"House of Wax"
Jaume Collect-Serra, Australia/2005, USA
"The House of Wax" seems an ideal example of how a horror remake that simultaneously cashes-in and updates a respected original can reveal the best and worst of contemporary ‘re-imaginings’. The originals ("House of Wax 1953 is a remake of 1933's "Mystery of the Wax Museum") are delightful Gothic chillers with an irresistible promise and, in one example, Vincent Price. Full of theatrical, garish and ghoulish flourishes, earlier versions were never exemplary of Classic with the capitalised "c", but simply possessed of a highly appealing horror premise, Old School charm and a good set-piece or two.
Immediately, in just invoking Price’s name, a key difference in the old and the new flares up: modern horror does not have the same cache of horror stars such as Lugosi, Karloff, The Chaneys, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing It’s in the casting that we find the conflict in the "House of Wax" remake . It feels like two films competing against one another: one is a contemporised rural Gothic with lashings of Twenty-First Century graphic cruelty plus a glorious topping of surrealism; the other is one of those Teen Horrors (well, twentysomething) that seem dictated by the production company to draw in the demographic they imagine make up the horror audience. The audience who’ll apparently only come to see pretty young things talk dirty and get killed by something monstrous.
And so it is that we begin with an arresting opening that feels more like Tim Burton on a particularly nasty day - a dinnertime in which one of two brothers is strapped savagely into a chair, all to slightly edgy if not jaunty editing - which then gives way to generic soft metal and a bunch of bratty and bitching young Americans. They all fit their stereotype, their dramas are soooo day-time soap and sure enough, the chaste girl is going to be the Final Girl of sorts, the loved-up black guy and the slutty one (some stunt-casting with Paris Hilton) will do some bumping-and-grinding and the delinquent… well, he is not the obnoxious, crass type, but rather the misunderstood type. This means he will be redeemed. Herein lies the most original feature of the drama, for "House of Wax" is about sibling love rather than romance. It is not in any way revelatory - some generalised stuff about there always being a ‘good’ sibling and a ‘bad’ sibling - but it does make a change after the bland amorous pairings at the core of so many standard horrors. Otherwise, it is simply an undistinguished cast borrowed from a long line of tedious slashers and High School flicks and is probably responsible for what makes "House of Wax" so superficially banal.
But when it steers into a mixture of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) and waxy surrealism, it quite excels. Jeune Collet-Serra directly fluidly and fluently with fine sense of establishing geography and showing off the wonderful set design details. "House of Wax" throws up a number of far-fetched but gleeful conceits and spikes them with a decidedly modern focus on body horror, all culminating in the unapologetically contrived separation by knife of wax twins. Indeed, you can almost hear someone looking to remake the originals - and actually, they probably did not refer to the originals at all - and saying "Hey, what about if the house is, you know, actually made of wax?" And this paves way for the deliriously surreal denouement of the final chase in a melting building. For this little wonder, it wins over its flaws. In fact, nearly all its weaknesses can be forgiven for the exemplary set design, the lovingly grungy detail, the ending, plus another great otherworldly scene: a cinema of wax dummies watching "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" (1962)These unforgettable set-pieces and the full-on joy the film-makers have with wax, both on a grand and small scale, make this a minor surrealist horror treat, and all that tired and humourless teen-slasher stuff is just weak scaffolding.
1 - The only potential crossover star I can think up is Robert England, and he is hardly a household name in quite the same way. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecktor, possibly, but he has hardly earned his crust by affiliating himself with horror.