The Duality of Appearances: Jaume Collet-Serra’s HOUSE OF WAX

House of Wax. 2005. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Screenplay by Chad & Carey Hayes.
Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Jared Padalecki, Brian Van Holt, Paris Hilton, Robert Richard, & Damon Herriman.
Warner Bros/Village Roadshow Pictures/Dark Castle Entertainment.
Rated R. 108 minutes.

posterNot sure it’s fair to call this a remake. Yes, it bears the exact same name as the 1953 Andre DeToth picture starring Vincent Price. But the only real connections between this House of Wax directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and DeToth’s film are the title (this was origianlly titled Wax House, Baby; believe it or not) and the setting of the wax museum. Outside of that, these are two vastly different horror movies. Although I absolutely love the Price-starring classical horror, this is a nice piece of slasher horror, and Collet-Serra shows his affinity for the genre with a heaping dose of nastiness.
There’s a relatively eerie quality to the story because of its attention to wax figures, the resemblance between them and real people. Likewise, duality is a prominent theme which can get scary, especially in terms of the slasher(s) the victims deal with in a tiny little ghost town; we see two different pairs of siblings, two dichotomies of good and bad that are violently different and prove there’s a judgement people make against those who look a certain way (or don’t, according to society). Collet-Serra’s directing is solid in a run of the mill slasher, elevating itself with an interesting premise. A few fine kills to compliment a disturbing story, an action-packed finale, a couple decent performances from Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray – House of Wax isn’t great, it just gets shit on unnecessarily for being a slasher movie and for having Paris Hilton in it.
pic1Wax sculptures are scary because of their uncanny likeness to the people they portray. When you see a sculpture of a celebrity it’s often creepy, not so much impressive. I mean, the good ones are damn good. They’re so good that it hits that uncanny valley, where you want to look away instead of continuing to look at something unnerving. The screenplay from Chad and Carey Hayes (The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2) works its claws on the viewer by literally having people embedded into the sculptures. What’s truly disturbing is seeing the tiny redneck tony filled with wax people, wondering exactly how many aren’t wax-filled but wax-covered and filled with people. If they’re all like that, Bo and Vincent are some of the most vicious horror movie slashers in the 2000s on sheer body count alone.
Moreover, the idea of having people inside the wax figures is twofold. Because it further speaks to the brothers, Bo and Vincent, as well as Carly and Nick Jones (Cuthbert & Murray) and the theme of duality. Specifically, the two brothers. When we find out how Bo was actually the deranged one, not the mask-wearing Vincent, the idea of appearance dawns on us. In that Vincent is made to seem like the psychotic, whereas Bo appeared outwardly like the ‘good’ brother. This almost calls the audience out, too. At the start, the first flashback scene doesn’t let us see the faces of the brothers. Many of us come to assume that the masked brother, the deformed one, is the same boy we once saw in that flashback being erratic, getting strapped into his high chair to keep him from throwing a fit. So, if you did assume that, your prejudice is pointed out by the ideas of duality. We see this dichotomous look at good and bad when dealing with the Jones siblings, as well. Nick is the bad boy, acts like he hates his sister Carly. Then we see the good in him come out, as he refuses to let anything happen to her. Through Bo and Vincent, Carly and Nick discover things about themselves, as individuals and as a brother-sister pair.
pic2-2The film’s big draw for me is the suspense. Composer John Ottman (The Usual SuspectsThe Cable GuySnow White: A Tale of TerrorApt Pupil) imbues plenty of the atmosphere with his music alone. A great horror movie score can take things up notches, which Ottman does graciously here. It’s not one of those horror scores trying to jump out and frighten you. Rather, the music works like a rhythmic flow – first lulling the viewer into expecting something around every corner, keeping us at bay and working on the nerves until there IS something around the next corner. The palpably grim atmosphere is also in part due to cinematography by Stephen F. Windon (D.P. on 3 episodes of The Pacific). His lens captures everything in a pale green-ish and brown tint. The dark shadows of many scenes on top of Ottman’s ominous sound make for great material.
In addition to everything else, House of Wax contains that quality bloody murder we horror lovers adore. Even the opener, the flashback to Bo and Vincent’s childhood, is spectacularly filmed. We barely see any characters from the neck up, all shot from the chest and waist on down. A spooky technique to remove us from any identity. There’s a nicely setup air of horror from the start. Later, we see a disquieting moment where Vincent carves a wax woman in neatly edited portions, and it works because of the character’s building mystery; once we find out that there are real people under the wax, that scene gets more powerfully scary. Plenty of awesome moments.
The best horror scene? Hilton’s death. And I don’t enjoy it because Paris dies, that’s a strange, sick way to look at a fictional film. This is a nice slasher sequence, taking the viewer through green-tinted darkness into a dimly lit sugar mill. Vincent stalks her until throwing a sharp metal pole through the middle of her head. The macabre effect gets better (and more gruesome) once Paige (Hilton) slumps forward, kept up only by the pole sticking through her skull. Seeing her leaning, the blood dripping from the middle of her head, almost makes you queasy. Gnarly practical effects work.
pic3This is a 3&1/2 out of 5 star film, it could be better, definitely. But there plenty worse slashers out there, which don’t make sense, or don’t work as hard to creep the viewer out. House of Wax doesn’t rely on the 1953 film from which its title comes, in any way, other than the name and the basic setting. Collet-Serra does his best to bring the film up out of sub-genre mediocrity. The slasher horror comes hard and even, at times, gets a little nasty, real rough. Several scenes are truly frightening and I genuinely enjoy the finale; it offers action and excitement, on top of that a twist right at the end.
While there are tons of slasher movies out there, House of Wax is better than those that copy and don’t try in any way to be original. There’s a great setting, which the Hayes’ exploit to full benefit in their screenplay, so from there Collet-Serra and the rest of the team work at the best of their capabilities in order to instil the film with a deep, sometimes ugly atmosphere. I don’t love the movie, though it’s one I consider a guilty pleasure. And really, it isn’t so guilty when I look at it. There’s more than meets the eye.

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