I really shouldn’t like this movie at all. It’s a not-very-well-regarded entry into a genre that I don’t care for (the mash-up of teen slasher and that backwoods grindhouse Texas Chainsaw Massacre stuff that Rob Zombie is inextricably associated with). And yet, and yet… I love it. The first time I saw it, way back when it was new, you could chalk my reaction up to having my ridiculously low expectations surpassed (I certainly didn’t expect to like it, I only rented it because it was a Dark Castle movie, and because back then I still worked at a video store and watched just about every horror movie that came out), but I’ve seen it a bunch of times since then, even own a copy, and if anything I probably like it more now than I did back then. So what’s up?
Well, the fact is, it’s just better than it ought to be. Very little of that’s in the story, which is pretty by-the-numbers, though it gets huge points for the fact that the protagonists, specifically the brother and sister pair played by Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray, are fighters who, when they’re in danger, immediately attempt to arm themselves, to fight back. There’s a scene that epitomizes this just as the violence of the movie is getting going, when Murray’s character has no clue what’s going on and one of the killers takes a swipe at him from out of nowhere. His character’s first response, without so much as a beat of hesitation, is to punch the guy right in the face as hard as he can. That’s certainly a nice change of pace from the seemingly weapon-allergic protagonists of a lot of similar films.
I think most of what I like comes from the approach of director Jaume Collett-Serra (whose follow-up Orphan I haven’t yet seen, but I’ve heard good things about). He may be making a modest backwoods slasher flick, but he comes at it with the instincts of a giallo film. House of Wax has a distinctive visual pallet, and boasts some very nice shots (there’s a particularly good aerial shot of a chase out the front doors of a church), and while the wax town idea may stretch credulity somewhat, it’s an undeniably cool idea, and Collet-Serra makes good use of the sets.
Collet-Serra also draws out the Gothic elements of the story. While the good twin/evil twin themes of the movie may be pretty heavy handed, the sense of decay hidden under a veneer of normalcy (as nailed perfectly by the wax figures with rotting corpses underneath) is handled much more deftly. Even the town itself could nicely stand in for a Gothic castle, with its washed-out road serving as moat.
House of Wax is also a surprisingly slow burn, for a movie of its type, eschewing a traditional “cold opening” (one was shot and is included in the bonus features, but wisely left out of the finished film), and opting instead to hold back on any actual violence until around the forty-five minute mark. When the violence does finally start, it gets brutal very quickly, and is initially all of the immediately relatable kind that Guillermo del Toro talks about in his commentary track for The Devil’s Backbone, the kind of pain that you can understand, and wince sympathetically along with. While it doesn’t take long for the movie to veer into more standard slasher-style death scenes (that make less and less sense), the first few bursts of violence are about as unbearable as any I’ve seen.
All of which is not to say that the movie doesn’t have its problems. The more it stumbles into cliches, the less well it works, and it’s certainly got some male gaze-y issues, though, sad to say, not really any worse than the general run of movies of its ilk. (And much, though by no means all, of the worst of that happens when the camera is, literally, in the hands of socially awkward kids or serial killers, which I guess is something.)
Still and all, for a movie that I shouldn’t like, and that no one else seems to, I think House of Wax is actually pretty great, and has a lot more going for it than it gets credit for.