House of Wax (1953 film)

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House of Wax
House of Wax (1953 film poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAndre DeToth
Screenplay byCrane Wilbur
Based on
The Wax Works
Produced byBryan Foy
Edited byRudi Fehr
Music byDavid Buttolph
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release dates
  • April 10, 1953 (1953-04-10) (New York)[1]
  • April 25, 1953 (1953-04-25) (US)
Running time
88 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1 million[2]
Box office$23.75 million

House of Wax is a 1953 American period mystery-horror film directed by Andre DeToth. A remake of Warner Bros.' Mystery of the Wax Museum from 1933, the film stars Vincent Price as a disfigured sculptor who repopulates his destroyed wax museum by murdering people and using their wax-coated corpses as displays. It premiered in New York on April 10, 1953, and had a general release on April 25.

House of Wax was the first color 3-D feature film from a major American studio and premiered two days after the Columbia Pictures film Man in the Dark, the first major-studio black-and-white 3-D feature. It was the first 3-D movie with stereophonic sound to be presented in a regular theater.

In 1971, it was widely re-released to theaters in 3-D with a full advertising campaign. Newly struck prints of the film in Chris Condon's single-strip StereoVision 3-D format were used. Another major re-release occurred during the 3-D boom of the early 1980s. In 2005, Warner Bros. released a remake of the film, but its plot was very different from the other films and was met with poor reception.

In 2014, the movie was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.[3][4]


Professor Henry Jarrod is a talented sculptor who runs a wax museum in early 1900s New York City. He creates historical wax figures such as John Wilkes Booth, Joan of Arc, and Marie Antoinette, the latter of which he considers his masterpiece. His business partner, Matthew Burke, wants to end their partnership, frustrated with Jarrod's refusal to add more sensational exhibits to increase profits. Renowned art critic Sidney Wallace is interested in buying Burke out in about three months after financing some excavations in Egypt. Impatient, Burke sets the museum on fire to obtain the insurance money. Jarrod attempts to stop Burke and save his life's work, only to be doused in kerosene and left to die in the fire. Some time after acquiring the insurance money, Burke is murdered by a disfigured man in a cloak, who stages the murder as an act of suicide.

Burke's fiancée, Cathy Gray, is murdered by the cloaked figure weeks after Burke's body was stolen from the morgue. Cathy's friend and roommate, Sue Allen, encountered the fiend and escaped, running to her friend Scott Andrews' home. At the police station the following day, Sue learns that Cathy's body was taken from the morgue. Wallace meets with Jarrod, who had miraculously survived the fire but is now confined to a wheelchair and his hands are too damaged to sculpt. Jarrod intends to build a new wax museum with his assistants, the deaf-mute Igor and Leon Averill, conceding to popular taste by including a chamber of horrors showcasing both historical acts of violence such as Anne Boleyn's decapitation and Anne Askew's torture and recent events that include William Kemmler's electrocution and Burke's apparent suicide.

Sue attends the opening of the museum and is troubled by the strong resemblance that the Joan of Arc figure has to Cathy. Jarrod claims that he used newspaper photos of Cathy to make the sculpture, but Sue remains unconvinced, while Jarrod hires Scott as an assistant and develops an interest in Sue's resemblance to his long-lost Marie Antoinette sculpture. The police agree to investigate the museum while recognizing Averill from his criminal background. Sue arrives after hours to meet with Scott, whom Jarrod sent on an errand, and uncovers the horrifying truth that the figures are wax-coated corpses stolen from the morgue, including Burke and Cathy. Sue is confronted by Jarrod, who had pretended to be wheelchair-bound while wearing a wax mask to conceal his disfigured face that identifies him as the murderer. He subdues Sue with Igor's help and prepares to use her body to recreate his Marie Antoinette sculpture. The police, having learned about everything from Averill, arrive at the museum and arrest Igor, who attempts to murder Scott using a guillotine featured in a display before they storm into Jarrod's workshop. They save Sue in time as Jarrod is killed after being knocked into the room's vat of wax.



House of Wax, filmed under the working title The Wax Works, was Warner Bros.' answer to the surprise 3-D hit Bwana Devil, an independent production that premiered the previous November. Seeing promise in 3-D's future, Warner Bros. contracted Julian and Milton Gunzburg's Natural Vision 3-D system, the same one used for Bwana Devil, and filmed a remake of their thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), based on Charles S. Belden's three-act play The Wax Works. Among the significant changes: The earlier film was set in the year it was released (1933) whereas House of Wax was moved to circa 1902; the entire newspaper angle in the earlier film and the characters played by Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh were eliminated; and although the masked figure was seen sparingly in Mystery, he is shown early and often in this remake.[citation needed]

Among the foregrounded uses of 3-D in the film were scenes featuring a wax museum fire, can-can girls, and a paddleball-wielding pitchman. In what may be the film's cleverest and most startling 3-D effect, the shadowy figure of one of the characters seems to spring up out of the theater audience and run into the screen. Director Andre DeToth was blind in one eye and unable to experience stereo vision or 3-D effects. "It’s one of the great Hollywood stories," Vincent Price recalled. "When they wanted a director for [a 3-D] film, they hired a man who couldn’t see 3-D at all! André de Toth was a very good director, but he really was the wrong director for 3-D. He’d go to the rushes and say 'Why is everybody so excited about this?' It didn’t mean anything to him. But he made a good picture, a good thriller. He was largely responsible for the success of the picture. The 3-D tricks just happened—there weren’t a lot of them. Later on, they threw everything at everybody."[5] Some modern critics agree that DeToth's inability to see the depth is what makes the film superior because he was more concerned with telling a thrilling story and believable performances from the actors than simply tossing things at the camera.[citation needed]


House of Wax was one of the big hits of 1953, topping the charts for 5 weeks[6] and earning an estimated $5.5 million in rentals from the North American box office alone.[7] To accompany its stereoscopic imagery, House of Wax was originally available with a stereophonic three-track magnetic soundtrack, although many theaters were not equipped to make use of it and defaulted to the standard monophonic optical soundtrack. Previously, films with stereo sound only were produced to be shown in specialty cinemas, such as the Toldi in Budapest and the Telecinema in London.[8][9] Only the monophonic soundtrack and a separate sound-effects-only track were said to have survived. As of 2013, no copy of the original three-channel stereo soundtrack is known to exist.[citation needed] A new stereo soundtrack has been synthesized from the available source material.[citation needed]

The 3-D screenings of the film included an intermission, which was necessary to change the film's reels, because each projector of the theater's two projectors was dedicated to one of the stereoscopic images.[10]

The film premiered in Los Angeles at the Paramount Theatre on April 16, 1953. The film played at midnight with a number of celebrities in the audience that night (Broderick Crawford, Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Rock Hudson, Judy Garland, Shelly Winters, Ginger Rogers and others). Producer Alex Gordon, knowing actor Bela Lugosi was in dire need of cash, arranged for the aging actor to stand outside the theater wearing a cape and dark glasses, holding an actor named Steve Calvert (costumed as a gorilla) on a leash, later allowing himself to be photographed drinking a glass of milk at a Red Cross booth there. Lugosi was interviewed by a female reporter (Shirley Thomas) afterward, who messed up the interview by asking the prearranged questions out of order, thoroughly confusing the aging star. Embarrassed, Lugosi left without attending the screening. Footage of Lugosi in front of the theater appeared in a Pathe Newsreel released on April 27, 1953 in theaters.[11]


Initial reception[edit]

Early reviews were mixed to negative. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times found the film "disappointing," writing: "This picture, apart entirely from the fact that it is baldly, unbelievably antique in its melodramatic plot and style, shows little or no imagination in the use of stereoscopic images and nothing but loudness and confusion in the use of so-called stereoscopic sound. The impression we get is that its makers were simply and solely interested in getting a flashy sensation on the screen just as fast as they could."[12] Variety was considerably more excited, writing: "This picture will knock 'em for a ghoul. Warners' House of Wax is the post-midcentury Jazz Singer. What the freres and Al Jolson did to sound, the Warners have repeated in third dimension."[13] Harrison's Reports called the film "a first-class thriller of its kind," and "the best 3-D picture yet made," though it felt that "the added value of depth is not significant enough to warrant the annoyance of viewing the proceedings through the polaroid glasses, and that the picture would have been as much of a chiller if shown in the standard 2-D form, and probably even a greater thriller if shown on a wide screen."[14] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that as a 3-D film it was "a smoother effort than its predecessors, obviously made with more care and less tiring to the eyes," but that "[i]n all but technical respects, the film is a childish and inept piece of work."[15]

Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post wrote: "It's supposed to be a horror movie and it's horrible alright... The novelty has some appeal especially through its long shots into depths, but there is also a feeling of limitations once what novelty there passes. Then it is we go back to the gaga script devised by Crane Wilbur from a story which served one of the early talking films and one is inclined to shudderingly ask: Are we to go through all that again?"[16] John McCarten of The New Yorker also hated the film, writing that he thought it had "set the movies back about forty-nine years. It could have set them back further if there had been anything earlier to set them back to," concluding that "when Mr. Price started clumping around and choking ladies with knots that wouldn't pass muster at a Cub Scout meeting, I took off my glasses once and for all, put on my hat, and left."[17]

Later Reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 95% based on 39 reviews. The site's critical consensus reads "House of Wax is a 3-D horror delight that combines the atmospheric eerieness of the wax museum with the always chilling presence of Vincent Price."[18]


House of Wax revitalized the film career of Vincent Price, who had been playing secondary character parts and occasional sympathetic leads since the late 1930s. After this high-profile role, Price was in high demand to play fiendish villains, mad scientists and assorted other deranged characters in genre films such as The Tingler, The Masque of the Red Death and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Supporting player Carolyn Jones, whose career had begun when she appeared in House of Wax, gained a much higher profile more than a decade later in the TV comedy horror spoof The Addams Family as Morticia Addams.

Home media releases[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "House of Wax". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved June 22, 2018.
  2. ^ "House of Wax (1953) - Box Office Mojo".
  3. ^ "New Films Added to National Registry - News Releases - Library of Congress". Retrieved November 1, 2016.
  4. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
  5. ^ Steve Biodrowski "House of Wax (1953) – A Retrospective", Cinefantastique website; accessed November 1, 2016.
  6. ^ "National Boxoffice Survey". Variety. May 27, 1953. p. 3. Retrieved September 23, 2019 – via
  7. ^ "Top Grossers of 1953". Variety. January 13, 1954. p. 10.
  8. ^ Eddie Sammons, The World of 3-D Movies, Delphi, 1992 p 32
  9. ^ R.M. Hayes, 3-D movies: a history and filmography of stereoscopic cinema, McFarland & Company, 1989 p 42
  10. ^ Hefferman, Kevin (2004). Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business. Duke University Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0822332152. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
  11. ^ Gary Don Rhodes (1997). Lugosi. His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. Pg. 198. ISBN 978-0-78640257-1.
  12. ^ Crowther, Bosley (April 19, 1953). "Cacophony In 3-D". The New York Times: Section 2, p. X1.
  13. ^ "House of Wax". Variety: 6. April 15, 1953.
  14. ^ "'House of Wax' with Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy and Phyllis Kirk". Harrison's Reports: 62. April 18, 1953.
  15. ^ "House of Wax". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 20 (233): 84. June 1953.
  16. ^ Coe, Richard L. (April 24, 1953). "'House of Wax' or Fun at the Morgue". The Washington Post: 36.
  17. ^ McCarten, John (April 18, 1953). "The New Yorker": 133–134. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ "House of Wax (1953) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Flixer. Retrieved July 13, 2018.
  19. ^ House of Wax (1953). 3D Blu-ray (June 03, 2013). Retrieved August 24, 2013
  20. ^ House of Wax 3D Blu-ray. 3D Blu-ray. Retrieved May 31, 2020

External links[edit]