News Column

The Price is right: A Halloween celebration of Vincent Price

October 25, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 25--House of Wax, classic horror flick, rated PG, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31, only, 4 chiles

The 1953 film House of Wax is one of the great entertainments from Hollywood's golden age, with a psychologically perceptive and disturbing turn by Vincent Price as Prof. Henry Jarrod, a passionate artist who sculpts wax figures for his museum. (He echoes the role played by Lionel Atwill in the 1933 Michael Curtiz-directed Mystery of the Wax Museum, of which House of Wax is a remake.) The Jean Cocteau Cinema brings House of Wax to the big screen for one night only on Thursday, Oct. 31, screened the way it was intended to be seen -- in 3-D. For the special Halloween presentation, Victoria Price, daughter of the King of Grand Guignol, introduces the film. "Director Andr De Toth only had one eye and couldn't see in 3-D," Price told Pasatiempo. Aside from some in-your-face 3-D sequences, including one involving a sideshow barker with a ball and paddle, the effects are mainly in service to the story. The film is no less entertaining in 2-D.

"I first saw it with my father a couple of years before he died," said Price, who generally avoids horror movies. "I don't like violent movies, and I certainly don't like to see my father being cruel and hurting people, so I avoid them." The evening's events include a costume contest and prizes as well as a screening of a short documentary on the making of House of Wax. Proceeds from ticket sales benefit the Santa Fe Film Festival. Price hopes to establish an annual autumn event showcasing her father's films.

Vincent Price's performance in the movie establishes Jarrod as a man of sensitive nature, in love with beauty. Viewers might not understand the depth of Jarrod's love for his wax creations, but we believe that he feels that love. When he speaks to them, he seems to hear their replies. "That's what drew my father to the role," Price said. "He was always interested and involved in visual art." Jarrod's tenderness toward the wax figures makes an early sequence in the film harrowing and heartbreaking: a desperate business partner, unhappy with the museum's flagging income, burns it down to collect the insurance money. Jarrod barely escapes with his life, but he is physically and emotionally scarred. Price's genius is in making Jarrod's madness palpable and understandable, and that makes him all the more chilling. Revenge against his ex-partner is only part of the picture, and for a brief spell he's a villain we can root for. By the film's end, however, Jarrod's sadistic nature is played up with gleeful exuberance.

If you've never seen Price in a movie and dismiss him as merely a camp horror actor, consider his role as Shelby Carpenter in Laura (1944). He also brought credibility and persuasive acting to the horror roles that made him a household name. "House of Wax wasn't his first villain role," Price said, "but it was certainly his first horror movie." There are elements of camp in House of Wax, but it falls short of mustache-twirling melodrama thanks to Price, whose performance shines above all others in the film, including that of the lovely Phyllis Kirk as damsel in distress Sue Allen.

Jarrod, bound to a wheelchair after the fire, has reopened his museum. No longer content to focus his talents on creating beauty alone, he intends to give the public what it wants: sensationalism in the form of blood and gore. Allen begins to suspect that something's amiss when she notices that the museum's Joan of Arc display bears an uncanny resemblance to her recently deceased friend Cathy (a squeaky-voiced Carolyn Jones), whose body has disappeared from the morgue. It isn't long before others notice that Jarrod's wax figures look like other recent murder victims whose bodies have also vanished, including Jarrod's former partner, whose suicide was staged by Jarrod. He explains to investigators that he models his creations on cases that have made recent headlines, and the dolts buy it -- but Allen doesn't.

Jarrod plays to Allen's vanity. He needs a model to recreate his lost masterpiece, Marie Antoinette, and persuades Allen to meet him at the museum to discuss it. Allen has an ally at the museum: Paul Picerni in the role of Scott Andrews, a sculptor Jarrod takes on as his prot g . Jarrod has lost the use of his hands after the fire and relies on assistants to sculpt under his direction. One assistant, the hulking, muscular Igor, is played by Charles Bronson (credited as Charles Buchinsky). The simple-minded Igor has skilled hands and a bad habit of giving all his creations his own face.

Igor's treatment by some characters might seem shocking to today's audiences. When Jarrod introduces Bronson's character -- "This is my assistant Igor. He's a deaf mute." -- the line is unintentionally funny. Less amusing is an interrogation scene in which a police inspector slaps Igor around, yelling "Talk! Talk! Talk!"

Andrews is a good guy, but he doesn't believe, as Allen does, that there are dead bodies under the wax. It takes some convincing on Allen's part for him to come around. One of the film's best scares comes when Igor attempts to behead him with what was apparently a real guillotine, in a scene that caused Picerni more than a little consternation.

House of Wax and Mystery of the Wax Museum, a film that was essentially lost for decades after its initial release, have their die-hard fans, and people tend to like either one or the other, but in terms of major plot developments and tension they're very much alike. There is what appears to be a wicked homage to the original film when Jarrod, leading a tour through the museum, stops at one exhibit depicting a torture scene. The victim bears a resemblance to Fay Wray, who played opposite Atwill in Mystery of the Wax Museum. The wax figure is dressed like Wray in publicity stills for King Kong. Wray's character narrowly escapes the hot wax treatment in the original film, but her likeness in House of Wax is not so lucky.

Price's Jarrod is one of the great villains of cinema. He expresses pathos and sadism in equal measure. It is difficult not to see him as a tragic figure until his horrifying description of the pain Allen can expect as his next victim shows the depth of depravity to which he's fallen.

details

--House of Wax screening in 3-D, Halloween party & costume contest with mistress of ceremonies Victoria Price

--6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31

--Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave.

--$30, students $15; 505-466-5528

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(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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