House of Wax

(2005) ** 1/2 R
105 min. Warner Brothers. Directors: Jaume Collet-Serra, Jaume Collet-Sera. Cast: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian van Holt, Paris Hilton, Jared Padalecki.

The new House of Wax, at its core, is another cynical slasher money-grab that worships at the altar of Psycho without understanding what made Hitchcock's film great: its creative redefinition of form, its characterization, its utter control of pace, sight, and sound. Now that that's out of the way, I can tell you that after White Noise, Alone in the Dark, Boogeyman, Cursed, Hide and Seek, The Ring Two, and The Amityville Horror, I was properly softened up for a horror movie that's sort of fun.

My expectations could hardly have been lower for this "reimagining" of the 1953 3-D Vincent Price House of Wax (based on Charles Belden's play "Mystery of the Wax Museum"). Producer Joel Silver had this to say about how the new film compared to the old film: "We took it further. In this story there is kind of a wax museum called the House of Wax, which is literally made of wax. So the entire building is wax." Brilliant.

Screenwriters Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes retain a couple of basic ideas: wax-coating hapless victims and skin-grafting in favor of an isolated wax mastermind (in a nod to Price, he's named "Vincent"). Beyond that, House of Wax is a roughhouse between the Hayes's dingbatty script—a kind of campfire "scary story," with all the logic that implies—and director Sera's winking and surprisingly skillful treatment of it (complete with a tongue-in-cheek tribute to filmgoers, all cast in wax at a screening of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?).

Elisha Cuthbert (The Girl Next Door) and Chad Michael Murray (A Cinderella Story) play mismatched siblings Carly and Nick Jones. He's the "evil twin" just out of jail for bad-boy behavior; she's the "good twin" looking forward to a New York move and an internship at In Style magazine (wait: maybe she's the evil twin). On a football-game road trip, the siblings are accompanied by dummies prime to be waxed up: Carly's boyfriend (Jared Padalecki), a horny couple played by Paris Hilton and Robert Ri'chard, and a heavy-lidded goofball played by Jon Abrahams.

Since the movie never moves into overt parody, the paper-thin characters are sincerely lazy and genuinely stupid, but that's par for the course for modern horror fans. They'll be happy to know that the women are dutifully scantily clad (Hilton hedges her acting bet by doing a striptease) and the wax-treatment and slasher brutality come in skin-crawling, gleefully cruel outbursts of disgusting gore. Sera delivers the goods with the kind of B-movie brio lacking in other recent horror outings (must be that "Tales of the Crypt" touch learned from Dark Castle producers Silver and Robert Zemeckis).

But it's just this sheen of wit that makes House of Wax ultimately disappointing. Did the ghost town have to be "Ambrose, Louisiana," the backwoods province of killer hillbillies, a la Wrong Turn, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cabin Fever? The stereotypical setting seems calculated to disallow the kind of bristling, evil speeches Vincent Price used to deliver. Shouldn't Silver be making House of Wax to break out of the slasher norm, and do something that's, if not different, surprising? I know, I know: the entire building is wax.

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