House of Wax (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sitting in a darkened theater watching House of Wax, I felt like it was the 1980s and Jason was on the loose again. From its lobotomized characters to its carefully choreographed "boo!" moments to its blood-and-gore spatter-fest, this movie is a throwback to the era of the slasher film, when the success of a production was measured not by the quality of the script, but by the quantity of viscera. House of Wax gets high marks for its body count and the innovative ways in which its participants are dispatched. It is also notable for having some of the most moronic protagonists ever to populate a horror film. These people are Leprechaun dumb.

I acknowledge that for the average horror film to work, it's necessary for the lead characters to do some illogical - and possible even idiotic - things. But, in a movie like this, there comes a point when the viewer goes beyond questioning the IQ of the protagonists and actively rooting for them to die so that they can't procreate and pass their genes to future offspring. Some stupidity on the part of the characters is fun - we can smirk at the director's use of familiar clich├ęs. But when it's overdone, and when advancing the plot relies upon it, our smiles turn first into grimaces then into frowns. A horror movie can get away with a lot, but once it crosses a certain line, it is insulting to viewers. House of Wax crosses that line. In a way, that's too bad, because it has some of the other requisite element to make it an enjoyably bloody horror experience.

The film borrows its title and general premise (real people forming the foundation for waxwork dummies) from a 1953 Vincent Price movie. Other than those similarities, however, this is a different movie, and should not be considered a remake. The story starts with a familiar device: a group of twentysomething friends are on a trip when they become lost and are forced to camp for the night in a secluded spot. In the group are twins Carly and Nick Jones (Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray); Carly's best friend, Paige (Paris Hilton), and Paige's boyfriend, Blake (Robert Ri'chard); Carly's beau, Wade (Jared Padalecki); and serial killer bait by the name of Dalton (Jon Abrahams). The next day, Carly and Wade stumble upon an old wax museum in a seemingly abandoned town. They meet a "helpful" resident, Bo (Brian Van Holt), whose pleasant demeanor hides a nasty secret. And, as people start dying, the number of exhibits in the wax museum increase.

House of Wax has its share of genuinely gruesome moments, none of which are directly related to Paris Hilton's supposed "acting." The most grotesque of these features Carly tumbling headlong into a pit of rotting animal carcasses. Later on, one individual has her lips glued together and loses a fingertip while another has pieces of his face pulled off. For those who enjoy horror movies simply to see people departing this life in original, bloody ways, House of Wax is perfect entertainment.

The film is awkwardly paced, with a protracted introduction that wastes too much time attempting to develop characters that aren't going to be around long enough to care about. By the time the first murder happens, the film is nearly half over. From that point on, the plot follows the standard horror movie roadmap. Five minutes into the movie, you know who will survive and who won't. The only suspense is figuring out the order in which the secondary characters will become potential display pieces for Madame Tussauds.

Acting is clearly not a high priority for director Jaume Serra, who is making his feature debut. The members of his cast are better known for their looks and "hotness" than their thespian skills. Elisha Cuthbert fares the best, getting to kick some ass in ways that her "24" character was never able to do. Chad Michael Murray is effective when he's being sullen and antisocial. Then there's Paris Hilton, who was obviously hired for reasons that have nothing to do with her ability to recite dialogue. To be fair to Hilton, she can recite her lines with more conviction than Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme. Serra has lots of fun at her expense, but I have to wonder if she gets the joke or is merely the punchline.

In a way, it's refreshing to encounter a horror film that goes all-out and doesn't give a damn that it has no chance of getting a PG-13 rating. This is no watered-down ghost story thrown into theaters for teenage consumption. (Although one has to wonder why Hilton stops just short of providing the T&A that's a usual component of this sort of movie. It's not as if she hasn't shown it all before.) The problem is that the writing is too weak for me to come close to recommending it. It's just like all those Friday the 13th sequels and knock-offs: more gore than logic. There are plenty of unsettling images, but nothing sensible to connect them together. And, except for a portion of the hard-core horror fan base, that's not a good enough reason to see a motion picture.

House of Wax (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2005-05-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1