When Warner Brothers produced the first “House of Wax” in 1953 (though it was actually a remake of 1933’s “Mystery of the Wax Museum”) and inaugurated Vincent Price’s career as a horror mainstay, the studio did so in 3-D. That’s one major way in which the newest incarnation of the tale differs from that of half a century ago, because this “House of Wax” is resolutely one-dimensional in story and characters. By turning the tale of a madman who makes the wax figures in his showplace out of unsuspecting human victims into a by-the-numbers shlockfest about a bunch of generic teens who stumble into a chamber of horrors, only to be picked off one by one, the movie becomes less a refashioning of its nominal precursor than just another successor to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Indeed, the old picture Jaume Collect-Serra’s flick most resembles isn’t Andre de Toth’s silly but rather elegant costumer from the Eisenhower age or Michael Curtiz’s atmospheric Depression-era thriller, but a cheap, crude unacknowledged remake from 1979 called “Tourist Trap,” in which Chuck Connors played a homicidal fellow at an isolated gas station who fashioned automatons from passersby (young and nubile, mostly) whom he lured to their doom and then encased in plaster. (There’s even a similarity in the fact that the villains here are maniacal twin brothers–such was the conceit of the Connors character, too–and an apparent homage in one of the murders, which has a lot in common with the gory fate the first victim suffered in “Trap.”) That chintzy potboiler was a typical example of post-“Psycho” exploitation, and the fact that it’s the model that has effectively been dusted off and joined with a familiar title is a pretty good indication of how far Dark Castle Productions (the Joel Silver-Robert Zemeckis operation that is cranking out these slick but vapid pseudo-thrillers) has sunk in their operation to disinter memorable old monikers and remold them in a fashion most likely to appeal, briefly at least, to today’s adolescent male audiences, reared as they are on repetitive video games. At least “House on Haunted Hill” and “13 Ghosts” had some reasonable narrative connection to the William Castle potboilers whose titles they took; in this case, an apter name would be “House of Halloween” or “Scream of Wax.” Indeed, about the only authentic nod to the 1953 movie to be found here is that the artistic (and masked) twin is named Vincent, apparently in memory of Price and his love of painting. (We know Vincent is soulful, too, because he listens to stuff like Mozsrt’s “Dove sono” as he goes about his work.)
But setting aside comparisons and taking the new “House” completely on its own, one has to say that it gets better as it goes along–which is not a particularly high achievement since it begins so abysmally. It starts by introducing us to a half-dozen teens so obnoxious that you wish they’d disappear before the first reel was over. One couple is Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), a good-girl brainy type, who’s linked up with blandly handsome but none too bright Wade (Jared Padalecki). Another is skinny blonde Paige (Paris Hilton), who’s with hip-hop loving Blake (Robert Ri’chard). Together with Carly’s brooding brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray), recently out of jail for stealing a car, and Nick’s doofus buddy Dalton (Jon Abrahams)–the obligatory guy with a video camera–the quartet is starting a road trip to Baton Rouge to see a big-time college football game. As the group snuggles, battles and teases one another along the way, they seem such a bunch of despicable scumbags that when they camp overnight in a field and find themselves bothered by a really bad odor brought in by the wind, and one of them says “What’s that’s smell?” you want to shout back at the screen, “It’s the movie, stupid!” But things improve slightly when, after being spooked by a stranger in a mysterious pickup truck, Carly and Wade get left behind when his car breaks down and the duo hitche a ride into the nearest town with one of those backwoods nutbags so common in such pictures, here played by Damon Herriman. This is the home of the shuttered wax museum, into which our heroes proceed to stumble for a quick look around, to their eventual dismay. They also meet a resident of this suspiciously depopulated burg–a gas station attendant named Bo (Brian Van Holt), who’s oddly hostile one moment and helpful the next. (Clearly the whole place is in a time warp, because he’s selling gas for $1.19.) Before long, Carly and Wade are in very deep trouble, and their four friends return to fall into it as well. By the end most have met their maker, in a couple of different senses, but the requisite number are left alive to combat the resident evil in a spectacular special-effects finale involving a melting house no less, though the requisite closing twist leaves room for some sort of sequel.
Obviously the trajectory the story takes doesn’t diverge much from the predictable, and it actually gets more and more absurd as it goes along: it’s not many movies where characters are able to engage in wild physical activity after being stabbed in the leg with a knife or pierced a couple of times with arrows, or having a finger cut off–all of which happen here. Nor is it remotely plausible that a hidden town could be constructed by a couple of guys with no apparent means of financial support, or hidden indefinitely from authorities. Still, “House of Wax” does recover from its appalling opening reels by (a) having something happen, and (b) making a few of the endangered characters, particularly Carly and Nick, less loathsome than they first appear. Murray, who initially comes across as the standard-issue bad-boy with James Dean pretensions, morphs into a reasonably likable fellow, and he’s not turned into some invincibly heroic figure either; Cuthbert, meanwhile, never entirely overcomes the quivery damsel quality she starts with (and she has to endure a particularly unpleasant bondage scene), but she gradually makes the character less a princess than at first. Padalecki also cuts a pleasant enough figure, rather endearingly goofy at times (even if one is constantly annoyed by Wade’s habit of blundering blithely where he doesn’t belong). The others don’t fare nearly as well. Abrahams is just a standard-issue geek with a camera, and Ri’chard a curiously underdeveloped Lothario. Hilton does a brief strip-tease that may attract some eyes, but all it really exposes is how unnaturally emaciated she seems. On the other hand, her flat, bored line-readings may reflect the attitude of some viewers all too well. Van Holt has the unenviable task of replacing Price (or Connors, if you prefer). He tries very hard, but comes up short. What ultimately makes the picture watchable in the final reels, though, aren’t any of the performances, or Collet-Serra’s slick but surprisingly rote direction, but Graham “Grace” Walker’s elaborate production design, which doesn’t resemble anything that could possibly exist in reality but, as captured in the dark-hued images of cinematographer Stephen Windon, does possess a certain haunting quality.
Nobody could seriously recommend “House of Wax,” and anybody stumbling into it might well be inclined to leave it after twenty minutes or so. If you’re willing to stay around for the entire tour, though, it gets marginally better, closing with a flourish that’s ridiculous but fun for its sheer technical bravado. But though this is a step up from the usual teen snuff-movie fare, it still very much wanes more than it waxes. And “Tourist Trap of Wax” would be a more honest title.