The 2005 “remake” of House of Wax bears more resemblance to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than it does the Vincent Price film made a little over 50 years before. Which is fair enough; fifty years is a long time in genre film, and several trends had come and gone in the meantime. Dark Castle Entertainment’s remake, however, is little more than a retread of the previous thirty years of horror.
This version swaps out the 1953 film’s urban setting for a rural one. The victims are, as is typical, a bunch of entitled, nosy, self-absorbed, intruding city kids. 2005’s antagonist is a mad sculptor driven insane by childhood trauma and congenital disfigurement, not an artist cheated and set aflame by his grasping business partner.
These are two different movies.
Famous because it let us see Paris Hilton get messily killed when we were sick of hearing about her but apparently not tired of watching her, this House of Wax holds some nostalgia for an audience younger than me. At almost two hours long, the film overstays its welcome. We learn far too much about the backstory of each victim without really feeling any sympathy for any of them, so this level of characterization is unwelcome.
According to the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, the main reason to watch his version of the movie is the last ten minutes. He’s right — it’s a magnificent sequence in which the House of Wax catches fire, then melts. This extraordinary technical achievement was managed through a lot of practical effects experimentation, a small army of artisans making piles and piles of wax props and figures, and a light touch with the CGI.
The production design was done by Grace Walker. This is the same Walker who did an excellent job on Ghost Ship. Whatever else you can say about the script or performances, House of Wax had an artistic vision that is unfortunately overshadowed by people’s love-hate relationship with the Hilton heiress.
Dark Castle built the town of Ambrose in an empty field in Queensland, Australia in ten weeks. Walker drew heavily from the streamline design of Art Moderne architecture — specifically, he says, from Asmara, Eritrea. It’s a massive achievement that serves the film well during daytime shots, but lost during the night scenes. Unfortunately, Collet-Serra shot most of the exterior scenes at night.
Failing to find much entertainment in the movie itself, I watched several of Shout Factory’s extras. Paris Hilton recalls arguing with producer Joel Silver about it, which has her running through the woods and then a garage wearing nothing but skimpy red lingerie. She says she wanted to wear red high-heels because it would be “hotter,” but Silver persuaded her it wasn’t realistic enough.
It’s nice to see that Paris Hilton is still enthusiastic about the movie. “Over the years, everyone’s told me that my death scene in House of Wax is one of the most iconic death scenes ever filmed,” while I struggled to remember precisely what happened. That said, she’s very kind to her co-stars and cast entirely within her type. If no one had known about her beforehand, I doubt they would have been as critical of her performance. Several of the dudes win at being more irritating.
Director Collet-Serra, however, sounds less enthusiastic. With a blank expression that leans towards the hangdog, he says: “We were asked to build a house out of wax,” he says, “and then melt it… the movie is worth watching because of that.”
Maybe the last ten minutes.