Vincent Price stars as wax sculptor extraordinaire Professor Henry Jarrod. He obsesses over his recreations of historical figures, including John Wilkes Booth and Marie Antoinette. A dispute with his business partner Burke (Roy Roberts) ends with a Jarrod’s wax museum being torched to the ground. Jarrod re-emerges some time later, hands badly damaged in the fire, to unveil a new and improved wax museum. Meanwhile, a stream of sinister disappearances has attracted the attention of law enforcement, not to mention piqued the interest of Sue (Phyllis Kirk). Her friend Cathy (Carolyn Jones), who was set to marry the now-deceased Burke, is among the missing. A lifelike Joan of Arc sculpture bears more than a passing resemblance to Cathy.
No prize for anyone who figures out well in advance of the climax just how these disappearances are connected to Jarrod. It’s the overall atmosphere and creepy performance by Price, one that really helped established the actor as the horror icon he’s known as, that buoy the film. Charles Bronson provides additional menace as Jarrod’s mute assistant, Igor. Of course, there’s the 3D, an aspect that can hardly be separated from the film’s reputation. It’s simply not quite as strong a film without the extra dimension. It immeasurably boosted the film’s box office popularity back in the ‘50s and remains a key part of the film’s appeal.
Warner’s Blu-ray offers the option to watch in the 3D or 2D. The restoration is attractive in either case, with the obvious edge going to the 3D. Colors are surprisingly rich and the image has not been stripped of its naturally heavy grain structure. Certain shots look exceptionally soft focus in 2D but this is a result of the techniques used to shoot the film. The audio holds up very well, with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo mix that, while not especially ear-catching, is certainly more than acceptable for a film of this age.
Though sadly unrestored and presented in standard definition, the 1933 feature film Mystery of the Wax Museum is included as a bonus feature (as it was on a previous DVD edition). Though not really recognized as the a minor classic it is, this suspense thriller (starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray) holds up quite well (especially the impressive makeup). It makes for a fun double feature, a great chance to compare the difference in approach by two directors of the same material. It’s a very early Technicolor production, though the colors have faded significantly. Bristling with wit, strong performances, and a sense of pre-Hays Code sauciness, Mystery is arguably better than the ’53 remake.
Two extremely valuable new supplements have been created for House of Wax on Blu-ray. A 48-minute featurette, “Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before,” is a great condensed history lesson, shedding light on the groundbreaking techniques used to create the effects. There are new interviews with luminaries including Martin Scorsese and Wes Craven, who speak on the significance of House of Wax. We also hear all about the film’s director André de Toth, whose missing eye rendered him incapable of actually seeing a movie in 3D. For those looking for even more depth, the commentary by historians David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr is just the ticket. It’s a superbly researched track that has nary a dull moment.
Warner Bros. has issued a Blu-ray release absolutely worthy of the classic House of Wax. My only caveat is the standard definition, unrestored version of Mystery of the Wax Museum, a quality film that could’ve easily sustained a standalone release. (Please note that the Blu-ray packaging incorrectly lists the 1933 film’s 77-minute running time as 88 minutes.)