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House of Wax (1953) Blu-ray 3D/2D Review

House of Wax (1953) movie poster House of Wax

Theatrical Release: April 25, 1953 / Running Time: 88 Minutes / Rating: GP

Director: André De Toth / Writers: Crane Wilbur (screenplay), Charles Belden (story)

Cast: Vincent Price (Prof. Henry Jarrod), Frank Lovejoy (Lt. Tom Brennan), Phyllis Kirk (Sue Allen), Carolyn Jones (Cathy Gray), Paul Picerni (Scott Andrews), Roy Roberts (Matthew Burke), Angela Clarke (Mrs. Andrews), Paul Cavanagh (Sidney Wallace), Dabbs Greer (Sgt. Jim Shane), Charles Bronson (Igor), Reggie Rymal (The Barker) / Uncredited: Nedrick Young (Leon Averill/Carl Hendricks), Philip Tonge (Bruce Allison), Riza Royce (Mrs. Flanagan)

The most successful 3D movie of the 1950s, House of Wax, comes to 3D Blu-ray™ for the very first time on October 1st!
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When Avatar became the top-grossing film of all time with a significant portion of its earnings coming from 3D exhibitions, there were two schools of thought on what its success would mean for the industry. There were those like writer/director James Cameron who were convinced that this new form of 3D would revolutionize cinema to the extent that color and synchronized sound had.
Many others felt that the popularity of this format would prove short-lived as all past incarnations of 3D had.

Four years later, both hypotheses seem to have panned out in their own way. Digital 3D has caught on far more extensively than all of the dimensional technology it succeeded. Today, 3D television programming, Blu-ray 3D, 3D gaming and software is all around us. It's almost impossible to make a big-budget movie without a 3D version. Filmmakers as respected as Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, and Sam Raimi have embraced the format. Studios and theaters have invested too much for 3D cinema to disappear anytime soon.

At the same time, the grounded, historical perspective pinning 3D as a cyclical fad was accurate too. Domestically, fewer than one-third of opening weekend moviegoers opted to see the 3D versions of the summer hits The Great Gatsby, World War Z, and Monsters University. Around one-quarter of early tickets for the blockbuster Despicable Me 2 carried the 3D premium. The biggest 3D attraction stateside this year was Pacific Rim, which came close to a 50/50 split, a far cry from the 70-80% 3D shares of Tron: Legacy and Alice in Wonderland in 2010. The future of 3D might be in danger if foreign audiences, an increasingly substantial portion of this global business, didn't continue to support it enthusiastically and disproportionately.

Whether or not the novelty starts to wear off in the rest of the world as it has for much of North America, there's no denying 3D's resurgence and ongoing ubiquity. This incarnation of the format has undoubtedly eclipsed the brief previous heyday of the mid-1950s. The Avatar of that era was the 1953 horror film House of Wax, which on Tuesday hits high definition in a hybrid 3D/2D Blu-ray Disc. Like Avatar, House was not the first to introduce new technology. It simply found great success that led the format to spread and subsequent 3D productions to be judged against it.

Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) can't save his life's work from going up in flames as part of his business partner's fraudulent insurance scam. A mysterious, monstrously disfigured murderer pursues a woman on a foggy night.

A remake of the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum, House tells the story of "Professor" Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), a gifted turn-of-the-20th century New York City wax figure sculptor who shuns sensationalism in favor of historical exhibits. Jarrod's museum attracts some business, but not as much as his macabre competitors and not enough to satisfy his partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), who is looking to sell his share. Blown away by Jarrod's lifelike creations, respected art critic Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanagh) considers buying out Matthew. But he is to spend three months off in Egypt, so Matthew, needing money right away, spontaneously sets ablaze Jarrod's life's work in an effort to collect $25,0000 in insurance money.

His offer to split the payout with Jarrod understandably rejected, Matthew alone seems to survive the museum fire. But not for long, as he is strangled and framed for suicide. Not actually dead, Jarrod collects the insurance money and then sets his sights on Matthew's gold-digging would-be fiancée Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones). Cathy's best friend, Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), discovers Cathy's dead body and only narrowly escapes her own demise by the hideously disfigured presumed killer.

At the titular newly-opened museum, Jarrod abandons his principles and embraces the shock value of the horrific. His Chamber of Horrors exhibit depicts violent acts, with figures of the world's first electrocuted convict William Kemmler, beheaded Queen of England Anne Boleyn, and so on. Wheelchair-bound and his hands burned, Jarrod now can only supervise his artists, which include the deaf-mute Igor (Charles Bronson in one of his earliest film appearances), an alcoholic ex-con (Nedrick Young), and Scott (Paul Picerni), a family friend of Sue's.

By that connection, Sue visits the museum and is shocked by the resemblance that the Joan of Arc statue bears to her recently departed friend. She brings her concerns to the police, who look into the matter, but seem satisfied by Jarrod's explanation that he and his artists modeled the sculpture after photographs of the decedent. That does not, however, quench the suspensions of Sue, whom Jarrod wants to model for his new Marie Antoinette figure.

A paddle ball-playing barker (Reggie Rymal) shamelessly breaks the fourth wall to demonstrate the visual power of Natural Vision 3D. Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) is struck by the resemblance this wax Joan of Arc bears to her recently poisoned best friend.

Produced when Hollywood, concerned with television's popularity, searched for ways to revive business,
House of Wax boasts a number of techniques not widely used at the time. In addition to the highly-touted Natural Vision 3D, House was presented in color (dubbed WarnerColor) and, at theaters equipped for it, stereophonic sound (called WarnerPhonic). Given the emphasis on these new technologies (CinemaScope was right around the corner), you might fear that this film is nothing more than an amusement park ride. Gladly, though guilty of some gimmickry, House is actually a very well-made and suitably creepy thriller.

The strong foundation is supplied by Mystery of the Wax Museum, a brisk but good film from which House doesn't depart in major ways. The revenge angle is an obvious addition that somehow eluded Mystery's makers. This remake also drops the somewhat comedic contemporary newspaper angle of the earlier film, which is no great loss. Otherwise, it stays true to a harrowing concept that lends to the depth effects which largely complement the macabre atmosphere. That House is set in the early 1900s does not appear to be of great consequence to anyone but the costuming department.

Still, it brings this closer to the Gothic horror that would prove to be a happy home for Vincent Price. Price had been groomed as a leading man and had performed those duties capably for fifteen years in a number of period dramas and romances. House would be a game-changer for him, cementing his calling as a character actor and kickstarting his prominent association with genre fare for decades to come and the subsequent immortality resulting from it.

The film is defined by its technology in a few minor ways. Scenes of the museum's paddle ball-playing barker (who slyly breaks the fourth wall) and of can-can dancers are unmistakably designed to demonstrate the in-your-face potential of 3D visuals. This film certainly seems entitled to such stunts, which even extend to climactic action. Another byproduct of the 3D is the need for a seemingly random intermission, occurring halfway into this 88-minute film. That was needed to allow time for exhibitors to change reels and synchronize the two side-by-side projectors, a process that likely precluded the movie from running any longer than 90 minutes. Warner's Blu-ray retains that intermission but with a momentary screen indicating it lasted ten minutes in theaters.

House of Wax: Blu-ray 3D/2D cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray 3D/2D Disc Details

1.37:1 Original Aspect Ratio
2.0 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Mono 1.0 (French, German, Italian, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, German, Italian, Spanish Castilian, Spanish Latin American, Portuguese
Video Extras Subtitled
Release Date: October 1, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $35.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase in Lenticular Slipcover
Still available on DVD (August 5, 2003), TCM Greatest Classic Films DVD Collection: Horror (September 1, 2009) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Warner, the only studio to reach back to the '50s for Blu-ray 3D material, does the wise thing by offering both 3D and 2D presentations of House of Wax on the same disc. Measuring exactly 1.37:1, the Academy Ratio picture reflects obvious restoration efforts and it stays clean and vivid most of the time. Unfortunately, a number of shots are lacking in focus, sometimes to an extreme where the 2D version feels like you're watching the 3D version without glasses on. I suspect that this may simply be a byproduct of the filming that used two cameras and mirrors, but it's not constant, so it's a little bit of a mystery. The studio's care for the film is never in doubt here, so my guess is that it's for the better that they didn't simply turn up the sharpness in the scenes clearly lacking it.

Sound is presented in 2.0 DTS-HD master audio and I'm ashamed to have taken it for two-channel mono, now having heard the documentary talk it up for being one of the first films to make use of a three-track stereo soundtrack. The mix is satisfyingly crisp and lively, for a 60-year-old movie, anyway. Still, channel separation and directionality are limited. The disc is fitted with an above-average selection of monaural dubs and subtitles, although it loses a few from its DVD.

Director Andre de Toth and stars Phyllis Kirk and Vincent Price don their 3D glasses and brace themselves in this vintage publicity photo featured in "'House of Wax': Unlike Anything You've Seen Before." "Gremlins" director Joe Dante is among the modern-day filmmakers celebrating "House of Wax" in this new 2013 documentary.

BONUS FEATURES

In 2013, it's unusual to encounter a catalog film given brand new bonus features. House of Wax gets not one, but two substantial additions for its Blu-ray debut.

First up is a new audio commentary by film historians Constantine Nasr and David Del Valle, the latter a friend of Vincent Price for twenty years. Led by Nasr, their discussion is chockfull of information and anecdotes,
about the careers of Price and other cast members, director Andre de Toth, and the 3D technology. Though a tad dry and featuring a few lulls, this is an enriching, screen-specific chat.

The video extras begin with the new HD documentary "House of Wax: Unlike Anything You've Seen Before", which is written, directed and produced by Nasr. Running 48 minutes and 23 seconds, this easily emerges as the film's definitive retrospective. It gains insight from a host of experts, including famous admirers like directors Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and Wes Craven and make-up artist Rick Baker, friends of director Andre de Toth such as animated 98-year-old actor Norman Lloyd, Vincent Price's daughter Victoria, and 3D historian Eric Kurland. We even hear from Price and de Toth themselves through relevant archival interview excerpts.

It's a comprehensive reflection on the film that celebrates its technical achievements, its adept storytelling, and its impact on the career of Vincent Price. No topic is overlooked -- e.g. time is spent on the irony that this 3D movie was directed by the one-eyed de Toth, who insisted that festivals screened the 3D version -- and no question unanswered -- e.g. why an intermission? -- regarding this wildly successful and influential remake. The existence and high quality of this new piece is mind-blowing, considering how little is being done for even the crown jewels of major studios nowadays.

A giant in a good mood turns out for the midnight spook screening of House of Wax's Round-the-Clock premieres. House of Wax's original theatrical trailer promotes the third dimension more than the movie presented in it.

Beyond those, we get three standard definition extras recycled from House's DVD.

A newsreel (2:16) presents scored, silent videos from some of the film's twelve assorted round-the-clock premieres. Distinguished guests include Ronald Reagan and a giant.

House of Wax's original theatrical trailer (2:05) consists entirely of animated text screens which talk up the film's use of the third dimension. It's tough to believe a film as good as this would be advertised in such a way.

The final extra is Mystery of the Wax Museum, the 1933 Warner film that House loosely remakes. That's right, the film is once again presented in its entirety.
 

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) movie poster Mystery of the Wax Museum

Theatrical Release: February 17, 1933 / Running Time: 77 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Michael Curtiz / Writers: Don Mullaly, Carl Erickson (screenplay); Charles Belden (story)

Cast: Lionel Atwill (Ivan Igor), Fay Wray (Charlotte Duncan), Glenda Farrell (Florence Dempsey), Frank McHugh (Jim), Allen Vincent (Ralph Burton), Gavin Gordon (George Winton), Edwin Maxwell (Joe Worth), Holmes Herbert (Dr. Rasmussen), Claude King (Mr. Galatalin), Arthur Edmunde Carewe (Sparrow/Professor Darcy), Thomas E. Jackson (Detective), DeWitt Jennings (Police Captain), Matthew Betz (Hugo), Monica Bannister (Joan Gale)

Mystery opens on a stormy night in 1921 London, where the little side street museum of Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is admired by a gentleman who wants to submit Igor's work to the Royal Academy when he returns from his forthcoming international travels. Partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) would rather collect the £10,000 of fire insurance. To grave dismay and resistance, Worth puts Igor's life's work up in flames.

We then jump ahead to New Year's Day 1933 in New York, where it's front page news in the New York Express that model Joan Gale is dead from what is ruled a suicide. The paper's editor (Frank McHugh) threatens lady journalist Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) that she'll be fired if she can't come up with a big story fast. Florence looks into the death of Gale, for which Gale's unfaithful millionaire playboy boyfriend is soon jailed on murder charges. Complicating the case is the mysterious disappearance of Gale's corpse from the city morgue.

It's taken twelve years, but Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is finally ready to exhibit his artist's recreations of the wax figures that perished in the London fire. A "corpse" awakens at the morgue, prepared to escape with another.

That night, the London Wax Museum makes its American debut when it opens on 14th Street. The museum's proprietor has taken twelve years to reproduce his lost figures, having to train artists like the deaf Hugo (Matthew Betz) and Ralph (Allen Vincent), the broke fiancé of Florence's roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray, who starred in King Kong the same year). While touring the museum, Florence notices a striking resemblance between the Joan of Arc statue and the late Ms. Gale. She thinks she's got the big scoop she needed, but proving her outlandish theory isn't easy.

Mystery is one of eight 1933 films directed by Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian-American who would go on to helm such classics as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, and White Christmas.
Though Curtiz and Warner Bros. were just churning out movies back then, some of them -- like this one -- maintain a good deal of value. While very dated and cheapened by its dopey final scene, Mystery is a very good thriller that holds you captive throughout its fast-paced execution.

Sadly, the movie remains in standard definition and it looks and sounds its age. The two-strip Technicolor, then quite a unique feature, is largely faded. Eighty years of wear and tear, including reel change markers, are quite evident. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is very aged and poor, being quiet and a tad distorted throughout.

Newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) digs around the London Wax Museum, hoping to find a story big enough to save her job. The monster is revealed when his wax mask shatters.

One could lament that Mystery hits Blu-ray probably unchanged from its underwhelming DVD bonus feature transfer of ten years ago, but that misses the point, which is "Free bonus movie!" To me, that's the best kind of bonus feature. The inclusion of this original film alongside its remake is highly relevant and adds considerable value. It's a great way for Warner to release a vintage film from their library that might be a hard sell on its own. A proper restoration is probably cost-prohibitive. But here is this great classic film that's easy to enjoy and fun to compare to its remake getting more widely seen than its contemporaries and raising some awareness and interest in the eldest chapters of Warner's rich catalog.

It's probably more fun than comparing House to its 21st century remake of the same name that starred Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, and Paris Hilton. No one should mind that that ill-received, underperforming 2005 remake goes completely unmentioned on this set. Maybe its trailer should have been included just for the heck of it?

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The static menu takes Warner's simple standard approach, playing score over a wide rendering of the cover art. Though the disc doesn't support bookmarks, it gladly resumes playback just like a DVD.

House of Wax's plain, insert-less keepcase is topped by a lenticular-faced cover that adds fitting dimensionality to the keepcase artwork it reproduces.

In "House of Wax", Professor Henry Jarrold (Vincent Price) proudly shows off the lifelike wax head his artists can make from just a photograph.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

In the best possible way, Warner turns the clock back to around 2005 with their surprisingly filling and enlightening Blu-ray 3D/2D release of House of Wax. It's not every day one encounters a catalog film hitting high definition with substantial new bonus features and this isn't a prestigious enough film to expect such great effort. Or rather, it might not seem prestigious until you watch everything on this disc and come away with a deep appreciation for what you might easily mistake for a horror B-movie.

No B-movie, this spooky 1953 hit holds up remarkably well, as does the less gimmicky, more dated thriller it remakes. Both are worth seeing and likely revisiting. There's no better way to do so than on this sturdy Blu-ray. While those who aren't set up for 3D may be bummed by the steep asking price, one dual-format disc was obviously the way to go and prevents the need for double-dipping. Though I wish the picture quality was stronger, this loaded platter is still easy to recommend to anyone with an appetite for classic cinema.

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Reviewed September 29, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1953 Warner Bros. Pictures, 1933 Warner Bros. Pictures, and 2013 Warner Home Video.
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