When you see the company logo for Dark Castle attached to a horror movie these days, it is often the most frightening thing about it. Though House On Haunted Hill had its moments and seemed like a promise of better things to come, the studio quickly resorted to one-note, concept schlock like Th13rteen Ghosts, the risible Ghost Ship and the just plain appalling shambles of Gothika, their brand becoming synonymous with opulent, glossy dross. The old adage of not being able to polish a ... something-or-other springs to mind. Setting themselves up as the new William Castle, executive producers Joel (Show-me-the-money!) Silver and Robert Zemeckis have proved themselves to be anything but. Castle was a showman, taking wild-card ideas for gimmicky fear-flicks and running with them by the skin of his teeth. Unlike slick-masters, Silver and Zemeckis who over-produce their stock with oozing self-importance, he had no money and was forced utilise his imagination for attention-grabbing novelties like 3-D, sick-bags, heart-attack insurance for the audience, etc. Dark Castle just promises the same old formula that Hollywood's been peddling for decades, with the only originality being the audacious set-piece slayings. But they sure spruce their flicks up, don't they? Their latest, a rehashing of genre-fave House Of Wax, from 1953 and starring The Crown Prince of Ham, himself, Vincent Price (itself, a reworking of Michael Curtiz's 1933 Mystery Of The Wax Museum) is no exception. Given a terrible time by critics upon its theatrical release, it, none the less, proved quite popular with its intended market - the teen brigade craving a cool, hip and sexy cast, some wildly inappropriate rock tracks and a screenplay that's as advanced as a school nativity. Being a huge fan of Price's sky-high performances, I expected the worst from this. But did House Of Wax 2005-style actually manage to surprise me? And could I find anything within it to wax lyrical about?Oh no, don't get me started!
“You are so busted!”
Well, this batch of teenage ne'er-do-wells certainly knows how to irritate. Within minutes of the cut 'n' paste introductions to the six potential victims - who are travelling across country to get to some important game, or other - they have managed to tick off the full quota of clichés from the studio-backed horror rule-book. We have the gorgeous bimbo-slut, Paige, played hardly against type, by Paris Hilton, cute - but far more sensible and, consequently, far less credible - Carly, played by Elisha Cuthbert, her compassionate boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) and her angsty, hooded twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray). Oh yes, and the other two texture-less, inter-changeable bozos along for the doomed ride, token black guy Blake (Robert Ri'chard - yep, that's how he spells it!) and sad nerd Dalton (Jon Abrahams). A mysterious detour, a foolhardy campsite and some reckless antagonising of a local truck driver ensure that this gang of street-speaking, happening dudes are going to regret packing their attitudes for this trip. Just around the corner, through those spooky trees and on past the yucky, corpse-filled cesspit is a sleepy little ghost town that likes nothing more than to have annoying teens come a-calling. So, there we have the set-up. Actually, for a film of this all-too-obvious intent and motive, House Of Wax takes quite a time to get any momentum going. In fact, after about three-quarters of an hour, I was actually beginning to believe that the makers really wanted us, the audience, to get to know these characters, to invest in them and, hey, maybe even care for them a little once things started getting nasty. Of course, to make this happen, we'd need a talented cast and a drama that is layered and involving. An altogether different film, then. Not this cardboard premise. This is a billboard-sized scream-a-thon extracted from a one-line scenario and, as such, it should cut to the chase and commence with the carnage. Afterall, we aren't here for the characterisation, or the intelligent screenplay, are we?
“I heard something.”
“It's probably a serial killer, or something.”
Remember that sleepy little town hidden away from civilisation, nestled off the beaten track and rubbed from all the maps? Oh, it's creepy, all right. And it houses a secret that is hinted at during a very brief, but disturbing, prologue. When a sabotaged fan-belt sees the group splitting up, Carly and Wade take an unwise saunter into eerie Hicksville to find a garage ... or, indeed, just someone willing to help them. The House Of Wax, a curious museum of waxwork effigies posed within a structure seemingly constructed purely of the stuff, looms at the top of the hill. Of course, when they bump into friendly-on-the-surface Bo, who owns the garage, but rather ominously only has their particular size of fan-belt “up at the house,” things take a turn for the considerably deranged, and thankfully the film finally shifts into the familiar, but extremely welcome, stalk and slash mode. Pretty soon after poor Wade (who has obviously never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) rather rudely abuses Bo's hospitality to go for a little look-see around his place, people are getting stabbed, skewered and coated in wax during a sustained psychotic rampage as the town's only two inhabitants that aren't encased in wax decide to get positively medieval on the young trespassers.
“It is wax ... like, literally.”
That's it for the plot, really. This House Of Wax is quite clearly trying to differentiate itself from the original two versions, forsaking the redolent atmospherics of spooky, lifelike waxworks in favour of a much more straight-forward slasher-trip. The mystery element is still there, but it is well and truly signposted by the heavy-handed twins theme, and the discovery of a couple of baby highchairs amid some Scooby-Doo-ish back history. As the initially anti-social Nick so blatantly puts it during the exposition-loaded first act, “You don't get it, do you? You're the good twin. I'm the evil one.” Yet, nobody can be surprised when his true gallantry come shining through and the battle with the lunatics is furiously joined. In fact, in a slightly neat trick, it's the more moral-minded Wade, who actually acts the fool and pays the ultimate price for it. And what of the much-touted Paris Hilton, then? Well, to be fair, she's at least as convincing as the rest of the mob, and we are treated to the obligatory strip-scene - which swiftly descends into complete farce when her character, clad only in skimpy red briefs, has to run the gauntlet from a masked maniac. This scene is hysterical in its protracted idiocy, but it does result in a spectacular, and lingering, head-spearing.
“You look like Elton John. But more gay ...”
The good stuff comes with the killings. Director Jaume Collet-Serra displays a singular verve for the red stuff, bless him, and although falling far short of excess, there is still plenty of wildly inventive slayings on offer here. In fact, I found House Of Wax to be terrifically mean-spirited in places - an unexpected finger-snipping here, a surgically neat decapitation there and some nice ankle-slicings along the way. It's getting commonplace for people to comment on new horror films harking back to the gritty old days of the nasties, and it would be remiss of me to make such a claim on Wax's behalf, but there is, nevertheless, a tone of depravity lurking grimly at the core of this movie that I found immensely satisfying. Sure, it's dumb, dizzy and wholly obvious, but we're only watching it to see pretty people getting sliced 'n' diced. And I've got not problem with that. Check out the exquisitely dark moment when Cuthbert's Carly gets her lovely lips glued together. Now that's got to please all of you fans of 24!The whole waxwork idea is just a convenient excuse for having people paralysed and then lashed up to wicked-looking, spiky contraptions and then worked upon by ghoulish madmen. There's a certain nostalgic debt paid to Gary Sherman's graphically horrible, but fabulously hokey Dead And Buried in the screenplay's fascination with preserving the appearance of life long after death, and the sheer lack of any credible motive for all of this carnage is quite refreshing, too. They butcher you, and then they wrap you up in icky-sticky hot wax. Given this basic formula-approach, and the bravura sense of enthusiastic brutality paraded throughout the giddily violent, and super-extended, climax, this should be enough. Still, as visually eye-catching and as exhilarating the fiery finale is, wouldn't you have thought that health and safety issues would have crossed their minds before building a house ... of wax?
“You don't get it. They're all wax ... everyone!”
So, surprisingly, after a very bad, endurance-testing start with some of the lamest dialogue ever uttered, House Of Wax actually won me over. Well, almost. Price's version is still the definitive wax movie, but Dark Castle's interpretation wisely doesn't tread too closely to its hallowed ground, and in adhering to the staples of hack 'n' slashery, it more than holds its own. Crass and crude, but very effective. John Ottman provides a great overblown and gothic score, too, although it does sound a little X-Men 2-ish in places. Still doesn't manage to entirely drown out the rock tracks, mind you. A guilty pleasure, perhaps, but I still found it pretty darn entertaining in the long run. I mean, just look at the homicidal Vincent (not Price, but an obvious homage to him) going berserk in his wax mask. Difficult upbringing, wears a pale mask, straggly long dark hair, and is a menace to attractive youths. Sound familiar? Oh, I'd say he was Wacko, wouldn't you?
To many people, this movie is nothing more than shallow dross and, in my heart of hearts, I'd probably have to agree with them. But then, my heart is dark and, on occasion, easily pleased. Besides, I'm a sucker for a bit of gratuitous bloodletting and Brian Van Holt does do a pretty mean impersonation of cult-icon Bill (Stop your grinnin' and drop your linen!) Paxton as the sadistic Bo. So, it gains a couple of points right there.
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