Max Carlton’s script for Nightmare in Wax, ingeniously uses for the first time, the Hollywood community as a backdrop to the Wax Museum horror story. It is a film populated by backstabbers, dealmakers, and stupid as well as shallow people. All except Vince Renard, a former Hollywood make-up artist, played by Cameron Mitchell, with an eye patch. According to himself, he’s okay! So named after Vincent Price, star of House of Wax, as well as a nod to the director of that movie Andre de Toth who was blind in one eye.
Vince has been disfigured at a Hollywood party by Paragon Studios’ (again, so named after Carlton’s production company) head honcho Max Black, when he threw a glass of spirits at Vince while he was lighting a cigarette. The resultant inferno and disfigurement of Vince led to no charges being laid against Black – it was an “accident”. And how true! You never see a Hollywood star get the death penalty do you? Even Tom Neal (1914-72 heart failure) got away with murder – another story. Certainly machinations in Hollywood prevent such things from happening or things get hushed up or offenders get a slap on the wrist. Anyway Max Black is free to continue to run Paragon Studios!
Told by the love of his life Marie (she’s a Paragon Studios star who’s been on the casting couch with Black – or maybe not!) that he’s “overly sensitive” about losing an eye and half his face… Max turns to working at the Movieland Wax Museum – It really opened in 1962, closed in 2005 and was demolished in 2016. There he creates “zombie” wax exhibits through the use of some kind of tranquillizer he injects into the back of the neck of Paragon Studio stars, who have recently “disappeared”. They now appear as exhibits at the wax museum, occasionally blinking at a perturbed wax museum guide.
Of course there’s a vat of wax bubbling away in the basement where Vince works on his latest “masterpiece”, the last person to disappear. It would appear that their heads have been removed as they sit on a workbench being touched up by Vince.
Carlton’s script seems to encompass the bitterness of the individual spurned by a major studio, as well as the bitterness of someone spurned by the one they love.
It is a netherworld where the person who has been cut out of the big picture in terms of the Hollywood community lives – no longer being given a chance to be a part of the “real” La-La Land/Hollywood Dream.
The make-up used to show Vince’s burned face is also not quite “real”, in fact it’s rather phony. It also symbolise the phoniness of Hollywood and the fact the actual make-up artist failed and is not “real” in terms of the Hollywood Dream. Furthermore there is an appearance by the band the T-Bones, which is also artifice, as those who recorded their studio recordings were session musicians, of which the song used is one, and they were never the same as the T-Bones who performed in public. It’s a netherworld where Vince drinks alone sketching in the bar where go-go dancers perform in front of the band. He is an artist removed and living in a seedy dream/nightmare working on his exploitation art.
If there is any RKO connection at all, it is the very good background music by Paul Sawtell (1906-71), who scored many RKO movies at the start of his career. Nightmare in Wax uses a lot of his stock music.
“I’m a terribly nice man,” poor Vince muses to one of his “zombies” just before the police turn up to investigate the disappearances. They make it clear to Vince that they think what happened to his face really was an “accident” – and don’t you agree Vince?! They turn a blind eye, no pun intended.
One of the cops is B and Z-movie stalwart Scott Brady (1924-85 pulmonary fibrosis) whose detective partner, played by future B-grade horror and sci-fi film director John ‘Bud’ Cardos (1929-), speculates: “Maybe some nut doesn’t like actors.” Quite! And the Max Blacks of the world may not like the Cameron Mitchells of the world either.
The film climaxes with a couple of chases, including one with a go-go dancer who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “discretion”. The chase is probably the longest and scariest piece of foreplay ever as they cover the entire building and she still wants to kiss him. Sadly, Vince does murder her.
In the end though it’s Max Black’s movie, the head of Paragon Studios. Not only does this man, dressed in black with dark sunnies who gets driven around in a black limo, seem like the Prince of Darkness himself – he even survives Vince’s attempt to dip him upside down in a vat of boiling wax! In fact, he has control over Vince even after destroying his face and career, as he laughs maniacally at Vince while dangling over the boiling vat… and the “zombies” start to laugh too… then it really was all a dream!
Finally, at the end of the picture, Vince has the power, when he wakes, not to be rude to Max Black at the party and literally, save face and his career. A Hollywood cautionary tale: be nice to everyone. Or else it really is a Nightmare in Wax to repeat over and over!
Carlton, who also wrote The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962), which also had a built-in effect of a head on a bench, reveals at the end of Nightmare in Wax that these supposedly severed heads are really an effect – they are not severed heads at all, whereas in Brain the effect was preserved.
Carlton – like how the wizard is revealed in the Wizard of Oz – not only reveals the effect, he also pulls back the curtain on the underside of Hollywood, a place which he knew with his possible mob connections, with its casting couch and all powerful studio heads, its incestuous relationships among the stars and the forgotten and disenfranchised who once played a part in the making of movies.
It’s kind of The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) meets House of Wax and is a poison pen letter as opposed to the love letters to Hollywood that exist to this day. The phoniness of the movie is deliberate, and the trick with the heads is a part of it, and in the end, even the whole story is phony, as it turns out to be all a dream.
It’s all a netherworld, as Paragon Studios doesn’t really exist, like the film’s credentials as an RKO Picture! There’s something about this original screenplay of Nightmare in Wax produced independently by the real Paragon international Pictures, which sets itself apart! Paragon International Pictures certainly does exist, if not the studio, and Carlton died for it! Carlton is forever enshrined in Nightmare in Wax as the martyr/protagonist artist Vince Renard, forever at the mercy of the omnipotent Max Black.
There is also another dynamic. The make-up supervisor on Nightmare in Wax is Martin Varno (1936-2014 no info). He is credited as Martin Varnaud and the spelling Vince Renard’s name is often spelled Renaud in some media. Varno was the writer of bad movie cult item Night of the Blood Beast (1958), a career in writing that ended with only that credit because he ruined his career and reputation over $700 owed by the Cormans! Is Varno/Varnaud really Vince Renard/Renaud and Rex Carlton the Max Black character whose career he depends upon!! The mind boggles.
Meanwhile, there is some controversy over how much of the script left in Nightmare in Wax is Carlton’s, as Cameron Mitchell (Vince) is said to have rewritten several scenes, adding the weird touches such as the dream within a dream and dropping other scenes.
Mitchell’s hammy performance as Vince was also apparently Method – he probably insulted a few people over the years, judging by his career at this point – as he monstered make-up man Varno, smashing his make-up case, during production. Varno may not be gay, as Carlton was. Were Varno and Carlton “friends”/drinking buddies? Thus the Varno reference in the movie. Or was Carlton rubbing in Varno’s “blacklisting” by the studios over his Writers Guild pursuit of money from the Cormans?
Nightmare in Wax is about how those who were not a part of the Hollywood studio system survived by producing exploitation and in this case made art at the same time – with Vince scribbling away in the bar and not a studio office. The movie is considered trash and not “real” art as it was made quickly and for peanuts on the periphery and dumped on the market.
Like Savage Intruder, which was made around the same time, the film carries the image of Hollywood as essentially corrupt and seedy, despite the glamor. It is a rare snapshot of time and place as it encompasses all that is phony about the Hollywood Dream! It’s when and where Manson met Hollywood although Nightmare in Wax predates Manson.
Just add one of Vince’s “zombie” drug syringes into the mix as well and we have Hollywood in 1969. Perhaps Vince’s dream was a drug-induced one!
Sadly, Carlton may be forgotten today but this final screenplay, in conjunction with Mitchell, is his masterpiece, even if he never saw the finished product get released.
In the end, Carlton was a man out of his depth as Vince at the end of Nightmare in Wax is out of his depth. Yet Carlton went into production with both eyes open and as a one-eyed artist with a vision. He made the low-budget movie Nightmare in Wax and that is not pretentious bullshit!
The film was directed by Bud Townsend (1921-97 no info), who went on to direct the disappointing cannibal themed Terror at Red Wolf Inn (1972) and nothing much else.
Everyone is capable of a “masterpiece”, they only need to be taken in context.
It’s also sad Nightmare in Wax is still dismissed by nearly everyone just as I did originally. It’s hardly solid gold, but for Crown International Pictures drive-in fodder, this is something special in the Hollywood wax museum context. With a bit more gore, nudity and open eye sockets, it may have a better reputation among horror enthusiasts!
Then we move onto Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), which has no gore either. This one is set in Victorian England and features a number of stars known for the Universal Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolfman movies of the Golden era of Hollywood. This time it’s Dupree’s Wax Museum. Being a Bing Crosby Production, it is not an exploitation horror picture, although they scored a hit with Phil Karlson’s (1908-82 cancer) actioner Walking Tall (1973) the same year. Terror in the Wax Museum plays more like a television movie.
The wax figures which apparently come to life and commit crimes are really people, or one person in particular, who is a murderer. It’s all a bit of a mystery and its good to see some old pros go through their paces. Remembered fondly by some people who were scared by it as children, I’ve watched it a few times and it too lives in its own little universe. Like Nightmare in Wax you can view it on Youtube.
Let’s not forget a couple of cultish fun films Waxwork (1988) and its sequel Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992). Both of them were written and directed by English producer Anthony Hickox (1964-). He also did Hellrasier III (1992) and Warlock: Armageddon (1993), both of which are underrated. However, the Waxwork movies are more fun than those two movies, which are strictly horror despite some tongue in cheek flourishes. The Waxwork films are about the possible end of the world at the hands of the Devil and his helpers. The first is set in a wax museum where the horror figures are the gateway to another dimension. Of course the first movie has a bubbling vat of wax at the climax!
I won’t go into these films in too much detail. They are good and are available on a double-bill Blu-ray. Check them out if you are intrigued. They are not strictly horror and the second one has only a tenuous link to a wax museum.
And I almost forgot the Italian The Wax Mask (1997) from a story by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Meant as a film to be directed by Fulci, unfortunately he died three weeks before shooting commenced. There are the usual Argento touches such as gloved hands (was it Argento as usual?), a high level of gore and just add a little kinky sex and some nudity. Wax figures of Argento and Fulci make prominent appearances and there is a hypodermic needle in the neck just like Nightmare in Wax. There’s also a nod to Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)with a living dissected dog. Actor Robert Hossein (1927-) looks like J Carrol Naish (1896-1973 emphysema) in Al Adamson’s cult favourite Dracula vs Frankenstein (1971) which, incidentally, also features a Chamber of Horrors. His mad wax museum proprietor has a far more complicated way of “embalming” his victims. Of course it all ends in a conflagration and the ending is pure Italian horror lunacy!
Finally there is the “remake” of House of Wax (2005), which totally reimagines the wax story into a “wrong turn on the highway leading to an isolated town cum slasher movie”. Here, the town and nearly all of its inhabitants are actually made of wax – including the museum, bricks and all, of the title.
Filmed on the Gold Coast in Australia, but set in rural United States, it has often been thought of as a good movie only if you want to see Paris Hilton (1981-) get murdered. I’m actually a Paris fan and thought she acquitted herself well in the underrated comedy The Hottie and the Nottie (2008).
This version of House of Wax is gory and again there is an evil character named Vincent, who has a scarred face and wears a mask. He also has a charming twin brother who is also evil who helps lure people to their deaths. They inhabit the town where the “world famous” Theresa’s Wax Museum operates, encasing people alive in wax and using them as townspeople, in some sort of overflow effect from the museum itself.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (1974-), who has directed a lot of Liam Neeson movies of late, House of Wax appears to be a personal horror of sorts, for its writers anyway, as it was written by a pair of twins: Chad and Carey Hayes (1961-). They may not have been conjoined twins like in House of Wax but they’ve certainly had fun on the horror scene. They are responsible for the screenplay for The Conjuring (2013) and the earlier The Reaping (2007). They also wrote the exorcism movie The Crucifixion (2017).
House of Wax is better than all three as a horror, in that it’s a classy slasher and not a silly supernatural story. Here the heroine has her lips super-glued together and a finger cut off by garden clippers, while others are decapitated and Paris Hilton gets a stake through her head. What more do you need?
There is a small backstory to the production of House of Wax, as an entire soundstage at Warner Roadshow Studios was engulfed in flames and destroyed when they were filming the climax of the movie. It took ten fire crews to extinguish the blaze after a large vat of wax (yes again used in the climax!) turned over onto gas burners, which further ignited several large LPG cylinders. The cost of the blaze was estimated at $10 million. I’m guessing that most of the footage had already been shot for this scene, as it appears to run in full on screen. It’s not surprising that there was a fire as there are a lot of flames in the exciting climax in which the entire museum literally melts!
A composite of Wrong Turn (2003) and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as well as its 1986 sequel, with a bit of Halloween thrown in – this film is worth a look. It’s also strange to watch the denouement as the flames in the night sky give way to morning, because the fire on the set actually happened on a Saturday evening. Kind of like life imitating art and the other way round with the writers being twins!
Incidentally actor Damon Herriman (1970-), who appears as Charles Manson (1934-2017 colon cancer) in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), appears as a hayseed in a key role.
There we have our journey through the world of nightmares in wax. Just like the poor go-go girl Theresa in Nightmare in Wax as she got chased around the entire building – I hope it turned you on!!