Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Movies: Wax philosophical.

To consider the 2005 remake of House of Wax, the second remake of the 1933 Michael Curtiz thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum, is to give it too much credit. The film is a standard issue youth-slaughter picture that is only redeemed by its climactic finale which takes place in what might be the most elaborately designed and surreal set to grace a contemporary horror flick. The plot, which has only a loose connection to the two previous incarnations of the flick, involves a group young folks who, on their way to a college football game, end up lost in a town where a pair of crazed brothers have trapped passersby and turned them into wax statues. The kids, including the dramatically inert Paris Hilton, are picked off one by one, until only a brother/sister duo remain to fight off the mad wax sculptors. This final showdown occurs in the titular House of Wax, an art deco influenced wax museum that is (in the film's least likely conceit – which is saying something for a flick about dudes who get their kicks making wax statues out of folks) made out of wax. As psychos and victims face off, a raging fire slowly melts the museum around them. The effect is notably original and remarkably pleasing, but I doubt many viewers will find it redeems the otherwise by-the-numbers lead up.

What I found most interesting about this flick is its membership in an odd little subgenre of flick that posits the existence of time-capsule towns, isolated from the rest of the world and preserved, throughout the South. Think of them as "Hee-Haw" versions of Doyle's Lost World.

I'm just thinking out loud here, so forgive me if I ramble.

The origins of this idea – the town trapped in amber – aren't, it seems to me, distinctly Southern. The archetype for it is, I suspect, the fictional town of Germelshausen, the creation of German novelist Friedrich Gerst├Ącker. His cursed village was later re-imagined as a Scottish village 1947 stage musical by Alan Jay Lerner (lingering anti-German sentiment from WWII necessitated the cultural reworking).

In the multiverse of horror flicks, these retrograde hamlets can be found dotting the globe – from the pagan worshipping island community of Summersisle of The Wicker Man to the perpetually-dawn-of-the-Cold-War era mining community of mutants in The Hills Have Eyes. Still, it seems like the South gets more than their fare share. The most famous horror example is, perhaps, Pleasant Valley, the cannibalistic Brigadoon of Herschell Gordon Lewis's Two Thousand Maniacs (revisited in the 2005 remake). In that flick, a South Carolina town decimated by Union soldiers in the War of Northern Aggression returns semi-regularly to trap lost tourists and turn them into barbeque. Despite several glaring anachronisms, we're supposed to understand that Pleasant Valley is stuck somewhere in is pre-destruction antebellum days.

Ambrose, the Louisiana (played gamely by Gold Coast, Australia) town in the most recent House of Wax, is also a fatal tourist trap, though the aim of our villains is primarily artistic rather than gustatory. Unlike Pleasant Valley, Ambrose seems to have frozen sometime in the 1960s: the movie theater perpetually shows 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. There are anachronistic cars parked all over town, but I think we're supposed to understand that the vehicles belong to the crazed brothers' many victims.

In a more artsy and pretentious, if no less weird and disturbing, vein, Lars von Trier's 2005 Manderlay involves a Southern plantation that, somehow, has managed to keep the institution of slavery running for another 70 years.

Interestingly, the fictional time capsule towns of the South are not always presented as horrific death traps or politically incorrect backwaters. Tim Burton's 2003 Big Fish features Specter, a fictional Alabama town that is stuck eternally in an idealized and perfect 30's/40's To Kill a Mockingbird era of the South.

I'm not quite sure why the South seems like such rich soil for time capsule towns. I would say that it has to do with the South's constant mythologizing of its own past, but the fact that, of the four movies mentioned, none of the directors is a Southerner (a Pennsylvanian, a Californian, and two Europeans) suggests it is not a regionally specific quirk. Perhaps it is a reflection of the economic status of the South – after more than a century of New South boosterism, the landscape of rural Dixie is still dotted with Depression era structures, Eisenhower era vehicles, and, unfortunately, the occasional Jefferson Davis era mentality. Again, though, the fact that at least on of these films was shot in Australia, on a set more influenced by urban art deco design, suggests it's got little to do with actual conditions in the South.

I don't have any real conclusions here. Just an observation on something I find curious.

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