Halloween Endurance Test: House of Wax (1953)
You almost feel bad watching Andre de Toth’s House of Wax fifty years too late. For one, the big finale is now a cultural anecdote; everyone knows that the wax figures are built atop dead bodies. Making watching the big, reveal ending a tad less grand. On the other hand, knowing how it all works out ahead of time allows one to focus on what’s happening under the action; with a plot powered by that age-old question: art or business?
Vincent Price plays Henry Jarrod, a talented wax sculptor who refuses to bow to the public’s desire for the macabre. Instead he sculpts historical scenes that bore his audience to tears. This, of course, frustrates the investor, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), behind the exhibit, who wants the biggest profits possible. Jerrod as an “artiste,” naturally refuses to either a.) create sculptures that people will pay to see, or b.) partake in a little insurance fraud involving the museum burning down.
The museum gets burnt down despite Jerrod’s protestations, leaving the sculptor horribly disfigured, without his life’s work, and without a studio in which to work. A situation that drives Jerrod insane, causing him to first enact revenge on Matty, and then on Matty’s gold-digging girlfriend. The trail of corpses ends with Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), an acquaintance of Matty’s girlfriend who witnesses her murder.
While the murders quickly eclipse the art vs. commerce subplot, the tensions created there still fuel the action. Jerrod’s obsession with his finest work of art, the destroyed Marie Antionette, shows he still values beauty over violence, even though he now has to resort to violence to make his figures.
Begging the question of what ultimately causes Jerrod’s murder drive. Is it the loss of everything he valued, his artwork as well as his ability to make more art, that drives him to recycle cadavers? Or are the murders simply an (obvious) expression of his desire for revenge?
Vincent Price is great here, straddling the line between acting crazy and overacting perfectly. It may just be his accent, but when he starts talking to his wax figures as if they were real, you really believe that he’s the type of “artist” who would do that.
Also of note is Jerrod’s casual way of dropping the word “tableaux” into his conversations. Easily making him this year’s most eloquent villian, and also doubly bad-ass.
It is interesting to note, however, that the one thing Vincent Price can’t sell through his performance is his wheelchair. After the fire, Jerrod is wheelchair bound; claiming his injuries have made his legs too weight to support his weight. Yet for all his believability as a insane sculptor, Price can’t pull off being a crippled, insane sculptor.
Though in all actuality this inability might merely be yet another aspect of Price’s brilliant acting. Since, in the movie as in real life, the wheelchair was just a prop, perhaps Price meant for the handicap to be underplayed. Providing the viewers with a small (if unneeded) hint that he was the killer.
Another thing the film is unable to sell are the wax figures. Sadly for everyone involved, wax dummies just aren’t scary. Even if they contain corpses planted inside them. It’s a shame, considering that these dummies are the reason behind the movie, even though it doesn’t ruin it.
(A liability that the film’s most recent remake handled wondrously. Realizing that wax dummies can’t be scary, they instead went for the full-on spectacle approach of making the entire town out of wax! Also, it has a giant poo pit. Look for its review to be coming soon.)