15 Years Later, 'House of Wax' is One of Many Horror Films from the 2000s that Deserves Another Look Beneath the Skin
When sitting down to revisit House of Wax (2005), I was struck by how transported I felt. 2005 was a big year for film and it was also the year I turned 16. Being 16 meant being able to pile into my 1994 Black Chevrolet Blazer with my closest misfit friends and sneak into rated R movies...
...Being the film fanatic I am, I saw everything back then. There wasn’t a film that was “too” anything. Some of my favorite movies are the ones that performed bad commercially and critically. Horror films have never received the credit they deserve and to be honest, I understand that. They aren’t for everyone and I would be lying if I told you I didn’t like being part of a minority that rebels against your average film snob. There are plenty of films that already get plenty of accolades and sit at the tippy top of the Tomato Meter. What actually bothers me, is that films and some of the people who watch them, have become incredibly cynical and hypocritical. Today, I hear a lot of horror fans talk about their nostalgic desire to see films that harken back to what directors like John Carpenter and Wes Craven were doing decades ago. However, when a film comes along like House of Wax (2005), it gets overlooked as another by the numbers summer horror flick. Not to say it’s a masterpiece, but what it and several other horror films from the 2000’s offer, are fun, un-cynical horror films that stick close to their genre and are quite similar to the Carpenter and Craven films we hold so dear. House of Wax is one of many films from the 2000’s that, in my opinion, deserves a second look.
Producer Joel Silver has made a lucrative career with his action and horror films. During the early 2000’s we saw some of his most fun horror projects. Thirteen Ghosts (2001), Ghost Ship (2002) and House of Wax (2005) were all Warner Bros. Pictures horror films within four years of each other and all were produced by Silver. “The Silver Trilogy” as I often refer to them, showcase some of the best horror films of the era and while quality varies a bit between each film, they all represent an era of horror that is not only nostalgic, but also tower over other horror films of that era. Of course, they are undeniably corny and very much a snapshot of the time, but that adds to the charm.
House of Wax opens with nü metal tunes from Deftones and Disturbed, offering a nostalgic treat to those growing up in time when we were spoon fed MTV and pop culture. It sets the vibe of the film well with an upbeat (although not necessarily happy) tone, surging with energy and youth. Our cast of victims are introduced to us with each character trope laid on thick. In so many words, our final girl played by Elisha Cuthbert, announces herself as such by agonizing over schoolwork. Paige (Paris Hilton) declares herself as the promiscuous one without any trouble, followed by the jock, the bad boy and the goofball. In no more than five minutes, our trope troop are clearly identified so the film can get on with its quickly paced, wacky story.
What I find so refreshing with this setup, is the fact that it’s played straight. There’s no meta self-awareness going on. The characters are who they appear to be and there’s no cute winks or nods at the audience. It’s great to see such candor in an age that’s constantly relying on cheeky throwbacks and references. It’s not just movies like Cabin in the Woods (2011), either; remakes do this all the time. Remember in the Total Recall (2012) remake when the 3-boobed lady shows up, referencing the scene from the original? It served no purpose other than to break your immersion and yell, “remember that?!”. Occasionally, films do something clever with meta humor, but rarely does it ever improve the film. House of Wax is a remake of a remake and it’s never concerned with pulling you out of the film to bash you over the head with movie trivia. I understand the inevitable progression of the genre that is meta humor, but I’ve seen far too much of it to find it amusing anymore.
The characters in House of Wax are unquestionably shallow and come straight out of a handbook for horror screenwriters, but they’re all very fun to watch. I was actually surprised by how not terrible Paris Hilton was in the film. It’s certainly not a very demanding part, but she does have an on-screen charisma and presence that I never noticed before. Essentially, House of Wax and other films of that time are B horror films that know what they are but aren’t elbowing you while snickering like so many films do today. They have a uniquely special quality, in that watching them now can actually make for a better experience than when it was released. In many ways, House of Wax is in line with old school horror. It doesn’t reference the remakes it’s loosely based on, but it does evoke sensibilities of older films like the original House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Haunting (1963). While the fashion, slang and vibe are clearly 2000’s, the sleepy old town, the movie theater with the marquee of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and the museum itself give much of the film a timeless atmosphere. It all works in ways that I don’t think gets enough attention these days. Political and social commentaries have dominated part of the horror genre and while that’s always been a part of horror, too much of it can overshadow effective storytelling and scares.
The special effects and production design in the film hold up extremely well and most of them (aside from some of the fire effects) could pass for something made today with a sizable budget. The signature set piece is the waxing room with the chair and spray nozzles. The wax spraying the body legitimately looks like thick wax and the mechanism they built is incredibly unnerving with its metal harnesses and straps. I wish we saw more of “the process” of the human waxing, but what we do see is effective and original. Warner Bros. Pictures employed their in-house production designer Graham ‘Grace’ Walker and set decorator Beverly Dunn, who previously worked on Ghost Ship. They do some exceptional work in the film.
One of my favorite moments in the film involves super glue being sealed to Cuthbert’s mouth. It creates a great sense of suspense, because we, as audience members, know she will eventually have to painfully separate her lips. Cuthbert has gone on record to say that they insisted on using real glue for the scene. During the finale, we see the wax museum melting as our two leads try to escape. The special effects really shine in this sequence, as each step they make sinks down into melting wax. There is a shot where the two are emerging from the building through the middle of the sign and I was in awe of how fantastic it looked. It’s one of those rare cases when CGI, practical and green screen all come together to form true movie magic. There’s also a very convincing practical effect of Paris getting her head impaled by a pipe. Warner Bros. really had a reputation then for having excellent special effects in their films.
House of Wax represents what I truly love about early 2000’s horror films. It sets out to make an effective horror film that’s rich in atmosphere, flooded with cool practical effects and aims to make you and your friends picture yourselves in the character’s unfortunate situation. It’s a film that feels inclusive in a comforting way. It isn’t trying to outsmart you and it certainly isn’t trying to break the fourth wall with genre in-jokes. It really feels like old fashioned horror in the best way possible, while also being a nostalgic time machine into early to mid 2000’s culture. What’s great about House of Wax is that it’s nostalgic but not by design. It ends up being nostalgic and charming because of its endearing straight forwardness. Maybe this is just me yearning for “the good ole days” but I really think this film is vastly better than what people remember and unquestionably better than most modern theatrical horror releases.
*You can stream House of Wax through Vudu or Amazon Prime Video, but don’t skip out on the DVD if you can. There are some decent extras packed into it!*
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth