I can vaguely remember when the 2005 slasher film House of Wax arrived on home-video (I was only about nine years old then), but, for the life of me, could not remember anything about it other than title recognition and the assurance in myself that I had already seen it once prior. Be that as it may, I could not ignore the cult following the film has managed to garner in the years since its release (and the fact I’ve seen Vincent Sinclair’s face online so many times and could never remember the context). Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Charles Belden, Chad Hayes and Carey Hayers, the 2005 film is remake of the 1953 film of the same name, which, in turn, was a remake of the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum. Maybe I will watch each of them sometime when the Nightmare Shift turns its sights to the their respective decades.
Director Jaume later directed Orphan in 2009 and The Shallows in 2016, neither absolute classics, by any means, but enough to illustrate a skillful, solid run in our genre. The director will later direct The Rock in the new Black Adam film, a spin-off to Shazam (which was also directed by someone more associated with horror).
The film has a familiar cast – Elisha Cuthbert is front-and-center as the film’s lead protagonist, whereas Brian Van Holt pulls a double-whammy, serving as both our film’s antagonists. Jared Padalecki, most known for his portrayal in the Supernatural series, has a significant role as well.
Something clear straightaway I noticed about this film is how much it was a product of the early-to-mid 2000s and what type of horror film was being released. This is something you can distinctly see, not only from the choice of music, but how its implemented, usually in a way that feels unthematic and abrupt.
Last review, I talked about Rob Zombie’s Halloween and how he likes to incorporate music, be it in that film or in something like The Devil’s Rejects. The difference between how Rob Zombie did it and how, for this instance, House of Wax does it, is that it services the film in a thematic way. For instance, “Love Hurts” plays when Michael Myers offs his family as a child, whereas “Free Bird” plays at the end of The Devil’s Rejects, culminating a road-trip rampage that challenged you to root for the antagonists. Say what you will about either film, the way music was incorporated was distinct and memorable, to where I can’t imagine either scene without said music playing in the background. House of Wax, on the other hand, feels like it is trying to reach a quota, and, effectively dates itself as a result. This is something I always associate with the 00s, but is a fad that has since mostly died out.
Likewise, the cinematography, the way characters are portrayed, just the general “smell” of House of Wax wreaks of it. That is not a criticism, per se. For 80s slashers, you’d certainly discover a same’y sense, with camp slashers like The Burning, Sleepaway Camp, and the Friday the 13th sequels sometimes blurring together, but that doesn’t mean they were inherently bad. When I watch House of Wax, I immediately think of the Friday the 13th remake (which also stars Sam from Supernatural) and My Bloody Valentine 3D (which stars Dean from Supernatural!), and I didn’t hate either film. Maybe glossy’s the word I’m looking for? Very produced.
Paris Hilton is also an actress in the film, which would be the modern-day equivalent of Kim Kardashian as a character, approach that as you will. The acting is neither good nor bad overall, with Hilton and others only doing what they can with very little, whereas Elisha Cuthbert heightens the curve with a solid performance altogether.
The storyline begins with our cast of characters dealt the horror genre’s favorite inconvenience – car trouble, leaving them to seek refuge at a small town. This is an age-old trope of the slasher / horror genre, and so, I won’t criticize its repetition any more than I would have criticized Wrong Turn when they did it. The irony that the lack of a vehicle is so often the narrative vehicle to kickstarting a horror film is not lost on me. I will say that House of Wax spends an exceptional amount of time on the film’s setup. House of Wax clocks out just shy of the two-hour mark and, realistically, there is nothing on display narratively that could not have been cutdown to a slicker, more concise ninety minute film.
I don’t mind a longer horror film, by any stretch. In fact, if you have the depth to warrant that, I absolutely welcome it. Unfortunately, Hereditary, this is not, and instead, the first half of the film feels like fodder and fluff, meandering and dithering, when the film had literal access to a House of Wax. The characters are mostly one-note, except for our lead protagonist and her twin brother, a screwup / jerk type with a good heart deep down. Their relationship is serviceable, but, really, this is a film that bets the house on its high-concept.
The storyline for our antagonists feels messy and complicated, and although Vincent Sinclair has a presence to him, I found them otherwise fairly forgettable. Fortunately though, the high-concept does deliver in the instances its allowed to. Exploring the village, our characters come across the Wax Museum, and, really, I can see why this film has gotten a cult-following over the years. Generally speaking, the concept of wax figurines is a novel idea for a horror film. The same way that horror is so enamored with dolls and mannequins, the uncanny realism of stepping into a room of wax dolls, with their posed mannerisms and expressions, is creepy, and one that feels like it has not been done to death yet. The film offers glimpses of inspiration, but I can’t help but feel it leaves a lot on the table for its premise. I feel like even something as simple as changing the setting so that they arrived earlier at the House of Wax, would’ve made massive improvements to the film. Simple dialogue would’ve been amplified, merely by the presence of the figurines looming in the background, eagle-eyed viewers trying to find any sign of movement.
House of Wax did not recoup its budget at the box office in spite grossing about 70 million (keep in mind the marketing budget and the cut the theater receives), and a lot of that is because they really went all out in the final act.
For a brief, but entertaining period, we are shown how cool of a film this could have been. Even if they may have done a humdrum job at the beginning and middle, the end’s payoff is absurd, yet inspired enough to elevate the film from a paint-by-the-numbers slasher film to a real missed opportunity at something special.