The “Uncanny Valley” works like this: as representations of people become more lifelike, we feel increasingly positive towards them. But get too close to looking human, and attitudes take a sudden dip. Those things become spooky, unsettling, or disturbing. We are in the “valley” of positive response. Once (if) the representation reaches a more lifelike threshold, our attitudes again improve. Slightly imperfectly human analogs are worse than poor human representations. Why is a matter of debate, but one explanation is we see nearly human representations as someone trying to trick us, so we focus more on the differences than the similarities.
While people often use the “Uncanny Valley” when talking about robots or CGI, the effect may be much older and more widespread than that. Mimes and clowns creep many people out, perhaps because they are almost, but not quite, human. And almost, but not quite, predictable.
So, too, it is with the wax museum — tourist destinations that promise lifelike reproductions of celebrities, historical, and biblical figures. Or, in the more side-show installations, anonymous people in torture chambers. Unlike other sculptures, wax figures are dressed in real clothing, adding to the sense of reality. And that’s a large part of the point: wax figures are not intended to be artistic representations, but simulacra.
In the three House of Wax films, the artist takes a bit of a shortcut. At first we are creeped out because the human figures are almost human. And then we realize we are looking at the corpse of our murdered roommate.
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
In the original story, a greedy entrepreneur sets fire to his own wax museum in order to collect on the insurance. The wax museum is doing poorly because entrepreneur’s sculptor’s partner is far more interested in making art than making money. Trapped inside as the building burns, the artist is maimed. But he returns years later to start up a new museum, this time relying on skilled assistants — and corpses — to do what he can no longer do with his hands.
This pre-code horror film from Warner Bros. was released when so-called real horror was coming out of Universal Studios instead. Mystery focuses less on the lurid story and more on what I guess we could call the “Journalism Procedural” as the boozy Florence makes the most of a last-ditch effort to prove to her newspaper that she’s worth the paycheck. Florence is played for laughs by pre-code comedy star Glenda Farrel, although the headlining actress is scream queen Fay Wray. Fay gets a close-up screaming scene, which is what you do when you have Fay Wray on your cast — her most famous role, as Ann in King Kong, would debut only twelve days later.
Mystery of the Wax Museum was shot using Technicolor’s two-strip color process, an early form of color film Studios had used to great financial success for silent films like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and _The Phantom of the Opera. But by the time Mystery of the Wax Museum was made the technology was ten years old and showing its limitations. The color reproduction was poor, the process expensive, the film stock delicate. In 1933, the box office returns for Mystery of the Wax Museum proved the gimmick had worn out. Two-strip color was obsolete. It was the last one.
House of Wax (1953)
Gimmicks were very much on the mind of Warner Brothers twenty years later when they remade Mystery as House of Wax. This remake was not only shot in full color, it was in 3D and featured stereo sound, both firsts for the movie industry. House of Wax takes the original story, removes the humor elements, and puts much more emphasis on Vincent Price’s mad sculptor Jarrod. Where the first film treated the romantic couple as furniture, here they take center stage as protagonist and victim. Glenda Farrel’s reporter character — arguably the hero and certainly the star of the first film — is entirely cut from the story. But much of the original remains — even down to the layout of the original museum and the poses of the characters. The elaborate corpse-to-wax machinery gets a bit of a face-lift, but is quite similar as well.
You and I can now watch Mystery of the Wax Museum and House of Wax back-to-back, but Mystery was by this time many years gone from theaters, with no revival in sight. It would take another twenty years for Mystery of the Wax Museum to shown on television again, with no good restoration made until 2021.
House of Wax was a breakout role into horror for Vincent Price, but it was also an early screen credit for Carolyn Jones (Morticia Addams from The Addams Family TV series) and Charles Bronson (Death Wish). The movie suffers somewhat from being made by a major studio under production code censorship, so it’s not scary; but it’s important enough to have earned a place in the National Film Registry in 2014.
House of Wax (2005)
Fifty-two years is a long time, especially in the movie industry. Movies and horror had both transformed by the time House of Wax was remade in 2005. Much of what made wax museums unsettling and scary in 1953 had become quaint. Horror had certainly moved on — slashers had been born, mainstreamed, died, and then parodied back into existence — and much of that under Wes Craven’s watch. The House of Wax reboot takes more of its beats from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than it does the original source material. It follows a group of obnoxious, city-dwelling young adults as they stray deep into rural territory and discover there’s plenty of reason to fear rednecks.
This House of Wax made $173 million on a budget of $15 million, so it’s hard to call it a business failure. And neither of the other two were anything more than business propositions themselves. They were both very commercial for their times. But by this time mainstream horror was into creative (but not too bloody!) kills and weird creature effects, so that’s what you get. It’s just … basically all you get. We’ve replaced the uncanny valley with the liminal space (explainer video) of depopulated rural America. The mad (but respected! and affluent!) genius now reflects disgust towards the disabled and those left behind. As rural horror usually does.
If you look closely, you can see echoes of the original two. The mad sculptor in the other two is hideously scarred but presents a handsome and attractive visage thanks to his sculpting talents. In the 2005 edition, the scarring is a birth defect, and his (attractive, charismatic) twin brother serves as the mask. There’s a big, scary apparatus for turning corpses into statues which — as tradition demands — you see only once. There’s also a big dramatic fire scene, except this one comes at the end of the movie, not the beginning.
Will we have another House of Wax? That depends on Warner Brothers. But even if 2005 turned its back on it, the Uncanny Valley will be here with us for a long time. Many, many movies have been made since 1933 that ask what if the art is actually people? Or, increasingly, what if the people are actually constructs? These are, ultimately, questions about what makes us human — or what the difference is between humans and wax anyway. Those will be with us, in horror stories and 3 AM insomnia delirium, forever.