HALLOWEEN 2016: BY CAITLIN HORTON
I admit it, I am that individual who jumps at their own shadow and can count the modern horror movies they’ve seen on one hand. One finger, actually. And I watched it during the day with light pouring from every lamp and the mute button on and discovered that without scary sounds and music, modern horror is, well, cheap and melodramatic and very much pantomime. So how I wound up watching two 1950s horror movies with Vincent Price in one week and liking them is still a mystery! Perhaps it’s because I know that pre-1960s films had to adhere to a stricter film decency code and only so much “horror” could actually take place. But more likely it’s because I knew it would be a more surreal, more artistic horror that leaves much to the imagination.
The first was House of Wax, which has not only spawned remakes but is itself a remake of a 1933 film of a similar title, Mystery of the Wax Museum. Vincent Price is the enigmatic and talented sculptor Professor Henry Jarrod, whose passion for his lifelike wax figures is matched by the emptiness of his pockets. He is a master at his craft, painstakingly recreating emotional scenes like the Passion of Joan of Arc and the elegance of the Dauphin of France, Marie Antoinette, while steering away from the macabre. As a result, other wax museums in 1890s New York City are undercutting him, stealing customers away with promises of a grizzly spectacle rather than art. This lack of profit disturbs his business partner Matthew Burke, who in a fit of rage cooks up a scheme to claim the insurance money so they could start over with a clean slate: burn the wax museum. But these figures that Burke sees as only wax and wigs and cloth are Jarrod’s life’s works, they are his magnum opus and to see them burning threatens to tear his soul apart.
Jarrod survives, yet he cannot rest for he must have his Marie Antoinette again, his Joan, his Cleopatra, his children back. But now he faces another crisis with his hands being burned so badly his can no longer sculpt, all he can do is instruct underlings and sink into misery when their results are less than his heart’s desire. But he devises a new plan and so opens a Wax Museum and this time includes a Chamber of Horrors depicting all kinds of lavish and gruesome death, with figures made at his instruction. Well, almost all the figures, for Jarrod holds a secret locked tightly inside his genius, he is inspired when he sees people who resemble his old figures. They are so perfect, so beautiful and so much better than his sculptors could achieve…and just lingering there, in the fragile human state between immortality and death that we all inhabit: life. What is a mad genius to do?
In a similar twist of fate, Vincent Price again stars as mad millionaire Frederick Loren in House on Haunted Hill, a film noted for its opening sequence of absolute darkness and a woman screaming. I can only imagine how the hair rose on the back of people’s necks in darkened theaters in 1959 as they listened to the ghosts, chains, and cries of the disembodied. In the film Loren is hosting a “Haunted House Party” at an actual haunted house at his spiteful wife, Anabelle’s request. Indeed, Loren and his wife are very much in the “hate-you” stage of their marriage and he suspects her of infidelity, something she says he will never catch her at so he cannot have excuse to divorce her and leave her penniless. So from the depths of this bitterness a little amusement is contrived between the two: a party at which five complete strangers are asked to come and stay in the house overnight, and if they choose to stay and live until morning they will each receive $10,000. The guests are unusual: a test pilot, newspaper columnist, psychiatrist, an employee of Loren’s, and the house’s owner, Watson Pritchard. Pritchard barely lived through a night in the house previously and found his brother’s murdered body there.
Each guest is supplied with a room, a .38 ACP caliber pistol, and the option to leave before midnight, when they will be locked in by the caretakers. Every guest decides to stay, but before long the place is crawling with unexplained sightings: a head of a previous guest in a jewel box, a phantom in the basement, and the hanging corpse of Anabelle Loren in the stairwell. Yet all is not as it seems, though the fact that five people had died in that house previously was not enough to dissuade this new batch from fleeting. So five guests once again, minus the host and his now deceased wife, inhabit the halls for those few hours, little suspecting the mad genius of their host. For he does have his own plan, to be sure, for the evening, for his wife, and everyone’s life hangs in the balance in his macabre cat and mouse game.
What surprised me was how much I enjoyed the suspense of these old films and one particular scene in House on Haunted Hill made me nearly go through the roof, it is that startling! Yet neither tale is direct horror, for very little is shown that could be construed as horror: no loose body parts other than the aforementioned head, no chain saw massacres, no vengeful, bloody deaths, only a surreal, psychological thrill of “what if?” What if a man with a beautiful soul and incredible talent was double-crossed, mutilated and unable to continue his craft all because of the greed of another? Who then would he become? And what if a man wanted to find out if his wife was cheating on him, once and for all? Would he use a haunted house to achieve that end? Hmmm, perhaps. And perhaps I will see you again, if I may double dare you to do so with Vincent Price, outside the House on Haunted Hill or visiting the House of Wax?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caitlin Horton is a 20-something reader, seamstress, and history buff. She lives a life blessed in the knowledge that she is God’s child, and her life has a purpose in the scope of His plan. She encourages her readers to remember, every day can be like Bilbo’s “adventure” if you’re willing to take the “ordinary” and add some “extra” in front of it!