With the sci-fi horror classic 'The Fly' already available on Blu-ray and a great collection of Vincent Price films arriving just in time for the best time of the year, it pretty much goes without saying that I'm as giddy as a schoolboy this Halloween season. Needless to say, I'm a devoted Price fan, as his horror features have occupied the nightmares and wild imaginations of this reviewer's childhood. But even for those who have never seen one his movies, he remains a familiar and beloved cultural icon whose face and voice is commonly associated with the genre. And it's for good reason; he is "The Master of Menace" with a throng of films that have influenced countless around the world through the generations.
Of course, Price did not become an overnight success right away, which is true of almost all actors. He started his career in the late 30s and 40s as a character actor, making appearances in 'Laura,' 'The Invisible Man Returns' and film-noir classics 'The Web' and 'The Bribe,' along with various others. Although it's not his first time in a horror movie, that honor belongs more or less to Rowland V. Lee's 'Tower of London' with Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, Price's breakout performance, considered as the move that initiated a successful and lasting career in the genre, is 'House of Wax.' It's a deliciously wicked and twisted tale about a highly talented wax sculptor with a disturbing secret hidden within his exhibits of the macabre and historical murder scenes.
Officially, it's a remake of Michael Curtiz's 1933 mystery thriller 'Mystery of the Wax Museum,' but Hungarian-born filmmaker André de Toth and screenwriter Crane Wilbur ('The Bat,' 'Mysterious Island') place more emphasis on the story's horror elements. And why shouldn't they. The plot involves a monstrous-looking weirdo dressed in black stealing the corpses of murder victims from the city morgue. What's done with the bodies doesn't come as much of a surprise, especially after an action-packed opening where Professor Henry Jarrod's (Price) wax museum burns to the ground, but that doesn't stop the filmmakers from keeping those details a secret until the final moments. Other than Price's elegant, gentleman-like performance, the horribly disfigured man is the movie's highlight as he creeps in the ominously dark shadows and the dimly-lit streets of New York like a crazed, menacing ghoul.
Much of the story follows the naturally inquisitive but unemployed Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). She's the only person to see the deformed weirdo and who grows increasingly suspicious of the Joan of Arc wax figure in Prof. Jarod's new museum because it's a creepy likeness of her dead friend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones). Her incessant curiosity eventually draws the attention of two police detectives (Frank Lovejoy and Dabbs Greer), who also suspect something odd after discovering Jarod's assistant Leon Averill (Nedrick Young) is a recently-released convict. A very young but intimidatingly brawny Charles Bronson also shows up as the Professor's other assistant, the deaf and mute Igor, who like the scary man in black, plays his role with a frightful eeriness and a foreboding presence.
And as if that were not enough to satisfy horror audiences, the filmmakers also decided to take advantage of the latest in projection technology. This was the period when theater attendance was dropping while the popularity of television was steadily growing, so studios were taking steps to remain competitive and attract moviegoers back. Although not the first 3D movie to be released theatrically, 'House of Wax' was the first full-length feature from a major Hollywood studio, along with Lew Lander's film noir 'Man in the Dark.' It used what at the time was seen as revolutionary in the polarized 3D process, and de Toth did a magnificent job of utilizing the "stereo window" effect to immerse his audience while also including a few comical gimmick shots, like the famous paddleball sequence immediately following the intermission. The 3D surprisingly complements the film and adds another engaging layer of enjoyment.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video offers 'House of Wax' as a single-disc Blu-ray 3D, making it the first time it's ever been made available on home video as it was presented during its original theatrical run. The Region Free, BD50 disc comes inside a regular blue keepcase with a lenticular slipcover. At startup, it goes straight to a static 3D menu screen with the standard selection and an option to switch to 2D while music plays in the background.
'House of Wax' was filmed in the two-strip 35mm stereoscopic format that required two separate prints be projected through two interlocked projectors. Audiences would then enjoy this polarized 3D image while wearing gray-lensed polarized glasses, not unlike the glasses we still use today when watching a modern 3D movie. This intricate and rather cumbersome process, which required an intermission halfway into the runtime so that a projectionist could change reels, was created by M. L. Gunzberg with others and was revolutionary for the period. Dubbed "Natural Vision 3-D," many movies in the early 1950s heyday of 3D mania were shot in this format, and while de Toth's horror classic may not have been the first to utilize it, it is one of the best examples of the process.
With that, I'm happy to report that the film shocks and amazes on Blu-ray 3D with a simply fantastic 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 encode, marking the very first time the movie has ever been made available in 3D on any home video format. Parallax, at first, may seem a bit exaggerated, but thankfully, it's not straining on the eyes and even more surprisingly feels natural. With lots of depth and dimensionality, objects in the far distance penetrate deep into the screen, making large open rooms feel incredibly spacious and expansive. Actors walk from foreground to background and vice versa with stunning realism, and separation between various items is flawless, creating the sort of layered effect that also feels natural. The few gimmick shots, like the famous paddleball sequence, protrude and jump from the screen almost as if the ball bounces in the middle of the room or threatens to hits someone in the audience.
Presented in its original Academy ratio of 1.37:1, the rest of the picture displays a myriad of vibrant, animated colors which only complement the 3D image further. Luxurious, richly-saturated primaries practically bleed with enthusiasm while softer pastel hues pulsate with warmth and energy. Blacks are true and accurate, showing terrific gradational details in the shadows and adding to the video amazing layered effect. Contrast is comfortably bright with crisp whites, allowing for excellent visibility and clarity of background information.
Definition and resolution are highly-detailed for the most part, but a few moments are poorer and blurrier than others, which has more to do with the filmmaking process of the period than a fault in the encode. Some mild ringing around various objects in many scenes is also a result of this, and I detected a bit of ghosting here and there, which I suspect will be more of an issue on some displays than on others. In the end, however, this is a fantastic high-def presentation of a great 3D horror classic.
Along with being a revolutionary 3D movie, André de Toth's beloved classic was also a ground-breaking feature in the sound department. 'House of Wax' was one of the first films to introduce stereophonic sound which required two 35mm fully-coated magnetic prints containing audio for separate Left-Center-Right channels. It was another complicated process, which the studio company conveniently dubbed "WarnerPhonic," but more accurately and better produced an engaging stereo soundstage and wonderfully complemented the 3D image.
Arriving on Blu-ray for the first time, this DTS-HD stereo soundtrack accurately reflects and faithfully reproduces the original design to great effect. Although the majority of the action feels as if coming through the center of the screen, activity does bleed into the other two channels, subtly widening the image with mild atmospherics. The crackling of flames at the beginning, for example, spread across the entire screen, and David Buttolph's score fills the soundstage with great clarity in the orchestration. The low-end understandably doesn't dig very deep, but there's plenty of bass and weight to appreciate in a 60-year-old film. Dialogue is very well-prioritized and intelligible. A drawback in this magnetic sound process is a limited dynamic range, and sadly, it does show here, as the few moments of higher frequencies clip slightly and come off a tad too bright. All things considered, however, this is an outstanding and highly-engaging lossless mix for 'House of Wax.'
A remake of Michael Curtiz's 1933 mystery thriller, 'House of Wax' is a deliciously wicked and twisted horror classic about a deadly secret hidden inside the wax figures of a "Chamber of Horrors" exhibit. Not only is it a well-made and beautifully filmed spookfest, but it made cinema history as the film that gave Vincent Price his breakout role and was one of the first full-length 3D features released by a major Hollywood studio. The 3D Blu-ray arrives with an excellent video presentation full of depth and dimensionality and accompanied by a great lossless audio mix. With a couple exclusive bonuses to boot, the overall package makes a wonderful addition to any horror and 3D movie collection.