As Halloween is fast approaching, the Fanbase Press staff and contributors decided that there was no better way to celebrate this horrifically haunting holiday than by sharing our favorite scary stories! Be they movies, TV shows, video games, novels, or any other form of entertainment, members of the Fanbase Press crew will be sharing their “scariest” stories each day leading up to Halloween. We hope that you will enjoy this sneak peek into the terrors that frighten Fanbase Press!
No one does revenge horror like Vincent Price, and nowhere is it more beautifully illustrated than in the 1953 classic, House of Wax, directed by André De Toth and starring Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, and a young Charles Bronson.
It’s the story of a gifted sculptor whose work is destroyed by an unscrupulous investor. I first saw it as a teenager on late night TV, and after numerous re-watches over the years, its scare factor continues to stand the test of time. Murder, body snatching, creepy statues, giant vats of boiling wax (more about that later), and a terrifying chase through dark city streets: All the creepy essentials are there, filmed in 3D for those lucky enough to see it at the cinema.
It starts benignly enough, as sculptor Professor Henry Jarrod attempts to increase funding for his wax museum. Impressed by his figures of Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette, investor Sydney Wallace promises to finance his enterprise when he returns from traveling in a few months time.
However, this isn’t acceptable to Jarrod’s original investor, Matthew Burke, who’s under pressure and looking for a quick buyout. When his idea of introducing a chamber of horrors is rejected, he reckons his best bet is to set the place on fire and claim the insurance money. This he does with gleeful aplomb, and, pretty soon, the entire building is ablaze.
Horrified, Jarrod tries to stop him, but in the end he’s forced to watch as his beloved creations melt and the burning house falls down around him. For him, this is the end, or is it?
Eighteen months later we witness Burke, flush with all the insurance money, impressing his girlfriend at a local club. But on arriving home he is savagely accosted by a disfigured man dressed in black who overpowers him and throws him down the nearby lift shaft. With no witnesses, hey, it sure looks like suicide, doesn’t it? As for the attacker, a glimpse of his ruined face points to his identity, and at this moment we can be somewhat sympathetic. All his work destroyed and his ability to sculpt gone, he could be forgiven for taking revenge on the scurrilous perpetrator of his misfortune.
But then we get to know a little more about Burke’s erstwhile girlfriend Cathy and her best pal, Sue. This is where the tragic story begins to spiral into a true tale of horror. Cathy is off on a date with a mystery man while Sue is going out to find a job that will help pay the rent. Later, having been unsuccessful in her search, Sue returns to the girls’ lodgings and discovers Cathy lying dead from strangulation and her terrifying murderer still at the scene.
So, at this point maybe we should ask: When does a man become a monster? Ultimately, in this particular case, it isn’t the disfigurement or the initial act of revenge. Instead, it emerges via Jarrod’s dogged determination, regardless that he will never sculpt again, to build an illusion of what he has lost by any means necessary. It’s a plan involving the killing of innocents, body snatching, help from a couple of accomplices, and a driving madness that will never allow him to accept what he has lost.
Jarrod chases Sue all across town until she manages to find refuge at her beau’s house. There, she tells the family what happened, and the day after they go to the police who are sympathetic, but baffled. They also happen to mention how her friend Cathy’s body vanished from the morgue during the night, adding to similar recent disappearances that include the body of Matthew Burke and their Deputy District Attorney.
In the meantime, Professor Jarrod has put together a passable version of himself as a man in a wheelchair with permanently injured hands and a veneer on his face that hides the facial damage he suffered. In this guise he contacts investor Sydney Wallace once more and shows him his work in progress—a new waxwork museum that now includes a chamber of horrors. The actual sculpting is performed by his two assistants, and for a touch of local flavor he has included a wax figure of a local suicide, our very own Matthew Burke, whose likeness now hangs in the horror chamber.
Wallace is impressed and agrees to the funding, completely unaware of the dark side of the operation, where Henry, after eschewing his disguise, goes venturing into the streets at night, looking for new subjects, searching relentlessly for his new Marie Antoinette.
Opening night arrives, accompanied by one of the best carnival barker routines ever. Reggie Rymal’s delivery at the museum’s entrance is unexpected and mesmerizing, taking advantage of the 3D presentation of the film’s initial release, and, despite its simplicity, there’s something unnerving about a man hitting paddle balls back and forth, taking aim at museum patrons and occasionally the audience beyond the screen. It’s an act that inspires unease, setting the mood for the second half of the film.
Inside the museum, business is good. Sue and her beau Scott arrive to take a look at the new exhibit. Scott wants to meet Professor Jarrod, because he’s hoping for some tuition from the great sculptor, while Jarrod himself is holding court, being the perfect host. All seems well until Sue arrives at the statue of Joan of Arc and immediately recognizes the face of her recently murdered friend Cathy. A closer look, she sees the piercing in the wax figure’s ear and is overcome with shock, as if she is seeing her deceased friend up there and not a mere wax figure.
Her behavior does not go unnoticed, and Jerrod steps quickly into damage control, assuring those gathered that he copied Cathy’s face from a newspaper photo. But, he knows she knows. Oh, yes he does.
Not only that, but he’s considered her likeness would be perfect for his former masterpiece, Marie Antoinette. And while a sane man would lie low for a spell, Jarrod dons his black coat and hat and goes in search of his subject, breaking into her room and getting caught in the act. He quickly escapes, ducking out of sight, while everyone in the household thinks Sue simply had a nightmare. But our girl is no fool and once again she and Scott visit the police. Except there’s no evidence, and they can do nothing but remain polite and unconvinced that it’s Cathy up there on the display and not a replica forged in wax.
“Leave it to a skirt to dream up a crazy idea like that.”
However, the seeds of misgiving have been sown and the police do a little digging of their own. At the museum, one of the figures looks remarkably like their missing Deputy District Attorney. Not only that, a detective thinks he recognizes one of Jarrod’s assistants, Leon, as a parole violator. Intrigued, they bring him in for questioning, and, eventually, he confesses to helping the professor steal bodies from the morgue.
As they race to the museum, Sue is outside, waiting for Scott while he finishes his sculpting lesson for the day, and because he’s late she enters the building and wanders through the creepy, darkened displays which, as we have now surmised, have been splendidly enhanced by the recently deceased. On arriving at Joan of Arc, Sue climbs onto the podium and determinedly rips off the statue’s wig, and from now on there can be no more doubt.
But wait, who’s just arrived in his wheelchair? None other than Professor Henry Jarrod, who proceeds to stand unaided and approach with evil intent, and it is here we can introduce the final star of the show. The giant vat of boiling wax.
Like those treacherous pits of quicksand we would no doubt encounter at some point, we kids always knew there’d be a giant vat of boiling wax waiting for us in someone’s basement, and it would simply be a matter of time before one of us fell in and was horribly killed. It was the way of things, and the accompanying terror, inspired by our imaginations, probably kept us all from sneaking into places where we had no business.
As for Sue, she smashes the mask from Jarrod’s face before he carries her off into the basement in order to recreate his beloved Marie Antoinette. Scott arrives to save the day, the police arrive soon after, there’s a breaking down of doors and a huge fight that culminates in the rescue of Sue and the abrupt and messy demise of Henry Jarrod.
Arguably, one of the most disturbing scenes in the film arrives at its very end when everyone tries to laugh it off and make light of what happened: the police, some of whom almost end up in the giant vat along with the professor; Scott, who had his head shoved into the chamber of horrors guillotine and was almost decapitated by Jarrod’s second assistant, Igor. For sure, it was hilarious. But not Sue. She’s not laughing. At the very forefront of events, she now has to mourn the loss of a good friend. As for Matthew Burke, whose greed kicked off this whole shebang, I bet he isn’t laughing either.