'House of Wax': Come On In, The Horror's Fine

Elisha Cuthbert is in there swinging as Brian Van Holt pursues her in a remake that becomes a throwback.
Elisha Cuthbert is in there swinging as Brian Van Holt pursues her in a remake that becomes a throwback. (Ho - Reuters)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005

More evidence that Western Civilization Is Near Death: At a certain point in "House of Wax," Paris Hilton catches what appears to be four feet of sharpened spear through the front of her skull. She backs off a few feet with the unwelcome protrusion extending before her, then topples to her knees, falling forward, driving the shaft through more brain matter. The skull itself cracks.

The audience cheers wildly.

But that's not the scary part.

The scary part was the elderly gentleman sitting in the seat behind the guy in front of me: He cheered, too. I think he sorta kinda liked it.

That's "House of Wax," one of those guilty pleasures that result from creativity on the part of people who should have gotten adult supervision at a young age. They didn't, and went on to make profane, even blasphemous, treats like this one.

Bearing almost no relationship to Andre De Toth's 3-D hit of 1953 (one of the leading moneymakers of its year and the film that turned character actor Vincent Price into a leading man of the horrors), the movie begins too slowly as another lame variation on Every Other Horror Movie.

It's like a film appreciation course in trash: Hmmm, there's the fast-kids-must-die bit from "Halloween," the deranged guy with black teeth in the pickup from "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," the lost-in-the-woods-with-a-vid-camera thang from "Blair Witch Project," even at one point the mummified-ma shtick from "Psycho," and so forth and so on.

We watch, without much interest, as several kids (Hilton among them, but not paramount; her lack of lines seals her fate as designated First Chick to Die) go road-tripping together too fast, too soon to a football game in Baton Rouge, then are detoured into the Louisiana swamps and settle in for some necking, beer drinking and all that other stuff kids do these days.

But that smell?

And what about the cretin with the blackened teeth and the dead deer in his pickup and the bloody knife and the slightly crazed way of talking?

Then the fan belt on one of the vehicles of their two-car convoy is mysteriously snipped.

Naturally the kids split up, because, after all, this is a horror movie. One couple -- star Elisha Cuthbert and her disposable boyfriend, Jared Padalecki -- set off through the swamp with a rural chap who represents himself as a helpful sort. The rest (Hilton, boyfriend Robert Ri'chard, nice guy Jon Abrahams and Cuthbert's brother in the story, played by an over-Nautilused but intense Chad Michael Murray) jump into their own truck and head to the game, which they give up on because of traffic. (They didn't know there'd be traffic at an LSU football game?) Thus they come back, looking for the Cuthbert and Padalecki characters, who have meanwhile found their way to a small town called Ambrose. At this point, I'm thinking, "Is it so awful because it's derivative or is it so derivative because it's awful?"

But here the movie cranks weirdly into poisoned genius. Ambrose is -- well, you can't give too much away here without setting off an e-mail tidal wave -- more than just a house of wax. Let's put it this way: Its occupants include two brothers with an unusual backstory and a formerly intense interpersonal relationship. They have gathered about them many folks in a desperate desire to restore the world to their sense of order, a golden age from long ago in which the happy inhabitants of Ambrose celebrate good ol' small-town normalcy and their mama's very fine wax museum.

The movie opens up into a grotesque tapestry, a scene from somebody's imagination of a waxy hell. I like a director who dreams big, and ex-video guy Jaume Serra -- his first feature -- has an imagination as broad and twisted as the mighty Mississip. The wax museum -- it looks weirdly as if it were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who after all designed a building in Racine, Wis., for that fine old firm Johnson Wax -- is a mighty art moderne structure, all streamline and glass block, above a cellar full of frightening technologies. We are in a wax-normative world, and sooner rather than later young people start perishing to provide structure for some of the exhibits.

I should be honest and acknowledge one truth: I like this movie a little bit because they still kill the old way. In recent years, in search of big bucks, a number of horror movies have been produced as hard but nevertheless permissible PG-13s, to bring in a younger cash customer. When you see that, you know there's a certain line the movie won't cross; it lessens the upfront apprehension, which after all is the point of the horror movie, no? (It's certainly not to encourage better citizenship.)

This movie gives it to you, as no movie has in some years. Okay, if that's not your part of the swamp, don't go into it. You know in advance it's R-rated horror, with all kinds of skewerings and slashings. But some people -- roughly 40 million under the age of 25, and the 40,000,001st, that is, er, me -- sorta kinda like this sort of thing.

House of Wax (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for intense gore and crude sexual innuendo.

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