Hear Us Out

Hear Us Out: House of Wax Is The Hidden Gem of 2000s Horror

On its 15th anniversary, we're looking back the underrated slasher that packs in big shocks, great design, and a good Paris Hilton performance. Yes, we said it.

by | May 5, 2020 | Comments

House of Wax

(Photo by © Warner Brothers)

Hear Us Out is a semi-regular column in which guest contributors and editors venture forth a take that’s sure to get fans talking. 

It’s been 15 years since Warner Brothers’ remake of House of Wax arrived in American theaters, gave slasher fans the brief thrill of seeing Paris Hilton speared through the head with a metal pipe, and quickly melted from people’s memories to live in obscurity with most of the 2000s’ horror output. The movie, directed by Jaume Collett-Sera – who went on to make bats–t killer-“kid” movie Orphan, a bunch of Liam Neeson action flicks, and Disney’s upcoming Jungle Cruise was largely lashed by critics (its Tomatometer is 26%) and ignored by audiences. To the extent that it comes up in conversation, it’s mostly thanks to Hilton and her gory on-screen demise.

On the anniversary of its May 6, 2005 release, we think the movie – and yes, even Hilton’s turn in it – deserves a second look. (And if you’re anything like this writer, a third, fourth, and fifth.) The 2000s was a mostly rough time for studio horror, especially slashers. The decade had its bright spots, though they often weren’t recognized as such at the time: The Strangers and the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes were neither hits nor critical darlings upon release, but have taken on cult status as audiences discovered their sinister charms over the years. House of Wax is due for a similar rediscovery.

The movie is only a very loose remake of the 1953 Vincent Price film of the same name, which surely put the critics off right from the outset; there is a disfigured killer murdering people to use in wax displays, and there is a museum, but the similarities are faint-to-nonexistent from there. The 2005 House of Wax is actually more a reworking of 1979’s Tourist Trap, a far less revered property. A group of road-tripping teens is divided when one of their cars runs into trouble and a couple of them go searching for help only to discover a deserted town with a very strange old museum at its center. Cue the demented murder-twins-slash-wax-artists.

It’s hardly original stuff – a kinda remake of one movie and reworking of another, all stitched together with a bunch of cliches – but the execution is thrilling. Here are just five reasons why you should take the time to revisit this house, or dare enter for the first time.


DIRECTOR JAUME COLLETT-SERA KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING

House of Wax

(Photo by © Warner Brothers)

Since House of Wax, director Collett-Sera has made a reputation for doing a whole lot with not much. His Liam Neeson films – UnknownThe CommuterNon-StopRun All Night – always feel a cut above the average action programmer, and he managed to direct Orphan – yes, the one in which the kid turns out to be a 33-year-old prostitute – into near-Fresh territory (its Tomatometer is 56%). He shows his skill with elevating thin material throughout House of Wax, playing with once-tired slasher tropes like stalker cam to gleefully suspenseful ends. A scene set inside a movie theater, in which Final Girl Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) hides among wax figures, is expertly crafted nail-biting stuff. Also, Collett-Sera has a great eye for casting: the creepy truck driver we meet early on is played by Damon Herriman, who would go on to impress as Dewey Crowe in Justified and blow minds as Charles Manson in Mindhnunter


THE PRODUCTION DESIGN IS INNOVATIVE AND GENUINELY CREEPY

House of Wax

(Photo by © Warner Brothers)

A movie titled House of Wax lives or dies by its titular location: Audiences walk in expecting a creepy-as-hell museum made of wax – it’s why they ponied up to the box office in the first place – so you sure as hell better give it to them. Collett-Sera and the production designers deliver, and then some, with not just a house of wax, but an entire town. The central museum is an inspired house of horrors, entirely made of wax, with a smooth Art Deco exterior, threatening gallery rooms inside, and a memorable warren of tunnels and dungeons below, their walls lined with wax-covered bodies for maximum freakout effect. The finale, in which the entire museum melts down like a giant candle, is wonderfully realized, with Cuthbert and co-star Chad Michael Murray sinking into soupy stairs and a soupier bed as they escape their stalker – the wax in the scene is actually peanut butter – before clawing their way out through the building’s softening exterior walls.

The town of Ambrose itself is unlike the usual tiny towns that slasher victims discover on their ill-advised short cuts; it feels self-consciously Art Deco and eerily well-preserved, like a section of a theme park playing at being classic, a place that is hiding from the world rather than forgotten by it. The vibe comes courtesy of producer Joel Silver, who directed the production designers to take inspiration from the Eritrean capital of Asmara, which is known for Modernist buildings built by Italian colonizers in the 1930s.


IT DELIVERS MEMORABLE SLASHER AND TORTURE-PORN MOMENTS

House of Wax

(Photo by © Warner Brothers)

House of Wax arrived at a strange time for studio horror, and by most people’s assessments, not a time particularly marked by quality output. The slasher revival kicked off by Scream in the mid-to-late 1990s had not really delivered a “revival” at all, with imitators from I Know What You Did Last Summer to Urban Legend offering such diminishing returns that audiences stopped showing interest. Meanwhile, “torture porn” had officially arrived, buzz-saws and head cages in tow: just six months after House of Wax was released, the second Saw movie opened, and a few months after that Eli Roth’s Hostel took things up a notch.

Wax was one of a few mid-2000s slasher remakes with a town-of-hicks angle – The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre among them – that tried to straddle both genres, mixing scenes of knife-wielding maniacs chasing girls up (sometimes melty) stairs with scenes of young hot things trapped in metal contraptions and tortured. And the film managed to conjure memorable moments in both styles. We’ll never forget the genuinely suspenseful sequence in which Carly, trapped underground with her lips glued shut, tries to get her brother’s attention by waving a finger at him through a metal grate in the floor, only to have maniacal Bo snip it off with cutting pliers. Just as memorable: Moments later, Carly rips apart those glued-together lips to scream for help. (Cuthbert insisted the production use real glue on set – though it was a softer variety than Crazy Glue.)

Equally, torture-porn set pieces devoted to the art of turning a young tourist into a wax figure linger, with Collett-Sera sparing us no detail as Jared Padalecki’s Wade is injected with a paralyzing agent, stripped of his hair, set up in a hilariously elaborate gothic device, and blasted with boiling wax.


PARIS HILTON DOESN’T EMBARRASS HERSELF – IN FACT, SHE’S GOOD

House of Wax

(Photo by © Warner Brothers)

Of course, the most memorable moment in House of Wax belongs to then ubiquitous socialite Paris Hilton, who – after a satisfying chase scene – is impaled by a metal pole thrown at her like a javelin. Warner Brothers’ marketing had gone out with the slogan “See Paris Die!” and Collett-Sera made sure to fulfill the promise, keeping his camera trained on the actress as her head – or at least a prop version of it – slides down the pole. Like videos of wet sand or slime on YouTube, it’s “oddly satisfying” to watch.

The thing that often gets lost in the focus on Hilton’s big death scene, though, is that she’s actually pretty good as Paige in the scenes that require her to do more than scream and run for her life in red lingerie. (Yes, she dies in her knickers.) Like, well, Paris Hilton herself, the character of Paige is detached and narcissistic, but there’s something fascinating about her – a flatness that draws you on. She’s also given a bit more story than the slasher sidekick blonde often is, and when called for it, she shows a sharp sense of humor about herself and her public persona. (Side note: Hilton was totally on board with the “See Paris die!” tagline, and even asked WB if she could make T-shirts with the slogan herself.)


IT’S AN UNINTENTIONAL LOVE LETTER TO THE 2000s IN THE MOST COMFORTING WAY

House of Wax

(Photo by © Warner Brothers)

And not just because of the Paris factor. Like the town of Ambrose itself, House of Wax is a time capsule, and watching it today is strangely comforting – especially if you’re longing for the simpler days of playing Snake 2 on your NOKIA. The movie came out just before technology evolved to a level where a plot like this would strain credulity (OK, strain credulity even more than it already does): there’s no smart phone GPS to instantly tell them where they’re lost; no Waze to tell the secondary players how to get to the stadium and avoid the traffic jam; no quick and easy way to Google what the hell happened in this town of Ambrose; no Yelp! to discover the presumably awful reviews this museum has been getting. Instead we have old-school flip phones, wielded by the stars of some of the MOST mid-2000s TV shows: Cuthbert of 24; Padalecki of Gilmore Girls; Murray of One Tree Hill.

And velour tracksuits (guess who?). And in a glorious final flourish, My Chemical Romance over the credits. The only thing House of Wax is missing is a pair of blood-splattered UGGs.

But then it would be perfect, and imperfection is a big part of this slasher gem’s charm.

House of Wax was released on May 6, 2005. Buy or rent it on FandangoNOW, Vudu, Amazon, YouTube, or iTunes

#1

House of Wax (2005)
26%

#1
Adjusted Score: 31.101%
Critics Consensus: Bearing little resemblance to the 1953 original, House of Wax is a formulaic but better-than-average teen slasher flick.
Synopsis: A road trip to the biggest college football championship of the year takes a turn for the worse for Carly,... [More]
Directed By: Jaume Collet-Serra

Liked this piece? Vote for Rotten Tomatoes for Best Website (Entertainment) and Best Social (Entertainment) in the Webby Awards

Tag Cloud

spanish language golden globe awards movie transformers TCA YouTube hidden camera Freeform teaser Comedy Central TBS CBS All Access hollywood Countdown Comedy The Walt Disney Company Netflix Christmas movies Britbox political drama monster movies Disney Plus venice Sci-Fi jurassic park Musical SDCC Mary poppins Binge Guide documentaries Apple TV Plus target Best and Worst Netflix Crunchyroll CNN IFC Disney Tomatazos Turner Classic Movies fresh Television Academy james bond crime thriller superhero PaleyFest binge witnail medical drama cats 2015 E! The Academy BET Awards Showtime comic books First Look 71st Emmy Awards Grammys slashers Mary Tyler Moore Disney Channel heist movie space LGBTQ anime Pet Sematary foreign hispanic south america TV Apple San Diego Comic-Con docuseries dceu french twilight scorecard President Biopics classics Amazon Studios Red Carpet Anna Paquin reviews video criterion cancelled History Sneak Peek book adaptation australia HBO 2017 Discovery Channel versus Hallmark X-Men Captain marvel television streaming movies 2019 composers supernatural Heroines kong TV movies what to watch Infographic justice league MTV Paramount Pixar Awards Tour Sundance TV vampires Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ESPN prank Valentine's Day travel breaking bad cancelled television Animation new star wars movies telelvision comics Ovation Amazon Polls and Games war Calendar NBC disaster elevated horror Fantasy CMT The Witch Food Network Cannes based on movie Paramount Plus Nickelodeon psycho blockbusters all-time theme song Superheroes Sony Pictures 24 frames festival Elton John series Trophy Talk stop motion jamie lee curtis Superheroe rotten Fall TV Video Games Disney streaming service TV One Lionsgate ABC Family SundanceTV asian-american HBO Go Family thriller scene in color Spring TV streaming mockumentary women Tumblr Spectrum Originals Emmy Nominations Epix Television Critics Association BBC America zombies SXSW Paramount Network werewolf Black Mirror Emmys cooking sitcom 45 Nominations Pop TV Classic Film BET casting Travel Channel hist saw Broadway BBC cults TLC game of thrones Marathons GIFs obituary A&E 2016 reboot 2021 science fiction Interview 20th Century Fox 007 Chilling Adventures of Sabrina concert American Society of Cinematographers The Arrangement universal monsters free movies TruTV A24 PlayStation Ghostbusters Logo Esquire Nat Geo Pride Month award winner technology children's TV unscripted 2018 live action Summer spider-man canceled TV shows ViacomCBS Action Stephen King Dark Horse Comics kids Lifetime Christmas movies Photos international Country cancelled TV shows tv talk Lifetime Pacific Islander remakes rom-coms doctor who 93rd Oscars Marvel Television sequels IFC Films blockbuster ABC indie YA 72 Emmy Awards Avengers nfl VH1 TCM Film Festival Rocketman Premiere Dates nature screenings Universal romance period drama robots RT21 adaptation HBO Max Opinion sequel Masterpiece news football YouTube Red singing competition Writers Guild of America Ellie Kemper First Reviews Martial Arts MCU Alien Election revenge pirates of the caribbean GLAAD Spike kaiju new zealand New York Comic Con Shudder boxoffice nbcuniversal cartoon natural history Christmas E3 zombie police drama Star Trek GoT Reality Competition rt archives BBC One ratings italian DC Comics Song of Ice and Fire satire Fox News Tarantino comedies National Geographic sag awards biography Hallmark Christmas movies WGN documentary aapi FXX Schedule joker crime Musicals CW Seed Trailer ITV richard e. Grant Sundance Now DirecTV Pirates Mudbound 4/20 trailers deadpool black popular FOX dc Acorn TV Vudu emmy awards The Walking Dead true crime USA Network OneApp Western Mindy Kaling Winter TV YouTube Premium DC streaming service dogs batman Women's History Month TCA 2017 Crackle discovery MSNBC Mystery RT History parents Character Guide Hear Us Out spain green book Brie Larson archives FX on Hulu Cosplay critics stand-up comedy cars Reality politics TV renewals Adult Swim Funimation Apple TV+ quibi Walt Disney Pictures mutant USA Podcast Box Office comic die hard spanish directors Peacock Rock TCA Awards laika crime drama DGA worst movies VICE serial killer Watching Series Turner franchise 99% spy thriller screen actors guild Syfy Toys ghosts Holiday lord of the rings Film crossover facebook blaxploitation Drama a nightmare on elm street Holidays Exclusive Video psychological thriller PBS OWN Lucasfilm high school LGBT TCA Winter 2020 toronto Comics on TV Horror renewed TV shows Marvel halloween tv ABC Signature 2020 new york finale The CW zero dark thirty Black History Month stoner independent The Purge Amazon Prime Video romantic comedy know your critic Quiz Kids & Family docudrama Oscars Rom-Com Certified Fresh ID VOD festivals 21st Century Fox Marvel Studios Teen Amazon Prime TNT Hulu Year in Review Star Wars book Chernobyl boxing latino marvel cinematic universe halloween dark chucky spinoff superman Pop sports japanese animated razzies cinemax miniseries Legendary 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards cancelled TV series toy story scary movies Endgame Bravo DC Universe Warner Bros. golden globes Starz Sundance APB Academy Awards Comic Book worst WarnerMedia Fox Searchlight BAFTA Trivia game show comiccon Baby Yoda adventure Winners Shondaland anthology Rocky dragons name the review indiana jones Super Bowl diversity Columbia Pictures social media Arrowverse aliens TIFF AMC films historical drama Image Comics Music fast and furious NYCC Cartoon Network See It Skip It child's play mission: impossible dramedy christmas movies cops Creative Arts Emmys rotten movies we love talk show harry potter best movies strong female leads canceled Mary Poppins Returns video on demand CBS godzilla El Rey Set visit king kong TV Land FX Disney+ Disney Plus Thanksgiving Tubi Extras Awards