House of Wax

For a movie with such dull clichés as a roadkill- roasting country bumpkin, a killer that won’t die, young people making stupid decisions and a town “that’s not on any map”, the new “House of Wax” could have been worse. But for anybody who has seen that kind of stuff before, and done better, this is just your basic slasher film with the volume once again cranked up to deafening levels. In the 1953 horror classic, Vincent Price played an obsessive curator with a deadly secret: he restocked his wax museum with real bodies after a fire intentionnally set by an associate destroyed his life’s work and left him badly scarred. That film rightfully became a seminal piece of horror in the spirit of the Phantom of the Opera and solidified the potential of the disfigured and/or vengeful madman as an horror icon. Now “House of Wax” is “reimagined” with a megaplex-friendly cast headlined by Elisha Cuthbert (“The Girl Next Door”), Chad Michael Murray (TV’s One Tree Hill) and Paris Hilton (“One Night in Paris”), in this new film by first-time director Jaume Collet-Serra.

Shot in the Australian countryside but set somewhere in the Louisiana sticks (no alligators appear, although it would have spiced things up), the movie introduces us to six young people on their way to a college football game in Baton Rouge. Along for the ride are twins Carly and Nick (Cuthbert and Murray), horny couple Paige and Blake (Hilton and Robert Ri’chard), Carly’s boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) and a camera-toting friend of Nick (Jon Abrahams). There’s some sibling resentment between Carly, who’s looking forward to an internship at InStyle magazine in New York City, and her rebellious brother who did time for car theft and feels his sister has been designated as the good twin.

Since Wade needs a new fan belt for his car, a scary-looking dimwit who might have been an extra on “Wrong Turn” takes him and Carly to Ambrose, a small town so desolate the road doesn’t quite get there. This fact should be a strong hint that 1) you shouldn’t stick around in these parts and 2) you might be doomed anyway. And this is what Carly starts fearing when Wade never comes out of the house he entered to go to the bathroom. She soon discovers that Ambrose has been turned into a town of wax by twin brothers with a troubled past, hinted at in a nondescript prologue, and will need to fight alongside her brother to stop the madness.

Padalecki struggles with a feebly written role, a problem that befalls several characters including the murderous brothers both played by Brian Van Holt. Hilton doesn’t look as out of place as you’d expect in this bunch while the extremely cute Cuthbert is OK as the tough chick, even though I’d still prefer Jessica Biel from TCM ’03 or Eliza Dushku from “Wrong Turn” by my side in fighting evil forces.

The ending disappointingly follows the box-office driven notion that you must leave the door open for a sequel, but the way it’s done here is especially perfunctory and unconvincing. Part of the reason why I liked “Wrong Turn” and appreciated elements of “House of a 1000 Corpses” is that they had no final twist (the former) or were at least stylish about their last images (the latter and also the ’03 version of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). But this is a secondary flaw because the script from Chad and Carey Hayes, who are twins themselves, has no shortage of stupid or stilted lines, and the role of Nick’s hang-around friend is unnecessary even by movie sidekick standards. Where the film excels is in the production design, with knife handles and a conjoined twins sculpture coming to mind, and in the out-of-control intensity of the climactic fire. There are a few nice touches of organ music at some point but it isn’t long before they get drowned out by industrial music or death metal, whatever they call this insufferable noise, leaving us with little to wax poetic about.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay