A Paris Hilton strip tease and some impressive special effects are the selling points of “House of Wax,” an in-name-only remake of the 1953 Andre De Toth horror classic that reps the latest offering from Joel Silver’s Dark Castle Entertainment. Direly predictable, with candle-drip pacing and a pervasive unpleasantness, pic arrives at a fortuitous moment given the box-office power of gory genre fare. But an R rating, the lack of an obvious “Amityville”-type hook and heavy opening-weekend competition from “Kingdom of Heaven” should keep business for “House” at the level of a solid, but unspectacular sideshow attraction.
While such earlier Dark Castle productions as “House on Haunted Hill” and “Thirteen Ghosts” drew on recognizable Hollywood character actors and embraced the pulpy, tongue-in-cheek spirit of the company’s namesake — horror impresario William Castle — “House of Wax” makes a clear bid for the less discriminating teen and twentysomething crowd.
Two carloads of college students are traveling from Gainesville to Baton Rouge to attend a high-profile college football game. Ambitious Carly (“24” hottie Elisha Cuthbert) is already planning for her upcoming move to Manhattan, much to the dismay of her small-town boyfriend, Wade (Jared Padalecki).
Also along for the ride are Carly’s friend Paige (Hilton), who hasn’t yet told her African-American boyfriend, Blake (Robert Ri’chard), that she might be pregnant; wisecracking Dalton (the amusing Jon Abrahams); and Carly’s delinquent twin brother, Nick (“One Tree Hill” hunk Chad Michael Murray), freshly paroled from prison.
When the trip takes longer than expected, merry sextet opts to camp out in a deserted field. Next morning, they discover their campsite is located next to a dumping ground for animal carcasses. (So that’s where that smell was coming from!).Yet, when Wade discovers his car has a busted fan belt, nobody seems to consider it unwise for him to stay behind to fix it.
As the others journey on to the game (only to turn around after hitting a massive traffic jam), Wade and Carly hitch a ride into the nearby town of Ambrose, where they stumble upon the titular wax museum and its uncannily lifelike sculptures.
As viewers of the 1953 “House of Wax” (or, for that matter, its 1933 predecessor, “Mystery of the Wax Museum”) already know, there’s a reason for the eerie verisimilitude of the “statues,” and the villains, a pair of separated-at-birth, Siamese-twin brothers (both played by Brian Van Holt) don’t take too kindly to visitors.
Any similarity to earlier “Wax” pics ends there, with twin-brother screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes and director Jaume Collet-Serra quickly descending into slasher-movie cliches.
The characters are about as intelligent as their waxen alter-egos, making it impossible to care too much about what happens to them. Amid flat, one-dimensional performances, Murray exhibits a live-wire intensity in a few scenes that suggests he may be one to watch.
In the pic’s press notes, Collet-Serra, a successful musicvideo and commercials director making his feature debut, talks about his desire to create “an unstructured, almost documentary feel.” Onscreen, this amounts to an inordinately long set-up — nothing even remotely scary happens for the first two reels — followed by a series of rote (if explicitly violent) murders thatare more a testament to the talent of the pic’s makeup artists than Collet-Serra’s directorial prowess.
By far the pic’s most inspired idea is that the House of Wax is actually made of wax itself, along with every piece of furniture in it. That set — and, indeed, the entire ghost town of Ambrose — is brought to vivid life by ace production designer Graham “Grace” Walker.
But pic lacks a distinctive visual style, employing the same palette of drab yellows, greens and blacks that have become de rigeur thanks to the success of the “The Ring” and the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake.
One element that seems more progressive than it probably should in the year 2005 is the refreshing lack of attention drawn to Paige and Blake’s interracial relationship. In most other respects, however, pic is decidedly retro, employing the moralistic tone of a great many horror outings of the 1970s and ’80s, in which only the relatively virtuous survive.