This May brings a remake of early 80s all-timer, Poltergeist, the latest in a long (long) line of cinematic reboots, retreads and more. By now, the ubiquity of reimaginings has rendered their existence less of a transgression than ever, with Poltergeist barely getting anyone up in arms. At the same time, the concept of remakes are an ever-hot point of contention among genre fans. Refusing to indulge in broad dismissaland maybe in a bit of cautious optimismwell spend this May looking at, and defending, some of the better redos in horror cinema.
House of Wax arrived in theaters a decade ago, deck stacked firmly against it. Released just as the remake boogeyman had become a very real terror for increasingly jaded genre enthusiasts, it also clung to some of the trends made popular (and thus, totally disreputable to said enthusiasts) by the wave of post-Scream slashers during the previous decade. Looking every bit the part of a slick studio production (strike one), it boasted marketable young actors, including not one, but three CW/WB stars (strike two), and then had the further nerve to feature Paris Hilton, at the time Americas reigning reality TV princess (strike three). That it implicitly held the promise of watching her die horribly seemed irrelevant: the die was cast, and House of Wax melted from public consciousness almost as quickly as Hilton herself did.
In the face of such an uphill battle, House of Wax takes an odd route to effectively skirt around it. Rather than directly remake the 1953 classic (itself a redux of 1933s Mystery of the Wax Museum), it piggybacks on the success of Platinum Dunes Texas Chainsaw Massacre by transplanting the shell of the original story to the rural backwoods Louisiana, where a group of college students break down near Ambrose, a hole-in-the-wall town thats literally not on the map. Numerous advertisements for a nearby wax museum dotting the highway are the only proof of its existence, and the group naturally stumbles upon it before falling prey to its deadly, decades-old secrets.
In short, House of Wax is actually a reworking of 1979s Tourist Trap. With so much negativity to overcome already, it seems curious to peddle a remake-in-name-only and even more curious still to repackage 1979s tropes as 2005s clichés. What was fresh 25 years earlier had long since calcified, much like the titular House of Wax here. It takes some guts, and director Jaume Collet-Serra has plenty of them.
An unknown commodity making his directorial debut, Collett-Serra didnt inspire the sort of confidence that hindsight now grants him. Since hes gone on to reliably fashion riveting pulp out of sheer junk (Unknown notwithstanding), its now less surprising that his take on House of Wax is an almost impossible gem forged out of what appears to be a cynical exercise in recycling a familiar property.
Audiences obviously had no way of knowing this in 2005, but this has sort of become Collet-Serras shtick: nearly all of his films seem like bad (or at least tired) ideas that he outpaces with expert chops. Even in a debut that mostly takes its cue from 80s slashers, he engages classical techniques, particularly during an unexpectedly deliberate first act that has his camera prowling about creepy locales and capturing the slasher movie debauchery that marks most of the cast for death. You sense that hes more invested in these characters than the screenwriters (Chad and Carey Hayes, of later Conjuring fame) wereor he at least provides the illusion by hanging out with them, clichéd warts and all.
As a group, this is a functional collection of stereotypes and caricatures anchored by the three who dont seem to be immediately disposable: Carly Jones (a plucky Elisha Cuthbert), her bad boy brother Nick (a moody Chad Michael Murray), and her boyfriend Wade (a baby-faced Jared Padalecki). The rest (Hilton, Robert Richard, and Jon Abrahams) are played even more broadly and court death with the usual hijinks: sex, booze, and stupidity. It should be noted that Hiltonwhose reputation suggests shes the films albatrossis precisely the sort of victim thats expected of a slasher movie, and shes no better or worse than most of the cast surrounding her.
If the success of the 80s slasher boom hinged on the Me Generations willingness to pack theaters in order to watch their on-screen counterparts die gruesomely, consider how that applies in this case: in 2005, House of Wax supposed audiences really needed to see this generations avatar for vanity get impaled in the face with a pole. (Even still, what does it say that so few showed up to do so?)
Her gruesome fate is a highlight of Collet-Serras indulgence of slasher movie expectations with both big, splattery moments (among them: a beheading and a brutal knife-to-the-neck gag) and smaller, more cringe-worthy moments (a ruptured Achilles tendon right out of the Pet Sematary playbook is particularly ghastly). He even tips his hat to the emerging rash of torture before throwing it into the ring with a logical reworking of the films famous conceit: when the group stumbles upon eerily lifelike wax figures, theres no mystery for the audience, so Collet-Serra plunges right into it by peeling back the surface in agonizingly literal fashion.
Benefitting from several decades worth of relaxed decency standards, he infuses the macabre imagery of the earlier Wax films with a grisly, visceral punch. This House of Wax is covered in a Saw-era grime and presided over a family that feels about two houses removed from the Sawyer clan: Brian Van Holt (affecting a cross between R. Lee Ermey and Bill Paxton) is the silver-tongued ringleader, while his more feral brother assumes the Leatherface position (only hes decked out in garb thats more appropriate for a member of Slipknothow fitting for a film whose soundtrack features the likes of Marilyn Manson, Disturbed, and The Prodigy). A sordid family history has led them to carrying out a horrific legacy that twists the dark, romantic leanings of the original films into an even trashier, blood-soaked melodrama. Where a gothic carnival vibe guided those films, this one is a gore showcase that escalates from severed fingers all the way to a character unwittingly decapitating a friend thats become a wax statute.
Collet-Serras commendable refusal to completely abandon the creepy spirit of the original films is just as noteworthy. Despite the nu-metal affectations, the frenzied, frenetic style du jour is eschewed in lieu of establishing an ominous atmosphere and wringing eeriness out of limited sets. Most of the action is split between Ambrose and its surrounding wilderness, with the town itself proving to be a remarkable achievement in set design. Its obvious backlot trappings perfectly accent its artificiality: everything about Ambrose seems off, and the characters exploration uncovers a forgotten town trapped in the 60s. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? still plays in its single-house theater to set the mood and acknowledge that this version of House of Wax is a mutt with strands of that films DNA, too. As the characters continue to poke around every corner of Ambrose, the film recaptures the funhouse spirit: mysterious figures peek from behind windows, while the titular wax museum hordes all sorts of ghoulish displays.
Perhaps most importantly, its all completely tactile and even remains so during an incredible, FX-driven climax that evokes the theatricality of this films predecessors. A staggering amount of moving parts burns, melts, and collapses as the last survivors try to evade the stalking psychos in an immaculately staged sequence. Usually, slasher films inspire a perverse awe through gore gags; this one climaxes with a grand, morbid spectacle not typically reserved for backwoods slasher movies. You have to admire the ambition and craftsmanship on display considering how rote its setup is.
In this respect, House of Wax is a paradox simultaneously retracing familiar steps while trying to also evade them. Its clichés and recycled story beats undeniably result in a Frankensteins monster assembled from various genre scraps. By all means, the film should feel schizophrenic and muddled, but Collet-Serras direction is too assured and wry, especially when he subtly jabs at the formula (the victims order of death holds at least one surprise).
What should feel like a haphazard pastiche instead emerges as a snapshot of the genre at a crossroads: House of Wax obviously looks as far back to the 30s to find inspiration before making various pit stops through the years, with the lurid melodrama of Baby Jane colliding with both iterations of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 80s and 90s slashers, and Saw (some occasional POV camcorder footage even anticipates the revival of the found footage aesthetic).
The only notable aspect stranded on the roadside is the 90s penchant for irony and cleverness. House of Wax might borrow the surface level aesthetic of that era, but it has little use for metafictional shenanigans outside of its obvious nods (one of the killers is named Vincent, for example). Instead, this is a group of slasher victims who are all too eager to accept help from the weirdo bumpkin offering them a lift into town in a truck littered with deer guts. They remain blissfully unaware that theyre in a slasher film, a notion that makes House of Wax a strangely refreshing oasis in a postmodern landscape. Sometimes, its smart to remain oblivious (just ask Paris Hilton). By doing so, House of Wax practically dares you to dismiss it, but its more rewarding to scratch beneath its slick surface to uncover one of the most surprisingly effective slasher movies from the past decade.
Brett Gallman is a member of the Online Film Critics Society. He was raised in and around video stores and hasnt stopped talking about horror movies ever since. You can find him on Twitter @brettgallman.