My sister came home from Sound Garden (one of the staples of Syracuse- The Sound Garden is our local record, music and movie store) with a fun bag of movies one day when I was about 11-12 years old. I sifted through some of the options- Queen of the Damned, Interview with a Vampire, and House of 1,000 Corpses. I begged her to watch House of 1,000 Corpses with me. “Absolutely not.” She was responsible for me when my mom was at work, and did not want to be the source of my sleeplessness later that night. “But we can watch this one- it’s from the fifties, so it can’t be THAT scary.” She handed over the DVD that I completely looked over. The cover was an illustrated picture of Vincent Price standing among the flames of a burning building. I sighed and agreed, because an old horror movie was better than no horror movie at all.
Much like the first time I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, my eyes were opened to an entirely new world in a genre that I was still exploring. It was so macabre, but in a fun way (I promise I’m not a serial killer, I don’t like kidnapping people and turning them into wax figures, and I definitely don’t prowl on people under the cover of night.) I’d always known of Vincent Price from afar, as the voice of Ratigan in the Disney movie The Great Mouse Detective. He was so handsome and dapper in this move that his charm throws you off. You assume that he’s the monster, but how could he possibly be? His charm is enough to smite even the faintest hint of murder suspicion.
I love this movie because of the nostalgia, yes, but there is so much more than just the precious memories I have of my older sister and I watching this together as youngsters. It opened the door to a new realm of intelligent and witty macabre that set a precedent for my taste in… horror comedy. It wasn’t exactly meant to be funny at the time of it’s release- quite the opposite. The movie makers wanted something new and sensational, which is why the movie was also shown in 3D. It had comic relief in some scenes, at the expense of some female characters taking a tour of the wax museum. As he leads the crowd of visitors through his grim scenes of mayhem and murder, Professor Jarrod (played by Vincent Price) jokes about the ladies needing “smelling salts” for their weak reactions to the wax scenes of death and utter shock. I remember audibly laughing out loud as I re-watched this movie to prepare for our recording of this episode. I had forgotten how funny it really was.
Besides the humor, the haunting monster reveal, and beautiful design of the movie itself, there’s that recurring theme of female intuition– Sue (Phyllis Kirk), the main female lead in the movie, knows that there’s something odd about the wax figures in Professor Jarrod’s wax museum. Even though she knows that the impossible is happening, the men around her can’t wrap their heads around what’s going on. Sue is the only one who can see what is hidden in plain sight. She knows down to her core that Professor Jarrod has killed her best friend Cathy (Carolyn Jones), and used her cadaver as the base for his Joan of Arc sculpture. Everyone tries to convince Sue that perhaps she’s just a little bit scarred after witnessing the death of her closest friend. While that may be true, Sue continues to question the facade of the killing-crazed professor. As the movie progresses and Sue’s fears come to fruition, she almost loses her life to Professor Jarrod, who plans on using her lifeless body for his beloved Marie Antoinette sculpture, his most prized work. She’s rescued, thankfully, by the very men that doubted her gut feeling.
When Sue finally can’t take wondering anymore and must have solid proof of Cathy’s murder, she does a little investigating for herself. She’s by herself in the wax museum after hours and approaches the Joan of Arc figure that uncannily resembles her deceased best friend. She climbs atop the statue and removes the jet black wig, revealing the straw-blonde hair of Cathy beneath- FINALLY a tangible piece of evidence that Sue was right all along! This victory is interrupted by the sound of Professor Jarrod’s glaring voice saying “You shouldn’t have done that, my dear,” almost as if he’s chastising a young child. Besides that emotional, terrifying realization that she’s alone in the museum with the murderer, your heart sinks for Sue- she was correct all along and there’s a possibility that no one will know, because she’ll be dead before the truth is exposed. We see this all the time in literature, movies, old folklore (Blue Beard comes to mind…), and even current news. You’ve probably experienced it yourself on more than one occasion.
I was at a really impressionable age when I first saw this film, so what I took away from it as a young girl has always lingered in the back of my mind- to trust my instinct. I think a lot of the time, society shapes us as young girls to ignore that feeling we get that tells us to be careful, to look closer, to think more deeply. There will be people you come across in your life that seem, well… slimy. And it’s okay to feel as though there’s something amiss, even when other people may not sense it. It also taught me to be vocal when I was uncomfortable. If Sue hadn’t said a word about what was going on or what she felt was happening, would she have lived? Most likely, Professor Jarrod would have boiled her alive with a vat of hot wax. So there’s that.
But it also taught me to break the rules to discover the truth. If Sue hadn’t “gone with her gut”, no one would have known about the real human bodies under the wax figures. She had to literally peel back the layers to discover what she’d known all along, and she had to go against what was socially acceptable to do so. I hope we can all take that to heart, and realize that to overcome the everyday horror we face- be it political, social, or fear of the world in general- we have to be brave and discover the truth, not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of others.
I know. Pretty deep, right?
- Abbegail Brown