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House of Wax (1953) Movie Review
In this film, Vincent Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, a wax sculptor and museum owner who lost the ability to sculpt after his previous museum was burned down and requires the help of assistants. His new museum features macabre scenes such as the execution of William Kemmler by electric chair and recreations of the wax figures Jarrod lost in the fire like Joan of Arc. Meanwhile, a murderer with a disfigured face stalks the streets of New York. He has already killed several people and stole both of their corpses in the dead of night. He now has his sights set on a young woman named Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) as his next victim. Sue is already feeling uneasy after narrowly escaping the killer the night her friend and roommate was killed and becomes suspicious of Jarrod when she sees that one of the figures looks like her dead friend.
This is a murder mystery that does its best to make the viewer second-guess themselves when trying to figure out who the murderer is. Our heroine Sue and the police investigating steadily put the pieces the case together so that the casual audience member learns the truth at the same time they do. Modern and avid fans of the horror genre may piece it together sooner and it may be obvious to them before they even press play, but being obvious to some people doesn't make it a bad mystery since this is about seeing how everything comes together.
As this is an old horror film, the horror mostly comes from concepts that would terrify people if they actually happened to them and aside from the wax figures melting at the beginning of the film and the killer's deformed face, there are no gruesome images and there are no sudden jump scares. To me, the scariest part is the reveal of what the murderer has been doing to the bodies after he steals them and what he tries to do to Sue at the end. Other scary moments include the old wax museum and the figures getting burned to the ground at the beginning of the film, the scenes where the murderer is stalking Sue, and a moment at the climax where a man is nearly beheaded by a guillotine, made scarier with the knowledge that the filmmakers used a real guillotine for this scene and the actor's life was truly on the line.
The acting is spot on. The late Vincent Price has Jerrod be sincere in his enthusiasm about sculpting and regret that he cannot sculpt anymore. Phyllis Kirk portrays Sue as a woman trying to stay calm with the bad things that she has seen and you will believe the terror she feels when she confronts the murderer. Other notable actors are Frank Lovejoy as Lieutenant Brennan who decides investigate the wax museum when Sue brings up her suspicions, and Paul Picerni as Scott Andrews, Sue's love interest who tries to keep her relaxed after her ordeal.
The creepy moments are balanced out by several comedic moments. There is a barker promoting the new wax museum and annoying some of the patrons by nearly hitting them with paddle balls that you can watch below, three ladies reacting to the figures in the wax museum, and Sue not liking the can-can dance very much as she and Scott watch the dancers. I like the three ladies the best, as they become increasingly horrified at the grotesque scenes in the wax museum with one finally fainting. Jerrod nonchalantly offering smelling salts to revive her is the icing on the cake.
The one complaint I have about the film are the 3D elements. This movie was made when 3D was relatively new and was the second film from a major studio to have 3D. I'm sure that the 3D scenes are impressive, but since the copy I have doesn't have 3D, the scenes specifically made for the 3D (the paddle ball barker and the can-can dancers) do not have the desired effect of making me "part of the living drama," as the promotional trailer claims. I see that the opening titles should pop out and that the paddle ball should be inches away from my face, but because they don't pop out, it just looks out of place. The Blu Ray release has the 3D restored so maybe someday I'll get the film on Blu Ray and my view on the 3D will change.
Overall, this is a classic horror film that holds up pretty well today with a good story and good acting. If you see this film for sale anywhere, I recommend adding it to your collection.