Neither "My Bloody Valentine" nor "House of Wax" makes irrestible claims on the allegiance of horror fans, the best-supplied segment of the moviegoing public at the moment. "My Bloody Valentine," a Canadian trivality now at area theaters, has a catchy title and an offbeat haunted house setting -- a coal mine, which becomes the principal hunting ground of a demented pickax killer whose identity is concealed by his miner's helmet and gas mask. However, that's all it has in the way of significant differentiation.
The marginal competitive edge definitely goes to the revival. "House of Wax," the biggest hit of the short-lived 3-D craze of 1953, is now playing a brief engagement at the Key, fresh from an extended success with the 3-D version of "Dial M for Murder." Since the latter enjoyed remarkably good presentation, customers should be aware that the "House of Wax" presentation is inferior -- a single-trip, one-projector print in slightly ragged and faded condition. The theater was also awaiting a fresh shipment of 3-D glasses during the opening weekend, compeling patrons to rummage through a box of used specs to find some free of scratches and smudges.
"House of Wax" was supervised by the one-eyed director Andre de Toth, who relied on others to evaluate the three-dimensional effects. Released in April of 1953, "House of Wax" was the first 3-D hit from a major studio and remained the biggest hit of the cycle, which was on the way out before the year was up. Warners wasn't taking any chances with an untried property either: "House of Wax" was a remake of "The Mystery of the Wax Museum," a horror hit of 1933 directed in the early two-color Technicolor process by Michael Curtiz.
A number of effective bits were unchanged; indeed, they owe their effectiveness to a conceptual eeriness that seems to transcend the pictorial format. The most notable examples are the traumatizing sequence in which the dedicated sculptor in wax (Lionel Atwill in the original and Vincent Price in the remake) is driven to madness by seeing his creations go up in flames, and the climatic shock in which the endangered heroine (Fay Wray was succeeded by Phyllis Kirk) strikes the now ruthless, fiendish sculptor, shattering the mask that conceals his disfigurement.
"House of Wax" gets some evocative depth illusions out of a fog-shrouded street and a darkened chamber of horrors (a hanged man twists slowly, slowly in the background to particularly creepy effect), but the 3-D is at once more pronounced and entertaining when it's being exploited comically. For example, Reggie Rymal does a famous gratuitous bit as a paddle-ball wizard hired to tout the opening of Price's new wax museum. While treating the opening night customers to a barker's spiel, he also sustains a fantastic tattoo with the paddle, smacking the rapidly rebounding ball toward the audience and even boasting at one delightful moment that he intends to pick off someone hiding a bag of popcorn. During a nightclub sequence a turn-of-the-century chorus line is flaunted for high-kicking, skirt-lifting erotic delirium, the piece de restance being the moment when one chorine pivots, bends and sticks her saucy ruffled bottom at the ogling camera.
The stilted performances now have a patina that adds to the amusement. Price, big but incorrigibly effete, was always a camp attraction, and "House of Wax" finds him at the state of a prolonged twilight eminence as a star of horror melodramas. Carolyn Jones' chuckleheaded victim, a giggly, generous little tart whose waxy fate foreshadows terror for the respectable Kirk, is a mind-boggling blast from the dumb-blondie past. And who can resist the sight of a muscular young hulk named Charles Buchinsky, destined to be reincarnated as Charles Bronson, in the role of Price's mute flunky, Igor? For what it's worth, there are even expert straight performances by Frank Lovejoy (a non-nonsense boyhood favorite of mine) and Dabbs Greer as the sly, noncommittal homicide cops who get the goods on Price before he can immortalize Kirk as Marie Antoinette.
Even with its busted seams and vintage gaucheries showing, "House of Wax" in 3-D retains more than enough melodramatic zest and goofy incidental appeal to justify a nostalgic visit. While most movies acquire a certain mellowness as time goes by, "My Bloody Valentine" will need a breakthrough by some unknown member of the cast or crew to elude virtual oblivion. Offhand, I'd say that only stout, good-humored Keith Knight, cast in the supporting role of Hollis, a merry behemoth of a young coal miner, stands a chance of ingratiating himself.
The coal-mining town of Valentine Bluffs is supposedly cursed by the ghost of a miner abandoned in a disaster a generation earlier. Nevertheless, the Valentine's Day dance is being revived, the better to decimate a new generation of unsuspecting young people. Director George Mihalka and screenwriter John Beaird kill time with a lot of ponderous stalking, preliminary axing and shamelessly misleading clue-dropping before getting three foolish couples down in a mine shaft to play hide-and-seek with the maniac.
The shocks are strictly mechanical and redundant, the script uncomplicated by incidental humor or character byplay. It comes as no great surprise when the killer is revealed to a be a "Halloween" clone and then allowed to vanish, aggravating the pathetic resemblance. The reviewers who made a fuss over "Halloween" have a lot to answer for.