If the year 2013 isn't remembered for anything else, it will be for when my decades-long wait for a high-quality 3D home edition of 1953's House of Wax was finally over. While 3D has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years which brought forth the highest-quality home 3D format available to view these recent movies, 1953 was still the biggest year in 3D movie history. As the story goes, movie attendance was declining in the early 1950s due to a new invention called television, and studios were searching desperately for ways to get people back into theaters. In late 1952, the very first widely released feature film shot in 3D, Bwana Devil, proved to be a huge success. This was an independent production, but its success caught the attention of the bigger studios who figured that 3D was just the thing they needed to pry people away from their two-dimensional black and white TVs. Warner Bros. used the same "Natural Vision" 3D dual-camera rig used by Bwana Devil to shoot House of Wax, the first major-studio 3D production which solidified the 3D movie boom of the period.
Based primarily on Warner's earlier Mystery of the Wax Museum released in 1933, House of Wax stars Vincent Price as Henry Jarrod which was a role that began his ascent to becoming a horror movie icon. In New York circa 1910, he creates wax statues primarily of historical figures such as Marie Antoinette and other royalty for a museum he runs with business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts). Jarrod does this for the pure joy of it, taking a Gepetto-like approach to his creations considering them as his "children". Burke however complains that their museum isn't getting enough business. He tells Jarrod that other museums in town have attracted more business by presenting more sensational attractions, such as murder scenes and depictions of torture, and suggests Jarrod take his work more in that direction. While Jarrod does have a scene depicting Abraham Lincoln's assassination, he still prefers to produce more "beautiful" works and refuses to pander to audiences who would rather be shocked than appreciate his artistry. Burke, being in it only for the money, decides he wants out and when Jarrod can't find anyone else to buy out his share of the museum right away he says they should just stage a fire and burn the place down, as their insurance would give them enough money to go their separate ways. Jarrod of course is shocked at this given the personal attachment he's formed with his work, but Burke goes ahead and sets a fire anyways and knocks Jarrod out when he tries to stop him. Burke gets out alive and Jarrod is presumed dead.
Later however, Jarrod turns up very much alive, though in a wheelchair and badly burned. He pretends to not remember what happened, but decides to open a new museum. He can't use his hands much since they were burned, so he enlists a number of artists to make new wax figures for him (one of them is a deaf mute man named Igor, played by Charles Buchinsky who would become better known as Charles Bronson.) This time he decides to give the people what they want and make his museum more of a "chamber of horrors", with depictions of famous murderers and torturers such as William Kemmler, the first person to be executed by electric chair. Meanwhile Burke is spending his money with girlfriend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), but he soon turns up dead and the police consider it a suicide. Shortly after that Cathy is discovered dead by her roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Both of their corpses then mysteriously disappear from the morgue, and when Sue visits the new House of Wax's grand opening she is shocked to find that the wax figure of Joan of Arc bears a striking resemblance to Cathy, and there's also a wax depiction of Matthew Burke's self-hanging that looks remarkably realistic. Hmm, could something be going on here?
I won't spoil the surprises here, but House of Wax is a classic film even if you disregard its technical merits. The main reason to celebrate this Blu-Ray release though is that it presents the movie in 3D. Prior to this release, the only way to see House of Wax at home in 3D was via the now-defunct VHD videodisc format which was released only in Japan during the 1980s and had this as well as a few other 1950s and 80s 3D movies in a field-sequential format which was adequate but had a flickery picture that halved the already limited resolution of standard-definition video (and this 3D method will not work on modern HDTVs due to the way they de-interlace standard-def pictures.) Warner put a lot of work into the film's restoration this time, including 4K scans of the YCM positive protection masters (the original negative was too badly damaged but these elements proved capable of producing the fantastic presentation we see here).
House of Wax was one of the first films marketed as more of an "event" than just a movie- it promised audiences something they'd never seen before. In addition to the 3D it was also among the first movies to use multi-channel sound, with three screen channels and a single surround track heralded as "WarnerPhonic Sound". Prior to magnetic film soundtracks, this was accomplished by putting the three front channels on film comprised ENTIRELY of magnetic sound and played on a dedicated sound reproducer unit (a similar technology was used for sound on the later Cinerama films.) The surround track was recorded normally on one of the two simultaneously-projected film reels, with the other having a conventional mono sound mix to fall back on in case the other equipment failed. The three discrete front channels are considered lost (though rumored to be in existence someplace), but effort has been made to recreate them on the Blu-Ray disc which I'll discuss later. House of Wax was such a big success that Jack L. Warner later announced that all of his studio's forthcoming pictures would be shot in 3D, including A Star Is Born and East of Eden, but sadly within the following year 3D fell out of favor with audiences (for a number of reasons, but mainly being that it was difficult for theaters to project two reels simultaneously in sync with each other, resulting in many botched presentations that gave theater patrons headaches).
House of Wax is presented in a ratio just slightly wider than conventional 4x3, in 3D of course but also with an option for 2D. The picture overall is sharp but not artificially so, and the film is virtually free of any dirt or scratches with film grain preserved. Again, a lot of work went into this transfer, although I do not have any prior video releases to compare it to. ( The previous DVD release of House of Wax has been reviewed by DVDSavant.) It certainly would have been interesting to see how the Japanese VHD disc looked compared to this, though of course most movies on that format already had permanent Japanese subtitles on them.
The 3D, as you might expect, is something to behold, and outdoes the 3D on many more recent movies (a large number of which were actually shot in 2D and then post-converted into 3D, with variable results.) I was lucky enough to see a 35mm 3D showing of this a few years ago, and the Blu-Ray retains much of that, though at home it feels more like you are looking in on many of the scenes. There are a number of setups where objects protrude a bit from the screen, and while there aren't a lot of blatant "gimmick" shots the one it does include has become iconic, where a barker outside the museum attracts patrons with a paddle-ball. He even breaks the fourth wall for a bit, addressing the camera with "There's someone with a bag of popcorn! Hold your mouth, it's the bag I'm aiming at, not your tonsils!" (This bit was referenced briefly in Monsters Vs. Aliens , DreamWorks' first 3D animated movie.)
The only downsides were attributable to my equipment and not the disc itself- the separation between the left and right eye views on my Sharp TV isn't perfect, which results here in some ghosting and the diminished effect of one memorable scene, where Charles Bronson appears out of nowhere and appears to run into the screen. In the theater it truly looked like he had climbed up from the floor into the screen, but at home it was mostly just a double-image. This of course will vary based on what you're using at home, and I'm hoping home 3D displays will improve in the coming years for which this disc will be ready.
Although the WarnerPhonic Sound elements weren't available for this disc, a decent job has been done by Chace Productions (who remixed many older film soundtracks into stereo in the 80s and 90s) to recreate its intended effect via a 2-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track. What's mainly noticeable here is that almost all of the dialogue is panned to the left or right depending on where the character is speaking onscreen- some find this distracting but I've always enjoyed it and wish more current movies were done this way. There are a few matrixed surround effects as well, including a chair being thrown and most of the screams from female characters. (The way some receivers handle 2-channel DTS tracks may be a problem here- the Blu-Ray disc is authored to be output as a straight bitstream rather than a PCM signal as most Blu-Rays are, but my Pioneer receiver would only reproduce this track through the front left and right. Forcing my player to output PCM all the time fixed this.) The overall audio quality is very clean for a film of this age.
Four additional languages are included in 1-channel Dolby Digital- French, Spanish, German and Italian, with SDH subtitles in English, German and Italian and standard subtitles in French, Portuguese and both Latin and Castilian Spanish. As with many other Warner Blu-Rays, there is also hidden support for Japanese- if you set your player's Disc Menu Language to Japanese, the movie and extras include Japanese and English subtitles but none of the other languages. Strangely when set this way the commentary track is only available during the 2D version of the movie, with optional Japanese subtitles for it.
The main extra here is the entire 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum movie from which House of Wax was based on. The basic plot is the same, but there are a number of differences in the narrative, mainly that it focuses more on the investigation into whether or not stolen bodies are being used in the wax museum and less on its being a public attraction. Glenda Farrell plays a newspaper reporter who aggressively goes after the clues in order to save her job, while Fay Wray of King Kong fame plays her friend who is also dating one of the wax artists. The film elements of this movie appear to have been cleaned up decently considering their age, but despite being encoded in AVC the picture is still in 480i standard definition, and the frame rate is a bit jerky.
A new extra for this disc is "House of Wax: Unlike Anything You've Seen Before!" This is a 47-minute piece on the history behind the movie and its cast, with contributions from current filmmakers including Wes Craven, Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese as well as Victoria Price, Vincent's daughter. The movie's story is discussed as well as the 3D phenomenon it created which begs the question- why wasn't this extra shot in 3D? It certainly would have been a nice touch. House Of Wax's original theatrical trailer is also included, which is mainly comprised of title cards promoting "The real, the true MIRACLE of Third Dimension" as "like NOTHING that has ever happened to you before!" There's also some newsreel footage of the premiere, which in larger cities consisted of showings beginning at midnight and continuing throughout the following day.
An audio commentary is also included from historian Constantine Nasr and fellow historian David Del Valle who was Vincent Price's friend for 20 years, where they further discuss House of Wax's story and production.
House of Wax's release on Blu-Ray 3D is truly something to be celebrated, and is a must-have for anyone with a home 3D system. The younger folks who might think 3D began with Avatar will certainly be in for a surprise, and will remind everyone else how 3D can greatly enhance a movie when it's done right. Thus far only Dial M For Murder and Creature From the Black Lagoon (initially released with the Universal Classic Monsters Collection and recently made available separately as well)
are the only other 3D movies of that era to be released on Blu-Ray 3D- hopefully we'll see many more come out in the near future.
DVD Savant has also reviewed this disc, and included links to more information about House of Wax.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.