Although he had played in horror films earlier in his career, it would take Warner Brothers' 1953 production of HOUSE OF WAX to confirm Vincent Price as a true cinematic master of the macabre. The film utilized the 3D technique -- one of the great fads of the 1950s -- to great effect, and it was one of the top grossing films of the year when first released. It was so successful that the following year, Warner made a similar 3D gothic extravaganza with PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE, and Columbia virtually remade HOUSE as THE MAD MAGICIAN, also with Price. Warner now unleashes HOUSE OF WAX on Blu-ray just in time for its monumental 60th anniversary.
Price plays Henry Jarrod, a waxworks sculptor with a small museum in New York. Against Jarrod's will, his business partner sets the place on fire in an insurance scam, and Jarrod is assumed dead. Some months later he resurfaces, hands burnt and useless, and having to get around in a wheelchair. A new, improved wax museum is built to great fanfare, but people are being murdered by a horribly disfigured phantom, who is obviously Jarrod. Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk, BACK FROM ETERNITY), a young woman whose boyfriend (Paul Picerni, “The Untouchables” series from the 1950s) works as a sculptor for Jarrod, recognizes her deceased friend as the face of the Joan of Arc display -- and she's convinced that her corpse is underneath the wax. Worst yet, Jarrod has his sights set on Sue Allen as his new wax Mary Antoinette.
Due to its 3D gimmick and numerous theatrical re-releases and revivals, HOUSE OF WAX has been seen by many, and has since become something of a mainstream horror classic. The vivid color photography and period setting pre-dated the British Hammer films and Corman/Poe cycle by years, and this almost looks like a blueprint for those films. Price is sinister, menacing and campy and seems to be having a great deal of fun with the Grand Guignol antics. The film is admittedly a lot more fun in 3D (try and catch a 35mm theatrical revival), but still works well in 2D on the small screen. Look for Carolyn Jones ("Morticia" on "The Addams Family") and a young Charles Bronson (here billed as Charles Buchinsky) as Price's mute assistant. Frank Lovejoy (THE HITCH-HIKER) and familiar character actor Dabbs Greer (THE VAMPIRE, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE) play the keen detectives on the case. I also must mention that director André De Toth was blind in one eye, thus not being able to see the film in 3D with the special required glasses!
Warner Bros. previously released HOUSE OF WAX on DVD in 2003, not in 3D, but now since the technology has changed, they are now able to present it on Blu-ray in that way. For the 3D version, Warner restored and remastered original dual-projection source elements, but since we are just a humble review site (more concerned with a Blu-ray or a DVD of a specific movie now looking more pristine than it did when we saw it on local TV or in a faded 16mm print 35 years ago) without the luxury of a 3D Blu-ray player connected to a 3D television display, we can only go by the 2D version. The MPEG-4 MVC encoded 1080p presentation is in the correct 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Looking significantly sharper and better detailed than the previous DVD, the colors are nicely saturated (and a lot less warm than on the DVD) with good texture. There is a good amount of grain in the picture for most of the show, but it's not excessively overbearing. Most of detail remains sharp, while (much like the DVD) a few scenes are a bit on the soft side. There’s a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track, which is a significant improvement over the DVD. Dialogue is always clear and sound effects are given a nice boost, and any background hiss is hardly noticeable. There are optional mono tracks in French, German, Italian and Spanish, with optional subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German and Italian.
Like with their previous DVD release, Warner has also has included the 77-minute feature MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (presented in standard definition). Directed by Michael Curtiz (CASABLANCA) in 1933, the film was remade 20 years later as HOUSE OF WAX, with numerous scenes being very similar. It stars the wonderful Lionel Atwill (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) in the role that Price would later reinvent, as well as KING KONG’s Fay Wray (THE VAMPIRE BAT, also with Atwill) showing us why she is such a pioneering scream queen. The film was made in the 2-strip Technicolor process, giving it a unique look for a melodrama made in the early 1930s. Here, the film looks fairly decent, pretty much the same way it did on DVD. The 2-strip process usually appears a bit inky, like a colorized black & white movie, but passable taken into the context of what is. There are a number of lines, nicks, jumps and blemishes in the print source, but being that this film was once considered lost, really nothing to complain about. The mono audio is surprisingly sufficient.
There’s an excellent new commentary with film historians David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr who share tons of background information as well as emphasizing the film’s great influence on horror and thriller cinema through the years, and you’ll probably learn everything you need to know about it after listening. HOUSE OF WAX: UNLIKE ANYTHING YOU’VE SEEN BEFORE (48:23) is a new HD documentary featuring interviews with Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Wes Craven, Rick Baker, Victoria Price, Larry Cohen (who at one point wanted to do a sequel), Norman Lloyd, Barbara Steele, Bob Burns and in archival footage, Price and director De Toth, as well as a number of other historians (including Del Valle and Steve Haberman). The cast, production, the 3D process and the make-up are all addressed in this worthy and nicely produced companion piece to the feature (Warner’s PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE is also touched upon, a film in serious need of Blu-ray or DVD release). Also included is some silent (with music) black & white newsreel footage entitled "Round-the-Clock Premiere: Coast Hails House of Wax" (2:16). This is film of patrons outside the Paramount theater for a midnight premiere of HOUSE OF WAX. You'll see Bela Lugosi (in Dracula garb) with a guy in a gorilla suit, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Richard Denning and wife Evelyn Ankers, Danny Thomas, Shelley Winters and others. Rounding out this DVD package is a theatrical trailer (2:05) for HOUSE OF WAX which is more like a "teaser," not showing any actual scenes from the movie. (George R. Reis)
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