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House of Wax

In 1933 Lionel Atwill gave what is arguably his best performance in the quality creeper Mystery of the Wax Museum. Twenty years later its remake, House of Wax, became one of the fifties' biggest genre-film hits and put Vincent Price forever on the heebie-jeebies map. Now seventy and fifty years, respectively, after their successful theatrical runs, these almost-classic gothies occupy one of the best two-fer DVDs on the shelves. They're paired up here on a single disc, looking fine for genre lovers itching to wax nostalgic (sorry about that). 1953's House of Wax is the disc's marquee title, but Mystery of the Wax Museum is at least an equal attraction. Both tell the story of a benign maestro driven to madness, right up to their lurid Phantom of the Opera reveals. Nonetheless, their differences are as distinctive as their similarities, and determining which is the superior film is a pleasure best left up to the viewer.

House of Wax is a pulpy murder melodrama directed with staid yet effective style by André de Toth. Price is terrific as Prof. Henry Jarrod, a Manhattan waxworks sculptor in the days of gaslights and hansom cabs and mysterious Rippers. Jarrod is an artiste unwilling to pander to the common public's pedestrian taste for gruesome horrifics. However, his scheming business partner Burke (Roy Roberts) has other notions. Soon betrayal leads to a fire that destroys Jarrod's artistic creations (all those paraffin faces melting and "dying" in the flames are memorably jolting). Also lost in the conflagration are the museum and, as far as Burke is concerned, Jarrod's life. Years later, the wheelchair-bound Jarrod returns. With much ballyhoo he opens a new museum, this time with a sensational House of Horrors. Not coincidentally, a disfigured serial murderer stalks the remarkably foggy streets. The victims include Burke, the corpses are disappearing from the morgue, and Phyllis Kirk notices that the museum's new Joan of Arc exhibit bears an uncanny resemblance to a recently deceased friend. Soon the mad Jarrod decides that Kirk's lovely roommate would make a perfect Marie Antoinette — after one quick dip in the paraffin tank.

House of Wax is famous for being the most successful film to ride the fifties' 3-D wave, an effect its director deployed with gusto. The paddle-ball sequence was the fad's Imperial Star Destroyer flyover. Stereoscopic fun isn't part of this edition, alas, and the 2-D movie suffers from its absence. This revival favorite has all the lofty aspirations of an issue of Weird Tales magazine, yet House of Wax's penny-dreadful theatrics and vibrant color cinematography, topped of course by Price's trademark silky villainy ("Now, now, my dear — I shall make you immortal!"), anticipate Roger Corman's Poe-inspired shudderers starring Price a decade later. Notice the actor playing Price's mute assistant Igor: that's Charles Bronson, billed in the credits as Charles Buchinsky. And look for Carolyn Jones, TV's Mortitia Addams as Burke's fiancée.

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Flip the disc for the original 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum, where Atwill originates the Price role. Fay Wray — the same year she screamed her way to immortality in King Kong — is the girl who gets placed on the slab to receive the boiling wax. Glenda Farrell all but steals the show as a fast-talking reporter dame with the brass and spunk to crack the case of murders and body-snatching. This was one of eight films released that year directed by Michael Curtiz, which may explain why he doesn't display the exuberant craft that distinguishes his later greats such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, or Casablanca. Still, this fine macabre thriller is less EC Comics and more "adult" than its streamlined remake. Frame for frame, it's the more impressive film on the disc, rating high on any list of mystery offerings from the thirties.

The script is padded and occasionally ham-handed, but it's supported by Ray Rennahan's flowing camerawork and the lavish expressionist designs by Anton Grot (1924's The Thief of Bagdad, 1935's A Midsummer Night's Dream), not to mention Atwill's intense performance, another keen unmasking, and — an interesting historic technical legacy — the watercolor hues of early two-strip Technicolor.

Because the hot studio lights would melt the waxwork figures, Curtiz had to use actors as their stand-ins. So in the opening reel look for Fay Wray struggling to keep motionless while doubling for "Marie Antoinette."

Mystery went unseen for a generation and was considered a lost legend. Fortunately, in 1969 an original 35 mm color print was discovered in Jack Warner's personal film collection.

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Warner's DVD presents both films in good unrestored editions. Both are in their original full-frame aspect ratio. House of Wax is a clean print that shows off its original WarnerColor palette design well. The "Warner-Sonic 3-D" audio translates here to DD 2.0 Stereo Surround. The musical scoring comes through well with strong dynamics, although the quieter scenes are betrayed by background noise. Mystery of the Wax Museum shows more wear, naturally, though it's still quite fine, and the proto-Technicolor tones give it a seemingly hand-inked patina that enhances the experience without being garish. Its audio comes in a remarkably healthy DD 1.0 monaural.

The chief extra is Round-the-Clock Premiere: Coast Hails House of Wax, two minutes of black-and-white newsreel footage of the House of Wax midnight premiere at Hollywood's Paramount theater. Its audio has been lost, apparently, so it's accompanied by music from the movie's score. Attending the gala premiere are Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Danny Thomas, Shelley Winters, and Bela Lugosi in his Dracula cape and shepherding some poor schlub in a gorilla suit. (This was six months after the premiere of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and the year he entered his Ed Wood phase with Glen or Glenda.) Also here is the theatrical trailer for House of Wax, which shows not a single frame from the movie but is positive that you'll be "AMAZED" and "ASTOUNDED" by "the real, the true MIRACLE of the THIRD DIMENSION." Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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