Warner Bros. // 2005 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // February 22nd, 2007
There's a reason they look so real.
In 1999, über-Producer Joel Silver began to tap a profitable vein when he backed the remake of 1959's haunted house classic, House on Haunted Hill. The re-visitation of the tale of a rich eccentric who hosts a haunted house party was somewhat uneven, retaining some elements of the playful original yet veering definitely down a different course. But the film made money, and Silver proceeded to continue the trend with off-message takes on Thir13een Ghosts and Ghost Ship. Always looking for old titles to raid, he came upon and was granted permission to pilfer Warner Brothers' largely adored House of Wax. This time around, there would be no "waxing nostalgic" as Silver was taking this one on in name only.
Two carloads of twenty-somethings are barreling down the roadways of Florida on their way to Baton Rouge and tomorrow's big college football game. In one car is Wade (Jared Padalecki, Cry Wolf), with nubile girlfriend Carly (Elisha Cuthbert, 24) riding shotgun. In the backseat is the mildly obnoxious handi-cam toting Dalton (Jon Abrahams, Scary Movie) and his sulking buddy Nick (Chad Michael Murray, One Tree Hill), Carly's ex-con brother. Meanwhile, sex-starved couple Paige (Paris Hilton, The Simple Life) and Blake (Robert Ri'chard, P.N.O.K.) are riding point up ahead, getting busy in their Escalade. As luck would have it, the route to the game is interrupted thanks to an unexpected detour. Rather than backtrack and drive all night, the kids elect to pull off into a clearing where they'll camp for the night before completing their trek the next day.
A mysterious pickup truck invades their campsite, glaring its headlights until bad boy Nick heaves a beer bottle at it. The truck retreats just as a stiff wind blows in a gag-inducing stench that the gang tolerates through the evening. The next day comes and Wade's car has a cut timing belt. Meanwhile, Carly and Paige hike off to locate the source of the noxious odor, landing in a pit of gurgling roadkill. The curator of the mess is a grimy slackjaw (Damon Herriman, Love My Way) who offers to give Carly and Wade a lift to a nearby town, Ambrose, where they can purchase a new belt for the car. But when Carly and Wade wander the streets of the oddly deserted town, they discover a creepy House of Wax and meet up with Bo (Brian Van Holt, S.W.A.T.), the gas station owner, who seems to have wicked plans for the unwary couple -- and their friends, too.
As you can tell from that synopsis, this is another churn-it-out horror pic aimed at underselling today's young horror crowd. The picture uses only the title of its 1953 namesake and the notion of the corpses-coated-with-wax premise of the museum itself.
"Our version of House of Wax is very loosely inspired by the original," co-Producer Susan Levin anxiously admits, "but we are sort of reinventing it."
Unfortunately for its targeted youth audience, the picture squeezes out just another slasher jaunt that refuses to offer anything unusual or engaging to the newer generation of horror enthusiasts. Gone is the driving motivation of a museum artiste (the great Vincent Price, originally), who was once enthralled with his inspired sculptures yet who ultimately elects a morbid method of reestablishing his collection following a near-fatal fire. The key "creepiness factor" of that picture was watching the heroine (Phyllis Kirk) nervously deliberate whether the figure of Joan of Ark was actually her recently departed friend. That version offered intrigue and suspense, since the audience was in on the secret and nervously sat by as Kirk's character drew uncomfortably nearer and nearer to the awful truth. In this version, there's none of that. More's the pity.
Rather that build a strong suspense yarn, the focus here is on the wax effects and the House of Wax itself. Granted, the design of the house and some of the goopy gore work is to be admired, but that's certainly not enough to carry this very needy plot. Audiences, instead, are short-changed with just a pack of snotty kids (most aggravating is Chad Michael Murray's script-imposed Justin Timberlake knock-off) who are being led into a carnage factory, plain and simple. The film tries to con us into caring about these young people, spending a good 20 minutes on them before the flesh goes flying, but they're largely unlikable caricatures that we wouldn't ever warm up to regardless. And, given the fact that Paris Hilton is on board strictly for an audience-pleasing dispatching, it seems pointless to keep viewers waiting around for far too long before getting to the good stuff. The fact is, most viewers of the target demographic know the routine of these pictures these days. They want to see the blood flow fast and furious, and they want to see it now. Had the picture opted to provide more information about the killer-sculptor here, then audiences could have found more reason to sit by for the full 113 minutes.
So ready yourself for inane and incomprehensible antics by the victims on tap, who stray apart and wander about in clearly unfriendly and unsafe situations. Frankly, it would seem that the twenty-somethings in the audience would be offended by the stark stupidity of their "peers" on screen, characters who seem to have no notion of horror film conventions and weren't brought up with the sort of "risk avoidance education" that has been prevalent for the past couple of decades, at least. But if gory proceedings require brain-dead prey, then that should be alright. However, as nifty as the killings are, they're not gruesome enough -- nor plentiful enough -- to satisfy if that is the sole purpose of the picture. Add to this the problem that the final payoff is not cheer-worthy and it all becomes rather pointless in the end. Again, the production design is quite impressive and the wax museum it duly foreboding, but this looks like a well-dressed party that nobody of consequence attended. Too bad.
So why a high-definition presentation of this House of Wax, anyway? It's a good question, and the answer likely lies within the realm of notion that produced the picture in the first place -- let's see Paris die again. No kidding -- this became the key selling point of the film, and audiences obediently spent millions upon millions of dollars to see the socialite get snuffed. Since it worked in the theater and worked reasonably well on Standard Definition DVD, why not see Paris fall in ultra-detailed high-def? Therefore, here's the Blu-ray offering, one that runs astride an HD-DVD counterpart. The result certainly looks much crisper than the SD release, with details emerging from the confines of an HDTV display. Much of the film is dark, and therefore this VC-1 transfer is tasked with delivering large amounts of shadowy detail. Largely, it succeeds, although the contrast slips into flatness on occasion and a couple of sequences become infused with rampant graininess. The brightly lit scenes, however, do satisfy, and the HD format makes the most of them. Colors don't pop in the way enthusiasts would like but only because of the subdued and mostly sepia tinted wax world on display. In all, image-wise, House of Wax is a mediocre HD experience.
The audio is presented in an underwhelming Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (no DTS HD treatment here) that feels very subdued. Surround usage is minimal and the overall soundstage feels cramped and lacks punch. The balance felt rather off, too, as the dialog was often difficult to distinguish as it competed with the blare of the hard-rock tunes that peppered the film's score.
As for extras, this Blu-ray disc does step up to the plate by delivering the full compliment of features that graced the SD disc. This isn't to say the bonus content is necessarily good -- it really isn't, unfortunately -- but, hey, it's here, therefore making an investment in this release grounds to retire the SD disc you may have.
If you're up for some unchallenging terror fare, then there are definitely worse ways to spend 113 minutes. Of course, within the genre, both old and new, there are many, many better uses of your viewing time.
All told, House of Wax isn't the worst production around, yet it's clearly not among the best. It sort of lays there, instead, and hardens. If you find interest in watching wax harden, you might have a good time with this one. If you crave a bit more sensation and sensibility in your horror outings, skip this detour.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* B-Roll and Bloopers Video Cast Commentary
* Featurette: From Location: Joel Silver Reveals House of Wax
* Featurette: Wax On: The Design of House of Wax
* Featurette: The House Built on Wax: The Visual Effects of House of Wax
* Alternate Opening
* Gag Reel
* Theatrical Trailer