3-D films of the 1950s and prompted another re-release of House of Wax in 1982.
To accompany its stereoscopic imagery, House of Wax was originally available with a stereophonic three-track magnetic soundtrack, although many theaters were not equipped to make use of it and defaulted to the standard monophonic optical soundtrack. Previously, films with stereo sound were only produced to be shown in specialty cinemas, such as the Toldi in Budapest and the Telecinema in London. Apparently, only the monophonic soundtrack and a separate sound-effects-only track have survived. As of 2013, no copy of the original three-channel stereo soundtrack is known to exist. A new stereo soundtrack has recently been synthesized from the available source material.
The film also included an intermission, which was necessary to change the film's reels, because each projector of the theater's two projectors was dedicated to one of the stereoscopic images.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary re-release of the film on 3D Blu-ray, it was screened for a theatrical audience, for the first time digitally, by the Santa Fe Film Festival and the Jean Cocteau Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Halloween, 2013. Vincent Price's daughter, Victoria Price, and Constantine Nasr, director of the documentary House of Wax: Unlike anything You've Seen Before, were in attendance to talk about the making and history of the film. This was the first time the film was shown using a modern 4K Ultra-HD 3D video projector (Sony SRXR320P 4K Digital Cinema Projector). As in 1953, the audience wore polarized 3-D glasses, like those used to view modern 3-D films, not the red-and-blue anaglyph glasses used for the re-releases and videos of some other vintage films and now often mistakenly associated with the 3-D films of the 1950s.
House of Wax, filmed under the working title The Wax Works, was Warner Bros.' answer to the surprise 3-D hit Bwana Devil, an independent production that premiered the previous November. Seeing something big in 3-D's future, Warner Bros. contracted Julian and Milton Gunzburg's Natural Vision 3-D system, the same one used for Bwana Devil, and filmed a remake of their 1933 thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum, which was based on Charles Belden's three-act play, The Wax Works. Among the significant changes: the earlier film was set in the year it was released (1933) whereas House of Wax was moved back to circa 1902; the entire newspaper angle and the characters played by Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh were eliminated; and while the masked figure was only seen sparingly in Mystery, making his identity a bit of a puzzle, he is shown early and often in this remake, leaving little doubt that it is indeed the sculptor.
Among the foregrounded uses of 3-D in the film were scenes featuring a wax museum fire, can-can girls, and a paddleball-wielding pitchman. In what may be the film's cleverest and most startling 3-D effect, the shadowy figure of one of the characters seems to spring up out of the theater audience and lurch into the screen. Ironically, director André de Toth was blind in one eye and unable to experience stereo vision or the 3-D effects. “It’s one of the great Hollywood stories,” Vincent Price recalled. “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.” Indeed, some modern critics agree that DeToth's inability to see the depth is what makes the film superior, as he was more concerned with telling a thrilling story and getting believable performances from the actors than simply tossing things at the camera.
House of Wax was one of the biggest hits of 1953, earning an estimated $5.5 million in rentals from North American box offices alone. Although long seen only in "flat" 2-D form on television and in occasional revival theater screenings, by the mid-1960s it was usually listed among the classic horror films and even touted as the best US horror film of the 1950s. It revitalized the film career of Vincent Price, who had been playing secondary character parts and occasional sympathetic leads since the late 1930s.
After this high-profile role, he was always in high demand to play fiendish villains, mad scientists and assorted other deranged characters in genre films such as The Tingler, The Masque of the Red Death and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Supporting player Carolyn Jones, whose career had barely begun when she appeared in House of Wax, found her widest and most lasting fame eleven years later as Morticia Addams in the TV comedy horror spoof The Addams Family. The film's influence can be seen in many horror pictures that followed, the Hammer Films productions in particular.
Home media releases
- House of Wax was released in 2-D on DVD by Warner Bros. Home Video on August 5, 2003. As a bonus, the DVD included Mystery of the Wax Museum, the 1933 version of the story starring Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill, filmed in the early two-color version of the Technicolor process.
- A 3-D Blu-ray disc was released in the US on October 1, 2013 to celebrate the film's 60th anniversary. Like the DVD, it includes the original 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum.