House of Wax (2005) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Back in the late 90s, a handful of powerful Hollywood producers set out on what was then a very exciting venture for genre fans: Dark Castle Entertainment, a production company dedicated to making medium-budget horror movies with A-list casts. Inspired by the legacy of beloved 50s schlockmeister William Castle, Dark Castle was going to remake some of the producer-director’s most famous works, like House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts, in addition to focusing on original material. These movies weren’t going to be cheapies like Castle’s were – they’d have substantial budgets for the genre, top-tier creative teams behind the camera, and recognizable faces from film and television in front.. It was an inspired idea, and though now we look back on the venture with bittersweet memories, Dark Castle definitely left its mark on the horror genre. Calling Warner Bros. its home, Dark Castle had put out four features by 2004, all to middling reviews from critics and mixed responses from the paying public. But they weren’t about to stop their output; in fact, they were ready to embark on their most ambitious and expensive movie yet; this one a remake not of a William Castle movie, but the famous Vincent Price 3D shocker House of Wax. And this time it wouldn’t just be the wax that was hot; the film’s attractive young cast was going to be the main selling point – especially a notorious fame-obsessed heiress with a “hot” catchphrase (“that’s hot”). Would this gamble finally get Dark Castle the box office hit it craved, or would the whole thing go down in flames? Turn the lights down and fire up some candles – although not too many, now – because we’re going to find out WTF Happened to House of Wax (watch it HERE).

Dark Castle was formed by Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis and David Giler, three power players known for their billion-dollar-grossing blockbusters, like the Die Hard, Back to the Future, and Alien franchises. They were also well known for being three of the main creatives behind HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, which for years had doled out cheap scares and salacious sex with famous names in front of and behind the camera. They were taking their Tales from the Crypt sensibility to the big screen with their Dark Castle movies, which was absolute catnip to a young horror fan like yours truly.

Silver was the main force behind the company, heavily involving himself in every aspect of every stage of production. That would remain the case with House of Wax, although it was evidently Alan Horn, the chief of Warner Bros, who had the idea of remaking the Vincent Price classic – which itself was a remake of the 1933 chiller Mystery of the Wax Museum. Silver and his co-producer Susan Downey – yes, Robert Downey Jr’s main lady – were looking for writers with an interesting new take on the material for years to no avail. One day they had a meeting with twin brother screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, not exactly Hollywood heavyweights themselves with made-for-TV titles like Horse Sense and First Target to their credit. Silver asked the brothers if the title House of Wax meant anything to them, and they admitted to not having seen the original movie, but agreed to pitch their take on it.

Consciously not seeing the original, the brothers drew upon frightening experiences they actually had in their lives. Once during a camping trip a mysterious truck pulled up to them with its headlights ominously trained on the tents, drawing confused and frightened responses from the campers. Another instance saw the brothers accidentally fall into a roadkill pit – which is as disgusting as anything I can imagine, frankly. Both of these events made it into their pitch, helping convince Silver that he’d finally found the guys to bring House of Wax to vibrant life.

To helm the film, Silver found a 30-year-old director known for flashy ad campaigns named Jaume Collet-Serra, who’d never directed a feature film but was one of the busiest people in the commercial business, shooting for Playstation, Budweiser, Verizon among many others.

Unlike Dark Castle’s previous productions, House of Wax was intentionally skewing younger, casting actors in their early twenties to hopefully draw a crowd in a similar age range. It was, of course, Joel Silver’s idea to cast Paris Hilton in a supporting role. At the time, Hilton was one of the most famous, or infamous, people in the world, thanks to being a tabloid staple, starring in a popular reality show The Simple Life and, well, that sex tape with her ex that seemingly everyone had seen in 2003. Silver was betting that, despite her polarizing public image, Hilton would put asses in the seats. And he certainly could use the help, as House of Wax’s $40 million budget was Dark Castle’s largest yet, and quite an eye-popping sum for a B-horror movie.

The other main players in the cast would be familiar to any avid TV watcher: Chad Michael Murray of One Tree Hill fame was cast as bad boy ex-con Nick; playing his good-girl sister Carly would be 24 star Elisha Cuthbert; and playing Carly’s jock boyfriend was Gilmore Girls’ Jared Padalecki, still a year away from beginning his long run on Supernatural.

But the main stars of House of Wax would be its extravagant sets and ghoulish art direction. Overseen by Graham “Grace” Walker, who’d headed up the designs of Dark Castle’s Ghost Ship and Gothika, the sets for House of Wax would be built in Australia, the interiors at Village Roadshow Studios. The exterior of the small town was built from scratch where there once sat a lush green field. The town itself took approximately 10 weeks to build, with an estimated 2 miles of cable running underneath the streets in order to power up the various lights housed everywhere. For all intents and purposes, it was a fully functional town. Silver, being involved in every aspect, wanted to base the look of the town on Asmara, a city in Africa known for its eclectic architecture.

All the stops were going to be pulled for House of Wax, including an MTV special entitled Movie Life: House of Wax which would be a five-episode behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, as well as the social lives of its four stars. Having MTV on set allowed for a rare glimpse at the ins-and-outs of the making of a Hollywood film, capturing the highs and lows of the enterprise. Naturally, it helped that Paris Hilton was in the cast, since everything surrounding her was already a reality show, so why not capitalize on that by airing the show weeks before the film’s May 6th premiere?

House of Wax (2005) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The show actually gave fairly interesting insight into the production of the film. Early on we see just how meticulous Silver is about the project, as he looks over every actor’s hairstyles and costume, almost like a judge in a contest. Paris being Paris, the character of Paige’s clothes were not to her liking because it clashed with her own signature style; most likely she needed prompting – from Silver or someone else – to remember she wasn’t playing herself in the film. She was certainly reminded of that on her first real day of acting. During the first campout sequence where Paige and Carly have some girl-talk in the middle of the night, Paris couldn’t be urged to get to set thanks to an anxiety attack. While moonlight was burning, Paris sat in her trailer for an extended period of time before being successfully coaxed out by her acting coach and the on-set nurse. It’s to her credit that Paige is ultimately so much different than Paris, so the acting coach really did pay off…

All jokes aside, it does appear as though making House of Wax was a rough ride for all involved. Jared Padalecki, much to his chagrin, only found on while on set that he’d really have to be sprayed with a hot wax-like material during Wade’s creepy mummification sequence. Elisha Cuthbert actually had her lips glued shut for the scene where villainous Bo traps Carly and seals her mouth closed. Because Cuthbert could not keep her lips closed for long durations of time while struggling, she suggested to the prop team that they use an actual glue to do the job. It worked out, and what you see in the movie is – at least for the most part – the real deal. Chad Michael Murray had plenty of bruises by the time shooting was over, especially thanks to a busted knee during one of the climactic sequences of Nick and Carly trying to escape. Not only that, he had all manner of things dropped on him from above, including a light fixture that accidentally hit his head. Thanks to the MTV special, we get to see Murray lose his cool on Collet-Serra bit, but who can really blame him after all that mess?

But all that was nothing compared to House of Wax‘s most notorious on-set disaster. About a month and a half into production, during a climactic battle between Nick and Bo, Chad Michael Murray noticed a curious thing when he hit the ground: his fingers were burning, like, literally bubbling thanks to the intense heat of the supposedly-controlled fire around him. This time, the fires were not under control, and before anyone knew what was happening the wall, and soon the entire set, was covered in flames. Thanks to the actual wax the production was using on nearly every piece of the set, the fire quickly became an inferno that could not be taken care of. What happened was that the wax had melted onto the flame retardant material that was on the walls and floors meant to stop any actual fires from breaking out, rendering it useless. Working with that much wax around so much fire was always going to be a dicey proposition, and now they knew just how dangerous it could be.

Thankfully, cast and crew rushed to safety outside, but serious damage was being done on the inside. Before it was extinguished by local firemen, the fire wrecked three entire sound-stages, plus all the equipment, props, wax figures and everything else it could get its flames on. Millions of dollars in damage, not to mention now the production was now without a good portion of its sets. House of Wax had just become a real-life horror movie for all involved, so the next time you watch this grimy little slasher movie, appreciate people almost died making it!

Naturally, production had to shut down and sets needed to be rebuilt. Two of the sets took a few weeks to be recreated, while another took several months. Many weeks went by before shooting could resume, which it eventually did. Paris’ infamous death scene was one of the last sequences to be shot, and it must be said the, um, “actress” was a trooper for toughing it out in a smelly and cold old sugar factory where the scene was shot. Worth noting: Paris wanted her character to be wearing heels while running away from the killer at night in the woods but that bright idea was nixed by Joel Silver, who thought it was – to quote him – stupid.

House of Wax (2005) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The big finale of the film sees the wax museum go down in a slimy heap, and this was achieved by blending footage of a detailed miniature of the building and CGI – some of the only CGI in the film, per the director’s request that things be done as practically as possible. To our knowledge, no footage of the set actually burning down weeks before was used in the final cut.

Once the movie was ready to be released, most of the marketing centered around Paris’ involvement. In an inspired move, the studio made no secret of the fact that she was going to get killed, and in fact played up that fact by having Hilton herself promote a “see Paris die!” campaign. During the spring of ’05 in L.A. it wouldn’t have been unusual to see people walking around with the “see Paris Die” logo emblazoned on their t-shirts. Again, you got to admit she was a trooper about it, and for her efforts she eventually “won” the Worst Supporting Actress Razzie the following year.

House of Wax opened the summer movie season on May 6, 2005; its main competition was Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven which opened that same day. Despite plenty of pre-release hype, the horror pic didn’t set the world on fire, opening with a rather unexceptional $12 million. According to writers Carey and Chad Hayes, Warner Bros. was expecting the movie to open big, and when it didn’t plenty of those involved were understandably dismayed. House of Wax would ultimately finish with a deathly $69 million worldwide, not nearly enough to recoup its $40 million budget. The Hayes brothers allegedly pitched the idea of a prequel to the studio that would center on the murderous brothers’ exploits prior to meeting our protagonists, but the studio wasn’t interested thanks to the film’s poor showing. And perhaps they simply didn’t want to risk another studio burning down…

But House of Wax has remained in the conversation for plenty of horror fans in the almost two decades since its release; there’s an appreciation for its mean-spirited attitude, its slow burn approach, and the excellent production design and make-up effects on display. And seeing Paris get a pole through her head? That’s hot indeed.

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

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