Label: Warner Home Video
Region: 1 (NTSC)
Released: December 9, 2008
Genre: Horror / Black Comedy
Synopsis: After surviving near-death, a demented necrophiliac hunts down figures involved in his conviction, building a cadaver from their remains.
Special Features: Double-billed with Brides of Fu Manchu (1966).
The lore behind this grisly horror comedy is somewhat legendary in cult film history: originally titled and conceived as a series very loosely tied to Warner Bros.’ 3D hit House of Wax (1953), the final production was deemed too graphic as a TV pilot, and was released to cinemas, rebranded as Chamber of Horrors, and goosed with two gimmicks, since post-rendered 3D was impossible in 1966: the Fear Flasher to prepare audiences for imminent violence, and the Horror Horn, which accompanied said Fear Flasher.
Right from the opening scene where villain Jason Cravatte forces a minister at gunpoint to ordain the former’s union with a corpse, the first question that arises is What the hell were they thinking? in terms of believing such a vengeful, dark story would pass any network’s Standards & Practices?
Instead of junking the pilot for the aborted series, veteran actor / producer / TV director Hy Averback either expanded the teleplay’s running time, assembled all the deleted material, or intentionally shot a pilot that could be released to fickle horror audiences, because Chamber is way too sophisticated for network prime time.
That isn’t to say it couldn’t work as a TV series. Stephen Kandel and Ray Russell’s story and the former’s script predates the black humour and gore of Tales from the Crypt by two decades, but this is a slick, briskly paced production with striking visuals, atmospheric cinematography, and an above-average score by B-composer William Lava. Put in more plain terms, this is an unknown classic.
The cast of seasoned character actors seemed to have had a ball – everyone plays their roles a little tongue-in-cheek – and the premise certainly exploits modern society’s fixation on grisly deaths and the sadistic criminal mind. Wilfrid Hyde-White and Cesare Danova play House of Wax owners Harold Blount and Anthony Draco, one showman, the other a part-time amateur criminologist frequently aiding the police when a case proves too baffling or weird.
Their police contacts ensure their gallery of grisly crimes are kept up to date, hence their fascination with Cravat (Patrick O’Neal, relishing his sicko role), originally deemed dead but quickly placed at the top of Baltimore’s Most Wanted list when key figures in Cravat’s conviction start to disappear and their remains are butcher-wrapped like artifacts from Se7en (1995).
Cravat is ‘building a corpse’ from the pieces of his victims – the judge’s torso, the lawyer’s ‘hands of the law,’ the prime detective’s ‘arms of the law,’ and last but not least, ‘the mind of his catcher,’ Draco. Each kill is accomplished using various implements customized to fit the tip of Cravat’s stump after he (incredibly) hacked off his hand to free himself from a dead weight in a river.
Although there’s no spilt blood or viscera, the killings are gruesome, Cravat is consistently delighted in meting out punishment to his peers, and Draco and Blount, aided by scupltor Pepe (little person José René Ruiz, billed as Tun Tun) frequently engage in ghoulish banter.
For a teleplay that runs (or was padded out to) 99 mins., this an extremely well crafted horror comedy with rock-solid plotting, structure, pacing, and marvelous dialogue. Draco’s insulting repartee with an arrogant upper class snot is elegantly sharp, and Jeanette Nolan (The Big Heat) is mordantly funny as Cravat’s aunt Mrs. Ewing Perryman, quickly establishing the class divisions between House of Wax entrepreneurs, the local coppers, and the spoiled rich nephew who was born rotten from day one.
Marie Windsor (Narrow Margin, The Sniper) plays an upscale Madame, Suzy Parker’s filmic swan song has her as a minor love interest for debonair Draco, Wayne Rogers (M*A*S*H) plays doomed prime detective Albertson, and Laura Devon (TV’s Coronet Blue and The Invaders), also making her next-to-last filmic swan song, is the strikingly beautiful strumpet, lifted from bars by Cravat and turned into an upscale accomplice to murder and mayhem. Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler) also has a brief cameo as a gambler in a men’s club where Cravat pays a hooker to enact his marriage to a cadaver.
Warner Bros.’ transfer is pretty good, taken from a gorgeous print, and double-billed with the Christopher Lee shocker Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), but this is a cult classic ripe for a special edition treatment, with commentary (perhaps Tom Weaver, who interviewed actress Windsor in 1996 for Starlog magazine) isolated score, and making-of featurette chronicling the studio’s attempt to launch a House of Wax series and reworking the film with gimmicks for cinemas.
Interestingly, O’Neal appeared with House of Wax star Vincent Price in Columbia’s 3D cash-in, The Mad Magician (1954), playing a detective who stops a madman from eliminating his greedy peers.
Writer Kandel scripted a huge amount of TV series in his lengthy career, but co-writer Russell is best known for William Castle’s dark horror comedy Mr. Sardonicus (1961) and Zotz! (1962), Roger Corman’s sci-fi classic X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963), Terence Fisher’s horror comedy The Horror of It All (1964), and the grisly CanCon classique Incubus (1982).
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review