May 19, 2011

House of Wax (1953)

The year of 1952 is widely considered as the beginning of the so-called "Golden Age" of 3-D filmmaking, as it was during that year when "Bwana Devil", the first color stereoscopic feature in 3-D was released. It proved to be a hit, and the enormous success of this new way of achieving 3-D prompted Warner Bros. Pictures to prepare a similar movie to compete in this trend. And to do it, it would resurrect a movie that in its time, also was the flagship for a technological advance: the two-strip Technicolor thriller "Mystery of the Wax Museum". So, 20 years after the release of Michael Curtiz' Technicolor murder mystery, Warner Brothers Pictures decided to make a brand new version of the movie using the new 3-D technology that was beginning to be very popular. Titled "House of Wax" and directed by André De Toth, the movie would not only become the most successful 3-D movie of its day, but also the first one with stereophonic sound and, probably its most important achievement, the film that would fully introduce the legendary actor Vincent Price to the Horror genre.

The plot actually follows very closely the original's storyline, although of course, with several important changes. In 1910s New York, Prof. Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is an unnaturally talented sculptor, whose wax figures are of an amazing beauty and realism. However, his refusal to make sensationalistic exhibits to attract more people to his Wax Museum enrage his financial partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), so Burke decides to burn the place with Jarrod inside in order to collect the insurance money. Several months later, it is discovered that Prof. Jarrod survived, albeit badly hurt and with his hands and legs useless, but with the intention of reopening his "House of Wax" with the aid of a deaf mute student named Igor (Charles Bronson). At the museum's opening, a young woman named Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) makes a shocking discovery: the figure representing Joan of Arc looks extremely like her best friend Cathy (Carolyn Jones), who was just recently murdered by a mysterious stranger. It would be up to her to solve the mystery of this new house of wax.

Written by Crane Wilbur, the plot is essentially the same as in the original, being also based on Charles Belden's story and play; however, unlike the play and the original movie, Wilbur chooses to focus on the horror element of the story, transforming the whole tale of mystery into a classic Gothic story, almost in the style of Universal's horror films of the 30s (the movie is set in that decade). The main change in the narrative is that this time there is no mystery about who is committing the murders, the classic "whodunit" pattern of murder mysteries here is inverted in the so-called "howcatchem" and places the villain under the spotlight almost since the beginning. With this change, Wilbur makes the story a new kind of beast and really enhances the suspense, drama and darkness of the story. And since the mystery is no longer a subject of importance in the story, the characters and their relationships become a bit more developed as they become the center of the story, allowing the actors (specially Vincent Price) to showcase their talents.

Director André De Toth was probably the best suited to adapt Crane Wilbur's script to the screen, being already renowned by his psychological take on the films noir and westerns he crafted during the 40s. De Toth's take on the script is elegant and classy, yet with a certain touch of grittiness in the creation of the murders, and an ominous Gothic atmosphere very much in tone with the focus on horror that Wilbur gave to the script. With lavish set designs and an excellent use of color (wouldn't be hard to see it as an influence for the vibrant style of the British Hammer films), De Toth creates a beautiful film to look at with his usual brilliant use of cinematography (by Bert Glennon and J. Peverell Marley) that even without the 3-D effect still looks wonderful. His use of 3-D is notable in its originality and most importantly, on its subtlety (although there are two or three moments are obvious campy gimmicks to show off the 3-D). While the movie certainly loses some of its impact on TV, it's still a marvel of production design, with a great beauty to look at.

The cast is one of the film's best features, starting with Vincent Price, who after this movie his career would take him from being a reliable character actor to become an icon of the horror genre. In the role previously played by Lionel Atwill, Price creates a far more sympathetic character, as his unusual charm, suave screen presence and ease of word simply take over the screen and make the character very likable, despite having such a dark past. Price easily steals every scene he is in, and makes of Jarrod an unforgettable horror villain. Phyllis Kirk has a character meant to replace the wisecracking reporter of the original story, and while the character is transformed from determined adventurer to damsel in distress, Kirk's performance makes her very sensible and real, and far less weak and passive than what a role like hers could had been. A young Carolyn Jones (whom later would be famous in the TV series "The Addams Family") appears as Sue's friend Cathy Gray, and despite having very short scenes she showcases her great beauty and promising talent in a wonderful way.

With its gloomy atmosphere, gritty murder scenes and the unforgettable Price, "House of Wax" has truly enough to be rightfully considered as a classic of the genre. Sadly, the film loses a lot of its impact without the 3-D technology, as it leaves some of the most notorious 3-D scenes (particularly near the intermission) as obvious gimmicks that serve to no purpose other than to showcase how good the 3-D visuals look. I'm sure than on a 3-D projection the same scenes are wonderful, but without the technology, they really lose their magic and make blatant what should just be enjoyed seamlessly. While there are 3-D films that can be enjoyed on normal projections, those gimmicky scenes in "House of Wax" ruin the pace of an otherwise thrilling ride. Despite that tragedy, the film holds up very well, and regarding to how it compares to the original, the interesting thing is that despite having the same plot, "House of Wax" is a completely different experience due to its more horror-oriented plot.

And that would be the key of this remake: it's a different take on the story. Instead of being a rehash of a proved hit, De Toth's film opts for creating a new exploration of the story. Curtiz' film is modernist and sleek, De Toth's style is Gothic and ominous. A different style makes a different film. And that's something that many producers of remakes seem to forget, that a remake is the chance to try something new. A definitive must-see for horror fans, "House of Wax" may not feel the same without the impact of its 3-D visuals, but it still is a very influential film with superb direction, wonderful visuals and the excellent work of its cast. In the end, both "House of Wax" and the original "Mystery of the Wax Museum" make for an excellent double-bill where one can discover the excellent results of remakes done right.


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