In 1953, Warner’s opened the original House of Wax starring creaky old horror veteran Vincent Price. In 2005, demographs don’t allow such interesting casting choices and so instead studios must cast whatever young people are currently popular in TV land. So instead we get Elisha Cuthbert (24), Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill) and the devil incarnate herself, Paris Hilton (That porno movie that everyone owns).
Our movie opens like countless thousands have since the mid-70s; a group of oversexed and generally unlikeable college kids heading off on a road trip. Present and correct are the heroine, the heroine’s chump boyfriend, the goof-off, the angry but misunderstood one, the slut and the token black guy. You really don’t need to know the characters by their screen names in this movie, just their caricature personas. It’s like the writers had The Big Book Of Slasher Cliches™ on their office desk and decided that despite countless post-modern trashings of the formula, you can never have too many. To ram this fact home, our hapless bunch decides to camp out for the night and, consulting our book again, this can’t be cheery Smallville-style rural farmland country. No, if you stop and camp in a horror movie, there’s a 99.9% that you’ve just parked up in the most backward, Deliverance-style hick neighbourhood for miles around. I see a great future for this movie on DVD as a drinking game if nothing else.
A broken fan belt results in a trip into a creepy local town which soon goes wrong as the group stumble across a deserted House of Wax featuring frighteningly realistic wax models and encounter a rather creepy garage owner. It isn’t long before the gang are being stalked by a not-so-mysterious killer and the predictably gruesome secret of the House’s models becomes apparent.
I make no apologies for oversimplifying the plot as it’s nothing we haven’t seen before and it really isn’t all that interesting. For the first hour of the movie we have to sit through lots of trite heard-it-all-before teen banter ripped straight from last week’s episode of The O.C. interspersed with Paris Hilton reminding us all just how bad an actress she is, even when never required to formulate more than 8 or 9 words of dialogue at a time. That she was cast as a slut was surely irony. That she was cast at all is surely a complete mystery.
Another of the movie’s annoying traits is that it seems to be a movie of two halves. The first 60 minutes or so is pure horror-free PG-13 rated teen-drama nonsense, to the point there’s even a gratuitously inept teenybopper titillation scene. Chad Michael Murray takes off his vest to render him shirtless for the rest of the movie for no other reason than to give the teenage girlies something to squeal at. He gives the vest to Elisha Cuthbert who promptly changes into it so she’s wearing something skimpy and white instead of normal clothes to give the guys something to goggle at. It’s a weird and awkward scene that just highlights the imbalanced moral shift in R-rated movies today where some abs and a glimpse of a bra are considered naughty while sitting next to the final act’s scenes of brutal death and destruction. “Do or do not.” a wise little Muppet once said and it’s advice Hollywood should pay attention to if they’re going to make movies people actually want to see. Either jump in with both feet or don’t bother at all.
As I hinted at, it’s not until the final third that House of Wax finally gets off it’s ass, starts doing something interesting and earns it’s R rating. Cast members are dispatched in a satisfyingly brutal and often sadistic fashion that, after 60 minutes of mind-numbing teen drama, comes as a relieving shock. The enjoyable, if short-lived, climax, as you may have seen from the trailers, takes place in the inspired idea of a rather literal House of Wax as it simultaneously burns and melts to the ground with our protagonists trapped inside. Although many of the later scenes owe lots to movies like last year’s Saw, it’s fun to see horror movies finally starting to re-embrace that darker more sadistic side of the genre rather than the pandering gore-free “horror” churned out with more of a mind towards asses-on-seats than actual gore and scares. If only the whole movie could have taken this route, House of Wax might have had something.
First-time director Jaume Serra does the best he can with the script but when your first two-thirds are largely scare-free and painfully convoluted exposition there’s not much you can do to inject a real sense of impending doom or suspense in these scenes. What it does do is spell doom for pacing as half the audience may have left out of sheer boredom before the action picks up and Serra actually manages to hold our attention a little when the action kicks in. The acting is all strictly typical horror level stuff, which explains why cheap TV actors are ripe pickings I guess. Plus when half your casting budget is blown on hiring a certain talentless rich-bitch, there isn’t really much by way of variety left to pick from.
Sadly House of Wax fails because it takes far too long miring itself in being nothing more than a stylishly shot episode of Dawson’s Creek to truly get going. By the time it’s starting to get interesting it’s been too caught up in a heavily clichéd setup to truly break free from it’s focus-grouping and have the fun with it’s darker side that it needed to be interesting thoughout. Then after it finally has picked up and caught your interest, it slaps you in the face with the most feeble, ham-fisted attempt at foreshadowing a sequel imaginable. Again, another guileless cliché thrown in, not because it adds to the movie, just because it’s a cliché and the writer felt obligated.
Still if you get nothing from this movie but one thing it’s that it’s fun, if rather amoral, to revel in Paris Hilton being dispatched in a gruesome fashion. It’s almost worth the admission fee alone. I cheered, you will too.