The original selling point for House of Wax was the 3D technology and stereophonic sound, not to mention the completely unnatural color scheme (not a complaint), but the film’s legacy remains in Vincent Price’s tortured, hammy performance. Come for can-can dancers sticking their legs and rumps directly into the camera, stay for Price’s burn victim makeup and stalking the night for corpses. It’s that kind of delightfully trashy movie.
The plot of this thing feels ripped straight from Tales of the Crypt: gentle artist creates lifelike wax figures while his rich investor wants him to drop the stately, gentile artistry for lurid compositions. An argument ensues, the artist and his creations get caught in a fire, then we flash forward to find the rich investor killed by a badly scarred man, the artist reopening his wax museum, and the new exhibits in the wax museum with striking similarities to several missing persons and stolen corpses.
And if House of Wax had narrowed its focus down to just that and not added in thinly written lovers, comedic relief bumbling cops, and barely there sidekicks, it would have been much better. Why exactly does one of Price’s henchmen turn on him? I guess it’s because the cops wave some booze in front of his recovering alcoholic face and he sings like a canary. It’s one of many plot points that feels rushed or just thrown in and prove more distractions or time marking from Price’s central performance than anything else.
House of Wax is Price’s show through and through, and it’s the film that launched him from reliable supporting player to horror icon and leading man. While the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean were turning mumbling into the new cinematic dialog, Price wraps his nasal purr around every rolling syllable and elongated vowel with élan. He masticates his purple dialog and delivers it as if he’s still acting opposite the likes of Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde in a major studio production. Price’s elegance and artistry is better than the material surrounding him, but he also manages to elevate it to something almost worthy of his presence.