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One was fresh. One was re-warmed but still quite tasty. The third was rancid.

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***

Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes. ***

Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. *

Other Known VersionsNight Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version);  too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.

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Before we begin this one, we’ll note that we had an ulterior motive for placing this series of films so high up on the list of possible remake blog topics: the recent release of my own entry in this now-venerable and still growing subgenre, the gorily illustrated alphabet book Z Is For Zombie, by myself and dynamiting artist Johnny Atomic. That volume would not exist had an innocent nine-year-old with an interest in monster movies not wandered into a Saturday afternoon double-feature half some forgotten piece of crap I can no longer name and half the nightmare that warped him, and apparently, uncounted others, for life. Go ahead. Click the Amazon link above and buy a copy or twelve. We’ll still be here when you’re done.

Done? Now we can move on.

Zombies are everywhere. There are now several different postulated pathologies, including the brainless, slow zombies of the three films under discussion today, the various sequels directed by George Romero, and many of his imitators: slow, mindless, ambulatory meat, who eat flesh.

There are the sentient, somewhat faster zombies introduced in the competing  Return Of The Living Dead series, who crave and chant “Brains” for reasons too depressing to go into right now.

There are the fast-moving zombies of the 2004 Dawn Of the Dead remake, who are not “all messed up” and can run. There’s an entire suite of living “zombies” such as those postulated by 28 Days Later (2002) and, arguably, Zombieland (2009), who are better described as human beings who have come down with a virulent form of rabies.

There are the splatstick zombies of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992),  arguably the best zombie movie ever made, who remain animate even when chopped into little pieces; and there are the video-game zombies of the Resident Evil movie series, of which we shall only say, they suck. Nor are these the only variations. Even if you omit the traditional voodoo zombies which are , which another kettle of fish entirely, zombies come in more varieties than penguins. And then, on top of that, there are the variations postulated by the writers of horror novels, some of which are far removed from Romero’s blueprint. (Check out, among others, Walter Greatshell, Mira Grant, and Brian Keene.)

But the subgenre as we understand it today did all begin in 1968, with a little low-budget movie that didn’t even use the word “zombie” at any point. Its characters had never seen a zombie movie and were slow to understand the nature of the phenomenon they were dealing with. They called their shambling assailants “those things,” and they struggled with the evidence of their eyes and their sense, learning the new paradigm of their world even as the monsters loose in that world closed in around them.

Night Of the Living Dead is the seed of the myth.

And all three of the movies bearing the same title share much of the opening premise. All three open with a pair of bickering siblings, Johnny and Barbara, on a long and unpleasant trip road trip to a cemetery. In all three, Barbara is the good daughter, fulfilling a family obligation to the dead; in all three, Johnny is the obnoxiously contrary brother, vocal about finding the entire exercise hypocritical and ridiculous. In all three, Barbara initially believes in showing respect for the dead; in all three, Johnny argues that the dead won’t appreciate it. (He is correct about that, but obviously has no idea just how true that will soon turn out to be.) In all three, Johnny resorts to mocking his sister’s piety by chanting, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara;” in all three, the first of the ambulatory corpses shows up to prove him right. All three films proceed to quickly write Johnny out of the equation and send Barbara fleeing on foot to a nearby farmhouse, where she will soon find herself among a small group of survivors besieged by a growing crowd of hungry ghouls.

From that seed, though, the three versions head off into remarkably different directions.

The Iconic Classic: Night Of The Living Dead (1968) 

In the first film, Barbara arrives at the farmhouse in a state of shock that renders her functionally catatonic for most of the action to follow. She is childlike, petulant, withdrawn, detached, and unable to answer simple questions when Ben (Duane Jones) arrives, having already survived several encounters with “those things.” His understanding of what’s going on is no more advanced than hers, except that he knows survival depends on keeping the creatures out.

Much has been made of Romero’s genius in casting a black man as the hero, especially since subsequent events place him in opposition with another survivor who happens to be a loathsome white coward. In tumultuous 1968, when that kind of casting was practically unheard-of, Ben’s race and the race of his instant enemy Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) gave the film a contemporary resonance well beyond what one would expect of a silly little story about dead people who wander the countryside gnawing chunks off the living. It contributed to the film’s notoriety and no doubt to its immortality.

As it happens, the casting was no stroke of genius, but a stroke of luck. The screenplay made no reference to Ben’s race. Duane Jones was simply the best of the leading-men types who showed up to audition, and Romero’s genius amounted to being open-minded enough to say, “Why not?” As it is, Jones demanded substantial changes to the character of Ben, before agreeing to play the part. The original Ben was an unsophisticated blue-collar guy, with uneducated speech patterns. The Ben Jones agreed to play is a well-spoken hero wearing a white shirt and tie, who may show up driving a pickup truck but who seems to have picked it up elsewhere when he first encountered the madness abroad on this particular night.

This Ben is clearly a capable and brave man, and the protagonist we root for when the cowardly, selfish, angry me-first type Harry Cooper emerges from the cellar, where he and several other terrified survivors have been hiding. Some have said that the black man being in charge, over a white man who is at best ineffective and at worst a dangerous liability, increased the chills for contemporary viewers, given that it formed a microcosm of a society that actually did seem to be turning upside down. This is a valid interpretation even if, as the facts bear out, the resonance was an accident of casting. We note that the movie is deft enough to avoid underlining it. Harry may think Ben is “crazy,” but he never attacks him on racial grounds or questions the propriety of a black man being in charge – even though everything we know about Harry’s character would make a racist streak wholly unsurprising. Nor does Ben ever bring it up. Ben is only  the hero because he seems to know what he’s doing; Harry is the villain because he’s a loudmouth whose wife hates him, and because his strategy for survival consists of hiding.

There is an unfortunate, unwanted additional resonance in that hateful, white Harry actually turns out to be right; the first floor is a deathtrap, reinforcing the windows is a waste of time, and just about everything brave, black Ben does, to face the hordes of undead like a man, does lead this poor group of allies who trusted him to an early death. It’s a very good thing for posterity that Ben and Cooper never actually have the white/black argument, because if they did, the bloody conclusion could be read as a vindication of Harry’s position. As it is, Ben is so much more easier to admire than Harry that most viewers can see the movie multiple times and still fail to register that Harry’s plan for survival was in fact the correct one.

In any event, the original Night established the rule followed by most good zombie fiction since then (not just in the movies, but in prose as well): that since zombies as they’re usually imagined are inarticulate and unmotivated by anything but hunger, their mere presence cannot be the sole required story engine. It needs to be the motivating force that throws the interpersonal conflict of the living into sharp relief. This is true whether the issue at hand is rampant consumerism (Dawn Of the Dead), delayed adulthood (Shawn of the Dead),  a surprisingly sweet love story (Dead Alive), or, as in the original Night, the forces that alienate human beings from one another and keep them from cooperating for the common good. A zombie story that fails to reflect this, that is merely a catalogue of ways to dismember corpses, will likely be as soulless as the ghouls themselves.

The movie ends, of course, with sole survivor Ben staggering from the basement, only to be shot dead by sheriffs who spot him through an open window and mistake him for one of the walking dead. His color aside, his climactic death was shocking at the time, when most thrillers and horror films ended with a happy restoration of the status quo, and the happy escape of deserving people to a happy ending. (In 1969, when I saw it at age nine, I couldn’t believe that any movie would ever go there; today, of course, most mainstream horror movies go for that kind of closing shock, and the effect is not so much shocking as yawn-inducing.) Factor his color in and we get another accidental resonance, very vivid to those who first saw the film in those days of rural assassins taking up rifles against Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Workers Cheney, Shwermer, and Goodman.

The film itself still works, decades after zombies became commonplace on screen. The grainy black and white photography, the building tensions among the people in the house, the grinding unfairness of everything that happens, the inexorably worsening news on the radio, and the absolute dearth of any happy-ever-afters, still render it a powerful tour-de-force. There are some impressive non-performances, but Jones remains fine.

Alas for Romero, the distribution company never properly copyrighted it. The movie passed into the public domain almost immediately, and he no longer makes money from it.

Which was the key reason for the first of the two remakes.

The Unfairly Maligned First Remake: Night Of the Living Dead (1990)

By 1990, the very idea of remaking Night Of the Living Dead seemed so sacrilegious, to so many, that many critics who’d embraced the original (some retroactively) attacked this one as a blot on its memory.

It was, of course, impossible for any mere remake to have the impact or influence of the original. Among other things, the casting of a black lead was no longer shocking by then. But, largely, people who condemned this one condemned the very idea of it, rather than its execution. They hated that director Tom Savini chose to film this one in vivid color, instead of grainy black and white; they hated the sharp changes it made in the original story while simultaneously (and paradoxically) condemning it for going where Romero had gone before. In truth, consider it only as a film, without either the weight of an iconic original or the social background behind the initial release weighing it down, and it’s very much in the first film’s class, and can be sensibly defended as better.

Romero, who wrote the screenplay of this one as well, said at the time that he couldn’t just make a shot-by-shot remake; people knew the original so well by then that the remake would not be nearly as effective if everything just played out the same way. So he set up the same situation and the same conflicts and went elsewhere with them, starting just a few minutes in, when the first person to bump into Barbara (Patricia Tallman) is not a walking corpse, but a traumatized survivor of a prior massacre.

Barbara is just as traumatized, just as unresponsive, when she gets to the house as she was in the original film. When Ben (Tony Todd) shows up, she is just as unable to answer him. But circumstances soon force her to kill a zombie sneaking up behind her, and unlike the original Barbara she soon starts to (forgive us) rise to the occasion, stunningly becoming one of the strongest people in the house.

By the time the Ben / Harry antagonism begins, Barbara begins to reveal herself as having more sense and more guts than the two of them put together. She is the one who sees that the walking dead are so slow that wasting energy on barricading the windows or hiding in the cellar amounts to defending a deathtrap. She is the one who, told she’s losing it, coldly shoots an approaching zombie in the face and then angrily addresses the others:   “Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago, and I do not plan on losing anything else. You can talk to me about losing it when you stop screaming at each other like a bunch of two-year-olds. “  (Patricia Tallman was so very good in the part, especially in this scene,that I expected major stardom for her; that never materialized, alas, though she worked regularly and was a supporting player on Babylon 5.)

Ben’s fallibility is brought closer to the forefront. At one point, he tackles Harry, who’s bringing a television downstairs. The TV is smashed, leading Ben to assault Harry for trying to sneak the TV into the cellar. Harry’s response – that he was bringing the TV downstairs for everybody, that it wouldn’t have gotten any reception in the basement – is stunning. Much earlier in the story, it becomes clear that Ben is actually part of the problem.

Nothing plays out exactly the same as it does in the original. Tom and Judy, the boring young couple nobody could stand in the first film, who get themselves and Ben’s truck blown up in a failed attempt to fill the gas tank, are not quite as bland here, and while they get themselves blown up here as well, via a similar act of clumsy panic, the mistake they make is entirely different. Helen’s death plays out differently. The final invasion of the house leads to an entirely different final confrontation between Harry and Ben (as well as the revelation that the house did include a perfect hiding place that nobody bothered to consider: the attic).

Barbara escapes by walking right past the zombies, just as she’s always contended everybody could, and what she does when she returns with help – coldly shoot the surviving Harry right through the head, and telling her companions in zombie-killing that he’s ‘”another one for the fire” —  underlines the substantial changes the night has wrought in her. She’s dead inside: a perfect denizen of the new world.

There was some impressive non-acting in this film as well, but most of the performances were better, and the pacing more assured. Tony Todd was an effective Ben, Tom Towles was an effective Harry, and Patricia Tallman was a powerful Barbara. The color cinematography was not quite as artful, but it had the benefit of being transparent: it did not get in the way of the story.

In short, the 1990 film is everything a remake should be. Aside from the accidents of casting and the contemporary background that boosted the original’s impact, which could not be duplicated, it matches just about every narrative strength of that original while justifying its own existence with a startling different take. It didn’t deserve the drubbing it got, and has fortunately been appreciated more and more as the years have passed.

No, if you want to see everything a remake should not be, just look at the most recent version.

The Awful Second Remake: Night Of The Living Dead 3-D (2006)

The makers of this version had a number of big ideas, none of them good.

Indeed, it is rare to see a remake that fails on so many levels, that has so many fundamentally bad notions, that showed such a universal misunderstanding of what made the original story work. Next to this, the Paris Hilton House Of Wax was a masterpiece.

We can’t testify to the effectiveness of that much-maligned 3-D process here, since we saw a 2-D version. But we can say that it would have needed to transform the visual aspects of this version to something on the level of Avatar to counter even one-tenth of the damage their other big ideas did to the story.

The danger signs start very early. In both prior versions, the teasing Barbara’s brother Johnny subjects her to in the cemetery ends as soon as the first zombie attacks; then the first zombie attacks, he sees that the danger is real, and he rushes to protect his sister, at the cost of his own life. This makes psychological sense, as it’s what a big brother would do. In this film, he runs to their car and drives away, abandoning her to her fate. That is the act of an unbelievable asshole, which doesn’t ring true at all. Still…all right. Maybe this Johnny really is just an asshole. If the rest of the movie were not filled with terrible ideas, maybe we could let it pass.

Alas, it is.

The biggest and worst of those ideas is the apparent premise that all the conflict inside the house, that doomed both prior sets of survivors to their unlucky fates, was boring and needed to be jettisoned. The second worst is the apparent belief that all the characters needed to be rendered more bland. As a result, this movie’s Ben (Joshua Desroses) is just a generic white college student who helps distribute the product of this film’s married Coopers , (Greg Traviss and Johanna Black), marijuana farmers who own the farmhouse and are thus perfectly at home there when “Barb” (Brianna Brown) shows up to tell everybody that the dead have risen.

Yes. The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.

Chew on that. It deserves repetition.

The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.

Having trouble digesting that, aren’t you?

The third worst innovation is that the confusion over the nature of the phenomenon that faces everybody, so clearly delineated in the first two films, is here removed completely. In the first two films, the phenomenon was treated as something almost beyond comprehension. But this film’s Barb knows the word “zombie” from seeing zombie movies herself, and bursts in on Coopers who are getting stoned while watching the 1968 version. They know exactly what she’s talking about; they’re just skeptical and reluctant to call the police to their pot farm. The conflict is reduced to Barb’s increasing frustration at them for being so thick and stupid – which they greet with a compassionate equanimity that goes on for way too long. It’s deadly to any suspense the film might have, even as the zombies start to accumulate in the yard.

The fourth worst is the removal of the disaster’s scale. Any implication that the rising of the dead is afflicting anybody but this one small group of people is simply omitted. We don’t get the horror from the first two films of a widespread disaster and of the radio and television reports sending people to shelters that are then described as overrun or no longer accepting refugees. So we lose that, too.

The next worst is the reduction of this film’s doomed Tom and Judy to a standard horror movie couple who we see fucking so we can then still see them get killed. They are the worst incarnation of Tom and Judy, and that’s saying something.

The result of all of this is that there’s no subtext, either by accident or design. It’s just stupid boring people being attacked by zombies, none of whom do anything we haven’t seen zombies do before. Even a bad zombie movie, like Flight Of the Living Dead,  can be remarkable for the cleverness of its zombie gags. But no.  For the first time, a Night Of the Living Dead movie is exactly what the detractors of the series would say it always was: a stupid exploitation movie without any ideas.

All of that, which serves only to establish that nobody involved with this thing had any idea why this story ever worked, and completely remove the character issues that gave the first and second versions whatever weight they had, is just background to their greatest innovation: casting horror-movie veteran Sid Haig as a mad mortician whose funeral home is the source of the contagion. It all, eventually, becomes about Haig acting crazy.  And it must be said that he does give the proceedings what little energy they have. But the character is a stupid innovation and he isn’t good enough to overcome a story which, ironically enough, has had all its life sucked out of it.

The Final Respects

The 1968 version, a hugely influential and still terrifying horror film. The 1990 version, a worthy remake marked by a genuinely different take. The 2006 version, nothing but rotten meat.

Thanks to K.C. Locke, who provided us with the 1990 version.

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And now, the wife peers out through the barricaded window…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***1/2

Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes.***

Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. 0000000 NO!!!!!

Other Known VersionsNight Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version);  too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.

I thought that this comparison was going to be an easy-peasy job based on having seen and loved the original and seen and hated everything about the third, but damn the middle version made it rough.

Let me warn anyone who even slightly enjoyed the 1968 NOTLD, DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!!  I REPEAT DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!  That so called movie takes everything that was right and tosses it to the winds.  Why bother with character development and plot, when special effects and action are available. OK. so fine,  the makers wanted to cash in on the 3D craze, so they threw in a few hokey effects.  I could deal with those as long as the story made sense, but come on guys, using the original film in your own really bad interpretation was just plain stupid!  Why invite the comparison? Were you so sure of your own greatness or just too dumb to realize the end result?

Now, let me admit to something a bit shameful.  I didn’t see the 1968 original film until sometime in the late 1970’s, and that in a cut to shreds version on local TV.  Of course, I doubt my parents would have allowed me to see it much before then, but I had snuck in a few nightmarish childhood treasures by that time (The Birds remains a favorite pre teen scare).  However, even that ripped apart, commercial-ridden version left me wanting more undead fun. I even placed the film into my pantheon of classic horror to be rewatched and savored alongside the Universal classics I so adored.  High praise for a little black and white film.  I finally got to see the film uninterrupted by ads and hopefully uncensored in college and realized there was an art to pulling the guts out of a writhing body.  Wow, even more coolness!  I was hooked like the proverbial big fish.  And again, I begged and pleaded for more, but none came. 

Sure, there were the sequels, but they just didn’t have the oomph I got from the first.  The magnetic draw just never occurred. And, while I enjoyed the Evil Dead movies for the fun romps they were, I still didn’t find the walking dead I needed to tickle my thrill bone.

By this point I had given up on ever seeing NOTLD remade with the proper respect, but thanks to this blog, I got most of my wish.  The 1990 version directed by Tom Savini and written by dead master/creator George Romero  reworks the original into an updated story, tighter and tauter than the original.  The film follows the same opening premise, but from there, most of the character conventions shift slightly.  We no longer have just the tough hero, we get a useful, tough Barbara instead of the whimpering, nearly comatose girl from the original.  Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman are not just folks  that were picked for their availability, they can act and did.  The nods of respect to the original are there throughout the film for the people who need that, but the changes make for a better film overall.  Why then, did it leave me just slightly disappointed?

When a masterwork is created no revision, even by the originator, is ever going to give me the same feeling of wonder/chills/awe, that the original had.  Is a copy of the Mona Lisa as good as seeing the original?  Is Beatlemania the same as having seen the Beatles perform live?  That’s the problem I have here.  The 1968 film crept into my soul and warped me permanently.  The 1990 Savini vision, while really good and eminently watchable, just becomes a poor cousin despite the fixing of the original’s flaws.  So, yes, watch both films.  Enjoy both for the works they are. And, please, I beg of you, DON’T WATCH THE 2006 3D NOTLD!   Pretend it doesn’t exist.  It will poison you.  In the immortal words of Latka Gravis, “Thankyou very much.”


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

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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!