‘House of Wax’ and the Wonderful Mediocrity of Dark Castle Entertainment

At the turn of the millennium, Robert Zemeckis (along with producers Joel Silver and Gilbert Adler) formed a new production label called Dark Castle entertainment. This new enterprise, a division of Warner Bros’ Silver Pictures, was created with one singular goal: To remake the classic horror films of legendary filmmaker William Castle.

The results were… well, let’s say ‘mixed.’

For those of you who don’t know, William Castle was the director and producer behind many of the 50s and 60s most well-known cult horror films, like 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill. He was also responsible for popularizing the so-called ‘gimmick’ sub-genre of horror with films like The Tingler, wherein devices were placed under theater seats to buzz the audience at certain points throughout the film’s runtime.

While many of Castle’s films are now considered classics, they don’t exactly translate well to modern, younger audiences, especially those in the late 90s and early 2000s whose sensibilities leaned more into sardonic and self-aware material thanks to meta-horror films like Scream. Thus, Zemeckis and his cabal of producers opted to modernize these mid-century films, updating them for the edgier and snarkier audiences that made up the movie-going demographic at the time of the label’s founding.

Most of Dark Castle’s films, I would say, fall squarely into the ‘so bad, it’s good’ territory, and I don’t think that was the intention. The first two films produced under the label, remakes of the aforementioned House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts, were more or less faithful adaptations of their source material, only with the added flourishes of early 2000s horror films. This meant wise-cracking, Buffy-esque characters, lots of nu-metal music for no apparent reason, and loads of gore. The same would go for the third film under the label, Ghost Ship.

Don’t get me wrong, I love all of these movies. They’re garbage, but in a very fun, very cheesy way. They’re they kind of movie that are fantastic to watch with friends, Mystery Science Theater style, and maybe enjoying a few drinks while you do it. Most of them were critically panned, but a few were financially successful enough to let the label survive even until today, with Orphan: First Kill being released under the banner just last month.

But it’s the label’s fifth film, a remake of the 1953 Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax, that really, rather beautifully, sums up everything that was wrong not only with Dark Castle films, but horror in general at the time. Released in 2005, Dark Castle’s House of Wax is a bizarre, fascinating dumpster fire that is somehow both a jumbled, broken mess, while also somehow being a wonderful display of random technical talent and staging. It’s a truly baffling film, and I absolutely love it.

If you needed any proof of just how early 2000s this movie is, take a good look at the cast:

That’s right: You’ve got a pre-Supernatural Jared Padalecki. You’ve got Elisha Cuthbert at the height of her fame from stuff like 24 and The Girl Next Door. You’ve got One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray. And of course, in perhaps the most ridiculous piece of stunt casting ever, you’ve got Paris goddamn Hilton. That’s right: Paris Hilton is in this movie, and she’s exactly as good an actress as you’re imagining her to be.

In fact, Hilton was one of the film’s major draws, with the marketing campaign actively telling audiences that if they came to see House of Wax, they’d get to see her die. Kudos on her, I guess, for capitalizing on her media image so well, as I’m sure she made bank from this, but wow. Imagine having people see a film just for the chance to see someone kill you.

It’s messed up, but also kind of brilliant.

And that was a major strategy for a lot of horror films at the time, casting predominantly young TV stars, especially in regards to horror remakes. It’s like producers just yelled “Bring me young people!” at their casting departments, and were then presented with whoever was on the cover of TV Guide that week. Sometimes, it works: Jessica Biel is actually not terrible in the otherwise awful Texas Chainsaw reboot, and Ryan Reynolds is about the only good thing in 2005’s Amityville Horror. But House of Wax is not one of these situations. Everyone here is terrible.

The strangest thing about House of Wax isn’t even Paris Hilton: It’s the damn thing’s runtime. This is a two-hour movie, and it feels even longer. There’s no reason for this, so far as I can tell, and you could comfortably shave off around 30 minutes without losing anything of value. The titular location doesn’t even appear until 35 minutes in, and the actual plot doesn’t start happening until nearly 20 minutes after that.

There is waaaaay too much setup here for what’s actually an incredibly simple plot: A group of college kids, on the way to a football game, accidentally stumble onto a strange little ghost town that hosts a supposedly-renowned wax museum. Naturally, there’s some spooky stuff afoot, Scooby-Doo style, and our insufferably dumb early 20-somethings get slowly picked off one-by-one by a masked crazy person. Pretty standard stuff really, a narrative that we’ve basically gotten down to a science over the years. The slasher film isn’t exactly rocket science.

And yet, we waste nearly an hour establishing the minute relationship quirks between all these characters, something which no one in the audience – myself included – cares about. You’ve got Cuthbert’s character, our designated final girl, and her fraught relationship with her boyfriend, not-Sam Winchester. She wants to move to New York, and he’s scared to leave his small town. They fight a lot about it. Then you’ve got her twin brother, played by Murray, who’s got a criminal reputation and constantly berates and teases both her and her boyfriend. They fight a lot about it. There’s also the brother’s stoner friend, who constantly annoys everyone with his incessant videotaping of everything which – you guessed it – they fight a lot about. And then finally, there’s Paris Hilton, who might be pregnant for reasons that never become even remotely relevant, and her jock boyfriend, who only wants to have sex and never listens to anything she has to say.

They fight a lot about it.

We get 45 minutes to explain all this, which I can mercifully spare you with just one sentence: Everyone in this movie is an asshole. Seriously, that’s their only real character trait. All of them. There’s not a single loving, jovial relationship in the bunch, even among those who are dating or related. They’re all a bunch of bitter, joyless sociopaths, which makes it really, really hard to root for them when they’re fighting for their lives later on.

Speaking of which, once we get through the slog that is this film’s first act, we’re finally treated to House of Wax’s only real saving grace: The gore. This movie is sadistic, and it’s honestly pretty impressive. The kills in this movie are absolutely brutal at times, earning its R rating and then some. You get decapitations, an impaling, mouths getting glued shut, fingers being sliced off, Achilles tendons being cut, and, of course, so much wax.

I mean, I know this movie is called House of Wax, but c’mon. The original bore that name, too, and it didn’t nearly have as much of the stuff. The ‘house’ in this version is literally made of wax. Like, the whole building. Does that make any logical, structural sense? No, of course not. But neither does anything else in this movie, so screw it. Just roll with it. It only exists so that we can get an over-the-top, fiery climax in which the entire building begins to melt around the characters, in an admittedly cool set piece that uses a lot of clever practical effects. And really, its those wax effects that are the star of the show here.

In the Vincent Price version (which itself is a remake of another, earlier film), the villain of the piece steals bodies from a local morgue and uses them to make the wax attractions at his wax museum. Here, we get a masked psycho who kills an entire town and coats their bodies in wax, posing them throughout the place in staged still-lifes. How did they manage to do this to an entire population? No idea. The movie doesn’t know either, handwaving it as being simply because “the town isn’t on the GPS.” Regardless of the internal logic behind this nonsense, the wax corpses are gnarly, and the practical makeup used is stellar.

There’s also some shockingly competent direction and camera work at play, even with the godawful acting on display. The whole film has a strange, fairy tale, borderline Tim Burton feel to it, and the sets are all genuinely great. There’s one shot towards the end where the camera follows a baseball bat (which I won’t spoil) that had me legitimately in awe of how the crew managed to accomplish it. From a technical level at least, House of Wax is an excellent display of ingenuity and talent.

And ultimately, at the end of those two, long hours, that’s what you get: Some cool kills, some fun sets, some annoying, bitchy characters who bite the dust, and enough wax to probably create a few fetishes along the way. Is it exactly Oscar worthy? No, but once the ball starts rolling (however long that may take), it’s at least a fun enough ride that you can laugh along with it and enjoy yourself. Which about sums up all of Dark Castle Entertainment’s output, for the most part: Dumb, fun, technically-impressive films that were written by monkeys on typewriters but make for good party films where alcohol is being served.

And, frankly, it wasn’t like much better was being released at the time.

If you’re looking for some stupid, brainless fun, you could do worse than House of Wax, or any of Dark Castle’s offerings. At the very least, seeing Paris Hilton get offed is, admittedly, pretty damn entertaining.

Check out 13 Ghosts if you haven’t already! It’s also really, really stupid, but equally fun. Very 2000s, if you’re feeling nostalgic.

That’s it for today! Check out House of Wax anywhere you don’t have to pay any actual money to see it!

And Happy Halloween!

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