House of Wax (2005): Remake of De Toth 1953 Classic

Except for the basic premise, the “new” but routine House of Wax has little to do with Andre de Toth’s 1953 cult classic of the same title, which was a remake of the superb Michael Curtiz’s 1933 “Mystery of the Wax Museum.”

This “House of Wax,” to use modern jargon, is a decidedly unexciting reimagining of the previous versions. In the early 1930s, when Universal were riding high with “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” Warner, under the leadership of Darryl F. Zanuck, developed its own horror subject. They found a good, Edgar Allan Poe-like idea, full of bizarre implications, in the story of a sculptor who murders his models and embalms then in wax to achieve death-in-life. Filmed in one of the earliest two-tone Technicolor processes, it was beautiful to look at, with its muted green compositions and stunningly modulated color effects. Also noteworthy was the film’s tough, wisecracking girl reporter (Glenda Farrell) and the newspaper setting, which bear the unmistakable stamp of a Warner studio style. There was a cruel, almost fascist streak throughout the film, especially in the police’s conduct, which would escalate in future American movies. The shocks are sparse by present standards, but “Mystery” holds up amazingly well, and its pale, shimmering images are still striking.

The 1953 flick, one of the better 3-D pictures, was Warner’s first pioneering effort with the new technology. Handsomely mounted and directed with great care by Andre de Toth, it was set in the fantasy world of gaslight, ground fogs, and opera cloaks. Price played a talented sculptor who curates a wax museum that features eerily lifelike displays. The story took a chilling turn, when it’s discovered that he had hidden real corpses within his precious wax creations. Price, in the film that typecast him as a horror star, is fun to watch, and the fire in the waxwork is good for a gruesome thrill. Helmer de Toth brings off one classic sequence, with Kirk fleeing through the gaslit streets, pursued by a shadowy figure in a billowing cloak. Despite being a faithful remake, it was pale compared with the 1933 “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” which had acquired an original edge by locating the Grand Guignol monster within a private enclave of a bustling New York City.

The “new” story is extremely simple and borderline banal. What begins as a fun getaway weekend for six friends soon becomes a horrifying fight for their lives. The clique is diverse along gender and race lines. There’s one perpetually horny black guy called Blake (Robert RiChard), who’s involved with a not-too-bright blonde girl, Paige (TV’s “The Simple Life” Paris Hilton in her screen debut). There’s a pair of endlessly bickering twins, Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and her hotheaded brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray). There’s also a romantic couple: Carly and her boyfriend Wade (Jared Padelecki), who are experiencing some relationship problems.

All the characterization, which is minimal, is done in the first reel, before the narrative descends into a conventional, back to basic, horror flick that delivers the goods for today’s indiscriminating youth viewers. We learn that Paige might be pregnant, though whenever she tries to approach Blake with the subject, he avoids it. Sex seems to be the only thing that interests Blake, who’s later punished for his obsession. We also learn that Carly is ambitious college student working her way toward a career in New York, and that country bumpkin Wade has not committed yet to move to the Big City with her. Wade is a “normal,” laidback guy, full of prejudices and biases, who deservedly describes himself as an “asshole.”

The pretext for the road trip, taken in two SUVs, is to attend the year’s biggest college football game. Singly and collectively, the clique makes the worst, irrational decisions, as, for example, to camp out for the night in an unknown forest that stinks for miles. This allows for a confrontation with a mysterious trucker, who appears out of the blue and then disappears under violent threats from the boys.

The next morning, the campers wake up to find that their car had been deliberately tampered with. At the risk of being stranded they accept the trucker, who reappears to dump some dead animals (cause of the stink), to take Carly and Wade into Ambrose, the only town for miles. Ambrose is a ghost town, in which the main attraction is Trudy’s House of Wax, filled with remarkably life-like wax sculptures, and a movie house that plays the 1962 horror classic, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” Later in the story, there’s a tribute to Aldrich’s film with a scene showing Bette Davis singing. As Carly and Wade begin to uncover the town’s dark secrets, they are stalked by a mysterious killer, and find themselves in a bloody battle for survival.

Through crosscutting, the plot presents the parallel actions of the couple in Ambrose with those of the rest of the group, which is also subdivided into couples. Thus, the film’s second half becomes a guessing game as who of the group would be the first to be brutally tortured with wax and killed. Viewers who have seen horror flicks would be able to predict which twosome survive.

Produced by Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, and Susan Levin, the new “House of Wax” boasts good production values and speedy pacing, which partly compensate for the conventional by-the-book script from Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes. Their dialogue is replete with the most clich horror parlance, prominent among which is “Oh, my god,” which is repeated at least half a dozen times, practically before every encounter with the monster and every chase scene.

Silver, who launched Dark Castle Entertainment in 1999 with the horror hit, “House on Haunted Hill,” would like to believe that he is putting “a modern spin on the slasher movies of the 1970s and 1980s,” but he is not. This “House of Wax” taps into the most primal yet familiar fears: Being alone in the woods in the dark, being hunted down by a mysterious killer, being trapped in an isolated haunted house (where half of the action takes place).

In the last reel, the filmmakers play well the symmetry game, pitting siblings Carly and Nick against monstrous twin brothers, Bo and Vincent Sinclair (both played Brian Van Holt). Bo, the owner of the town’s lone gas station, and his more artistic but equally sadistic twin Vincent work together to trap and kill their prey in a bloody quest so that they can add them as permanent citizens to their ghoulish collection.

Self-described “evil twin” Nick’s combative rapport with his “good twin” Carly is paralleled by their tormentors’ complex and twisted relationships. Both sets of twins struggle with issues of identity, inferiority, and trust. The point of the plot is to bring the two siblings together after years of rivalry and animosity. In the pre-credit sequence, we get a glimpse of their childhood, and a hint of why Nick got to be known as the “evil” and Carly the “good twin.” The “novelty” here is pairing a sister and a brother who are at great odds when the story begins, but under threat to their lives, have to come together to fight for their very survival.

Admittedly, no matter what the specific plot is, there’s always something deeply unsettling about wax figures. Theyre creepy and yet we can’t stop looking at them, particularly when we know that real people are encased in them.

Operating under the assumption that blood and wax make a great combination of sexy and scary, director Jaume Collet-Serra uses these elements in the extreme. This “House of Wax” has the dubious distinction of being the first flick to feature an entire town filed with wax figures engulfing the characters. Helmer deserves some credit for orchestrating a spectacular finale, in which the House of Wax bursts into flames.

There is inverse correlation between the running time and artistic quality of the three film versions: “Mystery of the Wax Museum” was 78 minutes, the 1953 “House of Wax” 88, and the current “House of Wax” 116.