Carly (Elisha Cuthbert, "The Girl Next Door") thinks she's having enough trouble keeping her boyfriend, Wade (Jared Padalecki, "Flight of the Phoenix") and her brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray, "A Cinderella Story," "Freaky Friday") from boiling over after a weird confrontation camping out before a big college football game. The next day, they discover their car's been tampered with and they take up a local's offer for a drive to the town of Ambrose, home of Trudy's very realistic "House of Wax."
2005's "House of Wax" turns out to be a better reimagining of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" than last year's lousy remake and commercial ad director Jaume Serra has delivered a solid genre outing with his first feature film. And, of course, those who love Paris Hilton (TV's "The Simple Life") get to see her dance in a red lace bra and panties and those who hate her can cheer her gory demise.
Tracing a nasty odor from their makeshift campsite, Carly lands in a bloody pit of animal carcasses. The gang all run to help her and meet the yokel (Damon Herriman, "Son of the Mask") who cleans up roadkill and offers them a ride. Wade convinces Nick and Dalton (Jon Abrahams, "My Boss's Daughter") to continue on to the game with Blake (Robert Ri'chard, "Coach Carter") and his girlfriend Paige (Hilton).
Roadkill's proud display of a Bowie knife makes Wade and Carly nervous, so they walk into Ambrose and discover a ghost town of unusual architecture (production designer Graham Walker of "Gothika," doing some inventive work here). After venturing into Trudy's, where the entire house is literally of wax, Carly's spooked by a moving figure in a window, and they venture on to find the townsfolk in the church for a funeral service. Bo (Brian Van Holt, "S.W.A.T.," "Basic"), the gas station owner, says he'll help them with their fan belt, but later, when Wade enters his house, he never comes out and Carly discovers she's been waiting in the pickup truck which threatened their campsite the night before.
Screenwriting twins Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes have fashioned an above average horror yarn using the original "House of Wax's" 'real people coated in wax' concept as a jumping off point. Twins have figured in horror films before, and here there are two sets, both featuring a 'good' and 'evil' side brought out by parental comparison. Nick resents Carly's shining future and rebels by being a bad boy while Bo's other half is the wax-masked Vincent, the inheritor of mom Trudy's artistic side (actor Van Holt is brother to twin sisters as well). The duality is reflected in the film's old movie theater as well, perpetually playing "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?". "Chainsaw" homages are all over this film, with the characters a virtual one to one match - Roadkill is akin to Hitchhiker, Vincent to Leatherface and Bo to their gas station owning dad. There's an extra guy to "Saw's" infamous 'five teenagers,' but one could argue that one set of twins equals one Sally Hardesty and the kids are picked off in eerily reminiscent order. Shades of "Psycho" creep in as well, with two sons beholden to a mummified Trudy. The Hayes boys show some originality as well - who knew superglue could be this creepy? The teenagers generally don't make stupid moves, except for Wade who is well established as being nosy.
Serra's good enough to avoid the cheap thrills (OK, one really bad fake out involving a dog) provided by leaping cats and tight camera angles. His overhead shot 1974 prologue sets a sick stage, as a mom smokes and pours wax while one child eats cereal in his highchair and the other is strapped in screaming - we see no faces, but hear the eternal 'Why can't you be like your brother?' delivered with more than the usual edge. Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon ("Deep Blue Sea") also achieves one terrific reflection shot, where a mute figure's eye shows approaching death.
Cuthbert shows a lot more gumption than Jack Bauer's daughter was ever capable of and Michael Murray brings more layers to his character than is usually found in a hack 'n slash. The other four have less presence, although Hilton's petulance at following a bad smell is ironically amusing. Van Holt and Herriman both fill their bills nicely as the twisted bad guys.
The filmmakers have kept the story's classic flaming ending, with the house's composition adding a new dimension. Forget "Amityville" - Ambrose is where it's at.
Robin's review will be published on opening day, 5/6/2005.
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