House of Wax: realism versus art and artifice in horror cult film

Andre de Toth, “House of Wax” (1953)

“House of Wax” was the movie that established Vincent Price as a horror film icon and in itself is a larger-than-life cult classic. “Professor” Henry Jarrod (Price) is a wax sculptor who pursues art, beauty and perfection in a series of life-sized wax models based on historical characters and events; his particular pride and joy is a model of Marie Antoinette in her resplendent Ancien Regime finery. Jarrod regards his sculptures as his children, more human than the real humans around him, and talks to them frequently. His partner Mathew Burke (Roy Roberts), keener on making profit out of the wax figures, proposes burning down the lot to collect insurance money but Jarrod rejects the idea. Burke goes ahead anyway, the two men fight and soon a conflagration is raging through the building where the wax works are housed. Burke escapes, the building burns down in spite of fire-fighters’ best efforts at the time (the film is set in the early 1900s) and Jarrod is presumed dead.

Cut several months later, Burke is enjoying the gains of his ill-acquired wealth with a pretty socialite Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) who happens to be a room-mate of a working-class girl Sue (Phyllis Kirk). Burke soon dies in mysterious circumstances and Gray follows him shortly after. Sue happens to see Gray’s murderer who pursues her through the streets of New York City. She manages to escape him. While police investigate the deaths of Burke and Gray and the disappearance of their corpses from the morgue, a new wax museum, containing figures derived from horrific crimes and scenes of murder, opens to much fanfare. Jarrod has survived the fire and with two assistants (one of whom is played by Charles Bronson, credited as Charles Buchinski, in an early role) has restored most of his figures. Phyllis, visiting the museum with her sculptor boyfriend Scott (Paul Picerni), is drawn to and freaked out by the figure of Joan of Arc who resembles Gray. For his part, Jarrod is drawn to Sue who reminds him of his beloved Marie Antoinette figure which he intends to restore with Sue’s likeness …

The original film was made in 3D which explains several rather pointless scenes in which women dance the can-can on stage and a man advertising the wax museum’s opening bangs ping-pong balls on bats at viewers and people attending the opening. There is quite a long chase sequence early in the film with Sue and Cathy’s murderer through shadowy streets that might have come straight out of an early Hitchcock film which milks suspense and terror for all these are worth. Generally the first half of the film is quite slow with very little horror but a lot of talk and character establishment; the second half of the film when very minor characters are introduced and the plot is well under way moves quickly to tie up all loose ends and resolve underlying issues.

Price delivers no less than 100% and then some in his role as Jarrod, evoking both sympathy and revulsion from viewers. His idealistic pursuit of beauty for its own sake, spurning greed and profit, is noble although creepy at the same time. There is an underlying theme of realism-versus-artifice throughout the film; the plot deliberately confuses the two in Jarrod’s pursuit of art and Sue, and in a number of characters who, though live, might as well be puppets for Jarrod to manipulate. Viewers will see the contradiction in Jarrod’s need for actual humans – and very dead ones at that – on which to base his creations and realise his ambitions of creating art. Even live humans, whether deaf-mute ones like Bronson’s Igor or live ones like Sue’s beau, end up as putty in Jarrod’s hands regardless of whether they have feeling or not. The other actors present competent performances as required by the plot and Hollywood narrative conventions imposed on it.

There may be a second theme, not fully explored in the film, of women as things to be moulded by men and then gazed upon for their beauty and art (or artifice); the characters of Cathy Gray and Sue may be compared and contrasted in this respect as well, Cathy delighting in being a plaything of rich men and shaping her body to fit into tight-waisted clothes to satisfy the fashion diktat while Sue presents a more natural and even at times feisty would-be heroine who does her own detective work and brings it to the attention of the police.

The look of the film is colourful and near-Gothic with a strong carnivalesque atmosphere. Actors wear rich and sometimes luxurious costumes and the sets are often gaudy. Sly humour and puns are incorporated into the dialogue and sometimes performances verge on camp. The character of Igor is a stock figure in horror films but Bronson manages to carry it off in a way that makes Igor genuinely sinister.

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