André de Toth's schlock thriller put Vincent Price on the map as a horror star and ushered in the first wave of hysterical excitement about the possibilities of 3D cinema, something we're still debating the merits of 60 years later.
House Of Wax was the first major colour feature to appear in 3D, a novelty introduced by panicked studio executives seeking to combat the sudden emergence of television as a serious competitor to movie houses, with theatre attendance halving as punters opted to be entertained from the comfort of their own living rooms rather than step out for the evening. For the first time, audiences were presented with grey-lensed polarised glasses to wear, enabling them to see characters lifted off the screen thanks to House Of Wax's much-touted "Nature Vision" process, which involved running two separate 35mm film strips for the left and right eyes using twin interlocked projectors, the installation of which required complicated modifications on behalf of exhibitors. The film also boasted stereophonic sound and proved a hit with movie-goers, helping to blur the line between auditorium and fun house, a notion William Castle would take further with his inventive promotional gimmicks for House On Haunted Hill and The Tingler in 1959, both of which also starred the ever-game Price. House Of Wax contains some insertions of its own to demonstrate the power of its technology, notably a daft intermission featuring a barker in evening dress batting a paddle ball directly at the audience and an otherwise entirely superfluous can-can scene. Ironically, the one person unable to profit from House Of Wax's third dimension was its director, the Hungarian de Toth having lost an eye in a childhood accident. Don't feel too sorry for him though: he was married to Veronica Lake.
The film itself, a loose remake of Michael Curtiz's Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933), is set in late 19th century New York and concerns Price's artisan sculptor Professor Henry Jarrod, whose commercially-minded business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) burns down their wax museum for the insurance money, cruelly leaving Jarrod to die amongst his cherished models of notorious historical figures (their melting away is a marvellously grotesque spectacle). Unbeknownst to Burke, Jarrod has survived the inferno and now haunts the streets in search of revenge, horribly disfigured and deranged. After hunting down and dispatching his former friend, Jarrod reappears and unveils a new museum to the public, whose exhibits are more lifelike than ever. So realistic, in fact, that visitor Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) becomes suspicious when the body of her late friend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) disappears from the city morgue, only for her exact likeness to appear on the face of Jarrod's Joan of Arc.
House Of Wax has a pleasing brutality about it that would get lost in many of Price's later horror outings, the likes of The Raven (1963) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) descending into easy camp and knockabout whimsy, losing their way rather than going for the jugular. Those films have nothing to compare with the genuine shock of Burke's cadaver being discovered hanging in an elevator shaft, Jarrod's waxen mask cracking open to reveal a face twisted with savage burns or his death, tumbling from a balcony into a vat of boiling pink chemicals, writhing, seething and steaming as he sinks beneath the surface (surely an influence on the staging of Jack Napier's transitional accident in Tim Burton's Batman, 1989). Chasing Kirk down a darkened street with a simian roll to his gait, Price, clad in billowing black, draws on Jack The Ripper, Lon Chaney and Judex and the effect is extraordinary.
There's a fine supporting cast too, with Charles Bronson appearing in an early role as Jarrod's mute assistant Igor under his real name of Buchinsky. Frank Lovejoy, forever typecast as cops in noirs, appears as, er, a policeman, while the leading ladies would both be better known for their TV careers, Phyllis Kirk starring alongside Peter Lawford in The Thin Man (1957-59) and Carolyn Jones, unrecognisable hiding behind a dumb blonde wig and breathy Marilyn giggle, as Morticia in The Addams Family (1964-66).