House of Wax (1953):

The main frisson is between Victorian Grand Guignol and '50s appetite for gimmicky sensation, though André de Toth uses the 3-D images, protruding from screen right with the opening credits, with dry ingenuity, even self-reflexivity -- to the boys in the front row the can-can thighs shooting out from the cannily gratuitous dance-hall scene must have been the closest thing to porn, and the sideshow ping-pong pitchman further acknowledges the idea of watching by literally emphasizing the space between screen and audience. Accordingly, the story, shifting the London setting from Mystery of the Wax Museum to 19th-century New York, traces artifice and commercialized horrors: sculptor Vincent Price, thought dead in the fire that consumed his "children," returns with his taste for beauty traded in for the new chamber of horrors, tableau vivant for tableau mort, figures of Abe Lincoln and Cleopatra segueing into Bluebeard, guillotines, and medieval torture. Amid the exhibits lies a statue of Roy Roberts, the artist's double-crossing manager, incidentally, his body last spotted dangling from a noose in an elevator shaft before vanishing mysteriously. Are the figures a little too lifelike? What lies beneath their wax skin? Phyllis Kirk wants to know, particularly after lively gold-digging gal-pal Carolyn Jones is snuffed out by a scarred night creature, only to reemerge as the exhibition's Joan of Arc. Kirk's smack cracks the patriarch's mask, and next she is sprawled naked, waiting for the boiling paraffin that will turn her into Price's beloved Marie Antoinette, a passive object of contemplation -- had the scene been shot in the 1970s (as perhaps it was, in Tourist Trap), de Toth's astute political inquiry might have been recognized. As it is, viewers were more enraptured by the impassive gaze of wax dummies licked by flames, eyes slowly shifting in Charles Bronson's massive-rock mug posed amid spare noggins and, of course, the surreptitious mingling of spectacle and art. With Frank Lovejoy, Paul Percini, and Nedrick Young.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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