There is precisely one creepy idea in “House of Wax,” and it’s the one everyone already knows, about a maniac turning people into wax-museum figures. Yet this remake-of-a-remake (first in 1933, then Vincent Price’s famous 1953 version) persists in wasting our time with other matters before finally getting to the point.
I have to assume there is arrogance involved in making a film like this, and not just stupidity. I assume first-time director Jaume Serra and writers Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes have seen a few teens-get-killed-in-the-woods movies. And every time they watched one, didn’t they say to themselves, “Why are they wasting time with characterization when we don’t care about them?”? Yet when the opportunity arose to make a slasher film, what did Serra do? He figured HE could do it right, even if few before him had. He figured HE should spend time with the characters before the killing starts, because HE would be able to make the audience care.
It didn’t work, needless to say. There are six college-age people in the film, who have car trouble in the wilderness on their way from Florida to Baton Rouge for a big college football game. They are describable only in their basic attributes, as that is all the movie gives them. Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) is the Heroine, with an internship at InStyle magazine coming up this summer. Wade (Jared Padalecki) is her All-American Boyfriend, with whom she has a mature, wholesome relationship, which is to say their sex is implied and not shown. Paige (Paris Hilton) is Carly’s Slutty Friend, by which I mean her sex IS shown. Paige’s boyfriend is Blake (Robert Ri’chard), and he is the Black Guy.
Along for the ride for reasons Carly doesn’t really explain is her twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray), the Rebellious One, and he has brought his own buddy, Dalton (Jon Abrahams), the Comic Relief. What two unattached straight guys want to take a road trip with two amorous couples? These two, I guess.
Carly and Wade eventually find themselves in the nearly abandoned town of Ambrose in search of a fan belt, and it is there that Judy’s House of Wax occupies a prominent position. It is unlikely that a place called “Judy’s House of” anything could contain terrors, but here we are. The man who runs the town’s service station, Bo (Brian Van Holt), recounts the tragic story of Judy and her family, and how the town eventually came to ruin. Later, there are old newspaper clippings — movies like this always have newspaper clippings — to tell us the rest of the tale.
Typical of this genre, the “dangerous” characters turn out to be harmless, and vice versa; there is virtually no suspense over who the bad guys really are. And, true to form, when the crazy people’s motivation is explained, it is ludicrous. (I don’t care what happened when you were a kid, there is never a good reason to build an entire house out of wax.)
I will give the movie credit for providing a few surprises regarding some characters’ fates. I wouldn’t have expected the first one killed to be the first one killed, for example, and another character receives a gruesome non-fatal injury that I figured would only be threatened, not actually executed.
In fact, there are a few moments in the film’s second half — NOTHING happens in the first half, let me tell you — that achieve a feeling of good old-fashioned slasher-film terror ‘n’ gore. But a few moments do not make a good movie. It’s impossible to take any of it seriously, of course — it’s about a lunatic who puts people in WAX, for crying out loud — and yet the movie often expects us to do just that.
A film like this can work if it surprises us, startles us, or keeps us in suspense. “House of Wax” does very little of that, and I’m astonished that Serra ever thought otherwise. These movies are done so poorly so often that I’m truly puzzled: Why did you think it would work when you made it just like all the other movies that didn’t work? Repeating the same actions yet expecting different results, that’s even crazier than dipping people in wax.
Note: You might be wondering how Paris Hilton does in her first major acting role. Well, she isn’t very good, but she’s no worse than plenty of non-famous people who have played equivalent roles in similar movies. She’s actually the least of the film’s problems, and when Paris Hilton’s acting is the least of your problems, you know you’re in trouble.
D+ (1 hr., 45 min.; )