The Film: House of Wax (2005)

The Principles: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, Paris Hilton, Jared Padalecki. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.

The Premise: Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), her boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki), her delinquent twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray), her bestie Paige (Paris Hilton) and two other friends are road-tripping to a football game. When Wade’s car breaks down they seek help in the secluded town of Ambrose. The town is idyllic but nearly empty; its main feature being a tourist trappy House of Wax. While waiting for the car to be repaired, Carly and Wade explore the museum and discover that literally everything in the House of Wax, including the building itself, is made of wax. Furthermore, the wax figures are eerily realistic, and eventually they learn why — because the figures were once living breathing people who were covered in wax by the museum’s “curators,” Bo (Brian Van Holt ) and his deformed brother Vincent (also Van Holt). Then Paris Hilton gets a pipe through the head and we all go home happy.

Is It Good: Yes. House of Wax is a film that is begging to be re-evaluated by the horror community. The gimmick of casting/killing Paris Hilton, though sadistically cathartic in its intended way, was possibly something of a miscalculation in the end. It was cheap low-hanging-fruit appeal (especially incorporating destined-to-be-immediately-dated Hilton references like her catchphrase “That’s hot”)  and it back-fired, revealing the true depths of America’s hatred for Hilton – filmgoers seemed to feel that, as pleasurable as it would be to watch Paris die, it would be even more pleasurable to just not have to watch her at all. The fact that most people remember Wax, if they remember it at all, as “that Paris Hilton movie” indicates the small blunder her casting ultimately was. But, in a different way, Hilton’s presence also provides contrast to the film’s legitimate charms. House of Wax is a film I would call “secretly good.” At a glance it seems rote and uninspired, but like the wax figures of Ambrose, the closer you look, things aren’t quite what they seem. Wax‘s quality sneaks up on you. This was a film that – when I saw it in the theater back in ’05 – made me turn to my friends midway through and ask, “Is it just me or is this film actually good?”

I suppose it all comes down to what you’re looking for in a horror movie. Because of Hilton’s presence, I think a lot of people went into Wax expecting and wanting it to be bad, a mindless by-the-numbers horror movie that you and your friends can pay half-attention to and mock while reveling in the kill scenes. And it doesn’t necessarily deliver on that front. It is a subgenre hodgepodge, caught halfway between Slasher and Torture-Porn, and halfway between ‘Old Dark House’ and ‘Evil Rednecks.’ It only has one drawn out and nutty kill (Hilton’s, of course; which is delicious), and only one big torture scene – though the torture scene is quite memorable, with Cuthbert getting her lips super-glued together, which impedes her ability to scream when she needs to. But these are lesser elements of the film for me. What impressed me most in Wax was Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction. Frankly, Collet-Serra took Wax more seriously than it probably deserved. But it is great that he did. He brings an odd fluidity to a lot of the action, splicing together shots using unusual transition techniques and keeping things moving at a jaunty clip without resorting to unfollowable shaky-cam. While I don’t expect the average mallrat that went to see Wax to pick up on such things, the film has a unique flow and smart shot compositions.

The film’s big-win though is the ‘final battle’ sequence. Without it Wax is a well-done film, but one that would have completely slipped from my memory. It is the film’s climax that makes Wax a minor horror classic of the 00s. The idea that the House of Wax is itself made of wax is a solid spooky detail, but then Collet-Serra and screenwriters Charles Belden, Chad Hayes, and Carey Hayes take the concept to an unexpected yet natural end — the museum melts! Having your heroes fighting and crawling their way through a burning building is old hat, for any genre. Having your heroes fighting and crawling their way through a melting building? That’s novel. And fucking exciting to watch! I have no idea what all went into the FX for Wax, but every cent of its $40 million budget wound up on screen here. It is an endlessly inventive set-piece. The floor and stairs become a gooey foot-gripping mire, and eventually disappear all together. No doors can be locked, as the villain can just cut through the warm wax. And conversely no section of the house is a true dead end, as our heroes can dig their way through walls. It is easily one of the coolest sequences from any horror film of the past ten years.

Is It Worth A Look: If you haven’t seen it, definitely. If you have and didn’t like it, I recommend revisiting it with a fresh approach. If horror fans are honest with themselves, a lot of the minor classics of the past didn’t feel very classic at the time. Wax I believe is destined to be rediscovered at some point, especially because Collet-Serra’s career is likely to continue expanding (while people dismissed Wax, Orphan became an immediate fan fav). The rediscovery might as well start now, I say!

Random Anecdote: Jared Padalecki is one foot taller than co-star Elisha Cuthbert. To make herself appear taller in scenes where she and Padalecki would be filmed together, Cuthbert taped two-inch blocks of wood to the bottoms of her boots. This was only done during scenes where they would be shot from the knee and up.

Cinematic Soulmates: House of Wax (1953), Mystery of the Wax Museum, Wrong Turn, Mannequin.

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