Long before Avatar and RealD broke new ground to bring a new version of 3D to movie audiences, Warner Bros. released the wildly successful major motion picture House of Wax in Polarized 3D. This helped launch the 3D craze of the 1950s, but that fad soon fizzled as the films released in this format rarely held up on their own once the gimmick wore off. Still, House of Wax has earned a long life for genre fans, shown with anaglyph prints and also flat on various home video formats.
Now that 3D technology has reached home theaters, Warner Bros. has released House of Wax with its original stereoscopic presentation on 3D Blu-ray, just past the movie’s 60th anniversary. For the new Blu-ray, film historians David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr lend their voices to a technical and historical commentary, shedding some new light on the film that gave Vincent Price his first real step into the world of horror movies.
Whether you appreciate the 3D of the film, or even if you’re a hater who won’t watch anything in 3D unless you absolutely have to, the new release of this classic horror flick gives unique insight into the cycle of 3D trends and how it emerged in the early 1950s.
House of Wax (1953)
Commentators: David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr
1. In the original screenplay, the first wax museum was called “Professor Jarrod’s Museum in Wax: History in Wax, an Education for Young and Old.”
2. Before production began on House of Wax, Vincent Price was offered a role on Broadway in the play We’re No Angels, directed by José Ferrer. He turned that role down to do the film. Looking back on that decision, he realized the play did nothing for the careers of anyone involved, but his role in House of Wax changed his life.
3. Price was an artist and sculptor in real life, just as his character was.
4. This is the only film featuring Price in heavy make-up for his role as the Creeper (a.k.a., the disfigured Jarrod). Unlike his later role as the title character in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, in which he wore a mask, the Creeper make-up took three hours to put on and three hours to take off.
5. When House of Wax was being made, the studios were trying to be the first to market with a 3D movie. Even though stereoscopy had been around for about 100 years before this time, it hadn’t been tried in film. 3D pioneer Milton Gunzburg designed a way of shooting and presenting the film that overcame what he identified as the four major problems with 3D: 1) eye strain, 2) equipment too cumbersome to shoot a feature, 3) technology that isn’t compatible with movie production, and 4) a print that wasn’t compatible for movie projection.
6. Contrary to some beliefs, House of Wax was not the first 3D film released by a major studio. United Artists released Bwana Devil a year before in 1952. Jack Warner of Warner Bros. tried to buy the rights to Bwana Devil, and when he wasn’t able to, he rushed House of Wax into production.
7. House of Wax was shot in 29 days, with five days committed to the burning of the first wax museum. Because of the rushed production schedule, it was shot in sequence, which resulted in a higher budget. However, this schedule allowed the editor to assemble the film in order to meet the deadline of releasing it five weeks after production wrapped.
8. Jack Warner was so eager to push a 3D film out because movies were losing their audience to television, and he wanted to offer something people couldn’t get at home. The other two competitors for a unique theatrical experience included Cinerama (which premiered one month before 3D) and the then-developing Cinemascope.
9. During the scene in which the Creeper chases Sue (Phyllis Kirk) through the streets, she takes off her shoes before heading to her boyfriend’s house. When she enters the home, she is no longer holding her shoes.
10. This chase scene took up 5 1/2 pages of the screenplay, which is pretty lengthy for a 1950s film.
11. The working title of the film was The Wax Works, which was the original name of the unpublished story (and subsequent play) written by Charles S. Belden. Only four days after announcing the film, director Andre De Toth was doing 3D tests.
12. De Toth lost his left eye years before production started, so he was unable to perceive 3D. However, he was a staunch believer in 3D presentation because we live in a 3D world, and he wrote extensively about its importance in the 1940s. But, yes, a major proponent of 3D movies couldn’t see them for himself.
13. There is an intermission in the middle of the movie, which was unconventional for a short 88-minute film. This was implemented because most movie theaters only had two projectors, which were both needed to show the film in its original Polarized stereography. Half-way through the movie, the film reels had to be changed on both projectors.
14. De Toth was not a fan of gimmicks, but he relented with the opening of the second half of the film, which features Reggie Rymal as a paddleball barker outside the wax museum. This gimmick scene was insisted upon by the studio, and it became one of the most popular scenes in the film, drawing people back to the theater for repeated viewings. Ironically, at the time, Rymal was known from his stand-up comedy on television, which featured his paddleball acts.
15. In addition to the 3D experience, House of Wax also featured the then-revolutionary Warnerphonic sound system. This system used four audio tracks to immerse the audience in sound from the film. Up to 25 speakers were used for this early surround sound at the premiere. After the success of House of Wax, these sound systems were installed in theaters, but only three other films were ever made with this process. The original magnetic recording masters from House of Wax were lost years ago, making it impossible to recreate the sound design exactly as it was originally presented.
16. The woman who faints during the museum tour was Mary Louise Stratton, De Toth’s wife.
17. David Buttolph’s score uses full brass, complemented by flutes. This gave it a sound that was reminiscent of the theremin, a trendy instrument during that period, which would have clashed with the period nature of the film had the actual instrument been used.
18. No original photographs exist of Price in the Creeper make-up. Warner Bros. blacked out his face in all production stills and marketing, and the only images outside of the film were photographs of the make-up tests. This was done so the only way people could see the deformed face was by going back to the theater and buying another ticket.
19. Nedrick Young, who played Jarrod’s assistant Leon, retired from acting to become a writer. He won an Oscar for the screenplay to The Defiant Ones in 1958 under the name Nathan E. Douglas. He also wrote the screenplay for Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock.
20. Even with its violence and macabre nature, House of Wax had no problems with the censors. This was because De Toth avoided all hints of nudity, even when Cathy (Carolyn Jones) was getting dressed in a corset and the can-can dancers were kicking their legs up.
21. House of Wax premiered on April 16 at midnight and featured around-the-clock shows during the first 24 hour period. The cost of admission was $1.25, which included the glasses.
22. House of Wax spent several weeks at #1 at the box office, only to be knocked down by It Came from Outer Space (also released in 3D) a month later.
Best in Commentary
- Del Valle: “All women love men they fear. All women kiss the hand that rules. I do not treat women in such a soft fashion. Women are cat creatures. Their preferences are for soft, fireside cushions, for delicious bowls of cream, for perfumed leisure and a master that controls their destiny.” (quoting Lionel Atwill, who played Price’s character in the original film Mystery of the Wax Museum, to demonstrate the difference in attitude and demeanor between him and Price)
- Del Valle: “House of Wax tore people away from their televisions, to come by the drove to see this film.”
- Del Valle: “Thank god this is a morgue where they’re not having their lunch. I cannot stand morgue sets where the morgue attendant has a sandwich in his hand.”
Unlike our commentators, I first saw House of Wax as a child in the Polarized 3D presentation, and it forever cemented my love for the process, and the film itself. It’s one of my favorite horror films of all time, and it’s great to see the original version of the film widely available.
For the most part, Del Valle and Nasr offer some keen insight into not just the making of the film, but the history of the players involved and the timeline of 3D development. Their delivery is a bit dry, with Nasr reading much of his commentary from prepared notes and Del Valle dropping names of tons of Hollywood legends over the years. (Seriously, at times, Del Valle sounds like Grace Pander from Death Race 2000, declaring every celebrity “a dear friend of mine.”)
Del Valle is also prone to tangents, at one point taking the listener through the arduous history of 3D while the wax museum burns up on screen with very little commentary on what we’re actually seeing. Conversely, Nasr tends to over-explain the film, particularly in the beginning, narrating things that are on screen rather than giving insight. However, for the 88-minute movie, there’s some neat tidbits of information for you, if you can deal with the historian commentary (which often comes off as much more stilted and over-prepared than an actor or director commentary).