“You're half-blind. How in the hell can you make a 3-D picture?”
That's how Andre De Toth, in his witty book “De Toth on De Toth” (published in 1996 by Faber and Faber), describes Jack L. Warner's early reaction to the director's desire to make a ‘three-dimensional movie' instead of a gimmick flick, like 1953's “Bwana Devil,” the first 3-D commercial feature. After the one-eyed director explained his case to the studio head, Warner shot back: “Take that damned [patch] off your eye, put it on your ass and keep it there, or you're off the damned picture, and off the lot, got it?”
De Toth ultimately had the first studio 3-D picture ready for a premiere engagement in a record ninety days – not to beat “Bwana Devil,” but to prove he could make an excellent thriller using a system he'd expressed an interest for, back in a 1946 Hollywood Reporter article. When the studio's budget-line production chief suggested a remake of “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” the idea, screenplay and production more or less fell into place (along with executive expletives), and De Toth's “House of Wax” remains one of the best 3-D films made with an intelligence for audience thrills, and good old craftsmanship.
From the original “Mystery”script the writers excised a reporter subplot, giving the investigation back to the local police, and in rolling back the time frame, added a Victorian creepiness to the revenge thriller. Atwill's rough but decent sculptor from “Mystery” becomes a dreamy, soft-spoken lover of grace and gentility via Vincent Price– an appropriate change, since the deadly fire has to turn Price's art lover into a person he initially despises: commercial, crass, lurid, and indifferent to spilt blood.
With gas lighting providing period ambience, De Toth and his dual cinematographers fashioned a dim, ghoulish panorama, using dark alleys, shadows and hanging objects to enhance the visual dimensions of Natural Vision's 3-D system. By the same token, where the pre-Code “Mystery” could play with racy language and overt body parts, De Toth substituted tight corsets and a Can-Can dance with legs and frilly posteriors in 3-D – close to breaking, but still within, the Production Code guidelines (though some executive bargaining must have been done now and then. Something like ‘Okay. We'll shorten the waist shots, but we get to keep the severed head.')
Warner Bros Has found a really crisp print, with good color registration and none of the heavy soft focus problems or colour hazing that tend to affect ‘flat' versions of 3-D films on home video. In the “De Toth” book, the director explains for several lengthy paragraphs the minutia of using 3-D while taking into full account the limitations of the technology and quirks of the human eye; that comprehension and care seems to have ensured even a ‘flat' theatrical version of “House of Wax” would look as clean as a standard 1.33:1 studio production.
A welcome bonus is a vintage stereo surround track that uses a few directional effects, and David Buttolph's orchestral score creeps and pounces from dark corners at just the right points.
The disc's extras include a theatrical trailer – really a teaser – that shows no film clips, and combines big text ballyhoo with colour swatches, while the “Premiere Newsreel” (with looped title music as a substitute for missing sound) is a montage of various round the clock premieres in the U.S., with excited patrons lining up for midnight and “breakfast” shows, and the usual collection of film stars, including Ronald Reagan, Shelley Winters, and bigwig Jack L. Warner himself.
The big bonus is the B-side of this release which includes the original 1933 film, “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” (see separate DVD review entry for more details). Viewers should watch it after the remake to note the initial similarities – jokes, plot points, and specific shots and some identical props used in the '53 version – and enjoy a solid little shocker that still holds up quite well.
Remade in 2005, with oodles of sadism, Paris Hilton's grand cinematic demise, and a house literally made out of wax.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan