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Warner Home Video presents
House of Wax (1953)

"The place burned like a paint factory."
- Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: September 07, 2003

Stars: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk
Other Stars: Carolyn Jones, Paul Picerni, Charles Bronson, Roy Roberts, Reggie Rymal
Director: André de Toth

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence)
Run Time: 01h:28m:22s
Release Date: August 05, 2003
UPC: 085391105428
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-B+D+ B+

DVD Review

When 3-D hit the scene in the early 1950s, it was initially viewed as a fad, mainly a gimmick to pull people in to novelty pictures. Recognizing correctly that that fad could not be a source of long-term profit for competing with television, the studios attempted to use the gimmick as part of the narrative of their films. A few attempts were made at this before giving up, notably the musical Kiss Me, Kate, Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, and House of Wax. Although shot and presented in 3-D, this disc presents only the flat 2-D version, although all of the zany 3-D footage remains in place.

Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is a master of wax portraiture in the late 1800s, and he disdains the usual Chamber of Horrors approach. His financial partner, Mattew Burke (Roy Roberts) disagrees and rather than continue taking a loss, he decides to burn the wax museum and collect on the insurance. Even more conveniently, he leaves his partner, Jarrod, for dead in the blazing inferno so he won't have to share in the insurance. But Jarrod somehow survives, though bound to a wheelchair and unable to use his hands, and with a variety of assistants, including Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni), sets up a new museum with emphasis on the horrors. But bodies begin mysteriously disappearing from the morgue, and a black-cloaked and disfigured man is killing young women, whose faces strangely turn up in the wax museum....

It's hard to imagine a time when Price wasn't considered a horror movie star, but that was the case for over 15 years of his career, when he played a variety of princes and slimy characters. House of Wax changed all that, and his reputation and type-casting were cemented a few years later with The Fly. He does a fine job here, using his imposing presence and amazing voice to good effect, especially in differentiating between the pre- and post-injury Jarrod. The late Charles Bronson makes one of his earliest film appearances as Igor, Jarrod's mute brute assistant. Why are the assistants in horror movies so often mute or deaf-mute, anyway? So they won't talk about their misdeeds? Or are the hearing-disabled just considered by Hollywood to be creepy, under the same attitude it has towards hunchbacks? Carolyn Jones, who would go on to be best known as Morticia Addams on The Addams Family gets fourth billing despite a small part. She does make the most of it and remains in the memory much longer than Phyllis Kirk, the ostensible heroine, who like Picerni is duller than dishwater.

The 3-D is humorously recognized for being the gimmick it is. The famous sequence after the intermission card (retained here) with a carnival barker (Reggie Rymal) manipulating paddleballs and banging them out toward the audience has become iconic of the whole silly and ineffective 3-D fad. Jarrod even gets a classic deprecatory line: "I hope you dont think I've gone too far hiring this fellow to bring people in." No, not any more than, say, Warner Bros. Oddly enough, Warner decided to have a one-eyed man, André de Toth, direct this 3-D film, so he was never able to experience the 3-D effects himself.

While not very scary by today's standards, there's still some entertainment value here, particularly if you enjoy Price, Jones, and Bronson going through their paces. It's too bad that technical limitations don't allow Warner to include a 3-D version on disc, though.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Cinemascope and widescreen presentations were still another fad down the road when House of Wax was released, so the full-frame version presented here is the correct one. There is substantial film grain, with good color and deep blacks. Aliasing is often prominent, such as on the pan through Jarrod's studio. However, difficult-to-render materials such as fog and dark shadows come through nicely, with minimal to zero artifacting.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, Spanishno
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: An English language Dolby Surround track provides some separation in the dialogue. However, hiss, noise, and crackle often contribute to the dialogue being difficult to make out. The track is often fatiguing because close listening is necessary. The music often has a distorted, unpleasant sound. To top it all off, the audio is not switchable on the fly for reasons best known to WAMO.

Audio Transfer Grade: D+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Bahasa, Thai and Korean with remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Snapper
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Original 1933 version of the film
Extras Review: Not content with the usual modest extras for such a film, Warner brings out the big guns: the original version of the film, the 1933 classic Mystery of the Wax Museum starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). This had its own gimmick, two-strip Technicolor (a much more successful gimmick than 3-D, though soon supplanted by the more natural three-strip Technicolor). Watching the two in close succession, it's clear than much of the dialogue and even many of the particular shots were directly lifted from the earlier film, though of course none of the 3-D gimmickry is on display. The print (originally from Jack Warner's own collection) is in excellent condition, with mild speckling and a somewhat hissy soundtrack. Wray had just come from screaming her head off at King Kong this same year, and her screams at the much-more-effective makeup of the deformed killer here are equally memorable. Glenda Farrell is terrific as a spunky, wisecracking reporter on the story. Since this was a Pre-Code horror, it tends to be a fair amount nastier than the main feature and the atmosphere seems much more dangerous than in the tamer 1950s version.

The usual modest extras are here too, however. There's a 2m:14s newsreel clip of the premieres of the film, though the audio has gone AWOL and it's just set to music. Among other sights horrific and otherwise, we get an aged Bela Lugosi in cape being dragged by a guy in a gorilla suit, Ronald Reagan, Danny Thomas, Shelley Winters, and other notables. There's also a vivid Technicolor trailer for the film that harps endlessly about the 3-D but manages not to show a single frame of the film. Still fascinating to see the ballyhoo machine at work, though. Chaptering is thorough for both features, and Warner supplies a multitude of subtitle options, including a Malaysian dialect I'd never even heard of before.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A flat presentation of one of the classic 3-D films, in a decent transfer and with a super extra in the form of the original (I'd say superior) version from 1933. Well worth seeking out for the classic horror fan.


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