40×40: House Of Wax (1953)

Directed by Andre deToth.

“Shaking hands with me is an unpleasant experience. My hands are no longer hands.”

Why Did I Get This?

As mentioned in the Mystery Of The Wax Museum Late Review, I bought this fairly recently because I really enjoy Vincent Price films, have never seen it, and have seen the 1933 original (more than once, now!), so was curious to see how this one played out.

I was especially curious to see how seeing the two movies quite close together affected my enjoyment (or otherwise), following my time spent watching the Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde films from 1931 and 1941. Basically, I wondered whether seeing them in proximity to each other would temper my feelings towards one or the other.

Aside from that, I’m not going in with too many preconceptions aside from curiosity about how the 3D effects will look almost 60 years down the line. Let’s find out…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

Master sculptor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), runs a small wax museum with his business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), until Burke burns it to the ground and leaves him for dead. Years later, Jarrod – now unable to sculpt due to his injuries – opens a new museum which focuses on the grisly spectacle he previously refused to indulge in.

Meanwhile, a hideously scarred killer murders Burke and his girlfriend Cathy (Carolyn Jones), with other locals missing presumed dead. When Cathy’s roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), realises Jarrod’s Joan of Arc looks suspiciously familiar, she tries to convince her friend (Paul Picerni), and the police that all is not as it seems.

I’ve talked before (here and here), about how much I enjoy a Vincent Price film, but for some reason I’d never seen this until now, so as a little birthday treat to myself, I picked it up while shopping recently and realised it also came with the 1933 version (which I had seen previously).

All I knew about this one was that Price was the lead and it was basically a remake for a slightly newer audience, but I think I’d forgotten that it was filmed for 3D, so let’s deal with that first.

I’ve always figured some films use the 3D as a gimmick to fling things into the faces sitting in the front row while other (usually better), films use it as a tool to add depth to their picture. What surprised me about House Of Wax was that it pretty much seemed to do both at once.

Yes, there’s an extended sequence where a carnival barker uses ping pong paddles with elasticated balls to nearly twat the camera while encouraging crowds to check out the museum, and yes, there’s a sequence where Can-Can dancers kick their legs and flash their underskirts towards the lens.

But there are also really nice touches which I found a little subtler – during the fight just before the museum burns down, a weapon is hurled across the room making a nice use of space and focus. Later, a shot of rows of corpses covered in sheets in the New York City morgue is eerie and atmospheric through its arrangement, and the depth of field when the camera tours the new museum is really lovely.

Good as it is, that tour is certainly helped by Price’s voice as he introduces his audience to the gruesome residents of his museum. Jarrod speaks with a quiet passion for his art coupled with a showman’s knack for the dramatic – like Price himself, he knows exactly what the audience have come to see, and exactly the way to help them have the experience they’re hoping for.

There’s a gleeful pride to Price’s delivery which – as with many of his performances – veers towards the hammy. But like Lionel Atwill’s take on the character, it’s paired with a sadness about the loss of his artistic ability which forces him to rely on his students. Oh yeah, and the mute goon Igor who builds wax faces in his own likeness in this version is played by a very young but very tough-looking Charles Bronson (billed here as Charles Buchinsky)!

Igor’s brawl with Sue’s friend Scott – a fellow sculptor – in the big showdown is a great old-fashioned slugfest, as you’d hope, although looking at the two men you never expect Scott to come off the better man because, frankly, Bronson looks like he could tear a building apart without breaking a sweat.

I suppose the biggest difference between the two films is signified by the change of title. This one doesn’t feel much like a mystery, and that’s not just because I’m watching it off the back of the previous version. Here, we see a lot more of the villain’s evil spree, killing his former partner and staging a suicide – the deaths are pretty brutal, when they come, and there are some great ‘corpse crashing into shot’ moments. There’s also a couple of nice sequences where an unmasked Jarrod chases Sue through a dark, misty street, and one where he swings into her bedroom on a grappling hook, doing much more outside the wheelchair than his predecessor did.

While the scarred visage is not obviously Price and looks puffier than its predecessor in the early scenes, once it gets to the finale and we see him brightly lit, it’s a creepy look and made creepier in the chase scenes through his wobbly yet determined gait. When his ‘face’ is smashed off by Sue in the finale, it’s still shocking, but the shot seems to cut away more quickly than the Curtiz version, removing a little of the horror.

It’s less of a mystery film and more of a stalk and slash picture, in some ways. We don’t have the spunky fast-talking reporter who’s determined to get to the bottom of the story this time around, but Sue discovers her murdered friend’s corpse then thinks she recognises her in the museum and can’t let it go.

I thought this change in relationship between the main female characters offers a new and interesting dynamic – Cathy is perfectly charming and kind, if a little money-hungry, but eager to see Sue do well. Conversely, Florence (Glenda Farrell), was hung over and desperate for a story and only latterly concerned about the wellbeing of her roommate Charlottte (Fay Wray).

Weirdly, Sue sort of takes both roles here – the shy, poor friend and the relentless detective – as well as the potential victim (as she once again looks like Jarrod’s Marie Antoinette). As it’s the fifties, she ends up having to be rescued and have her modesty preserved by the male police officers, before the film wraps up with a slightly cheeky gag and one last 3D nod, but it all feels surprisingly fresh and fun.


A perfectly fun take on a pre-Code horror, and one I’ll definitely return to down the road. Really happy to have seen it finally, and very pleased that it didn’t suffer from being watched so soon after its predecessor.

Was I inclined to enjoy it due to Price’s involvement? Maybe, but I genuinely thought he was good here. There’s a sadness and a menace to him without the ghoulish makeup (in fact, that’s probably when he’s at his weakest, buried under the mask), and it also made me want to revisit Dr Phibes where he not only didn’t have much of a face, but lost most of his voice too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: