House of Wax (2005) Review

Prey. Slay. Display.

Next time you happen across Madame Tussauds, spare a thought for the artistry involved; those sculptures have a life of their own. Still, making wax look like your favourite movie star is back-breaking work - wouldn’t it be easier to kidnap Jessica Alba, smother her in wax, and leave her out to dry with the rest of the herd? Probably, but it’s not advisable. If you’re the deranged psycho in House of Wax, however, it will sound like a million-dollar idea.

In fact, he has plenty of willing “guests”, as a group of college students (what else?) stumble upon his demented house of horrors. Apparently, they have left the town of Gainesville for a big football game in Baton Rouge; taking an ill-advised detour along the way. Stranded in the abandoned town of Ambrose, they attempt to seek help. Unfortunately, they discover the ‘House of Wax’, whose inhabitants look eerily authentic. Soon enough, the clandestine villain is stalking the group, and giving them a new “life” in his museum...

Ridiculous, vapid, and entirely predictable, House of Wax is nothing new in horror cinema. It sticks doggedly to the slasher formula, and never tries to be anything more than the sum of its parts. In this respect, the debut feature from Jaume Collet-Serra is oddly enjoyable - fans of the ghoulish and macabre will no doubt love this expensive slice of exploitation. It knows what strings to pull, and gives them a good yank. Some will also appreciate its ties to the golden age of screen villains - it is, after all, based on the Vincent Price chiller of the same name. Yet, Serra isn’t interested in rehashing that film. Apart from the B-movie title, and the killer’s modus operandi, this picture is very different.



Produced by Dark Castle Entertainment (the much-maligned genre arm of Warner Bros.), House of Wax’s greatest asset is its sharp look. Like so many filmmakers before or since, Serra is a veteran of music videos and commericals. Thankfully, he has plenty of skill in the technical department; giving the picture a delightfully morbid look. It’s also fleetingly retro, recalling classic horror in its best moments. The director has the sense to build tension, and while the film is rarely scary, it gets points for effort. The screenplay attempts to make us care for our protagonists - a difficult hurdle to jump in this genre - and pretty much fails in this department. These are the same stereotypes we’ve seen in any Friday or Elm Street movie. They’re nothing but crash test dummies; minus the car. Naturally, I couldn’t remember a single character’s name after the film drawed to a close...

While it’s true that modern slasher movies don’t require much in the way of professionalism, the cast does feature a number of familiar faces. 24’s Elisha Cuthbert is a welcome presence, largely due to her beauty more than acting prowess. (Indeed, I’ve been a fan of her “assets” since the cover of Hotdog #48. A good issue). She acquits herself well here, adding to the ever-growing list of horror heroines. There’s also teen heart-throb Chad Michael Murray, who relished the chance to escape those romantic roles; and Brian Van Holt as the villain. The latter is fiendishly creepy, and threatening when necessary (there’s more to his performance, but revealing such details would spoil it). Following in the footsteps of Vincent Price is no enviable task, so it’s reassuring that Van Holt has gone in an entirely different direction. He’s not as cartoonish, but conforms to many of the clichés we’ve come to expect.

So, what of Paris Hilton? I’ve never been a fan; she isn’t worth the constant media exposure we are subjected to, and One Night in Paris aside, her “acting” resume is pretty slim. Fortunately, she isn’t that bad here. Yes, she could do with taking some classes, but she doesn’t derail the film; blending into the group as she waits for her time to die. And that isn’t really a spoiler. Much of the marketing campaign has pointed to her demise in House of Wax, and suffice to say, it’s the best in the film. It’s bloody, fairly brutal and quite protracted. Talk about giving the audience exactly what they want...

...and if you’re like me, you want creative murders. It’s the sole reason a film like this exists, and screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes manage to dispatch their good-looking cast in various sickening ways. It’s all quite derivative, with the expected quotient in cutting, slashing and chopping, but Serra executes the bloody scenes with manic glee. Yet, the best sequence is one you’ve already seen - in the trailer, no less. Caught in the killer’s weird wax contraption, one poor sole is coated from head-to-toe in the sticky substance; a horrible way to go. It’s certainly more graphic than the original, with an R-rating to boot. While it’s unlikely to impress die hard gore-hounds, the make-up and prosthetics are top-notch. The wax figures are convincing and finely detailed, and the blood spills at frequent intervals.

In fact, the film manages to bypass many of its narrative faults on technical bravado alone. Serra’s eye for detail is pretty impressive; a fact matched by Graham “Grace” Walker’s extraordinary production design. The barren town of Ambrose appears to be stuck in the 1960’s. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is playing at the cinema, leading us to question what happened to everyone else. The streets are empty. It’s a ghost town, with the ‘House of Wax’ dominating the area in the same way that the Bate’s household overshadowed the motel in Psycho. The building is a gob-smacking piece of design work in its own right, and as one character points out, it’s made entirely from wax. With some swift pacing, a John Ottman score, and gorgeous photography, the film never fails to entertain.

*Spoilers*

House of Wax’s only failing, is that we’ve seen this type of scenario far too many times. The story recalls everything from Chainsaw Massacre to Wrong Turn, and the characters do the most inane things; often leading to their own demise. If it wasn’t for the superb finale, I might have rated it lower, but everything comes together in the last act. The survivors finally grow a brain, and decide to burn down the titular building. As a result, the wax melts; the characters seep through the stairs and walls, and try to claw their way out. It’s a wonderfully-orchestrated sequence, and a fitting denouement. House of Wax might be a silly time-waster, but it’s a perfect antidote to a boring Saturday night...

Overall

6

out of 10

Last updated: 16/06/2018 16:01:53

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