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Film / House of Wax (1953)

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Jarrod: I'm going to give the people what they want: sensation, horror, shock... Send them out in the streets to tell their friends how wonderful it is to be scared to death.

House of Wax is a 1953 American horror film starring Vincent Price, whose career then took a turn primarily towards horror films.

A remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), this was the first 3-D color feature film from a major American studio, following the independently-produced Bwana Devil the year before; these two movies together sparked the 3-D Movie boom of the 1950s (interestingly enough, this film's director, Andre De Toth, was blind in one eye and thus couldn't see the effect).

Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, a devoted wax sculptor with a museum in 1910s New York. When his greedy financial partner, Matthew Burke (played by Roy Roberts), suggests that they burn the wax museum down in order to get the insurance money, Jarrod tries to stop him, only to be beaten unconscious and left for dead in the burning museum. Escaping with intense burns that leave his hands half-crippled and himself horribly disfigured, Jarrod enlists the aid of a deaf-mute sculptor named Igor (played by Charles Buchinsky, who would soon become better known as Charles Bronson) and builds a new House of Wax that showcases historical and contemporary crimes, including the murder of his former business partner. However, all is not what it seems in Jarrod's wax museum, and a friend of Burke's fiancée Cathy (played by Carolyn Jones) is about to make a horrifying discovery...

Another remake was released in 2005, also called House of Wax, though it borrows more plot elements from Tourist Trap than from this film.

The film is also the Trope Namer for Paddleball Shot.

"Tropes of Wax":

  • Adaptation Name Change: The characters are renamed entirely with Ivan Igor, Professor Darcy and Hugo becoming Henry Jarrod, Leon Averill and Igor respectively for just three examples.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Amazingly enough, a rare "villain gets worse with the adaptation" variety. In contrast to Joe in the original Mystery of the Wax Museum, who burned the museum down because they had run completely out of money, Matthew is making a steady profit off of Jarrod's museum. He just isn't satisfied with how much profit he's getting, and wants to get the insurance money for a "new business deal"... which is soon after implied to be a lie for how he wants extra cash to impress his latest girlfriend, Cathy. And while Joe did leave his partner to die, he merely ran off after setting the fire... Matthew also attempts to kill Jarrod after setting it, even staying behind a bit to try and finish him off when Jarrod does his best to extinguish the fire.
  • The Alcoholic: Leon, who is a gifted artist, and "a periodical drunk".
  • Anti-Villain: It's hard not to sympathize at least a little bit with Jarrod, who thinks of his artworks as "children" and has to watch them go up in flames before being horribly disfigured himself. Even after he's gone bad, he seems more crazy than evil.
  • Artistic License Biology: Jarrod doesn't seem to do anything to preserve the bodies other than covering them in wax, so it's hard to see how the deception would hold up once decomposition started to set in. At the very least people might get curious about the smell...
  • Asshole Victim: Matthew. He's shallow, lecherous and by far worst of all greedy (to a murderous extent), and implied to be stringing along Cathy, who thinks he has marriage plans, though granted she is herself a Gold Digger. He gets fittingly murdered by Jarrod, his death is disguised as a suicide and his body ends up being coated in wax and used to recreate said faked suicide.
  • Axe Before Entering: At the climax, the cops use a prop sword from the museum to get through a locked door.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: Jarrod and Burke fight each other as the museum burns around them in the early minutes of the film.
  • Berserk Button: Don't ask Jarrod about some crazy ideas like... burning down his beloved wax figures.
  • Born in the Theater: The paddleball guy, who's been swatting his paddleball at various people entering the exhibit, turns to look straight at the camera, says "There's someone with a bag of popcorn!", and swats his paddleball right at the viewer.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The paddle ball barker addresses the audience and sends his paddleball in their direction.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: Cathy is onto the guy who tries this on her, though.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Jarrod's burns to his hands make it impossible for him to continue his work by himself.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: In-universe; Igor happens to look like William Kemmler, the first man executed by electric chair.
  • Chairman of the Brawl: A chair is thrown across the air during the fight between Jarrod and Burke.
  • Chase Scene: One breaks out after Sue finds Cathy's corpse and has to evade the perpetrator.
  • Composite Character: 3-into-2 instead of the usual 2-into-1. Mystery of the Wax Museum has the heroine, a victim she didn't know who becomes Joan of Arc, and her best friend who almost becomes the Marie Antoinette victim. Sue is a composite of the heroine and the Marie Antoinette victim, and Cathy is a composite of the best friend and the Joan of Arc victim.
  • Damsel in Distress: Sue in the climax.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Jarrod starts killing people and using their bodies as "statues" in his wax museum.
  • Dramatic Unmask: A pretty great example. (But how could he keep his features so mobile?) And oddly enough, in both cases we'd already seen the horribly disfigured face under the mask; it just wasn't clear that they were the same person.
  • Driven to Villainy: Jarrod after his corrupt business partner burns down his museum and destroys his ability to sculpt.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous: When Jarrod steals Cathy's body from the morgue, we get a good look at Cathy's lovely face.
  • Fainting: One of the customers faints as Jarrod gives a tour through his museum. Sue also faints at the Dramatic Unmask.
  • Fanservice: At one point, Sue and Scott take in a can-can show, and the camera spends quite a while lingering over the girls' legs (also showing off the 3-D with their kicking). Early in the film, Sue helps Cathy (in a snugly-laced corset and Edwardian-era lingerie dress for her date by first lacing Cathy up (see Of Corset Hurts below), then buttoning up Cathy's boots.
  • G-Rated Drug: More of a PG Rated Drug here — the cops are able to track down Jarrod after depriving an alcoholic assistant of his of booze during the interrogation. In Mystery of the Wax Museum, it is strongly implied to be something much stronger (an injected drug like morphine, cocaine, or heroin).
  • Gold Digger: Implied. Cathy is going out with (and suggesting marriage to) Matthew Burke, a wealthy businessman who is Jarrod's first victim, and she doesn't give a damn about it (she doesn't get to enjoy the inheritance). It's subtly implied that she's a whore looking to marry someone wealthy and get out of the life.
  • Identical Stranger: Sue just so happens to look exactly like Jarrod's beloved model of Marie Antoinette, that was destroyed in the fire. Presumably Jarrod based said model off another real woman, but it's still a bit of a Contrived Coincidence.
  • Idiot Ball: Sue realizes the Joan of Arc statue really is Cathy, because Jarrod didn't bother to remove her original blonde hair and merely hid it under a dark wig.
  • The Igor: Jarrod's helper, named... Igor. Played by Charles Bronson.
  • Insurance Fraud: The reason why Matthew burns down Jarrod's original museum.
  • It's Popular, Now It Sucks!: In-Universe: Jarrod comes to believe this and decides that his rebuilt museum will mostly give the public the sensationalism it wants, while still retaining a historical aspect.
  • Latex Perfection: Or rather Wax Perfection.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The carnival barker Jarrod employs for opening night frequently performs his schtick directly to the audience, as though they are physically present.
  • Mad Artist: Jarrod is obsessed about his wax works, especially about the restoration of his past works.
  • Masking the Deformity: Henry Jerrod's mask covers the burns he acquired during the wax museum fire that opened the film.
  • Mistaken for Exhibit: On first entering the exhibition, Sue mistakes a real policeman for one of the wax figures. Invoked deliberately moments earlier, when an apparent wax figure of a woman standing by the entrance suddenly turns and hands Scott one of the programs from the table next to her.
  • Mythology Gag: Beyond the various little facts that inevitably come with a true remake film, Jarrod's deaf-mute assistant is named "Igor" — which was the name of the mad wax sculptor from the original Mystery at the Wax Museum.
  • Never Suicide: Matthew's murder is staged to look like a suicide.
  • Nobody Here but Us Statues: At one point, Igor disguises himself as one of several heads on a shelf.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The wax workshop.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Played with. Jarrod pretends to be wheelchair bound and with ruined hands but otherwise unscarred; in reality, he has horrible facial scarring, but can walk and use his hands fine (if not with the same skill as before).
  • Of Corset Hurts: Mentioned twice — the heroine's ditzy friend Cathy Gray has Sue lace her up until she can barely breathe, and a woman has trouble breathing prior to fainting, in Jarrod's Chamber of Horrors.
    "Is it your corset?"
    "No, my stomach; it turned over."
  • Of Corsets Sexy:
    Cathy Gray: Oh that's all right, I don't need much breath anyway—as my late friend Matty used to say, if a girl don't watch her figure the men won't.
  • Paddleball Shot: The Trope Namer. A carnival barker doing paddleball tricks at the museum entrance at one point turns to the audience and bounces the ball directly at the screen. (This was a 3D effect in the theatrical release.)
  • Perp Sweating: Police use Leon's alcoholism to get information out of him.
  • Railing Kill: Jarrod is killed when he is knocked over the railing and into the vat of wax he prepared for Sue.
  • Really Gets Around: Cathy only thinks about (wealthy) men, even if she is actually engaged.
  • The Remake: From a 1933 Technicolor film with Fay Wray.
  • Scenery Censor: Sue while she's strapped naked beneath the vat. At least Fay Wray got wrapped in a shroud-like cloth.
  • Scenery Gorn: The burning wax museum.
  • Strapped to an Operating Table: Sue in the climax.
  • To the Pain: Of course, Jarrod doesn't think he's torturing her but comforting her.
    Jarrod: The end will come quickly, my love. It is a pain beyond pain, an agony so intense, it shocks the mind into instant oblivion.
  • The Voiceless: Hugo in the 1933 film, Igor in the 1953 film.
  • Waking Up at the Morgue: Subverted twice — the first time, a corpse sits up due to cadaveric spasm, but is still dead. The second time — well, the character was just Hidden in Plain Sight.
  • Wax Museum Morgue: The 1953 film is the Trope Codifier.
  • Wham Shot: As Jarrod attempts to force Sue into the wax, she pounds on his face... which suddenly breaks apart, revealing Jarrod and the disfigured man carrying out the murders are the same person.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Jarrod. The museum he adored and poured his heart and soul into is destroyed because of his partner's greed; he himself is horribly disfigured and while he doesn't totally lose use of his hands, can't sculpt the way he used to.
  • You're Insane!: Jarrod's response to Burke's plan to burn their museum.