House of Wax (1953 film)

House of Wax is a 1953 American color 3-D horror thriller film, about a disfigured sculptor who repopulates his destroyed wax museum by murdering people and using their wax-coated corpses as displays. Directed by Andre DeToth and starring Vincent Price, it is a remake of Warner Bros.' Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). It premiered in New York on April 10, 1953 and began a general release on April 25, 1953.

House of Wax
Original theatrical release poster
Directed byAndre DeToth
Produced byBryan Foy
Screenplay byCrane Wilbur
Based on
The Wax Works
Music byDavid Buttolph
Edited byRudi Fehr
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • April 10, 1953 (1953-04-10) (New York)[1]
  • April 25, 1953 (1953-04-25) (US)
Running time
88 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1 million[2]
Box office$23.75 million

House of Wax was the first color 3-D feature from a major American studio and premiered just two days after the Columbia Pictures film Man in the Dark, the first major-studio black-and-white 3-D feature. It was also the first 3-D film with stereophonic sound to be presented in a regular theater.

In 1971, it was widely re-released to theaters in 3-D, with a full advertising campaign. Newly-struck prints of the film in Chris Condon's single-strip StereoVision 3-D format were used. Another major re-release occurred during the 3-D boom of the early 1980s. In 2005, Warner Bros. released a new film also called House of Wax, but its plot is very different from the two earlier films'. It received largely negative reviews from critics.

In 2014, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.[3]


Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is a talented wax figure sculptor with a wax museum in early 1900s New York City. He specializes in historical figures, featuring sculptures of John Wilkes Booth, Joan of Arc, and one of Marie Antoinette, which he considers his masterpiece. When his business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) demands more sensational exhibits to increase profits, Jarrod refuses. Jarrod then gives a private tour to renowned art critic Sidney Wallace. Wallace, deeply impressed with Jarrod's sculptures, agrees to buy Burke out, but will not be able to do so until after he returns from a Continental trip.

That same night, Burke deliberately sets the museum on fire, intending to claim the insurance money. In the process, he fights off Jarrod, who is desperately attempting to save his precious sculptures. Burke splashes kerosene over Jarrod's body and leaves him to die in the fire.

Miraculously, Jarrod survives, but with severe injuries including crippled hands and uses a wheelchair. He builds a new House of Wax with help from deaf-mute sculptor Igor (Charles Bronson) and another assistant named Leon Averill. Jarrod now concedes to popular taste and includes a "Chamber of Horrors" that showcases both historical crimes (beheading of Anne Boleyn; Charlotte Corday; Anne Askew; Jean-Paul Marat) and recent events, (such as the execution 12 years before of William Kemmler) and the apparent suicide of his former business partner Burke. In reality, Burke was murdered by a cloaked, disfigured killer who then staged the death as a suicide. Burke's fiancée, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), is murdered soon afterward. Her body mysteriously disappears from the morgue.

Cathy’s friend Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), who found Cathy's body and saw the murderer, visits the museum and is troubled by the strong resemblance of the wax Joan of Arc figure to her dead friend. Jarrod explains he used photographs of Cathy when he made the sculpture. Unsatisfied, Sue returns after hours and uncovers the horrifying truth behind the House of Wax: many of the figures are wax-coated corpses, including Cathy and Burke. Sue is confronted by Jarrod, who can walk very well and only pretended to be crippled. He proclaims her his new "model" for a sculpture of Marie Antoinette (both Jarrod and Wallace had earlier noted Sue's striking resemblance to the original sculpture). Sue tries to fight him off, hitting his face, which is revealed to be a wax mask that shatters and exposes fire-scarred flesh beneath; this in turn reveals that it was Jarrod who was the cloaked figure who murdered Burke and stole Cathy's body. He subdues Sue and straps her to a table, preparing to coat her living body with wax. The police, having learned the whole truth from Averill, arrive in time to save her. Jarrod tries to escape, but, fighting with a police officer, dies when he is knocked into the vat of molten wax he had prepared for Sue.



House of Wax, filmed under the working title The Wax Works, was Warner Bros.' answer to the surprise 3-D hit Bwana Devil, an independent production that premiered the previous November. Seeing promise in 3-D's future, Warner Bros. contracted Julian and Milton Gunzburg's Natural Vision 3-D system, the same one used for Bwana Devil, and filmed a remake of their thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which was based on Charles S. Belden's three-act play, The Wax Works. Among the significant changes: the earlier film was set in the year it was released (1933) whereas House of Wax was moved back to circa 1902; the entire newspaper angle in the earlier film and the characters played by Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh were eliminated; and while the masked figure was only seen sparingly in Mystery, he is shown early and often in this remake.

Among the foregrounded uses of 3-D in the film were scenes featuring a wax museum fire, can-can girls, and a paddleball-wielding pitchman. In what may be the film's cleverest and most startling 3-D effect, the shadowy figure of one of the characters seems to spring up out of the theater audience and run into the screen. Director Andre DeToth was blind in one eye and unable to experience stereo vision or 3-D effects. "It’s one of the great Hollywood stories," Vincent Price recalled. "When they wanted a director for [a 3-D] film, they hired a man who couldn’t see 3-D at all! André de Toth was a very good director, but he really was the wrong director for 3-D. He’d go to the rushes and say, 'Why is everybody so excited about this?' It didn’t mean anything to him. But he made a good picture, a good thriller. He was largely responsible for the success of the picture. The 3-D tricks just happened—there weren’t a lot of them. Later on, they threw everything at everybody."[4] Indeed, some modern critics agree that DeToth's inability to see the depth is what makes the film superior, as he was more concerned with telling a thrilling story and believable performances from the actors than simply tossing things at the camera.


House of Wax was one of the biggest hits of 1953, topping the charts for 5 weeks[5] and earning an estimated $5.5 million in rentals from the North American box office alone.[6] To accompany its stereoscopic imagery, House of Wax was originally available with a stereophonic three-track magnetic soundtrack, although many theaters were not equipped to make use of it and defaulted to the standard monophonic optical soundtrack. Previously, films with stereo sound were only produced to be shown in specialty cinemas, such as the Toldi in Budapest and the Telecinema in London.[7][8] Only the monophonic soundtrack and a separate sound-effects-only track were said to have survived. As of 2013, no copy of the original three-channel stereo soundtrack is known to exist. A new stereo soundtrack has recently been synthesized from the available source material.

The 3D screenings of the film included an intermission, which was necessary to change the film's reels, because each projector of the theater's two projectors was dedicated to one of the stereoscopic images.[9]


Initial reception

Early reviews were mixed to negative. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times found the film "disappointing," writing: "this picture, apart entirely from the fact that it is baldly, unbelievably antique in its melodramatic plot and style, shows little or no imagination in the use of stereoscopic images and nothing but loudness and confusion in the use of so-called stereoscopic sound. The impression we get is that its makers were simply and solely interested in getting a flashy sensation on the screen just as fast as they could."[10] Variety was considerably more excited, writing: "This picture will knock 'em for a ghoul. Warners' House of Wax is the post-midcentury Jazz Singer. What the freres and Al Jolson did to sound, the Warners have repeated in third dimension."[11] Harrison's Reports called the film "a first-class thriller of its kind," and "the best 3-D picture yet made," though it felt that "the added value of depth is not significant enough to warrant the annoyance of viewing the proceedings through the polaroid glasses, and that the picture would have been as much of a chiller if shown in the standard 2-D form, and probably even a greater thriller if shown on a wide screen."[12] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that as a 3-D film it was "a smoother effort than its predecessors, obviously made with more care and less tiring to the eyes," but that "In all but technical respects, the film is a childish and inept piece of work."[13] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post opined: "It's supposed to be a horror movie and it's horrible alright ... The novelty has some appeal especially through its long shots into depths, but there is also a feeling of limitations once what novelty there is passes. Then it is we go back to the gaga script devised by Crane Wilbur from a story which served one of the early talking films and one is inclined to shudderingly ask: Are we to go through all that again?"[14] John McCarten of The New Yorker also hated the film, writing that he thought it had "set the movies back about forty-nine years. It could have set them back further if there had been anything earlier to set them back to," concluding that "when Mr. Price started clumping around and choking ladies with knots that wouldn't pass muster at a Cub Scout meeting, I took off my glasses once and for all, put on my hat, and left."[15]

Later Reception

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 95% based on 39 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 7.6/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "House of Wax is a 3-D horror delight that combines the atmospheric eerieness of the wax museum with the always chilling presence of Vincent Price."[16]


House of Wax revitalized the film career of Vincent Price, who had been playing secondary character parts and occasional sympathetic leads since the late 1930s. After this high-profile role, Price was in high demand to play fiendish villains, mad scientists and assorted other deranged characters in genre films such as The Tingler, The Masque of the Red Death and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Supporting player Carolyn Jones, whose career had barely begun when she appeared in House of Wax, gained a much higher profile more than a decade later in the TV comedy horror spoof The Addams Family as Morticia Addams.

Home media releases

  • House of Wax was released in 2-D on DVD by Warner Bros. Home Video on August 5, 2003. As a bonus, the DVD included Mystery of the Wax Museum, the 1933 version of the story, starring Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill, and filmed in the early two-color version of the Technicolor process.
  • A 3-D Blu-ray disc was released in the US on October 1, 2013 to celebrate the film's 60th anniversary. Like the DVD, it includes the original 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum.[17]

See also


  1. "House of Wax". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved June 22, 2018.
  2. "House of Wax (1953) - Box Office Mojo".
  3. "New Films Added to National Registry - News Releases - Library of Congress". Retrieved November 1, 2016.
  4. Steve Biodrowski "House of Wax (1953) – A Retrospective", Cinefantastique website; accessed November 1, 2016.
  5. "National Boxoffice Survey". Variety. May 27, 1953. p. 3. Retrieved September 23, 2019 via
  6. "Top Grossers of 1953". Variety. January 13, 1954. p. 10.
  7. Eddie Sammons, The World of 3-D Movies, Delphi, 1992 p 32
  8. R.M. Hayes, 3-D movies: a history and filmography of stereoscopic cinema, McFarland & Company, 1989 p 42
  9. Hefferman, Kevin (2004). Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business. Duke University Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0822332152. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
  10. Crowther, Bosley (April 19, 1953). "Cacophony In 3-D". The New York Times: Section 2, p. X1.
  11. "House of Wax". Variety: 6. April 15, 1953.
  12. "'House of Wax' with Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy and Phyllis Kirk". Harrison's Reports: 62. April 18, 1953.
  13. "House of Wax". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 20 (233): 84. June 1953.
  14. Coe, Richard L. (April 24, 1953). "'House of Wax' or Fun at the Morgue". The Washington Post: 36.
  15. McCarten, John (April 18, 1953). "The New Yorker": 133–134. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. "House of Wax (1953) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Flixer. Retrieved July 13, 2018.
  17. House of Wax (1953). 3D Blu-ray (June 03, 2013). Retrieved August 24, 2013
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