The only similarities that the new incarnation of House of Wax shares with its 1954 wellspring of inspiration that starred Vincent Price and was shot in 3D (the paddleball sequence remains a plot-stopper) is that the wax figures conceal human remains, and everything eventually melts away in a stunning climactic blaze. Otherwise, this House of Wax bears more relation to Friday the 13th, although it also nibbles at the entire horror buffet, sampling everything from Blair Witch Project and Jeepers Creepers to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho.
Still, it somehow muddles through, developing its own inner-genre voice. It has style, a few worthy scares and Paris Hilton, who makes the most of a death scene in which a big sharp stick finds the one (only one?) soft spot in her skull.
Directed by Jaume Serra, who makes the leap from commercials to feature films, House of Wax is creepy, though it could have been far creepier, especially in the dispatching of its young adult victims. Only one is given the full body wax treatment while he's still alive, and it's genuinely alarming. The rest are beheaded, stabbed, or impaled. Yawn.
After a long, drawn-out setup, a group of friends find themselves stranded in the sleepy Southern town of Ambrose, a hamlet so small it doesn't even have a McDonald's. It's so small it's not even, as one character notes, on the GPS. It's so small it's not worthy of Paris's time! Ambrose's lone claim to fame is a glorious House of Wax, a museum literally fashioned from wax. The museum features no famous folk a la Madame Tussaud, the morbid reason being they're all tourists who have taken a shortcut off the interstate and have fallen prey to the town's sole residents -- homicidal twins Bo and Vincent. Bo disables victims by snipping their Achilles tendons and injecting them with sedative, while Vincent, a long-haired hulk who wears a pliant wax mask to conceal an alarming facial deformity, then coats them with boiling wax.
Despite its genre trappings, there is a spark or two of ingenuity in the script by Chad and Carey Hayes, twins themselves who clearly work out their own sibling issues through Bo and Vincent as well as through the movie's other set of twins, Carly and Nick Jones (Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray). It's a festive festival of twins! As the movie's designated heroine, Carly is put through hell by her attackers (her lips are glued shut, among other things). Carly's abuse is a little surprising and also a little welcome on an emotional level, as it raises the movie's stakes by not making her survival a foregone conclusion. A heroine who is mortal -- gee, what a novel idea.
The sadistic implications of encasing a live victim in wax and then setting him (or her) on display are never really explored, other than during one gruesome scene that makes your stomach churn. Maybe Serra felt more would be too much. But more, actually, would have distinguished the film beyond its otherwise routine death scenes.
House of Wax has received quite a bit of attention for its inclusion of Hilton. The spoiled rotten heiress's film debut isn't half bad. Then again, she's no Meryl. Or, for that matter, Ashley or Mary Kate. Paris has got two things down to perfection -- she knows how to scream and look frightened (something she probably has had experience with when Daddy Hilton threatens to cut off her Visa). As for the other thing, let's just say she's already proven herself an expert on the Internet and the movie references it in a playful manner.
The rest of the cast is pretty much matter-of-fact, with Brian Van Holt a thoroughly unmemorable villain (he's so awful, he's not even awarded a bio in the press notes), and Jared Padalecki, Jon Abrahams and Robert Ri'chard as the remaining lambs awaiting slaughter. They might as well all be wearing red shirts.
Cuthbert gives her character some spunk and spine, but the real revelation is Murray, who, if he plays his cards right, could evolve into one of Hollywood's more sought-after leading hunks. He's got the Brad Pitt body -- he removes his shirt exactly once and the camera lingers long enough to let the gay and female patrons get their admission's worth -- and his pretty-boy looks teeter between angelic and devilish. This comes in handy for Murray's character development, since Nick is a malcontent with a juvenile record. Of course, whenever you find yourself in a life-or-death situation, it's always good to have a social misfit along. They're very handy with weapons.