With an outsider perspective to Gothic horror, Warner Bros. jumped into the Universal pantheon, mirroring their shadowy, foggy atmosphere and casting eerily unsettling Vincent Price in its lead. Jarred from his delusional reality as his business partnership falters, Henry Jarrod (Price) turns maniacal, a wax sculptor obsessed with realism and the macabre.
That means bodies, morgues, and freakshows, embellished with the quaint environments of early 1900s New York. Warner’s picture is undoubtedly exploitative, and it should be, with a plethora of campy screen scares plus genuine unsettling images meant for powerful 3D. House of Wax has an adventurous side to perk up its soggy pacing. Spunky humor imbues the feature with early, glossy summer entertainment feel – decades before such a standard was set.
Jarrod’s character fascination with grisly unreality pulls Price into typecast which would define his genre career, along with 1958’s The Fly (Blu-ray review) and its sequel. Wheelchair bound Jarrod hires two misfits, one deaf & mute the other an alcoholic, crafting a wax museum display of dreadful models for a credulous audience.
House of Wax is perfect in its parallel, an exploitation flick with exploitation subject matter. Jarrod’s work depicts murders, misanthropes, and recently deceased, scoring admissions from brutality against others. In-movie patrons faint at their shocks, and House of Wax battles a maturing film audience growing hungry for snippets of bloodshed. For 1953, it provides.
Vincent Price is Wax’s center, steely eyed with a calming demeanor to lure in victims who succumb to his unbreakable charm. His counter is Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), unnerved after being chased through darkened streets by a disfigured man, and piecing together a seemingly impossible murder scenario. Allen is anxious and apprehensive, swearing these newly displayed figures carry elements of reality. Of course they do, or there isn’t a film.
Wax finds itself distracted, certainly reaching for 3D gimmickry, particularly a wasteful paddle ball demonstration barely fitting into the narrative. Problems inherently surround the cheapened mystery, which lacks volume and makes police investigations asides to horror elements.
A-list status will secure minor classic designation however, House of Wax high on flame lit set work, grungy basements, and musty streets. Atmospheric pressure weighs on each sequence. Comedy acts as a valve release before the finale turns rambunctious and violent, veering from societal wholesomeness to cap this uncomfortable, vintage-minded horror.
Warner debuts House of Wax to Blu-ray with an exceptionally high resolution encode to capture clarity and fidelity, along with softness inherent to the unique cinematography process. Dress adorned on wax figures prove exceptional, from frilly hats to overcoats, each hosting an array of textural definition. Lines are pure, holding pivotal sharpness outside of chemical fade edits, which of course dampen imagery (plus introduce analog halos).
Infused with Warner’s own Eastman Color process, the vintage film carries brilliantly illuminated primaries if a crushing adherence to shadows. Blacks meld with no visible transition from light, often hard contours created between saturation and total darkness. Aside from complications, House of Wax mirrors its intent, profiteering from still new processes to draw people in. Blu-ray captures that magnificence.
Compression measures handle a consistent grain element, certainly thick when considering a dual camera (and thus dual film strip) set-up. Instances of visible artifacts are almost nill, and reserved for those with the largest of screens. The film runs the span of 18GB for video, small if enough to manage a feature of diminutive length such as this. Source materials are pristine without dirt or scratched materials, and touch-up processes are invisible within the end product. House of Wax is gorgeous vintage.
The disc’s true show stopper is 3D, granted an intensity few modern features are willing to seek out. Background depth is monumental, at times tough on the eyes as it pushes foregrounds up. Similar praise can be levied for Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (3D Blu-ray review), filmed via Universal’s own signature 3D rig. Warner’s use of Natural Vision involved mirror trickery and cameras facing one another, along with stereoscopically blind director Andre De Toth cranking up intensity to splash screens with outstanding dimensionality. There is no fear exhibited for the visually sensitive.
Opening credits blast text over a darkened street, an introductory period with only a margin of House of Wax’s 3D ability. Stable life size figurines poke hands toward the screen, and carry rounded depth to their faces. Particularly interesting is a clay work-in-progress late, which allows depth within crevices to carve out insets for the eyes and mouth. It becomes more than a typically rounded face. On the flip side, certain instances incorrectly stage elements, and a moment with Phyllis Kirk pushes background curtains near distractingly close to the forefront breaking point.
Cinematography appreciates and considers 3D at all times, laced with foreground activity. Sets are constructed for potentially aggressive angles, while actors have their marks toward room fronts. Yes, House of Wax will throw things at the screen, mostly with marginal effect until paddle balls are shoved toward the viewer. Despite darkened images and a handful of havens for cross talk, House of Wax is exemplary.
Not only was this Vincent Price vehicle technologically forceful visually, application of stereo would further stretch House of Wax’s stage. Breaking from the 1:33.1 frame, dialog pushes to the sides where applicable, while action scenes (especially an opening fire) can create a dazzling split. David Buttoplh’s score mixes channels as well.
Supreme lows prove to be the fidelity highlight, sensing dread and laying on elevating drums for effect. Highs, with an exception made for opening credit themes, can break down, buckling under pressure. Mild hiss is evident during downtime, while dialog carries a naturally untouched scratchiness. Any clean-up has preserved age, and this DTS-HD mix holds to House of Wax’s once technically superior facade.
Film historian David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr offer thoughts via an insightful commentary, although the 48-minute Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Seen Before is the disc’s bonus high. Interviews are broad, and discussions on 3D processes are wonderfully thorough. Vintage interviews are used to fill in blanks, including Vincent Price and director Andre De Toth.
Silent footage from the film’s premiere runs short, around two minutes. Warner also includes an SD version of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Print condition is dire (all Technicolor beauty is lost), although the feature was lost for decades after its release.
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