House of Wax (2005)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: July 20th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
By 2005, if you wanted to draw the ire of a certain generation of horror fan, you had two clear options. You could either announce the latest in a growing line of remakes, or you could continue the trend of producing what those critics called “teeny-bopper horror”: slickly-produced studio fare starring popular actors The WB and CW networks. Whether it took the form of Scream-inspired slashers or J-Horror rip-offs, this particular aesthetic defined early-aughts horror, and it often intertwined with the former trend, yielding the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Thirteen Ghosts, much to the chagrin of an old guard slipping from their place as Hollywood’s target demographic. Dark Castle Entertainment—an instrumental production outfit during this era—couldn’t have made itself more clear when it produced House of Wax, a movie that checks all of those ire-drawing boxes and then some. Not only was it yet another remake, but its cast was full of rising television stars, including a pair from WB shows. And in another, even more transgressive step, it dared to feature Paris Hilton, a reality TV pariah whose presence wasn’t exactly endearing to horror fans lamenting yet another mainstream intrusion. House of Wax couldn’t have put a bigger target on its own back, but it also came out swinging, matching its swagger with terrific craftsmanship. 16 years later, it’s not only one of the best movies from this particular trend—it’s one of the best slashers of the 21st century.
In hindsight, it’s easier to realize this shouldn’t have been too surprising. With Jaume Collet-Serrra—who has gone on to become one of our great genre filmmakers—at the helm, it’s an especially sturdy riff on a familiar theme. Allow me to be the umpteenth person to point out that this is less a remake of either iteration of House of Wax and more a reworking of Tourist Trap, but the deja vu is still the same: you have yet another movie where a group of kids break down (this time headed towards a big game at LSU, so, to be fair, they might not have made it out alive had they reached their destination) and find themselves at the mercy of backwoods psychopaths. Only this time, it’s a particularly elaborate take, one that finds the doomed kids trapped in a dead-end ghost town, where the only citizens are a pair of twin brothers, Bo and Vincent Sinclair (Brian Van Holt) and a tow-truck driver (Damon Herriman). Everyone else in the town of Ambrose is made of wax, the remnants of the Sinclair brothers’ mother, a famous wax sculptor whose legacy endures in gruesome fashion.
Aside from the title and the general premise (there is, in fact, a House of Wax hoarding grisly sights), Collet-Serra’s film doesn’t have much in common with its predecessors. It’s more of a straightforward slasher movie, something that felt a little refreshing in 2005, when this particular genre no longer carried the cultural cache it did during the 80s. By this point, it had been reimagined and deconstructed so thoroughly that it was some real “through the looking glass” shit when the likes of this and Wrong Turn showed up and delivered no-frills slasher mayhem. Granted, these are much sleeker, more polished productions than the rugged, quick-and-dirty productions from the genre’s heyday, but the spirit is the same: it’s all about piling up as many bodies as possible in inventive fashion, and House of Wax especially excels at this.
In addition to boasting the usual assortment of slasher carnage (decapitations, impalements, severed extremities), its premise—which finds the Sinclair victims turned into wax figurines—allows for prolonged nastiness in the way of melting and peeling flesh. I find few slasher films to be genuinely squirm-inducing, but House of Wax has a few moments that are tough to watch, which is a testament not only to the film’s twisted imagination but also to its top-notch effects team. While gore was coming back in fashion at this time thanks to the likes of Saw and Hostel, the violence here is somewhat striking: even final girl Elisha Cuthbert isn’t spared and loses a finger along the way. I could understand the qualms fans had about this era’s tame, PG-13 studio fare, which so often sanitized horror films, but this one’s a fairly nasty piece of work. Fans especially lobbed a lot of criticism (some deserved, some not so much) at these Dark Castle joints, but they were almost always eager to please in filling up the gore quotient, and House of Wax does so with the kind aplomb associated with these productions.
But unlike those other movies—specifically Ghost Ship and Thirteen Ghosts—House of Wax has more going for it than gore. Its characters might not leap off the script since they’re very much slasher clichés (bickering siblings, the nice boyfriend, an obnoxious goof, a perpetually horny couple), but the film’s pacing invests in them, dedicating over forty minutes to hanging out with them before the slashing begins in earnest. They hit the Goldilocks Zone of being compelling enough to carry the movie without overstaying their welcome, and, even though they’re mostly likeable, their deaths aren’t exactly a bummer, either. Hitting that sweet spot can be a tricky proposition, and Collet-Serra handles it deftly. There’s even a playfulness to Hilton’s appearance since everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing here. Marketing infamously invited movie-goers to “watch Paris die,” and the movie obliges but also takes its sweet time in doing so, treating Hilton’s death as a sort of main event. Anyone bemoaning her appearance in the film couldn’t see forest for the trees because this was an old school exploitation tactic in modern digs. Yes, they cast Paris Hilton in a slasher movie, but they did so with the express purpose of gruesomely killing her off. You have to respect that!
Fortunately, Collet-Serra matches this huckster energy with a vigorous style. From the moment his camera dramatically pushes into the Sinclair’s squalid childhood home, it’s obvious that House of Wax has a cinematic verve that was uncommon among its contemporaries. Throughout the film, Collet-Serra deploys a variety of dynamic angles and shots, giving it a visual identity beyond the vague studio polish of this era. Despite clocking in at over 110 minutes (usually a death knell for slasher movies!), House of Wax never drags thanks to its director’s visual panache and its terrific production design. The film luxuriates in its sets, with the secluded town of Ambrose being an obvious highlight as the crew leans into its backlot artificiality, heightening the unreal atmospherics of the location. Isolation is a crucial component of a traditional slasher, and this one achieves it with one of the more indelible settings, especially the titular House of Wax, a macabre menagerie that serves as the climax’s funhouse. Collet-Serra goes big throughout, staging a fiery final confrontation that sees his mad slasher literally plowing through goopy, melting walls, creating a sense of real awe and spectacle. House of Wax feels like a blockbuster slasher, which must be why Warner Brothers decided to move it up from its original October release date to May, where it struggled to gain traction with audiences and critics.
Between its critical drubbing and its lukewarm box office performance, House of Wax must have felt like validation for jaded horror fans who had grown tired of this trend. I’m not sure I was completely among them: while I was entering that insufferable early-20s film snob stage that would see me rage against nearly every remake, I also knew I still couldn’t resist a good slasher, no matter how mainstream it may have been. Whatever reservations I may have had about it evaporated pretty quickly, and I’m proud to say I’ve been banging the drum for this one for a while now. I’m also not alone because House of Wax was always meant to appeal to that burgeoning millennial generation seeking out their own, new formative experiences since video stores could only take them so far. House of Wax illustrates a timeless truth: you may get older, but the dead teenagers in slasher films have to stay the same age, so one generation’s rejects are bound to become another’s cult classic.
And I think it’s fair to say that it’s earned that distinction considering it’s become the latest Dark Castle film to earn a Blu-ray Collector’s Edition from Scream Factory. For its second Blu-ray outing, House of Wax gets a little bit of a makeover since Scream Factory commissioned a new 2K scan from the film’s interpositive that looks terrific. Details are sharp, and the film’s admittedly pallid color scheme is accurately reflected as the transfer retains a nice filmic quality (it’s wild to think that only fifteen years ago, they were still shooting modestly-budgeted slasher movies on film). This disc also provides an audio upgrade since WB’s original release hailed from that early Blu-ray era where the studio routinely only provided lossy 5.1 Dolby tracks. Now, we can finally enjoy House of Wax in DTS-HD MA, which might sound facetious for a slasher; however, this one actually sports a nice, lively soundscape, particularly during the boisterous climax.
For new material, Scream Factory (in conjunction with Reverend Entertainment) has produced a quartet of new interviews, including one with Hilton herself, who is only one of two cast members to take a stroll down memory lane here. That’s right: the actress whose mere presence courted disdain is practically the headliner here, as she has a lot of nice things to say about the experience, including the infamous marketing that played up her on-screen death. She shares other memories about the production, like her reluctance to scream and her wish to wear high heels during her chase scene. It was obviously a fond experience for her, and she continues to appreciate the film’s growing audience, which is cool to hear. Robert Ri’chard is the other cast member to appear, and he has similarly fond recollections, especially about the intimate tent scene he shared with Hilton (which wasn’t so intimate considering there were four or five crew members and cameras shoved in there too). Effects artist Jason Baird appears via Skype to discuss his contributions in constructing the film’s elaborate set. He discusses triumphs (building the entire town and populating it with a mixture of actual wax figures and extras wearing masks) and tribulations (accidentally burning down an entire set) to provide some insight into just how tactile and taxing this production was. It’s a reminder that every movie is a minor miracle, even the ones involving literal wax houses. Finally, composer John Ottman (speaking of being instrumental to this era) speaks about his process for scoring the film, particularly how he weaved motifs throughout for the Sinclair brothers to help tie together the film’s narrative.
Just about everything else has been ported over from WB’s previous release, with the lone exception being a 19-minute collection of vintage EPK interviews with the cast and crew, who have some thoughtful responses to some routine line of questioning. The recycled material kicks off with a B-roll and bloopers commentary that has Cuthbert, Hilton, Murray, and Padalecki sharing a couch and commenting on behind-the-scenes footage. Other holdovers are typical behind-the-scenes hype stuff: one focuses on the film’s visual effects (it’s remarkable how much digital effects played a role, even in 2005), while another sheds light on the actual waxworks. Joel Silver (whose name is dropped throughout as a selling point since Collet-Serra—who’s now directing Dwayne Johnson blockbusters—is depicted as a scrappy newbie) appears for a brief, silly promo bit from the set of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, where he hypes House of Wax, insisting it’s going to scare the hell out of audiences “next Halloween” before a car plows into him.
One of the more interesting supplements is an alternate opening scene, but I can understand why it was likely cut: while it does feature a nice gore gag that would have punched up the film’s violence in the early going, I’m guessing the pacing felt a little odd since it would have followed the actual prologue. A gag reel and the film’s trailer round out a release that features Scream Factory’s customary reversible cover, which sports their newly commissioned artwork alongside the original theatrical poster. As is usually the case with these releases, the only obvious improvements here would involve more participation from high-profile stars, but we all should know by now that’s an absolute crapshoot in normal conditions, much less during a pandemic. Besides, the vintage material features more than enough of those stars and covers most of the bases when it comes to the production aspects, so it’s hard to imagine a more thorough release for House of Wax. Certainly anyone who’s been championing it should be satisfied, if not downright vindicated by it. Hopefully, it’ll also inspire those naysayers to give it another shot and recognize that it offers the same thrills of their beloved slashers—it just has another coat of wax on it.
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