Color, 2005, 112 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Paris Hilton, Brian Van Holt, Jared Padalecki, Robert Ri'chard, Jon Abrahams
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Warner Bros. (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

After making its name on the horror scene with a pair of William Castle remakes starting in 1999 with House on Haunted Hill, House of Waxthe Joel Silver-controlled Dark Castle Entertainment (co-founded with Robert Zemeckis and House of WaxGilbet Adler) returned to the remake well one more time in 2005 with another Vincent Price-connected title, House of Wax. Well, that was the idea at least, as the actual film ended up bearing zero relationship to its namesake (itself a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum) apart from featuring a fiery climax involving wax figures and a killer with a tricky wax-based mask. Instead, the film was far more similar to the cult classic Tourist Trap and came with a publicity hook that turned out to be something of a mixed blessing: the first significant film role for omnipresent pop culture fixture Paris Hilton, whose reality TV reign was just kicking in around the same time. Armed with the unofficial tagline "See Paris Die" to capitalize on the backlash she was already receiving, the film is actually one of the most baroque slasher films of the era and a good deal more accomplished than anyone might have expected from the CW-friendly casting, featuring some genuinely macabre moments and a surreal climax that has to be seen to be believed. The film ended up being a strong calling card for first-time director Jaume Collet-Serra, who returned to the Dark Castle fold in 2009 with another overachieving shocker, the wonderfully twisted Orphan, before moving on to The Shallows and a string of Liam Neeson action films.

En route through via backgrounds to a football game in Louisiana, siblings Carly (Cuthbert) and jerk Nick (Murray) stop for the night to camp with their travel companions, Paige (Hilton), Wade (Padalecki), Blake (Ri'chard), and Dalton (Abrahams), only to find trouble when a stranger start to antagonize them. The next morning they find their car's House of Waxfan belt broken, so after a nasty encounter with a pit of animal remains, they end up House of Waxcatching a ride to the nearest town, Ambrose, which seems to be nearly deserted apart from the seemingly helpful Bo (Van Holt). The few functioning buildings in the desolate place are a church, a movie theater, and most prominently, a massive House of Wax exhibit filled with unsettling inanimate figures. Soon it becomes clear that the travelers' predicament is just a prelude for a murderous rest stop that will kill them off one by one.

Though it starts off like a fairly standard backwoods stalker movie for the first half hour, House of Wax really kicks into gear once everyone gets to the town and the story really makes the most of its eerie setting. Even the daylight portions are creepy including a strange funeral held in the church, which is later outdone with a clever sequence inside the theater for an unorthodox screening of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Considering all the flack she got at the time, Hilton is actually perfectly fine as the film's second female lead and gets in a couple of solid scream queen moments, with Cuthbert making for a fine protagonist and going through some pretty rigorous physical challenges over the course of the film. If any actor is an issue here it's Murray, whose character is such unsympathetic dead weight that it's an awfully big hurdle when the film tries to get you to root for him later on; much better are Supernatural's Padalecki, who was on something of a horror remake kick between this and 2009's Friday the 13th, and Ri'chard, a likable presence who could've used more screen time. Van Holt is also effective in what turns out to be a dual role, basically doing an updated riff on Chuck Connors for obvious reasons. Also noteworthy is the grandiose score by John Ottman, who had been with Dark Castle since Gothika and went on to win an Oscar as an editor for salvaging Bohemian Rhapsody. The film definitely isn't perfect, mainly a last House of Waxsecond twist(?) ending that seems like an afterthought left over from an earlier script draft, but it's a House of Waxspooky good time that deserves more credit than it's gotten.

As with its fellow Dark Castle films, House of Wax got the special edition treatment back in 2006 when it hit DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Bros., then later included as one of those bargain Blu-ray twofers with Thirteen Ghosts (or Thir13en Ghosts, as it was weirdly promoted) and again in 2012 as a Blu-ray triple feature with Ghost Ship and Return to House on Haunted Hill. In 2021, Scream Factory revisited the film with a greatly expanded Blu-ray special edition (including the usual limited offer with a poster) featuring a new 2K scan of the interpositive. The transfer is indeed a nice upgrade here as it restores the original 1.85:1 framing versus the older releases which were visibly cropped on the sides to 1.78:1; the color timing is also better here with a better flesh tones and more accurate greens and golds, plus a nice increase in detail with more natural fine film grain in evidence. The DTS-HD MA English 5.1 track is as good as it's always been (though obviously given more love here compared to the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 option on the earlier Warner versions) with lots of nice separation and some very boisterous rear channel activity during the last half hour. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. The video extras from the earlier Warner special edition have been ported over here starting with a split-screen B-roll and bloopers video cast commentary (26m31s) with Murray, Cuthbert, Padalecki, and Hilton having a blast sharing off the cuff stories and reactions, including a couple of unscripted interruptions. The brief "From Location" (1m32s) is an excerpt of a longer piece with Joel Silver on the set of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang teasing the new horror film, while "Wax On: The Design Of House Of Wax" (7m25s) features Silver, Collet-Serra, producer Susan Levin, Padalecki, executive producer Herb Gains, and production designer Graham "Grace" Walker covering the process of creating an entire town from scratch in the middle of Australia. In "A House Built On Wax: The Visual Effects Of House House of WaxOf Wax" (10m11s), Gains, Silver, Levin, Collet-Serra, and visual effects supervisor John House of WaxBreslin cover the blend of prosthetic and digital effects needed to pull off some of the wilder imagery including the real face of masked killer Vincent and the execution of a beheading sequence. A wisely discarded alternate opening (1m29s) offers a pretty limp kill gag involving a car windshield, followed by a standalone gag reel (4m42s), a reel of vintage EPK interviews (19m45s) with Cuthbert, Van Holt, Murray, Hilton, Padalecki, Ri'chard, Collet-Serra, Levin, and Silver, and the theatrical trailer.

Four substantial new featurettes have been included here; all are worth watching, though obviously the one that provides the biggest selling point is a new interview with Hilton, "Die, My Darling" (8m4s), which is actually really charming as she enthusiastically recalls shooting in Australia, her family-like rapport with her fellow actors, the clever tactic her director took to help her get over her self-consciousness screaming on camera, and the debate over whether she could wear red high heels during her big chase scene. In "The Tale Of Blake And Paige" (5m22s), Ri’chard also has very warm memories of the shoot including the casting process and his take on his fellow actors, particularly the good rapport he had with Hilton since they spent pretty much all of their screen time together. Then Ottman appears via Zoom for "Organ Grinder (6m1s)" to explain his approach to scoring the film, mixing subdued atonal compositions with more traditional symphonic moments of bombast where they were necessary. Finally in "To Me, They Live And Breathe" (9m2s), makeup effects artist Jason Baird chats over Zoom (in a very dark room) about working as a prosthetic effects supervisor and wax body supervisor on the film, dealing with both actual wax figures and silicone replicas.

Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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Warner Bros. (Blu-ray)

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Reviewed on July 9, 2021