**/**** Image B- Sound B- Extras B
starring Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth
screenplay by Neal Stevens and Richard D'Ovidio, based on the screenplay by Robb White
directed by Steve Beck
by Walter Chaw A loving family man, Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) has lost his wife and home to a fire. We learn of his backstory in a remarkably cheesy though cinematically satisfying slow 360º pan that needs to be seen to be believed. His children, Kathy (a not-scantily-clad Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts, easily the most irritating kid in a horror movie since Bob from House by the Cemetery), aren't really around for much longer than a moment of peril each before vanishing, and evil lawyer Ben Moss (JR Bourne), so pivotal in William Castle's 13 Ghosts, is now basically in town for a cup of coffee.
Down on their luck, Arthur's family is given a windfall when eccentric Uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham) is killed while catching ghosts with hyperactive psychic Rafkin (Matthew Lillard). The motherless clan is bequeathed Cyrus's glass house, which appears to be a re-imagining of Clive Barker's puzzle-box from Hellraiser in both form (infernal clockwork) and function (that opens a gate to hell). On their first night in the new house (with Ben, Rafkin, sassy nanny Maggie (Rah Digga), and spiritual Greenpeace activist Kalina (Embeth Davidtz) in tow), the doors predictably seal and the ghosts that Cyrus had collected for his nefarious purposes get loose.
Despite decent gore (that unfortunately acquires a demureness for the film's final hour--the bane of modern slasher flicks) and a few genuinely funny moments from Shalhoub and Lillard, Thir13en Ghosts is a decibel-shattering spectacle that's more empty circus than bread. ILM wizard Steve Beck's remake of Castle's schlock classic does do two things right: it casts Shalhoub as a poor schlep of a widower math teacher, and it figures out how to use Matthew Lillard in a film. As well, the underused set design is truly a marvel and some of the make-up for the titular ghosts is effective (my favourite is a mother/son pair straight out of Springer). The film's main problem, above its convenient plotting and hollow histrionics, is that only a couple of the ghosts are actually aggressive, the best being a horribly-maimed bombshell (Shawna Loyer) who's involved in the best bathtub haunting sequence since The Shining. If only three of your thirteen ghouls actually does something intimidating, that leaves ten sitting around like bored sideshow geeks between paying customers. Mostly, I'm just disappointed to not have seen the little kid with an arrow through his head go to town on Lillard using his tiny hatchet.
With a surplus of warmth and nice timing, rapper Rah Digga (in her film debut) manages to keep her dignity intact in a comic relief role, and Lillard is surprisingly restrained (meaning, for Lillard, that we don't see his tongue), delivering his dialogue with heretofore unknown verve and wit. The best line of the movie, however, is a deadpan reading of "goats" dropped dryly by Shalhoub at a pivotal moment. Probably worth a matinee for aficionados of low-reaching camp or those inclined to chart the "so it's come to this" moments of Oscar-winners (Abraham), potential Oscar-winners (Shalhoub), and bimbo ingénues who seemed to have a future, once (Elizabeth, Davidtz), Thir13en Ghosts is better than the average dead teenager movie for its relative inventiveness. But in the end, it's too infatuated with its strobe flashes and confused editing to present anything resembling a good old-fashioned titillating creep out. Originally published October 26, 2001.
HOUSE OF WAX
**/**** Image B Sound B- Extras C+
starring Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, Paris Hilton
screenplay by Chad Hayes & Cary W. Hayes
directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
by Bill Chambers Like their previous House on Haunted Hill, Ghost Ship, and Thir13en Ghosts, Dark Castle's 2005 House of Wax is an in-title-mainly remake of a horror favourite. I suppose one could argue that the first House of Wax and its own precursor, Mystery of the Wax Museum, were slasher movies, but the true inspiration for this House of Wax seems to be some mythical late-'70s/early-'80s incarnation of the material that Platinum Dunes would be champing at the bit to remake, and to which the movie shows fealty in its remarkably languid pacing. (What gives it away as a Dark Castle joint is not only its elaborate production design, but also the mid-film revelation of twisted medical experiments--mad science being the company's charmingly retro go-to bugbear.) Still, it's something of a missed opportunity: While a straightforward revisiting of the original's proto-Hammer Victorian trappings would've felt deeply anachronistic, I'd like to have seen them try.
Cast at the tail-end of the genre's rage for WB starlets figurative and literal, the film stars Elisha Cuthbert (remember her?), one-time "Gilmore girls" rivals Jared Padalecki and Chad Michael Murray (remember when Dean called Tristan "Dristan"? That was awesome), "Veronica Mars"' Robert Ri'chard and Paris Hilton, and "Boston Public"'s Jon Abrahams as the meatbags who become stranded in a ghost town where the only tourist attraction is a wax museum actually made of wax, which makes it the Chekhov's Gun of the story--you just know that fucker's gonna melt in act three. Its torching is a curiously repulsive, Dali-esque sight married to an enigmatic punchline: the film's own title, sculpted into the museum's façade, collapsing in on itself in shots lingered over as if for dramatic irony. The movie steps outside itself like this one other time, to view Hilton's character--the heroine's best friend--through the prism of Hilton's offscreen reputation as a spoiled brat and sex-tape siren. Thus, lots of meta winking as she's stalked by a camcorder and caught in compromising positions, culminating in a viewfinder image of her corpse from the killer's P.O.V.--an angle with pornographic overtones beyond its content proper (she has a long sword through her head which her impaler "pulls out"), though I hasten to add it has no direct correlation in the notorious One Night in Paris.
I recall reading an interview with Cuthbert when House of Wax came out in which she admitted to fretting over what appearing in a film alongside Hilton said about her career until producer Joel Silver convinced her that the promise of Hilton's grisly death scene would be so enticing to audiences as to temporarily put the heiress on the same plane of stardom as Cuthbert. (No surprise that Dark Castle's namesake is huckster extraordinaire William Castle.) The problem is that, while superficial similarities abound, Hilton is not playing the Hilton We Love to Hate. Indeed, her Paige is arguably the picture's most sympathetic victim, and Hilton, loath as I am to admit it, is not wholly unconvincing in the role (although she runs probably the way she would in real life: like Barbie trying to dry her nails). Early on in House of Wax, Carly (Cuthbert) asks Paige whether she's going to tell her boyfriend Blake (Ri'chard) that she's pregnant, and Paige says she'll have that conversation with him once she knows for sure. Seconds before Blake is dispatched, Paige tells him they need to talk--tacit confirmation that she's expecting. You'd therefore have to see her onscreen demise completely divorced of context, like as a YouTube clip or something, to derive any schadenfreude from it, which gives it a vague but pervasive flavour of sanctimony I can only describe as Haneke-ian. Perhaps director Jaume Collet-Serra is interested in illustrating a larger point about the media representation of a celebutante not being the full measure of her humanity, but whatever the case, it suggests that Silver and Collet-Serra (who went on to helm the cult-ready Orphan for Dark Castle) are working at cross-purposes. It's possible, too, that House of Wax was the continuation of a disquieting trend our own Walter Chaw observed the year before involving violence against pregnant women in American cinema; in any event, these pomo games date the film considerably and will perhaps one day render it inscrutable to new viewers as they struggle to make sense of the camera's gravitational pull towards Hilton.
Portraying siblings, Cuthbert and Murray (they have the same adorable upturned nose) do double duty as the Final Girl--fraternal twins pitted against separated Siamese twins Vincent and Bo (both Brian Van Holt, late of the far creepier "Cougar Town", the show that coined the term "baby lasagna") in a movie fascinatingly scripted by honest-to-blog former Doublemint twins Carey Hayes and Chad W. Hayes, who clearly have issues. It's nice to be able to distinguish a voice in the chorus, though, and the brother-sister dynamic portrayed herein is unique enough (in horror movies, if the heroine has a brother he's usually much younger or physically-challenged) that when both it and Padalecki showed up in the Friday the 13th reboot, it suggested that getting in on the ground floor of the so-called "torture porn" movement resulted in House of Wax having a bit of influence, even if it was a commercial failure destined for the bottom half of a double-feature Blu-ray. I will say that a 2005 review of this picture would've registered more shock from me, but while the violence remains...unpleasant, as sadistic spectacle it's since been topped, easily and repeatedly. Only the vicious maiming of Cuthbert's Carly retains a transgressive kick, in part because horror filmmakers have an implicit contract with moviegoers to treat the leading lady as inviolate, in part because Cuthbert is so desirable in House of Wax that seeing her lose a finger and get her ripe lips glued together feels like a true desecration. Then again, in 2005 sealing Cuthbert's mouth shut also stood for sealing the annoying Kim Bauer's mouth shut, so maybe this is another moment of intended catharsis diluted by the passage of time.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner repackages their 2006 Blu-ray of House of Wax with a 2010 Blu-ray of Thir13en Ghosts in the first two-disc "Double Feature" release I've seen from the studio. Although one's fresher than the other, they're of comparable video quality: Thir13en Ghosts looks heavily DVNR'd and House of Wax suffers, like a lot of early BDs, from posterization artifacts. Shadow detail is stronger on Thir13en Ghosts, but call it a draw, as neither 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is radically better than an upconvert. What with Thir13en Ghosts' hyperactive mix causing seismic events in 5.1 DTS-HD MA and House of Wax barely making a peep in DD 5.1, the audio may sound, no pun intended, like another matter entirely--but it's a wash as well. To paraphrase Huey Lewis, I'm afraid Thir13en Ghosts is too darn loud, and it suffers from synching issues my receiver had difficulty resolving.
Where these discs differentiate themselves is in terms of extras--the recycled content on Thir13en Ghosts is just a little less negligible. Start with an interesting documentary, "Thir13en Ghosts Revealed" (19 mins., SD), in which we see the rarely-shown step in the make-up process of removing the prosthetic appliances at the end of the day. F. Murray Abraham is interviewed here with his throat made to look slashed, and one realizes he'll always be a Salieri; the Oscar-winning actor also narrates, in his best Rod Serling voice, ambitious, interactive "Ghost Files"--backstory featurettes for each one of the thirteen ghosts. Some of these standard-definition shorts are downright disturbing, which is more than one can say for a second of the movie proper. Lastly, a semi-screen-specific feature-length commentary teams production designer Sean Hargreaves, make-up supervisor Howard Berger (the "B" in KNB), and director Steve Beck, all of whom are given ample opportunity to flesh out the aforementioned making-of. It's worth a listen if you used to subscribe to such magazines as CINEFEX, though to hear a filmmaker describe his own movie as a "Halloween party on a roller coaster" made me squirm. Dropped from the DVD are the music video, theatrical trailer, and talent files.
House of Wax includes a new low in supplementary material, the 26-minute "B-Roll and Bloopers Video Cast Commentary" (SD), during which we watch tedious behind-the-scenes footage and, via the magic of splitscreen, monitor Chad Michael Murray, Paris Hilton (who's on her best behaviour), Elisha Cuthbert, and Jared Padalecki vacantly watching the same. It's like "Beavis & Butthead" without punchlines. The featurettes "Wax On" (7 mins., SD) and "House Built on Wax" (10 mins., SD) illuminate technical challenges unique to this production, while "From Location: Joel Silver Reveals House of Wax" (2 mins., SD) finds Silver hawking the picture in William Castle form before getting creamed by a bus. A redundant "Gag Reel" (3 mins., SD) and the Zodiac-ish "Alternate Open: Jennifer Killed" (2 mins., SD) join the theatrical trailer (16x9-enhanced SD) in rounding out the platter. Originally published: November 4, 2010.