Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is a sculptor in wax, creating exquisitely realised tableaux for his museum, but one thing he will not do is succumb to sensationalism. This is precisely why his business is failing and one night his partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) visits him and tells him that if the wealthy benefactors who are arriving to look over his work are not up to buying the entire exhibition, then drastic action will have to be taken. The would-be benefactors show up, tell Jarrod that he really needs to pander more to lurid public tastes, and Burke decides to burn the place down for the insurance money - with Jarrod trapped inside the building, his beloved waxworks melting...
When animator Nick Park's plasticine models were lost in an inferno, we have to be relieved no one, including him, was hurt, not least because of the message of House of Wax that warned us there would be Hell to pay if an artist in a medium like this would go seriously off the rails should anything get in the way of him following his muse. In one of horror cinema's less well-kept secrets, it was not too difficult to work out who the bad guy was here, even bearing in mind that this was a remake of a hit chiller from the Hollywood of the nineteen-thirties, Mystery of the Wax Museum, which pitted a screaming Fay Wray against the dodgy Lionel Atwill to set the box office tills a-ringing.
That earlier effort had a gimmick: it was shot in two-colour Technicolor when most films of the day were made in black and white, but House of Wax went not one, but two better when the soundtrack was created in stereo for the first time, and visually, it was photographed in 3D, part of the mini-boom in the format of the early fifties. Really it was the third dimension that pulled in the punters in their masses, as it was one of the first to be made in colour, so there was no way sensation-seekers of the era were going to miss out on the opportunity to catch this, one of the biggest horror successes of all time and a clear signal to the increasingly popular television not to rest on its laurels.
Nowadays, of course, it is rarely revived in theatrical presentation so the 3D is lost on most potential audiences unless you can see it on the 3D Blu-ray on a suitable television set, and the fact remains without the gimmick, House of Wax is far too complacent in its reliance on that if you see it flat. It really is flat dramatically too, whereas the original had a truly spooky atmosphere, assisted by the slightly unreal colour treatment, and this was summed up by the barker who appears outside Jarrod's new, improved Chamber of Horrors, making the audience duck with his paddle-ball tricks and essentially breaking the fourth wall for the sake of giving them what the wanted, a spectacle. Elsewhere, the themes of the Michael Curtiz-directed source were given a retread and rendered more gaudy, less resonant (this was directed by the brasher Andre De Toth).
But all of this would be forgiven by the effect it had on Price's career, revitalising him as the freshest horror star since the glory days of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi twenty years before. He would embrace the status in a series of money-making shockers of varying quality, but you could see here that he had a personality well-suited to the genre, with his silky tones, towering height and shaded morality that could go from hero to villain with ease; sometimes both. Fans certainly responded to him, and even to this day, quite apart from his movies, he is part of Halloween as radio stations relentlessly play Michael Jackson's Thriller every year, where his narration is an inseparable part of the song. Also in the cast were Phyllis Kirk in the Wray role, nothing special and not as fun as the Glenda Farrell reporter part which was ditched for this 1902-set reading, future Morticia Carolyn Jones as her ill-fated pal, and Charles Bronson under his given name as Igor, the deaf mute heavy. If you don't know what Jarrod is up to, I won’t spoil it here, but it does come across as more daft than creepy in this. Music by David Buttolph.