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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

House of Wax (2005)
3 Stars

Directed by Jaume Serra
Cast: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, Paris Hilton, Jared Padalecki, Jon Abrahams, Robert Ri'chard, Damon Herriman, Andy Anderson, Dragitsa Debert
2005 – 116 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for horror violence, gore, sexual material and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 3, 2005.

"House of Wax," a reinvisioning of the 1953 Vincent Price B-movie, borrows the general idea behind that film—a madman who turns his victims into wax figures for his ghastly museum—to concoct an affectionate throwback to the slasher genre of the '80s and '90s, albeit one smarter, more stylish, and eerier than most. Indeed, music video and commercial director Jaume Collet-Serra, making a splashy feature debut, has brought to vividly ingenious life a premise that, in lesser hands, could have just been a schlocky waste of everyone's time. He makes expert and chilling use out of his macabre wax surroundings to bless the breathlessly taut proceedings with added layers of atmosphere and foreboding that horror aficionados will go wild over.

A group of college friends headed for a university football game are forced to take a detour off the beaten path and camp out for the night. The next morning, following a run-in with a mysterious trucker, easygoing Wade (Jared Padalecki) finds his car's fan belt ripped out. While Wade and his big city-bound girlfriend, Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), set out for the nearest town to get a new car part, the rest of the friends—sexy Paige (Paris Hilton), her boyfriend Blake (Robert Ri'chard), camera-wielding Dalton (Jon Abrahams), and Carly's troubled twin brother, Nick (Chad Michael Murray)—press on for the game.

When Wade and Carly finally make it to the virtual ghost town of Ambrose, they are at first intrigued by the detailed wax house (made entirely out of wax) until they discover that the town's inhabitants are made up almost entirely of wax figures themselves. The exceptions are brothers Bo and Vincent (Brian Van Holt in a dual role), murderous psychopaths with designs to turn these two lovebirds, and later the rest of their unsuspecting buddies, into the town's latest deadly wax creations.

With the current popularity of horror movies, one may be lead to believe that there have been more recent slasher films than there really has been. In actuality, most have wavered more toward the supernatural—a topic that has officially tired itself out for the time being—and, in an even more despicable trend, PG-13-rated. "House of Wax" is a gritty, bloody, violent, R-rated (thank you very much) return to what the genre is all about, and possibly the most giddily inspired slasher pic since Rob Zombie's 2003 kaleidoscope of the macabre, "House of 1000 Corpses." There are no ghosts in sight and, for my money, the sight of practically hundreds of wax figures—really corpses engulfed in wax—populating a desolate, dusty town run by a pair of serial killers is far more disturbing than any old CGI-aided apparition.

"House of Wax" stands as an example of how an astounding production design, by Graham 'Grace' Walker (2003's "Gothika"), and sumptuous art direction, by Nicholas McCallum, can strengthen and even transcend what could have easily just been a hackneyed body-count movie. The entire fictional town of Ambrose was built from the ground up with such fervent attention to exacting detail that it becomes one of the lead characters of the film, and director Jaume Collet-Serra uses his every set to its fullest potential. From the wax museum itself, constructed fully out of wax, to the body-strewn underground chamber, to the church, to the gas station, to, in one of the most unsettling and original sequences, the movie theater—where wax figures sit and watch 1962's "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" on a continuous loop—no expense has been spared in bringing to creepy life the sort of place that seemingly would only reside in the viewer's nightmares.

Whereas most slasher films fall apart when dealing with their characters and bringing their stories to a conclusion, "House of Wax" features people who may just turn out to be victims, but seem genuine as a group of college-aged friends who are unaware of the danger lurking just around the corner. Screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes intelligently build this said danger slowly and methodically, drawing the viewer into the precarious circumstances faced by the characters before wholly unleashing the horror element. By doing this, the story gains a certain level of cinematic plausibility and becomes unpredictable in just when the stalking and killing will start. Once it does, the film never lets up, becoming a consummate, increasingly sinister ride offering up infinitely more thrills and good-time fright than the recent terrible 2005 update of "The Amityville Horror" and every other wide-release genre pic of the last year or so.

Also appreciative is the screenplay's wise decision to not overexplain the plot and killers' motives—a downfall of many like-minded efforts—giving the watcher just enough information so that the blanks can be filled while always feeling like he or she are being treated by the filmmakers with respect. Refreshingly, there is no cliched moment during the climax where the villains describe their devious plan to the final survivors. In this film, as it would more likely be if it were real, the maniacal wax sculptors have no interest in explaining themselves; their purpose is to kill the intruders, plain and simple. Thus, the grand-scale, ambitious finale is just as effective and go-for-broke as the preceding 100 minutes, pitting the final two protagonists against the murderers as the on-fire house of wax they are trapped in literally melts and disintegrates around them.

The performances are always professional and understated in their believable cogency, particularly Elisha Cuthbert (2004's "The Girl Next Door"), a talented, beautiful young actress who has proven time and again just what a multilayered and promising future she has ahead of her. Cuthbert digs into the role of Carly with strength, determination, and horrified realism; you believe as you watch her that she is going through these things and forget all about the actor playing the part, which is the biggest compliment of all. As brother Nick, Chad Michael Murray pushes away from the kid-friendly roles of his past (2003's "Freaky Friday," 2004's "A Cinderella Story") and seems to relish the opportunity.

Many potential audience members will probably be going to see the major acting debut of Paris Hilton (2003's "The Cat in the Hat") and, more specifically, her much-publicized death scene. For this, they will not be disappointed; her murder is the most lingering and gruesome of the bunch. What these same Paris haters may be disappointed to find, however, is a performance that isn't bad at all. Hilton meshes well with her castmates without drawing much attention to herself, and naturalistically plays a character that rarely even seems like her glitzy real-life persona. She's fun to watch onscreen, and is a good sport at slyly poking fun at herself, as in a moment involving a pile of cell phones that don't work.

"House of Wax" is the first unequivocally good—and often downright great—popcorn entertainment of the still-early summer movie season, and the most satisfying release from Robert Zemeckis' Dark Castle horror label, to date. Scary, scream-and-squirm-inducing, and legitimately suspenseful, "House of Wax" proves that the slasher movie, a genre that has never gotten the respect it deserves, is alive and well. As with 1996's "Scream" before it, it simply takes a masterful one to reinvigorate the genre and show how it can be done right. Stuffy, narrow-minded critics be damned, "House of Wax" is one of the most well made and stylistically accomplished films of the year.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman