House of Wax (2005):
So as we edge even closer to Halloween, it’s time to explore another subgenre of horror movies: the teen slasher. The plot is incredibly simple and paint-by-numbers. We have a group of teenagers or else young twenty-somethings. For whatever reason, they’re up to no good (drinking, cursing, underage sex). This leaves them as easy prey for some crazy killer on the loose. The teens will be picked off one-by-one in various creative ways. And eventually only the virginal Final Girl will be able to defeat the killer. My attitude to the following film is alarmingly like the one I have to Van Helsing. I’ve been a lover of slasher films for ages – Scream, Halloween, April Fool’s Day and I Know What You Did Last Summer being some of my favourites. So it’s quite weird that this film was the first slasher I ever saw. I watched this one not knowing the clichés or the formula. This of all things was the film that kicked off my love of slashers.
The plot of course has the twenty-somethings. We’ll sound them off with a role call:
The kids are on their way to a college football game. They camp on the side of the road for a night and wake up to find one of the cars damaged. Wade and Carly take a stroll to the nearest town to get the necessary equipment. While there, they check out the town’s main attraction: Trudy’s House of Wax. Literally everything inside is built out of wax. And the models themselves are so lifelike – almost disturbingly so. Of course little do the hot young twenty-somethings know – two brothers are planning to make them permanent additions to the museum.
This is another of those films I review that has an odd stigma hanging over it; it’s got a reputation for being one of the worst horror films ever. It got three Razzie Award nominations – for Worst Picture, Worst Remake or Sequel and Worst Actress (no prizes for guessing who). While I’d hardly got out of my way to call this a classic, I have to ask ‘really?’
Seriously, why do people hate this movie that much? Bad acting? I felt the performances were quite solid all around. Predictable plot? Aside from a handful of teen slasher clichés, this has a few fresh ideas. Badly made? The film had a sizable budget and used it well in my opinion. Is it seriously hated because Paris Hilton has a role in it? Ok we’ll get down to analysing that later on.
Although the film is technically a remake of an obscure Vincent Price film from the 50s – it has very little in common with it. The film owes far more to a 70s B-movie called Tourist Trap. I mentioned that it was my introduction to the slasher genre. So you can imagine that 14-year-old me was actually really getting into the suspense of it all. Although I had a sneaking suspicion of how it would go, little Bobby was doing the whole “no, don’t go in there!” thing at the screen. After a handful of other slasher movies down the line – and Scream pointing out the formula for me – I knew what to expect from movies like this. But since this movie was made in 2005 and not 1985, it’s not as formulaic as a slasher from that era. It follows a formula closer to those of the post-modern horror films from the early 00s. For one, the characters are a little less stock, if you get my drift.
Carly is essentially our Final Girl. But she doesn’t exactly follow the rules laid out for one. While she is the responsible one of the group, she still drinks and joins in the fun with the rest of them. She also has a steady boyfriend – and the film doesn’t pretend that the two are virgins. Meanwhile Paige would be the ‘slutty girl’ in any other slasher film. However she’s not that different from Carly. Aside from performing a striptease for her boyfriend, she’s not that slutty. In fact, she gets killed off moments after she decides that she *won’t* have sex that night. Likewise Wade is built up as a major protagonist in the film. Anyone savvy on slasher clichés would have him down as an obvious survivor. So it should come as a surprise that he gets killed off first. Nick would also be an obvious stock villain in the 80s – the bad boy dickhead. But here he survives until the end. Blake and Dalton don’t have much character. But they are both entertaining and their actors do a decent job. So the movie gets a lot of props for not giving us a bucket load of clichéd stock characters. They actually put effort into the characterisation and personalities. The teens come across as semi-realistic people. They’re also not as annoying or despicable as most slasher teens tend to be.
The only part of the film I don’t like would be the opening scenes. TV Tropes formerly called this ‘Twenty Minutes With Jerks’ but has now renamed it to the more generous ‘Developing Doomed Characters’. While the teens aren’t annoying (they’re actually pretty funny in parts), a little too much time is spent developing them. I mean, do we really need such a focus on Nick’s supposed dislike of Wade? Or is there any need for a subplot about Nick supposedly crashing a stolen car prior to the movie’s beginning? Some of the intro actually does help to make the teens function as characters – Carly and Nick’s rivalry, Paige’s pregnancy scare, Wade not wanting to move to New York. However it just runs on for a long time. And in this movie in particular, the killer doesn’t strike for a while. The film spends time building up a creepy atmosphere and establishing a spooky setting. Getting to know the characters alongside that happening would have done the job fine.
We have a rather surprising cast of reasonably known actors as our protagonists. Four out of the six teens were recognisable names in some way, and each of them played against their usual type. Elisha Cuthbert as Carly was known as Kim Bauer from 24 and had just come off her career-defining role in The Girl Next Door. So after bursting onto the scene as a porn star, playing the more modest Final Girl was a wise move to avoid typecasting. Cuthbert definitely makes for a strong lead, since she’s a bit more fun than the archetypal Final Girl. Despite being an obvious survivor, she’s able to make you sympathise with her character and feel some amount of tension whenever she’s in danger. Chad Michael Murray was coming off One Tree Hill and A Cinderella Story, so he was making the switch from teen heartthrob to teen delinquent. Although I didn’t like the excessive focus on the tension between Nick and Wade, Murray does a nice job of helping us like this rather rebellious dickhead. Nick actually feels like a character rather than a cookie-cutter misunderstood bad boy. Though I don’t think I’m the only one who picked up rather a lot of odd subtext between him and Carly. The film’s underlying arc is about the twins reconnecting after years of emotional abuse from their parents. But a lot of the time it does feel like there’s a slight romantic edge. The fact that Carly’s boyfriend is killed off early on and Nick is the one that comes to her rescue only amplifies this. It almost feels as if you could eliminate the twin subplot and make Nick into Carly’s ex-boyfriend without changing the story too much.
Outside the proto Justin and Alex Russo, Jared Padalecki plays Carly’s boyfriend Wade. Like Murray, he was just coming off a stint in Gilmore Girls and movies like New York Minute. So he was transitioning from teen heartthrob roles into something…else. Despite the questionable undertones between Nick and Carly, Padalecki’s Wade has good chemistry with Cuthbert. They actually do feel like a believable couple, Padalecki bringing some decent comic relief to the table. So what about Ms Hilton then? How does Paris Hilton hold up in this particular film? Was she worthy of her Razzie Award? Is this movie a shining example of why she didn’t make it as an actress? Well allow me to shock you all with my super-controversial opinion…
I watch this movie objectively and not under any bias or prejudice. I don’t really have much of an opinion on Paris Hilton. The massive swarm of haters she has/had does baffle me a bit. If she were involved in sex trafficking, child porn or something actually serious then maybe I’d understand. But that’s not really the point here. Much like the film’s other three leads, she too was playing against her usual ‘type’. Essentially whenever she’d appeared in films before, she’d just done cameos or played characters who were herself. So she tries a hand at playing a small town girl worrying about an unplanned pregnancy. As I said above, she does fine. She doesn’t deliver an Oscar-worthy performance but certainly not a Razzie-worthy one either. The role isn’t challenging and she does it fine. Her chase scene is actually my favourite in the movie. It’s really well put-together and again, Paris does a fine job. None of her acting is bad at all. It’s even worth noting that her character doesn’t wander around stupidly like a lot of other victims in these types of movies. She at least attempts to call for help with the phones and grabs a pole to fight off the killer. So it seems as if the Razzie Awards were more of a cathartic thing for the public to finally direct their hate of her onto something physical. It seems that this was the very thing Paris herself was hoping – since she released a line of t-shirts displaying the film’s release date and the caption “see Paris die.” So she managed to trick massive amounts of her haters into seeing the film just so they could see her be killed off. And by doing so, she earned herself even more publicity. To this day the film is remembered because she’s in it. It may have become a forgotten B-movie but Paris Hilton somehow managed to ensure that it would be remembered in some way. And a stunt like that lends more credit to the theory that the dumb blonde persona was all an elaborate deception to gain publicity.
The film actually goes a little downhill after Paris gets killed off. It’s probably because she’s the last of the cannon fodder, leaving Carly and Nick as the only ones to go. And there’s still a good half hour left in the film after she bites it. I’ve always felt that it’s too dangerous to kill off most of your cast too soon. When there’s no one left to be killed, there’s no suspense. As it was obvious that Carly would survive, the extended scenes of her and Nick getting chased don’t really have high enough tension. While Nick surviving was admittedly up in the air, the film makes a mistake by killing off Wade, Dalton, Blake and Paige in such quick succession. The Final Girl should not be left alone so soon. It’s obvious that she’s going to survive, so there’s no real tension if the confrontation with the killer gets drawn out. Which this one absolutely does. While the scenes are good, you feel as if the film should have ended twenty minutes ago. After Paige and Blake are killed, you still have the struggle in the movie theatre, the fight in the house and the eventual climax in the wax museum. It’s very much like The House On Sorority Row – which killed off its supporting cast too quickly and the film’s climax just dragged on. It’s a shame in this case, because those scenes are actually good. I especially think the scene with Bo hunting them in the theatre while What Ever Happened To Baby Jane plays is nice and suspenseful.
So how does House of Wax hold up with the stream of slasher remakes in the 2000s? Comparing it to the likes of Black Christmas, Sorority Row, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street etc. – House of Wax is a step ahead of the game. It probably helps that the movie it was remaking wasn’t that well-known in the first place and actually had more interesting ideas other than a killer stalking teenagers. It definitely has a few issues in the overlong introduction and the overlong climax, but it’s still quite decent. Paris Hilton is nowhere near as bad as some people made her out to be. Roger Ebert himself said that Paris simply played a character who got horribly killed, in slasher movie tradition. All the rest of the cast did adequate jobs too. Brian Van Holt made for a slightly more personal killer than we’re used to. Overall it’s not a stellar film but it was interesting enough for me to want to see more of the slasher genre. My final rating is a 6/10 – with some fine-tuning in the writing and editing, this could have been one of the modern slasher greats.