Good films inspire the audience to imagine back-stories for its characters. Bad films inspire the audience to imagine back-stories about its creators. In this case, viewers are likely to imagine a Hollywood screenwriter going to bed after a long night of tequila and Mexican food, having a nightmare about a melting house and waking up saying "Wow, that would make great scene in a horror film." The logical result is a predictable serial-killer movie with a bizarre climax that might – but unfortunately doesn’t – make up for the rest of the film.
The plot is familiar. Five young people set off on a road trip to watch "the big game." There’s Carly Jones (Elisha Cuthbert), who is identifiable as the heroine because she’s the least unlikable of the bunch; her sulky jailbird twin brother Nick, (Chad Michael Murrary); Carly’s boyfriend (Jared Padalecki); an extraneous guy with a video camera (Jon Abrahams); and the requisite sex-crazy couple (Paris Hilton and Robert Ri’chard.)
Naturally there’s a detour and car trouble and they all eventually trickle into the tiny, remote town of Ambrose, which consists of a single main street dominated by an art deco museum, a "House of Wax." It’s a highly unusual wax museum. Aside from the fact that it depicts no celebrities and apparently has no chamber of horrors it is quite literally built entirely of wax. Floors, ceilings, walls, furniture, everything.
Here would be a good opportunity for the filmmaker to switch from the predictability of splatter films to the relatively literate conventions of wax museum movies, which have a respectable legacy in the genre of film horror. In 1932 there was Michael Curtiz’ Mystery of the Wax Museum, with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. In 1958 it was remade into Andre De Toth’s 3-D classic, House of Wax with Vincent Price and a very young Charles Bronson. Unfortunately, the 2005 version of that age old story – talented artist, horribly maimed and traumatized, works out his personal problems by dipping people in wax and putting them on display in his museum – has neither the shrieking pulchritude of Fay Wray nor the wit of Vincent Price.
Instead we have the bloody counting song of dead teenager movies in which, one by one, characters get murdered in unique and horrible ways by a mute killer whose face is hidden behind an impassive mask of wax. The traditional misogyny is present, but it’s difficult to get too worked up about it. Though the increasingly frayed heroine gets plunged into rotten gore, super-glued, and mutilated, Elisha Cuthbert can’t make her interesting enough for the audience to care. There are a few creepy moments, most notably a theater full of wax figures watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and the setting, an empty town that seems to have stopped changing sometime in the ‘70s, is eerie and effective.
The filmmakers also deserve some credit for deliberately sidestepping some horror film cliches. It’s a male, not a female character who is first added to the museum’s collection in a scene that’s actually more horrifying than the traditional "I’m-going-to-immortalize-you-my-darling" moment in wax museum movies. Unfortunately, they don’t sidestep enough of them.
The climax, in which the museum burns – or rather, melts – down, is definitely watchable and has an intriguing dreamlike quality only slightly marred by the human beings running around, fighting, and killing each other as the walls glow and sag and the wax figures are incinerated into blazing skeletons. (As any wax museum film aficionado knows, all wax museums burn down at about the same time the wax sculptor’s false face is knocked off, revealing the grotesquely disfigured monster beneath.)
Even so, the unmistakable promise of a sequel in the last scene inspires more resignation than anticipation. If you must watch a horror film about a wax museum, your money would be better spent renting the 1958 film with Vincent Price. It’s not as gory, but it’s smarter and more entertaining, even without the 3-D glasses.