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House of Wax   C

Warner Bros. Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes
Cast: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, Paris Hilton, Jared Padalecki, Jon Abrahams, Robert Ri'chard.

Review by Rob Vaux

House of Wax presents another variation in a very old conundrum for movie critics. Its structure and execution are precisely like that of thousands of other horror movies, so much so that you can predict to the moment when the psychopath is going to lunge out of the shadows. It features a group of annoying young people who are picked off one by one (often after enjoying some dirty sinful sex), a dark, spooky environment containing both buzzing fluorescent lights and ominous rural backwoods, and a gimmicky villain with whom the audience is (at least in part) intended to bond. The film is resolute in its adherence to these tropes and shows neither the inclination nor the capacity to try anything different.

The trouble from a critical stance is that there's really no point in complaining about it. The arguments have all been made, and indeed were old a full two decades ago, when the Friday the 13th sequels sent legions of Siskel and Ebert clones into fits. Very little has changed, either in the films themselves or in the expected reviewer response. It's like condemning the Snickers bar for not being healthy; why waste everyone's time with the patently obvious? No one's going to confuse House of Wax for Anna Karenina and the intended audience wants nothing more than a few boo-gotchas to while away their Friday night. So it behooves us to set aside the fact that the film is shamelessly formulaic and ask what else it has in its bag of tricks.

Some nice production values to start with. Dark Castle, the company that delivered this little magnum opus unto us, has a long track record of interesting set and costume designs in their pictures. In some cases they're the sole selling point of the film, and while House of Wax isn't quite up with the best of them, its central location still has plenty of juice. The little town of Ambrose, La., transformed into a mausoleum of creepily evocative wax figures, is home and stalking grounds for a standard-issue serial killer whose incarnation here gives his frozen sculptures that extra touch of evil. House of Wax does right by Ambrose as a setting, using it to conjure the same skin-crawling atmosphere as the Vincent Price original upon which is it ever-so-passingly based.

When the expected band of clueless teenagers wanders through, a second selling point appears -- the ghoulish whimsy arising from their ritualistic deaths. As expected, the killer employs some fairly grotesque methodologies in dispatching his victims, which the film trundles out with sadistic glee. And yet there's an earthy wit to some of them: a squirming EC Comics appropriateness that fans of the genre will doubtless savor. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has a nice touch during such moments, and manages to deliver the proper ratio of jolts to false alarms as well. There is just enough thought put into it all to hold our attention; the originality is limited solely to the surface details, but with material like this, that can sometimes be enough.

What House of Wax can't manage is protagonists worth giving a shit about. The gaggle of Beautiful People to whom we are supposed to relate are dull and thinly sketched. Moreover, they're afflicted with a raging case of the Stupids, which is absolutely exasperating in a film like this. Marvel as they stroll blissfully into that darkened room! Snigger as they ignore telltale clues that a bright five-year-old could catch! Basically, they do everything but hand the killer a knife and point enticingly at their jugular, so a rooting interest in their survival is exceedingly difficult to come by. In fact, so low is the sympathy factor that the on-screen death of star Paris Hilton is being touted as part of the publicity campaign. All of which detracts unduly from the scares, since it's tough to get worked up over an imperiled dumbass. Similarly, the film's villain never really hooks us. While it's too much to ask for a worthy successor to Price, the killer's menace here is both too slow to get going, and too thin to make it through the end. His methodology has some cool to it and actor Brian Van Holt is modestly appealing, but we just don't love to hate him the way we need to.

The results leave us hunting throughout House of Wax for scattered joys: joys that only fans of the genre can really appreciate. The nifty set never gets old, and the shocks are enough to satisfy your average high-schooler, but once you venture past that, it's all a whole lot of nothing. On the other hand, what's a whole lot of nothing for a film like this? As junk food, it's passively efficient enough to excuse its most grievous sins, and anyone looking for more is simply in the wrong movie. Condemning it too loudly is a case of misspent energy, best saved for higher-grade disasters and more pretentious filmmakers. House of Wax is cheap, dirty entertainment, and it knows it. In its honesty, it retains some kernel of appeal -- if not enough to succeed, then enough to keep it from completely failing.

Review published 05.05.2005.

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