Wax-ing Poetic: HOUSE OF WAX Through The Ages

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen!

By Diana Prince · @kinky_horror · March 31, 2021, 6:05 AM CDT
House of Wax 1953

The great horror movies ruin everything. Psycho turned the shower into a potential crime scene. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre soured us on the idea of picking up hitchhikers. It transformed the clown from a jolly jester to an insidious child-eater. If a fright flick doesn't poison your mind against the ordinary, it just isn't scary enough!

Those films that succeed in perverting what was once considered mundane? They never die! Psycho, Chain Saw and It have enjoyed sequels, reboots and a perennial presence in our Halloween celebrations. True classics twist normality into something grotesque, which is exactly why House of Wax is an enduring masterpiece of the macabre. The premise is this: a demented artist murders folks and coats their bodies in wax, passing the victims off as mere sculptures.

Waxworks are a staple of tourist destinations, astounding travelers with their intricate displays. Whenever I go to a wax museum, I'm mostly delighted by the craftsmanship of the exhibits... but I can't help but feel a nick of dread. Why do they look so real? A wax figure has the shape, features and general appearance of a human being; why couldn't it be one? Are we looking at a statue or some poor soul's tomb? Or even a living person trapped within, like something out of Poe? These forebodings are purely irrational, yet House of Wax forces me to see the horror in what should be a run-of-the-mill amusement. When I look at wax figures, I envision a sinister sculptor and his ghastly creations. House of Wax has done for wax museums what Jaws has done for beaches, and if that doesn't make it an all-timer, I don't know what does!

There have been three official versions of House of Wax: 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum, the 1953 film with Vincent Price, and the 2005 reimagining. Unofficially, we have 1997’s Wax Mask and a myriad of wax-heavy creep-films that borrow at least one aspect from House. The story also inspired many spoofs, including Roger Corman's beatnik satire A Bucket of Blood. Each of these films was created for a specific era, epitomizing the trends of that time. Despite changing tastes and an increase in gore over the years, every one of these pictures totally commits to the central idea, portraying the wax-coating as if it's the scariest thing in the world... which it is! In the manner most suitable for their time, the Wax features try their damnedest to get under your skin (and over the skin of the victims). By any standard, in any decade, entombing a person in wax is a nerve killer. The concept never ages.

For your amusement and edification, I will now take you on a tour through the House of Wax, from 1933 to 2005. With the exception ofWax Mask (which is a straight remake in everything but legality), we will be focusing on the official films and not the, um, “homages.” In the spirit of the material, I ask you to step right up, ladies and gents! Be amused, confused and bemused by the films we are about to explore! You will now learn the unassailable truth about one of the most shocking stories ever conceived and its many retellings. Keep your eye on the wax figures... or they may keep an eye on you. Prepare for the works... the waxworks, that is!

Mystery of the Wax Museum

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933):

Based on an unpublished short story by Charles S. Belden titled "The Wax Works" and directed by Michael "Casablanca" Curtiz, Mystery of the Wax Museum was the first of the wax-weirdies and possibly the eeriest. It was released by Warner Bros. in 1933 as a companion to their 1932 chiller-diller, Doctor X. Like its predecessor, Mystery of the Wax Museum was shot in two-color Technicolor (it was the last feature film to be filmed in that process). With unearthly color and surreal set design by Anton Grot, the film is an expressionistic nightmare unlike anything before or since (and that includes the subsequent Wax films). The only suitable comparison I can think of is, well, Doctor X.

For many years, Mystery of the Wax Museum was considered lost. The film was eventually found in Jack Warner's private vault, yet it remains relatively obscure, almost entirely overshadowed by the Vincent Price remake (I'll get to that). Though the 1953 retelling is an undeniable classic, I feel that the original doesn't receive the appreciation it deserves. I won't say which is the superior version, but the pre-code Wax Museum is certainly darker and a bit more unsavory (Wax Museum features a character who is a junkie; the 1953 film turns him into an alcoholic).

Horror regular Lionel Atwill plays Ivan Igor, an eccentric wax artist. In a prologue set twelve years before the main plot, Igor's partner burns down a London wax museum for the insurance money, trapping the unfortunate sculptor inside. In present day (1933) New York, Igor is revealed to have survived the fire and opens up a brand-new wax museum. His arms and legs have been destroyed, so he must rely on assistants to create his figures. Meanwhile, a hideous ghoul steals the body of a young model from the morgue. Could this loathsome creature be related to Igor and his waxworks? SPOILER: yes.

I generally try not to spoil movies, but anyone with a passing familiarity with the story can surmise both that Igor is the body-snatching fiend and what he intends to do with that poor model. Much like the Phantom of the Opera, Igor is a disfigured, mask-wearing madman who kills to serve his art. Atwill was a mainstay in vintage fear flicks, but this is the one time he got to play the monster, and he absolutely made the most of it. With a cultivated demeanor that conceals his monstrous evil as the mask hides his face, Atwill is an urbane-but-insane villain that brings to mind Karloff, Lugosi and other sophisticated spooksters from the era. He's not quite as lovable as Vincent Price, but that's just fine for a maniac.

Fay Wray, the OG scream queen, co-stars as the woman Igor intends to turn into a wax Marie Antoinette. Her iconic scream is a considerable boon to the production, especially during the infamous unmasking scene. Rather than simply remove the mask à la Phantom of the Opera, Wray's character smashes Igor's false face until his gargoyle visage is revealed. Presented without music, it's a powerful bit of horror, with gruesome makeup that can still stop a heart. It's the standout moment in a sincerely spooky film.

House of Wax 1953

House of Wax (1953):

Here it is, folks! This is the one that established the story's place in pop culture! In terms of story, it's actually fairly close to the '33 film. Outside of the removal of a wisecracking reporter (Glenda Farrell of Torchy Blane fame) who investigates the murders in the original, the major scenes play out in basically the same way. What is significantly different is the overall tone, which is like a Hollywood musical without the numbers (though there is an extensive can-can routine). Museum had some levity, but it mostly came from the reporter's zingers; the majority of the film is mood and shadows. House, on the other hand, is a comparatively light picture with a campy sense of humor and the lush spectacle one expects from a major studio. It also exchanges expressionism for a Gothic aesthetic that anticipates Hammer. If the '33 film is scarier, the '53 is grander.

Besides the tone, there are two elements that separate House from Museum, the first being that most popular of all film gimmicks, 3D. Released in the brief Golden Age of 3D (1952-1954), House of Wax is notable for being the first 3D movie with stereophonic sound. Because 3D was still a novelty, there is a lengthy, incongruous sequence in which a tuxedoed bally talker hits a paddle-ball right at the camera, assaulting audiences with a very obvious demonstration of the technology. It's tacky, it serves no purpose to the plot, and I absolutely love it with all my heart. Of course, in the more dramatic moments, the 3D is rather effective. The dummy-melting fire at the beginning is particularly breathtaking. If a revival theater in your area ever screens the 3D version, you simply must see it. (Unfortunately, director André De Toth was unable to experience the effect: he was blind in one eye.)

The second element is the key to its cultural longevity: Vincent Price. By 1953, the Merchant of Menace was already an established character actor, having appeared in such films as The Song of Bernadette, Laura, The Keys of the Kingdom and Leave Her to Heaven (a personal favorite). However, he wasn't quite “Vincent Price, Master of Fright” just yet. Sure, our dear Vincent flirted with fear in The Invisible Man Returns (Price played a gentler Invisible Man and reprised the role in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), Tower of London with Boris Karloff, and The House of the Seven Gables, but those were just warm-ups. House of Wax was the birth of “Vincent Price, Horror King.”

Vinnie is Prof. Henry Jarrod, the analog of Ivan Igor and the quintessential Price part. For the first time in his career, Price was the magnificent movie monster he was destined to be, playing the abominable artist with the right balance of dignity and cheeky villainy. A sensitive genius turned wicked by tragedy, Jarrod set the standard for nearly every horror role Price played after, from the aristocrats of the Corman-Poe cycle to Dr. Anton Phibes. Best of all, Price delivers corn-on-the-macabre ballyhoo with that mellifluous delivery that soon after became his trademark. Mystery of the Wax Museum? Price-less. House of Wax? Priceless.

The Wax Mask

Wax Mask (1997):

In the mid-1990s, Dario Argento approached an ailing Lucio Fulci to direct one last movie. Initially, the two began working on a new version of The Mummy, which eventually became a remake of... you know. Sadly, Fulci died before filming began, so special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti (Opera, Demons, Cemetery Man) took over, making his feature-directing debut. The result was Wax Mask, a retelling of House of Wax that marries Gothic atmosphere with giallo gore.

Wax Mask may embellish the tale with quirky details and a generous helping of gore, but make no mistake: it's House of Wax. If you love the Vincent Price version and have a strong stomach, this is a must-watch. Mask is a stylish remake that honors the past while upping the carnage for the bloodthirsty '90s. Surprisingly, the film is faithful to the source material... until a wax Terminator shows up in the finale. (No, I did not make that up.)

House of Wax 2005

House of Wax (2005):

And now for something completely different. Produced by Dark Castle Entertainment, the company that remade House on Haunted Hill,  the 2005 version of House of Wax is a loose interpretation of the material. There is a wax museum, the requisite wax-coated corpses and a disfigured artist, but it owes far more to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than the previous Wax pictures. In this one, a group of college students on their way to a football game find themselves stranded in a rural ghost town with one notable attraction: a wax museum. When they seek help, they meet a local with a dark secret and a twisted twin. And since this is a House of Wax film, you better believe that more than a few college students are made into displays.

Instead of one cultured sculptor, we get formerly conjoined brothers who wouldn't be out of place at a Sawyer Family reunion. Due to the surgery that separated them, one brother (named "Vincent") is grotesquely disfigured and hides behind a mask; the other is physically normal but far more sadistic. Together, the beastly brothers repeople their desolate town with visitors they lured to their waxy graves. One by one, they pick off the aforementioned college kids in grisly fashion. In other words, it's a slasher film. With Museum representing early cinema's expressionism and the 1953 embracing the Gothic, it's only fitting that we have a remake done in the biggest subgenre of the last 40 years.

The characters are slasher archetypes, so they're mostly there to be picked off by the baddies. (With that said, I would absolutely hang out with them.) The 1953 film belongs to Vincent Price, but this film belongs to the Grand Guignol violence. The sickening siblings dispatch their prey with revolting panache. Paris Hilton's spike-through-the-head demise lives up to the fabulous "See Paris Die" marketing campaign (William Castle would’ve been jealous), although my personal favorite scene ends with a still-living wax victim's face being peeled off. Even Lionel Atwill would find that disturbing!

House of Wax (2005) is often dismissed as a disposable horror flick, but the finale is unforgettable. The House of Wax in this take... is a literal House of Wax! When the place burns, it melts in a positively thrilling display of pulp filmmaking. Characters sink through the floor, claw through the walls and fall into a wax inferno. I can't imagine how the sun didn't liquefy the place years ago, but its destruction is a real showstopper. Another incredible sequence involves a chase through a movie theater that screens What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? on an endless loop. If you ask me, this Wax works!

And that, my friends, concludes our tour. I hope you enjoyed the exhibits; those who didn't may become one themselves! House of Wax has been reinvented several times, but the core concept remains fresh through every new iteration. Whether atmospheric or gory, Wax is a story that will continue to chill blood and turn hair white. Just remember not to touch that display… it may be somebody you know.