A remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, André de Toth’s House of Wax solidified the 3D movie craze of the 1950s. In the process it also walloped the box office and turned Vincent Price into a horror movie icon. On the 65th anniversary of the movie's release, join us on a tour of the legendary House of Wax; keep your hands off the mannequins, though—you might not want to know what lies beneath.
1. IT WAS ONLY THE SECOND 3D MOVIE TO BE RELEASED BY A MAJOR STUDIO.
Three-dimensional cinema is older than you might think. The first feature film to use this technology was the silent drama Power of Love, which dates all the way back to 1922. Yet audiences didn’t truly embrace this innovation until some 30 years later with the release of Bwana Devil—a Technicolor thriller about man-eating lions. Produced independently, Bwana Devil ballooned into a surprise smash, grossing more than $1.3 million in its first month in just 30 theaters. This really caught Hollywood’s attention. At a time when cinemas had to compete with television, 3D looked like the next big thing, a spectacle that could draw viewers out of their living rooms and into the nearest movie house. The industry’s biggest players rushed to cash in. On April 8, 1953, Columbia Pictures’ Man in the Dark premiered, making it the first 3D movie ever released by a major studio. House of Wax, a Warner Bros. film, opened just two days later.
2. IRONICALLY, THE DIRECTOR LACKED DEPTH PERCEPTION.
As a child, André de Toth lost his left eye in an accident. Hence, the native Hungarian often wore an eyepatch. Rumor has it that WB president Jack Warner ordered de Toth not to wear the accessory on the set of House of Wax, lest anyone ridicule the studio for giving a 3D project to a one-eyed filmmaker. However, leading lady Phyllis Kirk cast some doubt on this story. “He may have [gone without his patch], but I don’t remember it,” she said later in an interview. But by all accounts, de Toth was undaunted by the challenging job; once, he rhetorically asked a reporter, “Beethoven couldn’t hear music either, could he?”
Far from being a setback, de Toth’s limited sight may have actively improved the finished product. Vincent Price himself thought as much. According to his daughter, Victoria Price, “Vincent felt that House of Wax was saved from being unrelieved schlock by the faulty vision of its director … Since the 3D effect was lost on him, de Toth never really understood what the fuss was about, and limited his use of the gimmick rather than shamelessly indulging it the way a man with normal eyesight might have done. It was de Toth’s relative restraint, he believed, that turned House of Wax into a classic.”
3. VINCENT PRICE’S MAKEUP LOOKED SO GROTESQUE THAT HE WASN’T ALLOWED TO ENTER CERTAIN BUILDINGS WHILE WEARING IT.
In the movie, Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, a wax sculptor whose museum and beloved figurines are torched by a greedy businessman (more on that later). Jarrod survives, but his face is horribly disfigured. Since the film was to be shot in both Technicolor and 3D, great pains were taken to ensure that Price’s makeup looked as convincing as possible. The result was a patchwork of hideous burns that shocked audiences—and nauseated a lot of Warner Bros. employees. “I was banished from the studio commissary,” Price later recalled. “This cold shoulder treatment started when I walked [in there] for lunch for the first time and the girl at the register turned green and almost fainted. Then the patrons got up and headed for the door. It was a bad day for business.”
4. IGOR WAS PLAYED BY A YOUNG CHARLES BRONSON.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, Professor Jarrod has a henchman named Igor—albeit, one that suffers from mutism instead of back problems. The role was given to Charles Buchinsky, who’d later emerge as one of Hollywood’s favorite tough guys in movies like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Worried that an eastern European last name might cost him a lot of work during the second Red Scare, Buchinsky rechristened himself as “Charles Bronson“ in 1954.
5. ONE ACTOR’S APPEARANCE WENT UNCREDITED BECAUSE HE’D BEEN BLACKLISTED.
Buchinsky/Bronson had it easy; changing his last name was nothing compared to what Nedrick Young went through as a result of Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. In early 1953, Young portrayed Leon (Jarrod’s other assistant) in House of Wax. Then, before the movie opened, he had to square off against a very different house: Accused of being a Marxist sympathizer, Young was questioned before the House Un-American Activities Committee. By his own admission, the actor was “a very unfriendly witness.” When asked outright if he was a communist, Young pled the fifth—and was blacklisted. Thanks to the controversy, his name was stricken from the credits in House of Wax.
6. PHYLLIS KIRK TRIED TO TURN THE MOVIE DOWN.
Since she was under contract with Warner Bros., Kirk had no choice but to appear in this picture when the studio cast her as Sue Allen, one of the leads. That didn’t stop her from complaining about the gig. “I bitched and moaned and … [said] that I wasn’t interested in becoming the Fay Wray of my time,” Kirk confessed. Another bone of contention was the 3D format, which she regarded as a “gimmick.” But despite these reservations, Kirk decided that playing ball would be preferable to getting suspended. “And incidentally, I went on to have a lot of fun making House of Wax,” she admitted.
7. THE FIRE IN THE OPENING SCENE SPREAD WILDLY OUT OF CONTROL.
It must have been easy for Price to act alarmed in the sequence in which his museum burns down. Right before the shoot, de Toth’s crew set three “spot fires” in strategic locations. Then the cameras started rolling and everything went downhill. The team quickly lost control of their fires, which merged into a massive inferno that put a hole in the sound stage roof and singed Price’s eyebrows. But because the rapidly melting wax mannequins would’ve been very hard to replace, de Toth kept on filming—even as firemen arrived to help extinguish the flames.
8. IT COMES WITH AN INTERMISSION.
Prior to the late 1970s, “epic” films would often treat their viewers to a built-in bathroom break. Midway through screenings of Gone With the Wind and other, extra-long classics, the action would pause, the theater lights would brighten, and the word “Intermission” would appear onscreen. Ordinarily, this practice was reserved for movies with bladder-testing runtimes of two and a half hours or more. By comparison, House of Wax flies by with its breezy 88-minute runtime. Yet, unconventionally for a short picture, it contains an intermission. Why? Screening the 3D film required two projectors running simultaneously. The respite was necessary because it allowed theater employees to change both reels an hour into the movie.
9. A FUNCTIONING GUILLOTINE WAS USED IN THE CLIMAX.
Toward the end of the film, Igor gets into a big fight with Sue’s boyfriend, Scott, played by Paul Picerni. From the get-go, there’s no doubt about which one has the upper hand, as Igor seizes poor Scott and shoves his head under a guillotine in the museum’s French Revolution display. Luckily, the police arrive in time to rescue our hero, pulling him out of harm’s way seconds before the blade comes crashing down.
Just like his character, Picerni came dangerously close to getting his head chopped off, Louis XVI-style—because this guillotine was 100 percent real. Rather than film the scene in segments, de Toth wanted to shoot the whole thing in one take. With blithe nonchalance, he told Picerni to go and stick his head under the razor-sharp blade of this death device.
Naturally, Picerni objected. At a 2006 House of Wax Q&A, the star reminisced at length about the argument that followed. “I asked de Toth, ‘How are you going to control the blade?’ He said the property master was going to sit on top of the guillotine, holding the blade between his legs, then let it drop after my head was removed.” When the actor opined that this sounded dangerous, de Toth replied, “What are you, chicken sh*t?” In the end, Picerni agreed to do the scene in one take, on the condition that a metal bar be inserted under the blade to keep it from falling prematurely.
10. THE FILM WAS COMPLETED WAY AHEAD OF SCHEDULE.
House of Wax was given a $1.5 million budget and 60-day shooting schedule. De Toth finished it in only 28 days for a meager $650,000. Blown away by this efficiency, Jack Warner sent him a case of whiskey as a “thank you.”
11. BELA LUGOSI ATTENDED THE PREMIERE—ALONG WITH A GUY IN A GORILLA SUIT.
Although the star of Universal’s Dracula (1931) did not appear in House of Wax, he did help promote it. The film’s world premiere was held at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles on April 16, 1953. As a publicity stunt, Lugosi was invited to attend the big event. Clad in a vampire cape, he emerged from his limousine with a chain link leash, which was attached to an actor in an ape costume—a clear homage to the 1952 comedy Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
12. IT MADE BOX OFFICE HISTORY.
House of Wax turned into one of the biggest hits of 1953 and 1954. In an era where movie tickets cost an average of 49 cents apiece, the horror feature pulled in an astonishing $5.5 million domestically. This made House of Wax the highest-grossing 3D movie ever made at the time, although it would lose this title in 1969 to a popular “skin flick” called The Stewardesses. By the way, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the current record-holder.
13. PRICE LIKED TO ATTEND SCREENINGS OF THE MOVIE INCOGNITO.
As the thespian once told biographer Joel Eisner, he’d regularly go out and see House of Wax during its run. Happily for Price, the requisite 3D glasses could usually conceal his identity in the back of a dimly lit theater. But one night, he decided to make his presence known. At a showing in New York City, Price quietly took a seat behind two teenagers. Right after a particularly frightening scene, he leaned forward and asked “Did you like it?” In Price’s words, “They went right into orbit!"