House of Wax

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Of the four Dark Castle productions that had been released in previous years, I have hated all but one of them. Nothing - and I mean nothing about HOUSE OF WAX looked any better save the poster. It's rare that I get to eat my own words and announce that someone managed to pull off a winner. But believe it or not, HOUSE OF WAX really isn't bad at all.

First of all, the film is a remake in name only. It has nothing to do with the Andre de Toth classic starring Vincent Price (which itself was a remake of MYSTERY IN THE WAX MUSEUM). And if you haven't seen the original HOUSE OF WAX yet, I ask what kind of horror fan are you? Run out and get it right now.

No, if anything the new HOUSE OF WAX recalls Marcus Nispel's remake of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE with its gruesome set pieces and dermatologically challenged cast. Which is a good thing, since for the first stretch of the film it recalls an episode of that sewage-ridden TV show, LAGUNA BEACH.

In a complete reversal from Dark Castle's tradition of moving way too fast, this time the setup is slow. While I am loathe to criticize a film for not catering to all but the most severe cases of ADHD, the fact is not much happens in the first 45 minutes of the film. Here's the setup: Carly (newly brunette Elisha Cuthbert - 24, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR) is heading to New York City for a sweet internship. Her boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki - GILMORE GIRLS, CRY WOLF) is in tow but hasn't decided whether he's ready to uproot his life for her or not. Also joining the group is Carly's delinquent twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray - ONE TREE HILL, FREAKY FRIDAY) and his stoolie (Jon Abrahams - THEY, MEET THE PARENTS). The group also hopes to catch a big college football game, which is I guess why Blake (Robert Ri'chard - I guess it looks more exotic with the apostrophe) and his girlfriend Paige (Paris Hilton of reality TV and badly lit porno fame) are along for the ride. Really, they could have cut about fifteen minutes from the running time, virtually all of it from this first bit.

The group has car trouble and so Carly and Wade head towards what looks like a ghost town. In a refreshing twist, the friends don't come along for the party. They go on ahead and only turn back because of a very natural disaster - gridlock. The two look through the town and come across Trudy's House of Wax. It's a strange wax museum. For one, none of the sculptures inside seem to be historical figures or celebrities, instead appearing like average people. For another, everything in the building is wax, including the furniture and the building's very foundation.

Soon, Clay and Wade run into the proprietors of the House of Wax, two twins one of whom is horribly disfigured. The entire group, including the returning friends spend the rest of the film outrunning the two killers and trying to avoid becoming another display in their House of Wax.

Everyone is mentioning Paris Hilton's involvement in the film and before I move on, I have to address it too. It is no secret that I hate Paris Hilton. Of the many celebrities out there today, she is the worst. Because for the life of me, I cannot figure out one worthwhile thing she has done to deserve her fame. She was born into a life of privilege and thus has been a fixture at the trendy clubs for a long time. Okay, no big deal. Not going to blame her for having the cash that any one of us would kill a busload of nuns for. But she has become even more famous for being so damn smug about the whole thing. Not the person to give a dime to charity or take up any real cause, she instead acts like a spoiled brat and turns her nose up at the less wealthy underlings that dare to invade her space - i.e., the rest of us. She has even parlayed this into a vacuous reality TV show in which we're supposed to watch her behave like an actual human being, when all she does is trash everyone around her for no reason other than they work for a living. And people seem to respect her for this. That's just being an ugly person, folks. Hilton always appears smug like she's the greatest thing in the room, her smirk always telling people she's better than them. This is not just conjecture on my part as her well-documented behavior, which is the source of her celebrity, is evidence that she feels this way. If we're talking intelligence, she has demonstrated remarkable ignorance that would be punishable if she didn't have model looks. Again, people hold this up as virtue. But as if she couldn't get any worse, a sex tape leaked of her on the internet. I admit I've seen it. I briefly even felt sorry for her (and guilty for watching) as the boyfriend seemed like an even bigger asshole than she was. But amazingly she was playing the camera and seemed cold and detached throughout the whole thing. She even answers her cell phone, proving that she is not concerned about anyone but herself. He may as well have been doing an inflatable doll. Press reports say she was shocked and hurt by the release of the tape. Yet she bought a copy, did loads of publicity lampooning it and has used it to advance her career, all the while playing the victim. Again, people celebrate this.

I detest Paris Hilton just as much as I detest the ignorant fools that have placed her on a pedestal. Then again, maybe they don't. After all, it seems like the people who wanted to see Hilton in HOUSE OF WAX weren't lining up for her acting ability, but to witness the possibility that she may die a horrible, violent death before their eyes.

So, how does she act in HOUSE OF WAX? To be brief, she doesn't. Hilton does not do one memorable thing with her character and in fact she doesn't even seem to be playing a character. She's just reading lines and posing for the camera. And why not? The rest of the people in the film, although none of them are particularly great in their roles, are artists, practitioners of their chosen craft. Hilton is just a media whore. They even have a couple jabs where she is caught doing embarrassing things on camera. Get it? Paris Hilton has trouble with cameras. Ha, ha. But although I dislike Hilton and this film didn't improve my opinion of her, I wanted to mention it up front and get past it. Most of the reviews out there are making the film about Hilton. But read my lips: HILTON'S ROLE IS MERCIFULLY SMALL! She is not in the film nearly long enough to ruin it and the critics who spotlight her, either negatively or positively, are just riding her celeb coattails.

No, if HOUSE OF WAX has a star it is like many horror films, the director. Jaume Collet-Serra makes his debut with this film. He is another darling whose experience comes from music videos and commercials. Hollywood loves these people because they are everything they look for. They're young and they're used not to making artistic statements, but to marketing a product to the 18-24 crowd. Which is of course the exact agenda of the Hollywood suits.

What is so surprising about Serra is that he does not use any of the techniques you would expect of someone with his background. The last three Dark Castle films: THIRTEEN GHOSTS, GHOST SHIP and GOTHIKA have all been marred by flashy direction. Strobe effects, quick cuts, unnatural lighting and hi-speed flailing about is what has been passing for scary. Serra does not utilize any of these tired effects. Instead, he favors extreme close-ups of the principals so you don't spot the danger until it attacks. The cinematography is dark and leaves us wondering what is behind each corner. The look is ugly. Everything is preserved in the House of Wax but at the same time, the amber tones reveal a sense of decay and abandonment. While I'm on the subject, the actual design of the House of Wax (from Graham "Grace" Walker, the man who gave us the Thunderdome) is fantastic.

Also on display is a surprising amount of gore. Previous Dark Castle films have typically featured one nasty set piece for the horror mags to write about, then lots of cutaways. HOUSE OF WAX is downright nasty. The victims in this film do not die quick or painless deaths. It's the type of film that will make you cringe in your seat and let out a brief chuckle at the carnage on screen. The effects are old school as well. I saw very little CGI on display.

Writers Chad and Carey Hayes are apparently twins. This is appropriate since there is a theme of sibling rivalry and loyalty running throughout the film. In the beginning, we can't understand why Carly would have anything to do with Nick, blood or not. But as the film moves on, we get to know them a little more. Likewise, the two brothers in town are completely dependent on one another and we're never quite sure which one of them is pulling the strings.

The Hayes are terrible at shaping convincing characters in the beginning. The characters don't even sound like they exist on this planet. Strangely, it is only after the action has really started and the film is moving at a nice pace, that we really feel we know these people. They're not good when they have to refrain from the action to talk, but they are good at advancing the character arcs without stopping the action cold later on.

In a year that has been unusually great for horror, HOUSE OF WAX looked like it was shaping to be a chink in the armor. Instead, it turns out to be a fine little horror film, provided you can get past the baggage of a slow start and at least one poor casting choice. As a horror fan, the film was satisfying and I have mostly fond memories of it. These are the times I love being wrong. It's enough to suggest that maybe Hillary Swank didn't make a mistake signing onto a Dark Castle production, but we'll see.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis