THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


House of Wax stars Elisha Cuthbert as Carly Jones, a recent college graduate preparing to leave for an internship with In Style magazine. As a final fling, she and some pals, including boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) and best pal Paige (Paris Hilton), hop in two cars and head to another city for a football game. Someone invites her perpetually-in-trouble twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray), which instantly causes friction. Bigger problems await, however; one of the cars breaks down just outside a strange little off-the-map ghost town where an abandoned wax museum sits on top of the biggest hill.

Once you enter the town, you donít leave. A pair of demented former Siamese twins Ė Bo and Vincent (both played by Brian Van Holt) Ė are on the loose. Their mother owned the museum; since she died they have been killing people, covering them with wax, and placing them about like dolls in a giant dollhouse. In fact, theyíve pretty much covered everything in the whole town with wax. The siblings are thrilled to discover fresh meat. They proceed to pick off Carlyís gang one by one. Of course, two of the aforementioned characters (I wonít say which ones) survive long enough to enter that wax museum and fight back.

The original House of Wax was a campy 3-D affair; this remake has been re-imagined as a shock horror film a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or House of 1000 Corpses. As such, itís not scary so much as it is disturbing; I never jumped but I did have an ongoing feeling of queasy dread. The most gruesome elements of the story always get the most focus.

To be fair though, House of Wax was a lot better than I thought it would be. Aside from Paris Hilton (who appears to be straining to look scared Ė or to look anything, for that matter), the performances are above average for this type of film. Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray donít have a lot of room to do character work, but they commit to the material and the film is better for it. The visual look is another strong point. Director Jaume Serra and cinematographer Stephen Windon have given it a dirty, grimy style that helps convey the sense of menace and gloom that runs throughout the story. Whenever you see those wax people - for whom time has suddenly stopped - sitting around, itís definitely ominous in a very surreal way.

Then thereís the last 15 minutes, in which two of the characters try to escape the House of Wax while it melts around them, courtesy of a fire in the basement. This is one of the most brilliant sequences Iíve ever seen in a horror movie. The image of a character trying to run up a flight of steps that are disintegrating into a slimy mess is insanely original and undoubtedly exciting. Floors dissolve away, walls turn to mush, and the humans struggle to make their way through ever expanding piles of slop Ė this is good stuff. Horror movies these days often lack cleverness or ambition. House of Wax is rare in that it delivers a grand finale that truly knocks your socks off.

Despite a fair share of strong points, I nevertheless find myself unable to recommend the movie (although itís a close call). My gripes are minor, not major, but there are a sufficient number of them to diminish my overall perception of the film. One little glitch is that many of the elements are just cliched. For instance, you can pretty much predict who will die and in what order. You can just as easily guess how the characters who donít die will get out of their predicaments. At one point, Bo has Carly bound to a chair. He leaves to find the other intruders to his town while she discovers that the chair hasÖa loose arm! And it can conveniently be ripped off, allowing escape! (Iíve seen this bit in every movie in which the hero/heroine gets tied to a chair.)

I also wish there was more in the way of character development. The story is in place but the humans get short shrift. The plot introduces the idea of a rift between Carly and Nick yet thereís no real explanation for it, nor is there a satisfying resolution. I think the movie would have had more weight had it fleshed out the people a little more. The screenplay takes the easy way out in this sense. Even Nick, who starts off as a real badass, is eventually revealed to be a nice guy who didnít do all the bad things heís been accused of doing. Why canít the punk just be a punk? Why does he have to be the nice-guy-wrongly-accused?

Perhaps the biggest of my small gripes is that House of Wax has an ugly sadistic streak that, at times, turned my stomach. One character falls headfirst into a roadkill pit filled with bloody animal carcasses and later gets her lips stuck together with super glue. There are graphic shots of people getting digits cut off, tendons sliced, and having their skin burned by scalding hot wax. A little of the gore and violence would certainly be appropriate to the genre, but I felt like it went overboard here. Why? To be honest, I donít know. After all, I am one of the few critics who actually recommended Rob Zombieís House of 1000 Corpses, which was even gorier and more sadistic than this movie (and which had a very similar setup). Why did House of Wax bother me when that film didnít? Iím not sure thereís an explanation that can be put into words. Thereís just some weird quality to the tone of each picture that made one more acceptable than the other. At some level, I suppose, horror movies have to be fun. Sure, they can be gory and twisted and nasty; but they have to be all those things in a good way. House of 1000 Corpses had little flashes of humor and a tongue-in-cheek knowingness that somehow made all the rough material a little more palatable (despite still being kind of sickening). House of Wax, on the other hand, is pretty relentless in its sadism. It made me squirm and feel uncomfortable at times. That will doubtlessly be a selling point for some viewers; personally, the sadism of the film kept me at armís length.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for this website called ďMy Favorite Movies I Didnít LikeĒ which detailed some films that didnít quite work but which nonetheless held a certain fascination for me. House of Wax easily qualifies in this category. Thereís some good stuff here and I may watch it (or at least parts of it) again when it eventually hits cable. But would I recommend it? Not quite. Some minor tweaking would have easily solved the little problems and allowed the positive qualities to shine through more clearly. Iíve got some real affection for House of Wax and perhaps that, more than anything, is why I wish it were just a tiny bit better.

( 1/2 out of four)

House of Wax is rated R for horror violence, some sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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