There is one young lady I follow on Google+ who has a Christian kind of name, but basically only posts videos from The Twilight Zone. I’m quite the fan of the show and that’s undoubtedly why I follow her. I often make comments, pointing out things about the production. You know me. But she posted the episode “The New Exhibit,” with a description that this was where they got the idea for the film House of Wax. We communicated back and forth and I found out that she was not referring to what I think of when I hear that title—the 1953 Vincent Price classic—but rather the 2005 film of that name. With such confusion, I thought it deserved a little discussion.
To be honest, “The New Exhibit” has nothing to do with either of these films. It tells the story of Martin Senescu (played by Martin Balsam) who works at a wax museum. When the owner decides to close it down, Martin gets the owner to let him keep the wax figures from the “murderers’ row” exhibit in his basement. He has an air conditioner installed and spends all his time tending to them. His wife is none too happy about this—especially given that they don’t even have money for food. The wife’s brother tells her to sneak down at night and turn off the air conditioner; the figures will melt and Martin will come to his senses. But when she tries to do this, one of the figures comes to life and kills her. In the end, three people are murdered. Of course, it wasn’t the wax figures. It was just that Martin had gone totally insane and the episode ends with him being immortalized in wax as part of the “murders’ row” exhibit now at a museum in Europe. It’s a typically great script by Jerry Sohl.
That’s an excellent episode, but it is almost the exact opposite of all the other wax museum films. So let’s look at them. In the early 1930s, Charles Spencer Belden was working as a salaried writer at Warner Bros. He had written a short story, “The Wax Works,” which the studio decided to option. Coming on the heals of Universal’s successes with Dracula and Frankenstein, it probably sounded like a good idea. And it was a good movie! It was directed by veteran Michael Curtiz, who most people know for directing Casablanca. He directed at least five films released in 1933, one of which was Mystery of the Wax Museum.
The film is perhaps most notable for being the last major film to use the two-color Technicolor system. The missing color is yellow, and yet it looks pretty good. As for the story, it is what people who have seen the Vincent Price version will know. A master wax sculptor, Ivan Igor, has his unscrupulous business partner burn their wax museum for the insurance money. Igor fights with him and seems to be killed in the fire. But 12 years later, he is back, although confined to a wheelchair and without the use of his hands. Of course, he has also gone completely mad and is killing people, stealing their bodies from the morgue, and covering them with wax.
This is a surprisingly bad trailer, because it gives away the “surprise” and doesn’t include the parts of the movie that I like the most:
The main difference between the 1953 House of Wax and Mystery of the Wax Museum, is that the latter has this great subplot about plucky reporter Florence Dempsey (played adorably by Glenda Farrell) who is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. She is Hildy Johnson or Amy Archer, depending upon how old you are. And the film even manages to cram a love story in its 77-minute running time where Dempsey has to choose between the rich guy or the right guy.
There are two reasons that I prefer Mystery of the Wax Museum to House of Wax. First, it runs at a frenetic pace. Yes, it is a horror film, but it’s also a screwball comedy. No one is taking any of it too seriously and it is just a lot of fun. Second, House of Wax was shot in 3-D, and there are some very annoying segments in the film as a result. Most especially, there is a scene with a guy with a paddle ball that goes on far too long. None of this is to say that House of Wax is bad. It isn’t. It’s great! It’s a horror film with Vincent Price. And even though I do not think that combination can result in a bad film, House of Wax is definitely closer to the best that he did.
Unfortunately, the trailer for House of Wax didn’t show any scenes from the movie. It was all about how great 3-D was going to be. By the way, 3-D sucks. Even today, it mutes the colors that you would see. I don’t know why anyone likes it. But if you do, apparently you can get House of Wax 3-D on DVD or BluRay. Here is a scene from the end of the film that gives away the “surprise” that was already given away in the previous trailer:
Now I must admit to having not seen the 2005 film House of Wax. But luckily, we have Wikipedia, and so I can tell you that it is nothing at all like the earlier films. It is basically a slasher film where the victims are covered in wax. It is exactly the kind of film being parodied in the excellent Tucker & Dale vs Evil. Roger Ebert wrote of it, “House of Wax is not a good movie but it is an efficient one, and will deliver most of what anyone attending House of Wax could reasonably expect, assuming it would be unreasonable to expect very much.” Not really my kind of thing, but it sounds good enough.
It is probably because I tend to get too involved with films, that I overload on things like this and just see them as funny. So for me, late 1960s and early 1970s horror is just perfect. I especially like a bit of wit as in Theatre of Blood. (Horror, revenge, and Shakespeare!) But whatever. The three films I have discussed here that I’ve also seen each work. And I suspect the 2005 House of Wax works quite well in its own way.
There is a version of the 1953 House of Wax that includes a very nice transfer of Mystery of the Wax Museum. If you want it, buy it from Amazon and throw a few pennies my way!