Archive for January 23, 2011


In which that lifelike wax sculpture was once an innocent girl with the misfortune to resemble Joan of Arc

 

 

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell. 77 minutes. ** 1/2

House Of Wax (1953). Directed by Andre De Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson). 90 minutes. ** 1/2

House of Wax (2005). Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Screenplay by Charles Hayes and Carey Hayes, from the story (note difference) by Charles Belden. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Paris Hilton, Brian van Holt. 113 minutes.  1/2

*

None of them were meant to be immortal. They were all conceived as throwaway entertainments, providing thrills and chills for the popcorn set; the first two weren’t even intended to be particularly scary, though those of us who recall seeing at least one of them in a motion picture auditorium may recall a time or two when a jump scare elicited some screams from its audience. The first features one of the damnedest love stories you’ve ever seen. The second reaches its peak entertainment value with a special effect that has nothing whatsoever to do with its story. The third has a climax of truly transcendent dumbness. There’s precious little intended subtext in any of them.

We’re talking about the three Houses of Wax, all of them horror films set in and around the titular tourist destinations, which are all run by mad craftsmen who achieve realism in their sculptures by entombing their hapless victims in paraffin. Each one of them features a hideously disfigured murderer, and a catastrophic fire that consumes the buildings and melts the sculptures to bubbling puddles. Beyond that, though, the differences are instructive. Each in their own way, they all embody the nature of popular filmmaking in their respective times. Stretching the point somewhat further than the evidence will bear, you could even look at all three and call them a history of the decline of movie-making, over the course of a little more than seventy years. It’s not entirely fair, since bad movies were made back then and good movies are still being made now, but a case can still be made from these three levels of celluloid archeological strata. You’ll see why.

Mystery Of the Wax Museum (1933) 

The first film (directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later make The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) presents us with the case of one Ivan Igor, pronounced Eye-Gor (Atwill), a London sculptor whose small wax museum stresses tableaux of great historical events, inspirational evocations of subjects like motherhood, and beautiful heroines like Joan of Arc, over the sensational commemorations of crime and violence that draw many more paying customers to another such establishment across town. It’s the old dilemma pitting aesthetic vs. commercial considerations, here complicated by a creator who talks to his sculptures as if they’re really flesh-and-blood people, and a business partner named Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) who would just as soon burn the place down and collect ten thousand pounds in insurance money. The two men grapple and throw punches even as flames engulf Igor’s life’s work, and Worth escapes believing Igor dead and the insurance pay-out his and his alone.

It is interesting to note that in both this film and the 1953 House Of Wax, the Worth figure is a villain but not an absolute one. He has no love for Igor’s art and has nothing but impatience for his partner’s creative principles, but initially wants to play fair with him within the context of his intended crime. He proposes the arson scheme as something that will rebound to the benefit of both men, and fully expects to share the ill-gotten proceeds fifty-fifty. This doesn’t render his actions any less callous in terms of leaving the wax sculptor behind to die, and happily spending the insurance money afterward. It just makes him a guy who considers himself the artist’s friend even when he expects that the artist will happily collude in destroying the work for short-term profit. I’ve worked for at least one publisher like that.

In any event, time passes. The action moves to 1933 New York City. Dead bodies start disappearing from the morgue. Igor arrives in the city, older and mostly confined to a wheelchair (with crutches hanging from a rack on the back). He cannot sculpt anymore, as his burned hands no longer possess the same level of control, but he continues his work with the aid of assistants and apprentices (that include Hugo, a sinister deaf-mute), and is about to open a newer and larger wax museum. The problem, of course, is that some of the figures on display look an awful lot like corpses recently stolen from the morgue.

The chief narrative problem here and in the 1953 version is that anybody in the audience who can’t put all this offered information together, perform the necessary math, and figure out that there’s something other than plaster beneath the wax veneers of the figures on display has likely never seen a movie before, and that since the plot is largely an exercise in marking time until the breathless revelation of the secret we already know, we need some other reason to watch in the interim.

In 1933, that’s the spectacle of the tough lady reporter Florence (Farrell), who is fast-talking, cynical, hard-edged, dumbfounding, rude, and pretty much nonstop funny, especially in her interactions with her editor-in-chief, who seems to hate her and who she seems to hate back. She tells him, “I’m gonna make you eat dirt you soap bubble!” She tells another man, “You can go to some nice warm place…and I don’t mean California!” She leads the police to a crate she imagines to be the coffin of a recent murder victim, discovers it filled with bootleg liquor instead, and instead of just slinking off in embarrassment packs her coat with as much as she can carry. Almost every line that comes out of her mouth is verbal gold, and her angry back-and-forth with her editor leads to a punch line good enough to render all the previous jiggery-pokery with crazed murderers and entombed corpses look like it was just a distraction from what the story was secretly about all along.

This is, in short, one of the few cases where the female protagonist of a horror film is as rich and as well conceived as the menace she must confront. (Another, many years later, would be Silence of the Lambs.) She’s far better than the story she’s in, certainly far better than either of the male leads, who are both dull in different ways…or for that matter her best friend, the imperiled Charlotte (Fay Wray), a “good girl” with the misfortune to look like Igor’s idea of Marie Antoinette, and who aside from the terrific set of screaming pipes you expect from that actress, really doesn’t have much else to distinguish her. She’s just a screaming ninny.

In short, despite some expressionistic sets that employ wonderful arrangements of light and shadow, this is best perceived as a romantic comedy starring Florence that has happened to wander into a horror film and then wandered out again.

(Not incidentally, most current prints look awful. The movie was filmed in Technicolor, but was never properly cared-for. Though a perfect theatrical restoration exists, the most recent transfer to home DVD on the flip side of the 1953 version made serious tint-adjustment errors that resulted in looking weak and washed-out, almost like a bad colorization of a film originally shot in black-in white.)

House Of Wax (1953)

The second film changes the name of the mad sculptor to Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) and the name of the young woman who begins to suspect what he’s up to to  Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Sue is particularly drawn to the figure of Joan of Arc, who bears a remarkable resemblance to her murdered best friend Cathy (Carolyn Jones). The creepy deaf-mute assistance is Igor (here pronounced Ee-gor, and played by the future Charles Bronson).

Price was already an established actor whose gallery of roles had included the villainous Counselor (note: not Cardinal) Richelieu in the Gene Kelly version of The Three Musketeers. He had never been in a horror film before, but this and his subsequent performance in The Fly would soon make him one of the go-to-guys for macabre movies, a streak of good fortune that only extended his professional shelf-life as he aged. His Jarrod is not the angry, embittered, almost abusive sculptor that Atwill’s character became post-catastrophe, but a wry, amusing, charming figure who deeply enjoys regaling his guests with the provenance of the horrors on display. It’s a far more entertaining performance than Atwill’s, though that is more than countered by the movie’s insistence on jettisoning the 1933 film’s funny and resourceful heroine in favor of one who is bland, helpless, and pretty much devoid of personality. (Her doomed friend Cathy, who is also a ninny but who happens to be an entertaining ninny with an adorably annoying titter to recommend her, is much more interesting, but audiences should not get attached to her.)

The absence of a protagonist worth following means that the film must get by on style, of which it has plenty, and on the gimmickry of 3-D, which is both the movie’s saving grace and its biggest flaw. It’s the saving grace because the makers of the film recognize it’s their most powerful argument and therefore stage a number of scenes that exploit the device to its fullest advantage, notably by lingering at length on a dance-hall act with leggy dancers kicking their gams at the audience, and even better in a scene where a street performer regales audiences outside the museum with paddleball tricks, that amount to launching that leashed ball at the camera multiple times in rapid succession. At one point he even says he sees someone out there with a bag of popcorn, and it’s clear that he’s not talking to anybody in the movie, but to some moviegoer laughing his ass off in a theatre. Or rather, all moviegoers laughing their asses off, everywhere. Even after Avatar and others, this may be the single most bravura 3-D sequence of all time, simply because it revels in the sheer goofy fun of the technology, without caring much that it has nothing to do with the story.

I hope you have a pair of red/green 3D glasses around the house.

Of course, watching the same scene in 2-D is less satisfying…and the same came be said for the dance-hall scene, which is even more transparently gratuitous because of the amount of time spent on it and because it clearly represents a gimmick that halts the story for no reason. I shouldn’t even have to mention the final shot where the cop holds up the wax bust of Charles Bronson and brandishes it at the camera, just so audiences can ooh and ahh one last time.

Deprived of the strange character twist that defines the 1933 version, this one brings a basic flaw of the story into sharp relief: to wit, neither one has a good climax. Each film builds to its respective mad sculptor in the middle of preparing to “immortalize” some innocent woman as Marie Antoinette with a nice shiny coat of wax, when the cops bust in and he ends up running around in circles and eventually falling into the vat of wax itself. But in neither case do the protagonists have much to do with that; the cops get the goods on him independently and just happen to show up in time to break the door down. This is convenient but does little for the effectiveness of the heroes. It’s lame. And while this didn’t matter so much in 1933, when the heroine still had a terrific punch line coming, it’s pretty flat storytelling in 1953, when she’s not all that compelling a person and her last scene consists of little more than a “thank you.”

But it’s still one of the best 3-D movies ever made…a distinction not to be confused with the best movies ever made in 3-D, which would be another list entirely, probably topped by Dial M For Murder.

So the 1933 version represents a story that gets by on character, and the 1953 version represents a story that gets by on a technological gimmick. And the 2005 version?

House of Wax (2005)

The most recent visit to the wax museum makes one good decision: moving the museum fire, the most exciting sequence in either of the two prior versions, to the climax. This only makes sense, as thrillers want to move toward their most intense moments, not away from them.

But it jettisons the bare bones of the first two and instead gives us a gaggle of tiresome contemporary college students on a road trip, who we quickly and definitively decide to be compelling only to the degree that we must compellingly despise them. As must happen, they “take a shortcut” and have “car trouble” and “split up” and wind up in an entire freaking town, abandoned and forgotten in the age of GPS, with nobody on the streets and no apparent population but for a mechanic and his deformed brother (both played by Brian Holt), who between them have been capturing motorists to make them permanent exhibits in the wax museum that is the town’s most prominent feature.

We need not spend too much time on this. We need note, first, that the odds of any modern horror movie being at all good seems to be inversely proportional to the number of protagonists introduced at the onset. If just one or two, then we stand a chance of whatever happens next being about people whose souls we know and whose fate concerns us. The movie will likely follow something that resembles a plot and involve something more than slaughters at regular intervals. If instead we’re quickly introduced to a small crowd of interchangeable pretty faces who bitch at one another, then we know that the numbers are so high largely because the movie intends on killing them regularly and that everything else about them will be subordinate to that purpose.

After far too much time spent following this particular insipid bunch on their road trip, the plot starts to creak, past the discovery of a pit of rotting roadkill to car woes that lead two of the group to accept a ride they shouldn’t, to a one-block town with no visible people. Of course, it takes forever for the heroine Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) to notice that the town is about as lively as an abandoned movie set. When they are inevitably separated, Wade is first to get the wax treatment, which in this case leaves its victims still alive, if immobile, inside that coating, an element that allows Wade to act eloquently with his irises when another in this inexhaustible band of idiots, Dalton (Jon Abrahams), tries to free him and takes forever to realize that peeling the wax off removes the skin as well. Meanwhile, the villain captures Carly, straps her to a chair, and crazy-glues her lips shut. This is pretty nasty, but since she frees herself from her bonds within minutes and physically pries her lips apart with her fingers so she can go back to screaming, the worst effect the crazy glue has is rendering her lips raw and bloody, which in practice just makes her look like she’s wearing bright red lipstick. (Her speech remains unaffected.) But she does get the tip of one finger chopped off, so that’s something.

In the place of the offended and wronged artists Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price played in the first two movies, both driven mad by crimes committed against them after they tried to adhere to a matter of principle, we have Bo and Vincent Sinclair (both played by Brian van Holt), who started life as Siamese twins born to a disgraced surgeon and a lady wax sculptor seen in flashbacks and family photos that place a strange amount of emphasis on how much Mom smoked. The boys, Bo and Vincent (ha-ha, Vincent), kill people because they’re just plain insane. It’s no more than a lifestyle choice. Not for this movie the operatic villainy of once-gentle but tragically wronged souls. These guys are just plain bad, which of course enables Vincent to survive a crossbow shaft through the chest and rise from what nobody in the audience is fooled into thinking of as death, to chase Carly some more.

Paris Hilton is in the movie, as  Paige. She and her boyfriend are parked miles away from any of these occurrences, having sex, and therefore spend much of the film having little to do with the gathering menace. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that she’s just in the film so she can strip for her boy-toy and thus attract the kind of audiences who know what she did to become famous. Ultimately, one of the killers shows up, kills the guy and chases Paige, ultimately killing her, affecting the main plot not much at all. Between them, their purpose here is to serve as subsidiary victims, making sure that not too many minutes go by without somebody getting impaled on something. Of Hilton’s performance I can say only that she manages more on-screen than she does in her life as a personality famous for being famous by displaying considerably more than one facial expression.

It all leads up to the fire in the museum, which is actually, literally, I mean seriously literally, a House of Wax, so that the staircase and the furniture and the walls get all mushy as Carly and her brother try to evade killers as the entire building turns soft as snot all around them. In the entire history of mad slasher movies, this may be the one, the one, where it’s least advisable to flee up the stairs. Expect a scene where her brother tries to run up after her and sinks ankle-deep in the ooze. Expect one of the evil siamese-twin brothers to fall through the floor and land dead on top of the other brother, in a position that precisely duplicates their orientation before surgery. That’s convenient.

So, to the 1933 movie’s focus on character and the 1953 movie’s reliance on a technological gimmick, we can add the 2005 movie’s thudding obviousness, overt sadism, and a level of literalism that works only if the members of the audience can be trusted to be as bone-stupid as the moviemakers seem to perceive them. As dire histories of the art of moviemaking go, you really can’t get any more metaphorical than that.

The Wax Seal

1933 version, a dated and damaged but still enjoyable relic. 1953 version, a nostalgic treat with plenty of remaining charm. 2005 version, ugly idiocy for ugly idiots, one of the worst films of recent years.

And now, the wife chimes in…

***

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell. 77 minutes. ***

House Of Wax (1953). Directed by Andre De Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson). 90 minutes. ***1/2

House of Wax (2005). Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Screenplay by Charles Hayes and Carey Hayes, from the story (note difference) by Charles Belden. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Paris Hilton, Brian van Holt. 113 minutes. 1/2

Pardon me for a moment, but does anyone out there have a bit of steel wool for my brain?  Why, oh why, did the worst of these films have to also be the longest?  Oh darn!  I just gave away the ending of my piece didn’t I?  Oh well, it matters not, for I expect most folks who have seen the three films under discussion here have already drawn the same conclusion: that the 2005 remake SUCKS.

I don’t hate horror films.  I love a suspenseful slasher flick a la the original Halloween of the original Psycho, but let’s face it, kids, there ain’t no such thing in the latest version of House of Wax.  Let’s see, we have sex, annoying friend, bully, good girl, bad girl and black guy.  The only thing I had to play with was which order they were going to get offed.  No original attacks and as for supposedly college bound kids, Woe for our future! Any surprises? Nope.  Any squirming anticipatory moments? Not here.  Nope not much of anything that could be called innovative or fun.  So were we supposed to watch this just for the Paris Hilton semi-strip?  I will give the special effects guys a mild thumbs up for all the great melting effects, but the previous films at least used them to emphasize the point, here it was more of a” look what we can do these days”.  Gak, please save me from the idiocy of this mindset.

Then my sanity was recovered(partially, I do still live with a writer and participate in this blog).  We re-watched the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum and I couldn’t prevent myself from enjoying the snappy patter and decent acting.  There’s something about the screenwriters then, they didn’t write down to the audience.  On the contrary, they dared the viewers to try to keep up.  So much fun!  One question that just always hits me, who opens a new business, especially a touristy thing, downtown on New Year’s day?  I mean, is anybody even able to go out?    And who would want to see a wax museum with a hangover?  Really!!!

And finally, for the sake of truthfulness, I didn’t re-watch the 1953 HOW, mainly because it has become a favorite from childhood.  My first viewing was at summer camp on a rainy day.  I was blown away and even though my cynicism has exploded over the years, my sheer enthusiasm for this film has never waned.  When Adam and I decided to do this column, I lobbied for this to be one of the first just so I could watch and discuss it again.  Vincent Price is a snake charming menace.  Charles Bronson gets to play mute artist.  Carolyn Jones gets to be quiet for most of the film.  And I get to watch 3-D effects that don’t bug the hell out of me.  Gosh, what more is needed?  Oh yeah, I get to remember that awesome early melt scene.  That is what really remains with me.  People (ok wax dummies) melting like the wicked witch.  Just too cool!

Ok, so you see, I am a bit prejudiced here.  So, I say give the first two films a fair shake, but NEVER EVER EVER succumb and watch the 2005 remake!