When I was a kid, growing up in the 1970s, we had a great cable television station to tune into, Channel 50, which beamed into our northwest Ohio home via Detroit, Michigan. On Saturday afternoons at 3:00 p.m., Channel 50 would air Chiller Theater. My brother and I would tune in regularly and that is where I saw a horror movie that truly gave me a scare: 1953’s House of Wax, starring the wonderful Vincent Price. Warner Brothers distributed this film, directed by Andre de Toth and produced by Bryan Foy. Price’s co-stars were Frank Lovejoy, Charles Bronson, Carolyn Jones, and Phyllis Kirk. House of Wax was a remake of an earlier Warner Brother’s movie, 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. This newer version was the first film to combine technicolor with the 3-D filming technique.
Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is a creative, artistic genius when it comes to making wax sculptures of people. He and a business partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) have opened up a wax museum in New York City. One evening, Burke visits the museum to appeal to Jarrod to make displays that depict infamous and evil people, to lure in more paying customers. Jarrod refuses to make such exhibits. He is an artist and doesn’t want to make such macabre displays! Burke then announces that if the museum were to burn in a fire, they would collect the insurance money. Jarrod is horrified that Burke would suggest such a thing, decrying the plan because that would mean destroying “his friends”; it is at this point that the audience knows that Jarrod is a bit crazy, as he refers to his statues as if they are real, treating them with kindness and respect as he displays them. Burke, ignoring Jarrod’s protests, sets the skirt of Marie Antoinette on fire and when Jarrod tries to put out the flames, Burke starts setting other exhibits on fire. He and Jarrod have a fist fight and Jarrod is knocked out, falling onto the Joan of Ark display. Burke then finds a flammable liquid to toss around the museum, and he also turns on the gas lights so that natural gas will fill the place! Jarrod awakens, tries to stop Burke, who does manage to flee. Jarrod tries to stop the inferno, but a part of the building collapses on him and after the fire is over, his body isn’t found. Seeing those wax figures begin to melt, to burn, to see their eyes pop out of their heads, to see their heads break off their bodies, and to see the bodies crumple in the flames, to me as a child, that was a very, very creepy scene!
Time marches on and the film focuses on the two ladies in the story, Cathy Gray(Carolyn Jones) and Sue Allen(Phyllis Kirk). The ladies are good friends, they room at the same boarding house, and it just so happens that Cathy’s fiance is Matthew Burke! Sue, herself, has a boyfriend, Scott Andrews(Paul Picerni) who just happens to be a sculpter for a new wax museum that is opening under the direction of Professor Henry Jarrod! Jarrod did survive the fire, but his hands were permanently damaged, so he has had to turn to new artists to help with his sculptures, including another new assistant, who is a mute, Igor(Charles Bronson, but the credits will have his real name listed, Charles Buchinsky.) Jarrod is also in a wheelchair, as the fire damaged his legs. One evening as Cathy is getting ready for a date with Burke, the camera cuts to Burke’s home and a dark, shadowy figure wearing a large hat and a black cape sneaks into Burke’s home and strangles him! Burke’s death by a sinister figure dressed in black, who sneaks in and out of the shadows, striking at night, that really scared me as I watched the film!! The police are called and Lt. Tom Brennan(Frank Lovejoy) and his assistant, Sgt. Jim Shane(Dabs Greer), are called to the scene of Burke’s murder.
Strangely, bodies begin to disappear from the morgues in New York City, including Burke’s murdered body. Professor Jarrod has new exhibits being made ready for his museum. Taking his late business partner’s advice, the new exhibits focus on gruesome scenes of torture or death, some exalting horrible people. Sue visits the museum with her boyfriend, Scott. Professor Jarrod is introduced to her and he is immediately drawn to Sue, saying she reminds him of his Marie Antoinette figure. It is obvious that upon meeting Jarrod, Sue has an intuitive dislike of the man and his museum, but she is tactful about hiding her feelings. Days go by and one evening that creepy, shadowy figure in black sneaks into Cathy’s bedroom and murders her! A couple nights later, that same shadowy figure steals Cathy’s body from the morgue. The shadowy figure happens upon Sue one night as she is walking home alone. Sue senses she is being followed and with a glance over her shoulder, she sees the creepy figure moving quickly in the shadows, stalking her. Fortunately she arrives safely to her destination. The stalker tries to also harm Sue as she is sleeping, but her screams successfully drive the fiend away. Oh how those scenes worried me!!
Sue visits the museum again in order to wait for Scott to get off of work. As she walks around, she notices that the Joan statue in the Joan of Ark exhibit looks a lot like her dead friend Cathy! Sue shares her fear with Scott and they decide to go to the police. Sue bravely decides she must find out what has happened to Cathy’s body so she goes alone to the museum and plans to hide there to explore the Joan of Ark exhibit after the museum is closed for the evening. She discovers that the figure of Joan of Ark is really Cathy’s dead body!!!! Professor Jarrod discovers Sue in his museum and with the help of Igor, catches her. As Sue confronts Jarrod, hitting him with her fists, his face crumbles off in bits and his true face is revealed: a horribly scarred, burned visage is shown, and we know that Jarrod has been the shadowy figure creeping at night finding victims to murder and then putting them into wax to be sculptures for his museum!!! Sue faints at the horrible sight of Jarrod’s face, and he orders Igor to take her below to the wax works. We next see Sue, waking up from her unconscious state, to find herself chained inside of a long, wooden box with four, high sides. Her wrists are chained down to the box’s bottom as are her ankles. Jarrod explains that his plan is to cover her body in extremely hot wax, she’ll die, and then she’ll live on as his Marie Antoinette. The tension builds as time will be running out for Sue as the wax increases in temperature and begins to flow through intricate tubing where it will soon empty on top of her! Back at the police station, the officers and Scott and wondering where Sue is, as she didn’t meet them as planned. As the wax gets hotter and hotter, the police finally get to the museum! In the nick of time, the good guys arrive, break into the museum, rescue Sue, deal with Igor, and Jarrod gets his own hot wax treatment, by accident.
As I pointed out earlier, this film was a remake, of sorts, to an earlier Warner Brothers horror film, 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. I discovered in my research that the 1953 film is available on a double-feature dvd, with the 1933 film. Some more interesting factoids I discovered were that Jack Warner was reluctant to green light this project, but he finally did and the movie was made in 28 days at a cost of $618,000. It made a great profit, $23,750,000! Andre de Toth, the director, was legally blind in one eye, so 3-D effects he couldn’t see and yet for a 3-D film, it is one of the better ones. Midway through the film is a famous scene of a paddle-ball player showing off his talents and talking right to the camera and aiming his paddle-ball there, one of the 3-D aspects of the film. This was also the first horror movie Vincent Price starred in, and he did such a fantastic job with the part, that more and more horror parts started coming his way and through horror films he made a name for himself. Carolyn Jones went on to famously play Morticia Addams in the television comedy The Addams Family, and Charles Buchinsky famously renamed himself Charles Bronson and went on to stardom in many action movies.
Vincent Price is excellent as Professor Jarrod. Before he suffers from the fire, we can see his love for his art, his politeness to all he is in contact with, we see his decency as a person. When the wax figures are first threatened with fire by Burke, we start to see the slight madness of Jarrod through his reaction to the threat. It is a subtle turning of Price’s character, and he performs it so well. The eerie scene of melting wax figures that seem human-like, the creepy, dark figure sneaking into people’s homes at night to kill them, the stealing of dead bodies at the morgue, the stalking and attempted harm to Sue, all of these elements helped to make 1953’s House of Wax a horror movie that truly scared me as a child.