The Best Horror Movie of 1953: House of Wax

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The Best Horror Movie of 1953: <i>House of Wax</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

Finally, after nearly a six-year gap since 1947, we have a year where the horror genre feels like it’s been fully reanimated. Via both its fusion with science fiction, and the evolution of classical horror into the Technicolor era—simultaneously an era of brand new gimmicks and styles of presentation—the genre managed to introduce itself to a new generation of filmgoers.

1953 proves to be a highly influential year for a number of sub-genres. In particular, the “giant atomic monster” movie gets its start here in the form of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, featuring the unleashed stop-motion animation talents of Ray Harryhausen. Audiences had been primed for the tale by the 1952 theatrical re-release of King Kong, with special effects from Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien, but The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is notable for the way its rampaging monster, a fictional “Rhedosaurus” dinosaur, is explicitly stated to have been released from polar ice via atom bomb testing. This fascination with nuclear weaponry as an instigating factor or scapegoat would be used to endless length in the creature feature revival of the 1950s, as giant reptiles or insects took on the physical role of embodying the existential fear of an epoch. Many different styles of special effects would be used to bring such creatures to life over the course of the next decade, but few retain the charm of Harryhausen’s intricately detailed models and miniatures.

On the “closer to straight science fiction” front comes this year’s monumental adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, notable for both its expansive budget and groundbreaking FX work, although the quality of its miniatures suffered in subsequent digital transfers, which made sights such as the strings holding up Martian war machines more visible. Regardless, this was an alien invasion story presented in a way that one hadn’t been before: With an “A” budget, recognizable actors and a palpable sense of gravitas, playing more like a war drama than a true horror film. It became the gold standard against which lower-budget entries such as Invaders From Mars would be judged, even though Invaders was rushed into theaters before War of the Worlds to claim the title of the first colorized “flying saucer” film.

1953 is also home to the first major wave of 3D features in cinema history, although aspects of the technology had existed as early as 1922. Bwana Devil, an independent exploitation film about man-eating lions, had proven a surprising success in limited release in 1952, spurring the development of 3D features from major film studios. The first, noir thriller Man in the Dark, arrived this year, only two days before the first color 3D feature from a major studio was released: House of Wax.

1953 Honorable Mentions: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The War of the Worlds, It Came From Outer Space, Invaders From Mars, Scared Stiff, Man in the Dark

The Film: House of Wax

Director: André De Toth

In addition to the already described cross-pollination of the horror genre with science fiction in the early 1950s, the genre simultaneously split off along a different classifiable tangent: A return to classical spookiness, albeit presented with a new attitude of camp and gimmickry. It was as if horror directors of the era were making their films with some acknowledgement that audiences were harder to scare than they once were, and expected some other element of entertainment to get them into their seats. This they often received in the form of ostentatious presentation gimmicks, such as those perfected by producer William Castle in the close of the decade, or from films that latched onto emerging technologies such as the first major craze for 3D features. Visually, House of Wax might be compared to a colorized (and gaudier), 3D riff on the aesthetics of a film as old as Universal’s Phantom of the Opera, but unlike that film, it’s harder to imagine producers genuinely believed audiences would be screaming and fainting in the aisles at the villain’s climactic unmasking. We’re instead leaning on technological novelty this time around, and the wry sense of humor and thespian sophistication that always accompanies the presence of the film’s star: Vincent Price.

The film is a loose remake of the Michael Curtiz-directed, 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum, telling the story of a brilliant wax figure sculptor whose museum of priceless sculptures is burned down by a duplicitous business partner, resulting in the permanent scarring of Price’s naive artist, Henry Jarrod. The unhinged sculptor then returns years later, intent on both revenge and rebuilding his collection of cherished faces … by any means necessary. Things only get worse when he meets a woman who looks just like his lost masterpiece—a thematic callback very much like Karloff’s lost love in The Mummy—and becomes intent on making her a permanent addition to the exhibition. Cue arched eyebrow and equally arch remark.

As for the 3D gimmick, it’s actually fairly unobtrusive toward the film itself—certainly, the film isn’t full of completely shameless exhibitions of the technology, as one would see decades later in something like Friday the 13th Part 3D. Only a few sequences have been obviously (and tackily) sutured to the film for the express intent of showcasing the 3D technology—most amusingly, a paddle ball performer who repeatedly sends his ball on a string careening in the direction of the audience while essentially breaking the fourth wall. It’s guaranteed to get a laugh, when watching House of Wax in any modern screening. Contemporary audiences certainly didn’t care, as the film went on to become the highest-grossing 3D feature until it was eclipsed by 1969’s shamelessly softcore The Stewardesses.

Despite being a technological milestone, though, House of Wax was ultimately far more influential in the sense that it was Price’s first big starring role within the horror genre—a stepping stone that helped create a horror icon, decades into a career that had been typified largely by dramatic performances. Contrary to popular belief, Price wouldn’t immediately be typecast as a constant horror leading man following House of Wax, as he continued to appear in a variety of films until the end of the decade and his subsequent run of films with William Castle and Roger Corman, which included everything from The Fly and The Tingler to House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death. To anyone who was watching, though House of Wax hinted at numerous classic performances to come—especially the revenge-seeking Price characters seen in films such as Theatre of Blood or The Abominable Dr. Phibes. When it came to grandiose revenge, nobody did it quite like Vincent Price.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.