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Happy Halloween: House of Wax (2005) review

Updated on October 16, 2013

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Jared Padelecki, Paris Hilton, Robert Ri'chard, Jon Abrahams, Brian Van Holt, Damon Herriman

House of Wax is not a remake of the 1953 movie with Vincent Price so much as it is a throwback to the slasher films of the 80s and 90s, one that just so happens to have the same name as the Vincent Price film, and one that also involves a Mad Killer who embalms his victims in hot wax. It's got better production values than most genre films, and the acting is better than expected. But like many bad Mad Killer films, the movie is bogged down by characters who aren't just lame, but also astonishingly idiotic. Most horror movies come equipped with characters who behave foolishly once in danger, but when the film's plot relies on character stupidity to actually advance, then that's when it becomes a problem.

Consider the film's set-up. The story involves six college friends taking a road trip to Baton Rouge to attend a football game. They are forced to take a detour off the beaten path, and decide to camp out in a clearing for the night. A gust of wind carries a foul smell to their camp ground. Suddenly, a mysterious man in a beat up pick-up truck stops by and shines his lights at them. They try to communicate with him, but the trucker remains ominously silent. He begins making them uncomfortable. Then, the ex-con of the group Nick (Chad Michael Murray) gets fed up and throws his beer bottle at the trucker's headlight, smashing it. After a small beat, the trucker drives off.

Now, personally, even if Nick hadn't shattered the creepy trucker's headlight, I would have packed up my stuff and got the heck out of Dodge. Because the headlight was shattered by someone in the group, you'd think that staying camped out there for the night would be out of the question. After all, what's to stop the trucker from coming back and exacting his revenge against them once they're all asleep? Of course, nobody in the group considers this, so they stay camped right where they are. An idiotic decision, to be sure, but it admittedly leads to one of the film's funniest moments. Good girl Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) wakes up in the dead of night after she hears a noise coming from outside her tent. She tries to wake up and warn her boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki), who tells her, “Don't worry. It's probably a serial killer or something.”

We are so smart. S-M-R-T!
We are so smart. S-M-R-T!

The next day, the characters wake up to discover that one of their vehicles has a damaged fan belt. Presumably the work of the mysterious trucker, one can't help but wonder why he didn't go all out and do the same thing to their other car, but never mind. Wade and Carly decide to take a ride to the nearby town of Ambrose, from the one person no one would ever consider hitching a ride with. He's a dirty looking fellow who looks like a long lost relative of one of those guys from Deliverance. He drives a beat up pick up truck (both of his headlights are in tact, so he's obviously not the trucker from the night before), and our characters meet him while he's dumping deer carcasses in a pit of roadkill. He's a particularly ominous fellow, and the fact that he has a fake human hand sticking out of the roadkill pit (you know, as a joke) makes him seem all the more untrustworthy.

The town of Ambrose is a curious place. For starters, the town isn't on the GPS. All the residents there, save for an old woman who repeatedly opens and closes the curtains in her house, seem to be attending a funeral at the local church. The local theater plays the 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? There isn't a police station in sight, and only one creepy looking house on the top of a creepy looking hill. There is also a nearby House of Wax that catches Wade's eye. He scratches the wall of the establishment, and discovers that the entire house is literally made out of wax. Only the unkindest of souls would ask how a house made entirely out of wax could stand for so long in the blistering sunlight. It's a neat idea for a set-piece, and it leads to a pretty terrific climax where...

But more on that in a second. Paris Hilton co-stars as the Dumb Blonde in the group named Paige. With her in the cast, you just know there's going to be a moment where the killer finds her in her red underwear with her boyfriend Blake (Robert Ri'chard). You just know she's going to be chased by the Mad Killer whilst in her red underwear and, of course, die a gruesome death by the hands of the Mad Killer. She does what is required of her as well as could be expected. There is even a scene where she upstages Carly in the intelligence department. When Paige and Carly encounter that foul smell again at their camp ground the next day, Carly decides to “follow the smell” to see what it is that smells like death out there in those woods. Paige's response reflects our own: “Um, why?”

"Look, I told you we should have moved to a different camp site!"
"Look, I told you we should have moved to a different camp site!"

House of Wax is a dumb horror film with dumb characters, and yet, it is also one of the better films in the slasher genre. There are moments in the film that are gruelingly effective, such as the bond-and-torture scene Carly endures, where the killer duct tapes her to a chair and glues her lips shut (he also does something else to her that most movie villains would only threaten doing to the leading lady). Cuthbert acts her heart out in this scene, and it is one of the few moments where we actually feel anything for any of the characters. There are some moments that are genuinely creepy, such as the scene where one character tries to hide out in the town church and discovers...well, let's just say the people inside aren't there to attend a funeral.

The special-effects in the film are also top notch. Props to production designer Graham “Grace” Walker, art directors Brian Edmonds and Nicholas McCallum, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, and musical composer John Ottoman for creating an atmospheric and surprisingly stylish horror film. The climax has some of the best special-effects shots in the film. The House of Wax is set on fire, and there is one shot in particular of the remaining survivors trying to escape the house as it melts around them that almost has to be seen to be believed.

But the movie is ultimately crippled by the fact that we just don't care about any of the characters. As mentioned before, these characters aren't just stupid, they're also lame. Carly and Nick are twin siblings, and Nick resents Carly for ratting him out to the police for a crime he allegedly committed. Paige has missed her period this month and fears she might be pregnant with Blake's baby, and doesn't know how to tell him. Carly has an internship with InStyle magazine in New York, and wants her small town boyfriend Wade to go with her, even though he's hesitant about it. And there's Dalton (Jon Abrahams), who is Nick's best friend and...well, the Comic Relief with a video camera. The actors try hard to sell this material, but the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes offers them little support.

Which is why the thumb is mildly down for House of Wax. So much hard work went into its making, that it's frustrating to note that it was all at the service of such a mediocre screenplay. In spite of its faults, however, I do have a lot of affection for this film. It's the same part of me that has a soft spot for the horror films of yore like My Bloody Valentine and Creepshow. The movie marked the feature debut of music video autuer Jaume Collet-Serra, and he showed a lot of promise with this film. It is a well-made movie, and if you find that you're more tolerant about the characters than I was, you might find it to be decent rental on a dark October night.

Final Grade: **½ (out of ****)

What did you think of this film? :)

Cast your vote for House of Wax (2005)


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