Film Review: House of Wax (1953)

Also known as: The Wax Works (working title)
Release Date: April 9th, 1953 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Andre DeToth
Written by: Crane Wilbur
Based on: The Wax Works by Charles S. Belden
Music by: David Buttolph
Cast: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Paul Picerni, Charles Bronson (as Charles Buchinsky)

Bryan Foy Productions, Warner Bros., 88 Minutes

Review:

“I’m afraid that the visit of a such distinguished critic may cause my children to become conceited. To you they are wax, but to me, their creator, they live and breathe.” – Prof. Henry Jarrod

House of Wax is hand down, one of my favorite Vincent Price films ever made. In fact, as much as I love the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he’s in, this was the movie that really sold me on the guy and opened up the Pandora’s box that sent me down the rabbit hole of classic horror.

While I had already loved the Universal Monsters films and older black and white stuff, House of Wax really introduced me to the generation of films that followed, many of which starred Vincent Price, Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee… and sometimes a combination of two of them or on rare occasions, all three.

At a very young age, this also introduced me to the original version of the 3D gimmick. While I didn’t see this in 3D, it gave me an understanding of it and how these films were shot. Plus, it’s cool seeing it on a normal screen, as in 1953, movies weren’t made to be digested at home on a television set.

This was directed by Andre DeToth, who had previously made some memorable classic film-noir pictures. He had an eye for cinematic composition and he would utilize that to great effect, here, while also applying it to the 3D effects shots.

What sets this apart from DeToth’s beautiful noir movies is the use of color, which is vibrant and vivid, even more so than the colorized pictures of the day. Even when the film takes place in darkness, the world is still alive with dynamic hues.

Additionally, DeToth’s mastery of a high chiaroscuro style comes into play in the great sequence that sees the film’s female lead running through the urban streets and alleyways with the grotesque killer in hot pursuit. While this wasn’t done in black and white, it used dark hues and a lot of contrast with bits of color accenting the composition, helping to boost texture.

Vincent Price is dynamite in this and it is one of his best roles. He was on his A-game and his performance in this film is what led to him having a career as America’s top horror star for decades.

I also loved seeing a young Charles Bronson in this, who would work with DeToth again in a noir movie titled Crime Wave.

As an Addams Family fan, I also like that Carolyn Jones is in this, a decade before her most famous role as Morticia Addams.

One thing that really stood out to me when seeing this, as a kid, was how messed up and dark the story was. It’s about a wax artist who lost everything and was only able to reestablish himself by killing people and using them as the base for his wax figure creations. In fact, the plot of this film inspired two different horror short stories I wrote around middle school age. I’d assume that it also inspired Roger Corman’s classic beatnik horror comedy Bucket of Blood.

Overall, this is not just one of my favorite Vincent Price films, it is one of my favorite films of all-time. It led me down a path that I have enjoyed immensely for thirtyish years and I still tend to feel the need to watch this every October.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: other Vincent Price films from the ’50s through the ’70s.

Film Review: Crime Wave (1953)

Also known as: The City Is Dark, Don’t Cry, Baby (both working titles)
Release Date: October 22nd, 1953 (Rome)
Directed by: Andre DeToth
Written by: Bernard Gordon, Richard Wormser
Based on: Criminal’s Mark by John Hawkins, Ward Hawkins
Music by: David Buttolph
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, Phyllis Kirk, Charles Bronson

Warner Bros., 73 Minutes

Review:

“People. They accept the love of a dog, and when it gets old and sick they say put it to sleep. ” – Dr. Otto Hessler

I feel like André De Toth doesn’t get as much love as he should. I mean, the guy directed this, House of WaxPitfall, the really cool bayou noir Dark Waters and he wrote The Gunfighter. Plus, he had a cool eyepatch like Major Bludd from G.I. Joe.

Crime Wave is a solid picture that feels much more organic and real than the typical film-noir. It was made by a major studio but it had a very gritty and almost semidocumentary directing style unlike most major studio movies of the time. The cinematography was decent, nothing exceptional, but the camera work gave the film its energy and life. It employed a more intimate style in how it captured the characters, using closeups and fluid movements instead of feeling like it is just sitting on a tripod twenty feet away.

The way that De Toth shot Sterling Hayden was especially unique and outside of the box for the time. He was usually put in more confined sets with low ceilings and shot from low angles to enhance his already tall stature. Hayden’s performance also helped to make him seem like a giant among smaller men. He had a brooding presence and almost predatory mannerisms.

The plot is very simple. There is an ex-criminal who has been living a normal crime free life. His old gang comes calling and he refuses to play ball. The gang kidnaps the man and his wife. However, the story doesn’t just feature a criminal gang, it also features crooked cops and has a lot of moving parts that allows the film to throw some solid narrative curveballs.

Crime Wave is a pretty good outing for De Toth and it was neat seeing him reteam with Charles Bronson, who he worked with a year earlier in House of Wax, where he played Vincent Price’s evil henchman. I love seeing Bronson back in the ’50s when he was a young, muscular tough guy and usually played crooked heavies.

Anyway, this is a really good film-noir that takes a simple plot and makes it work.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: DecoyMurder by ContractPitfallAct of ViolenceCriss Cross and Nightfall.

Film Review: Dark Waters (1944)

Release Date: November 21st, 1944
Directed by: Andre DeToth
Written by: Marian B. Cockrell, Joan Harrison, Arthur Horman
Based on: The Saturday Evening Post serial Dark Waters by Francis M. Cockrell, Marian B. Cockrell
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Merle Oberon, Franchot Tone, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, Elisha Cook Jr.

Benedict Bogeaus Productions, United Artists, 90 Minutes

Review:

Dark Waters is a film that feels like it could have been touched by Val Lewton while he was producing a slew of B-movies over at RKO but this was put out by United Artists around the same time and falls below the quality of those great Lewton pictures. Still, if you like Lewton’s work at RKO, this has a similar tone and feel to it, which is why I decided to watch it after I stumbled upon it.

A woman survives a submarine attack and returns home to the bayous of Louisiana to recuperate. Her aunt and uncle are up to something strange though and thus, we get a story about gangsters in the swamp. It sounds intriguing but the film is fairly boring, at least until the finale, which is decent.

Growing up in Southwest Florida on the Gulf Coast and living in a very similar environment to the bayous of Louisiana, I have always felt a piece of home in pictures that take place there. Plus I had family around New Orleans, when I was a kid, and have always loved spending time there. So when something takes place in the bayou, I feel a sense of real familiarity, just like when something takes place in the Everglades.

The environment, while it looks good on film here, isn’t enough to carry the picture. Everything falls pretty flat and it doesn’t matter that the accomplished Andre De Toth is behind the camera or that the majestic melodies of Miklós Rózsa created a very good soundtrack.

Dark Waters isn’t a total waste of time, it’s an okay way to kill ninety minutes but then again, there are much better movies you could watch instead, especially in the noir style.

Rating: 6.5/10

Film Review: Pitfall (1948)

Release Date: August 24th, 1948
Directed by: Andre DeToth
Written by: Karl Kamb, Andre DeToth (uncredited), William Bowers (uncredited)
Based on: The Pitfall by Jay Dratler
Music by: Louis Forbes (uncredited)
Cast: Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr, Jane Wyatt, Ann Doran

Regal Films, United Artists, 86 Minutes

Review:

“She probably doesn’t appeal to you but for me, she’s just what I told the doctor to order.” – J.B. MacDonald

I have always liked Dick Powell in film-noir and Lizabeth Scott had my heart from the first moment I saw her. She is one of my favorite leading ladies of all-time, especially from her era. This picture also has Raymond Burr, a guy I’ve always been a fan of since discovering Godzilla at a young age and because of my mum’s love of Perry Mason reruns. Ann Doran also shows up in this movie.

Frankly, there are a lot of good pieces here but the film mostly falls flat. It is film-noir in style but it’s more about infidelity. Strangely, being that this was a 1940s film and that the Hollywood rules were strict on morals, Dick Powell’s character gets off really easy. The truth behind this, is that the film was actually in violation of the Hays Code but Andre DeToth, the director, went before two senior board members and pointed out that they both had mistresses. Needless to say, the film was released as DeToth envisioned it.

Dick Powell is solid in the movie but doesn’t have the presence he had when he was the first actor to play the famous Philip Marlowe character in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet or when he was his typical “tough guy” characters. Lizabeth Scott was as beautiful as ever and had charm and charisma but her character, overall, didn’t have the gravitas of some of her other roles. Raymond Burr, at this point, was just the standard heavy but that was really his role until he became Perry Mason on television.

The problem with this film, is that it starts out strong, moves at a brisk pace but then loses itself somewhere in the middle. While it tackles a provocative subject, for the time, it handles the situation with kid gloves and doesn’t really explore the underlying darkness of the characters’ indiscretions. And as much as I like the cast, I just don’t care enough about their characters.

Pitfall is not a bad film and most people seem to like it more than I did. It’s just one of those movies that pulls you in and then releases you well before the story is over.

Rating: 6.25/10