In New York City, in the early 1900s, Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) runs a wax museum. He is a fine sculptor but his partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) wishes he would create more sensational exhibits like their competitors do, and he is thinking of ending the partnership. A wealthy art critic named Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanaugh) may buy the museum later, but Burke needs money immediately and is thinking of burning down the museum for the insurance money. Jarrod catches him starting a fire and they fight as the fire spreads. Burke escapes but Jarrod is still inside when the building explodes.

Jarrod’s body is never found, but Burke gets the insurance money. A disfigured man in a cloak strangles Burke and makes it look like a suicide. A few weeks later, he strangles Burke’s fiancée, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones). Her roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) walks in on the murder and escapes to the home of her friend Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni). During the night, the disfigured man steals Cathy’s body from the morgue.

The art critic Sidney Wallis receives a letter from Jarrod. He survived the fire, though he is in a wheelchair and his hands can no longer sculpt. He asks Wallis to fund a new wax museum, featuring statues made by his assistants Leon Averill (Nedrick Young) and Igor (Charles Bronson), who is a deaf-mute. He will remake his old favorites and, for the public, create new sensational works showcasing acts of violence and horror from history, including Burke’s suicide, though the corpse is missing.

Sue attends the opening with Scott and is troubled by the statue of Joan of Arc, who looks very much like Cathy. Jarrod says he based it on Cathy’s photos from the newspaper. He then hires Scott as a sculptor and asks Sue to model for Marie Antoinette. Sue thinks that Joan of Arc was made from Cathy’s body and contacts Detective Lieutenant Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy) and Sergeant Jim Shane (Dabbs Greer), who recognizes Averill as a criminal, having in his possession the pocket watch of a missing man.

That night, Sue Arrives at the museum to meet with Scott, but Jarrod sends him on an errand. She pulls the brunette wig off Joan of Arc and finds Cathy’s blonde hair underneath. Jarrod rises from his wheelchair and grabs her. She shatters the wax mask that covers his disfigured face and faints at the sight. Averill, plied with drink, tells Detective Brennan what is under the wax figures. Jarrod is about to turn Sue into Marie Antoinette, but Scott arrives and searches for her. The Police arrive just in time to stop Igor from killing him with a guillotine. Jarrod fights the police trying to arrest him and falls into a vat of boiling wax. Brennan saves Sue from death just in time.

The film was directed by Andre DeToth. It was a remake of the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum and was the first technicolor 3-D film in stereophonic sound. It was re-released in 1971, and again during the early 1980s 3-D boom. There was a remake in 2005, from Warner Brothers, but it was not well-received. House of Wax is now in the Library of Congress. Ironically, director DeToth was blind in one eye and could not see 3-D. Some critics suggested that made it a better film, as he concentrated on the story rather than the gimmicks. At the premiere, Bela Lugosi was outside the theater in a black cape, but the reporter asked the questions in the wrong order, so confusing the old gentleman that he left without seeing the picture. Nedrick Young, who played the alcoholic Leon, was not named because he had been banned by Senator Joe McCarthy.

The film was a great success. Early reviews were mostly negative, but now it has a 93% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. Vincent Price’s career was revitalized after being in the doldrums for a long time. Carolyn Jones later played Morticia in the Addams Family TV series. The fire on the museum set got out of control, burned a hole in the roof, singed Vincent Price’s eyebrows, and melted all the wax figures, which were so expensive that the director kept filming as the firemen arrived. Price’s makeup was so perfect because of the 3-D and technicolor demands that he was banned from the commissary because his face was so disgusting. This film was such a success that another 3-D horror film was made—The Phantom of the Rue Morgue—the next year, but it was a box-office dud and the 3-D craze disappeared for a good twenty years.

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