House of Wax (2005)

House of Wax (2005)

Hunted.Murdered.Displayed.

A group of teenagers are on a road trip to watch the most important football game of the year. On the way, they run into a detour which forces them to stop and camp for the night so that they can finish the trip the day after. After an encounter with a mysterious truck-driving local and finding that one of the cars has been damaged, two of the group accept a lift from a local to the nearest town so that they can get a replacement part and be on their way. The town’s central attraction is a now-defunct wax museum and after exploring it and seeing how realistic the dummies are, the pair soon realise that there is something more sinister to the town than meets the eye. They must find a way to escape before they become the next permanent exhibits.

 

Having had previous success with remakes of other 50s classics such as House on Haunted Hill and Thir13n Ghosts, Dark Castle Entertainment saw that there was potential to revisit further older properties and so turned their attention to House of Wax, immortalised in 1953 by a barmy Vincent Price and a novel 3D production. The resulting horror film borrows more heavily from cult late 70s horror Tourist Trap and the 80s slasher than it does the Vincent Price original but that’s not a bad thing. Playing more like a traditional teenage body count flick where a mentally-deficient psychopath stalks and kills a variety of young adults, House of Wax delivers far, far more than I had envisioned it would. In fact, I’m not ashamed to say that I really enjoyed it.

House of Wax features the traditional set-up: a bunch of teenagers on a road trip end up in the middle of nowhere and fall victim to a weirdo wearing a mask. There’s nothing new to see here. But story was never the strength of the slasher film and so once the inevitable exposition has taken place and the characters fall into the path of the killer, then that’s where these films begin to earn their money. House of Wax does that in earnest. But it does take a little while to get there. The character development and introductions take too long and even then there are some characters we know very little about. Stick with it though because once they arrive at the house of wax, then it steps up a couple of notches.

The two main reasons that this works as well as it does is the production design and the kills. First of all the stylish production design. The house of wax is a really unsettling, creepy place which is made entirely of wax and is populated by the wax-encased bodies of previous victims (thus cementing the link with the original). It does its job perfectly well and isn’t over-used. In fact, the whole wax angle is really played up here as a pivotal component to the plot, leading to the finale which involves fire and lots of CGI. The wax models are unnerving and, better yet, we get to see the waxing process completed in all of its horrific delight. Watch as one unsuspecting teen is strapped to a table and subjected to a tortuous process which is a one-way ticket to becoming the next attraction. You’ll think twice before the next time you’re in Madame Tussauds!

This leads me on to the kills. House of Wax doesn’t hold back on the gore and the brutality where many a recent horror flick has shied away from. There’s nothing played for laughs – it’s all mean-spirited where pain and suffering is the name of the game. In many respects, House of Wax borrow this nastiness from Saw a year earlier, with its depictions of carnage bordering on the realistic. Case in the point: the aforementioned ‘waxing’ scene. But there’s lots of other stuff including Achilles tendons being snipped, fingers cut off, decapitations and much more. Perhaps the film’s sickliest moment comes at the literal hands of a road kill pit, the thought of which just makes me nauseous. It’s this sense that something even more disturbing is just around the corner which keeps the film going.

With all of this eye-candy comes a host of the usual young suspects in the cast, many of whom were plucked from American TV shows. There are two notable actresses though. The first is the star, Elisha Cuthbert, more famous across the world for her Penelope Pitstop-style escapades in 24 as Jack Bauer’s eternally-suffering daughter. Cuthbert got a lot of unfair stick for her portrayal of the character which was down the script writers rather than her ability. She’s a decent actress and gets to show off a little of that here with a solid performance as the ‘Final Girl.’ A lot was made about Paris Hilton starring in this too and a lot of knives were sharpened ready to savage her. I’m not her biggest fan and I opt not to give her the airtime that her publicity craves because I have no interest in her as a person. I don’t hate her, just think that she is irrelevant. However I will stick up for her here in saying that she is by no means the worst part of the film. Her character is one-dimensional, her lines are limited and her glorious demise in the film was much-publicised before release. But she’s alright in the role. Without her paparazzi baggage, you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at her being in this.

 

At times it can appear that House of Wax is more style over substance (and I’m looking at you, finale) but underneath the glossy surface is a gloriously nasty slasher which delivers the goods. The slasher material feels fresh, the wax elements are played to perfection and the cast do decent jobs of making it all seem believable. Highly underrated but maybe in ten years, we’ll look back on this in guilty pleasure fondness the way that we look back at some of the 80s slashers now.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

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