Nearly a decade has passed since the revitalization of the horror-film genre in the mid-1990s, and the dozens (hundreds?) of fright flicks loosed into multiplexes since then have exhibited a wealth of profitability … and a dearth of originality. Aiming to capitalize on the former (but still rarely improving upon the latter), studio executives are increasingly aiming their efforts at younger audiences with milder, PG-13-rated scare fare.
"House of Wax," the debut feature from Spanish-born music video director Jaume Collet-Serra, is no such lightweight. This dark, ballsy, reasonably enjoyable horror movie doesn't have a single watered-down moment within its blood-soaked 105-minute running time. It's a refreshing offer, one underscored by the film's visual style and clever plot, but damaged by awkward writing and problematic pacing.
"House of Wax" borrows its title and basic premise from a 1953 Vincent Price B-thriller, but probably bears little similarity to the earlier picture otherwise. Taking a back-roads shortcut en route from Florida to Louisiana, a group of college students on their way to a football game endure car trouble and wander to the ghost town of Ambrose, the only community nearby. While waiting for a mechanic, a couple —Wade (Jared Padalecki, "Gilmore Girls") and Carly (Elisha Cuthbert, "The Girl Next Door")—stumble upon an abandoned wax museum with eerily lifelike wax figures and intricate sculpturing (even the exterior of the house is made of wax). Meanwhile, the remaining members of their party, including Carly's twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray, "One Tree Hill") and the possibly pregnant Paige (Paris Hilton, "The Simple Life") press on for the game.
The film's script, from a pair of television writers, handles character development and exposition clumsily but acceptably, and then occupies the audience for a frightening length of time—nearly a full hour—until the first body hits the floor. Further, the movie's changes in tone, setting and cinematography as it alternates between the two groups, become jarring (and since the likely survivors and victims can be identified very early on, it seems useless to split the characters up like this at all).
Once everyone finds their way back to the town, though, things move along swiftly, and the tension rarely wavers. The town's secret, of course, is that its population of wax figures has been gleaned from once-living people murdered by deranged twin brothers Bo and Vincent (Brian Van Holt, "Black Hawk Down," in a dual performance).
The film's makeup, set design and special effects are superlative, highlighted in a handful of graphic, effective death scenes. This is a sinister, gory effort, one that delivers frequent thrills despite an otherwise rather poor screenplay. Another item of interest in "House of Wax" is the first significant film role for socialite Paris Hilton, who has had only minimal parts before. Hilton still occupies a supporting role here, and she is clearly present for little more than eye candy and star power, but she does (shockingly) act with a modicum of conviction—she can't be blamed for how silly and unrealistic her character's lines are. Additionally, Hilton gets to poke good-natured fun at herself, mocking a snippet from her infamous sex tape in one scene.
While not a very intelligent or memorable horror film (this is, ultimately, just another tale of lost youths pursued by a twisted family in an isolated area), "House of Wax" manages to be a pretty good time.
Behind the lopsided pacing and uncoordinated dialogue is a pure popcorn movie that reminds audiences why the horror genre deserves to be handled with grit and style in mind rather than marketability. Its ample violence, well-timed humor and impressive finale make it worth seeing, even if the experience melts away almost immediately afterward.