Thursday, May 05, 2005

REVIEW: House of Wax

The ultimate confirmation that "House of Wax" has no intention of living up to even the bare-minimum of dubious entertainment potential ingrained in the DNA of all B-grade slasher entries comes about an hour into the enterprise, when heavily-hyped guest star Paris Hilton comences with the film's first (and only) striptease and only makes it down to her undies. Did she suddenly get shy!?

Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis' "Dark Castle" production imprint was founded on the principal of making films exactly like this, i.e. high-end B-horror flicks in the spirit of an occasionally remade from the works of 1950s ballyhoo champ William Castle. The company got off to a big start when their flagship entry, a quickie gored-up remake of "House on Haunted Hill" came out and wound up looking MUCH BETTER by comparison to a bloated, gore-free remake of "The Haunting" the same Summer. Similarly-enjoyable business followed in "13 Ghosts" and "Ghost Ship," but they floundered with "Gothika," an attempt to apply the formula to a "serious" thriller featuring Halle Berry right at the start of her post-Oscar freefall culminating (hopefully) with last year's "Catwoman."

"House of Wax" arrives as a back-to-formula release for Dark Castle, a remake this time not of a Castle film per-say but a similarly-gimmicky one best remembered for the lead performance of Vincent Price. It's better than "Gothika," which you may guess is not the same as saying that it's actually "good."

What appears to have happened here is that someone had a pretty damn cool idea for an amped-up modern spin on the idea of a horror movie Wax Museum, and a kicker of a final action climax that would occur in such a setting. So pleased to have happened upon these sparks of originality, said story-spinner didn't bother to do any further thinking and instead hurriedly dropped these new ideas into a standard-issue "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"-rehash, with a group of road-tripping collegiates happening upon horrorific goings-on just off the main road in swamp country.

This time around, the "goings-on" in question invole a nearly-deserted flyspeck of a town that's conspicuously the home of a huge Wax Museum with a requisite unfortunate family history, (and the fun new twist that the building itself is made entirely from wax.) You know you know where this is going, but for some reason the film allows almost a full hour to pass before anything happens. Until then, it's content to hang around the campsite with a crop of uninteresting characters, devoting a HUGE amount of time to a lame in-joke about a hanger-on's obsession with training his camcorder of Hilton (get it?) It's an amazingly long, and boring, session of character-building for characters who aren't really worth the effort.

Things don't get much better as we move into a (truncated) 2nd-act "characters split up and beg to be killed" segment, which will leave the unfortunate souls who insist on asking for logic from slasher-movie heroes pulling out more hair than usual.

Eventually, all of this DOES pick up when all the killing begins. Once about it's required job of finding inventive ways to whittle down the supporting cast, the film hits a certain entertaining stride. It ends up boasting at least two genuinely fine setpeice kills (Hilton's exit, as promised, being the high point,) a standout sequence reveling in the gooey details of turning a victim into a wax sculpture and the distinction of inflicting more specifically-nasty damage on a leading lady (Elisha Cuthbert) than most recent slasher pics.

But too much movie entirely is devoted to plugging up the various story-gaps with over-used cliches of the genre: Amber-lit industrial chambers, child-abuse flashbacks, dutch-angles, twins, facial deformities and desk drawers overflowing with expository information. Eventually there's just too much old in here for the little new to make any real impact. Yes, the last five minutes or so are excessively cool and well-executed, as you've heard, but it's not enough to make the whole film worth watching by-default.