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House of Wax

Director: Jaume Collet-Sera
Cast: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, Paris Hilton, Jared Padalecki

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 6 May 2005; 2005)

Freak Show

Carly (Elisha Cuthbert, erstwhile Spawn of Jack Bauer) and Paige (Paris Hilton) are supposedly best friends. They’re sassy, they’re giggly, and they are, within minutes, pretty dull girls, as soon as it’s revealed that their primary and all-too-typical interests are their boyfriends, placid Wade (Jared Padalecki) and blandly lusty Blake (Robert Ri’chard), respectively. The couples, though, are the least of House of Wax‘s concerns, mere devices to get the young people into various states of undress or vulnerability.


Termed a “reimagining” of the 1953’s House of Wax, which starred Vincent Price, Jaume Collet-Sera’s movie only lifts the people-turned-into-wax-figures premise, then launches directly into a generic slasher flick structure, that is, pretty young people are killed off, one by one, by nefarious, deformed, and utterly brutal villains, in this case,, twin brothers Bo and Vincent (both played without much relish by Brian Van Holt). If you want to press the point, you might note that twins form something of a theme here, as Carly also has a twin brother, Nick (Chad Michael Murray), alternately angry and pouty. At film’s opening, he’s just returned home from jail for auto theft.


His return brings tension because, apparently, no one likes him. Carly is looking forward to her imminent escape from the small town passing for home, by going to college in the fall (it’s summerish now); while Wade is less than enthusiastic about going with her, he’s even less pleased that Nick is coming with them on a camping trip, with tagalong goofball Dalton (Jon Abrahams). The supposed purpose is to attend a “big game” the next day (a sold-out event, for which they plan to purchase scalped tickets), but the obvious motive is a night of co-ed drinking. And so, once they decide to stop for the night, they build a campfire, and take to drinking, smoking cigarettes, and making out (or, in the cases of Dalton and Nick, observing the making out and acting surly about it).


The next afternoon (as they wake late), in a seeming plot to prepare you for the grisly events to come, Carly and Paige go looking for the source of a foul order, whereupon Carly falls headfirst down a hillside, into pit of bloody, rotted fleshy muck, where, come to find out, a local feller named only “Roadkill” (Damon Herriman), regularly tosses decayed carcasses he’s found along the, um, road.


While the kids appear somewhat nervous around Roadkill (who looks on with his tongue hanging out as Carly changes her bloody shirt, somewhat sheltered from his view by the valiant boys), she and Wade nonetheless take his offer of a ride into “town,” when they discover that his Mustang’s timing belt has been mysteriously ruined overnight. They don’t exactly plan ahead, however, sending the other kids up to the game and imagining they’ll either “catch up” or be picked up afterwards. Because Roadkill’s truck reeks, however, Carly and Wade end up getting out early, offending their new friend, and—as they wander into the strangely deserted town of Ambrose—sealing their fates.


At this point, the film has already taken too long—the first half’s pacing is deliberate, as if the premise needs exposition. When, finally, Wade and Carly stumble on the literal “House of Wax” (a local museum featuring wax figures, wax walls, wax furniture, wax floors—apparently the sun does not shine too fiercely in Ambrose), you’re feeling ready to have their adventure over with already. Enter the killer and, by coincidence, proprietor of the garage where they hope to find their belt. No surprise: no belt, but plenty of menacing soundtrack and a ride up to the “house,” where the killing starts in earnest.


Here Carly and Wade are separated, meaning only that he is the film’s first casualty, while she discovers the monstrosity of their host and must now take up the Final Girl’s usual routine, namely, running, losing her cell phone, and crying until Nick shows up to save her. This isn’t to say Carly isn’t inventive in her efforts to fight back or escape, but she does endure much abuse, including having her finger chopped off, which leaves her with a bloody stump for the rest of the film, and sitting through What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (which features an appropriately waxy looking Bette Davis), while trying—so ridiculously—to blend in with wax viewers at the local movie house.


The climax is predictably bloody and brutal, as well as—sorry—hot. To underline the film’s inconsistent religious iconography, the flames are what you might call “hellish.” Or maybe just low-budget. Most alarming, the movie leaves open the possibility of a sequel.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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