Sometimes, all it takes to tip the scales in a horror flick’s favor are a few cool camera angles, meticulous production design and the fantastically satisfying on-screen demise of a universally despised hotel heiress-cum-accidental porn star. Depending on your tolerance for in-your-face gore, crappy teen-shocker clichés and Paris Hilton, House of Wax just might make the grade. The latest B-movie classic to go through the remake meat grinders at Dark Castle Entertainment (13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill), this update of the 1953 3-D chiller winds up as a weird hybrid of the torturously mundane and the gleefully sick.
Borrowing little from the original, the first half hour of the movie is so by-the-numbers, you might think you stumbled into a remake of Urban Legends 2. On an unusually lengthy football-weekend road trip, the nubile Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), her golly-gee boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki), her loose-cannon brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray) and his dumb-ass friend Dalton (Jon Abrahams) pull off the highway and decide to camp out overnight, illustrating their unfamiliarity with the cardinal rule of horror movies: Don’t leave the main road. Following along in a blingy SUV are their friends, horny lovebirds and future body bag inhabitants Blake (Robert Ri’chard) and Paige (Hilton). There are some lame attempts at suspense and dread, as well as some even lamer attempts at character development; to quote an outspoken member of the preview audience, “Someone needs to die soon!”
Sure enough, when Carly and Wade venture into the nearest town to get a fan belt for Wade’s suspiciously broken-down Charger, they uncover a creepy, deserted burg where everything is not quite as it seems. You’d think the “$1.19 a gallon” sign at the gas station would be a tip-off, but the young lovers push on to investigate the town’s main attraction, the mausoleum-like House of Wax. That’s when things start to get gory, and when the film actually begins to earn its price of admission. Director Jaume Collet-Serra may not have an affinity for working with actors, but he certainly knows how to dispose of them, in increasingly terrifying and disgusting ways. Better yet, veteran production designer Graham “Grace” Walker (Gothika, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior) has come up with some fantastic sets for the film — the attention to detail in the labyrinthine, Frank Lloyd Wright-like museum is stunning — and Collet-Serra makes the most of them, particularly in the can-you-top-that finale. The sheer accumulation of gruesome disfigurements, impromptu amputations and hundreds of gallons of molten wax is enough to send you out of the theater shivering.
House of Wax is by no means a great addition to the horror canon; it isn’t even as good as the similar Jeepers Creepers or last year’s Dawn of the Dead remake. The tasteless prologue and the climactic showdown try to drum up a little bit of sympathy for the murderous “freak” at the center of the plot, in a bizarre attempt to graft some humanity onto a spectacularly inhumane example of Hollywood product. Still, when the film hits its stride, it’s brutal and unrelenting. And any movie that can elicit a cry of “Now that’s hot!” from an audience member after a murder scene has something going for it.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.