"House of Wax": Abandon All Hope

"House of Wax" is a classic, of a kind. It's an electrifying exercise in that most disreputable of horror genres, the slasher movie. The Spanish director, Jaume Collet-Serra, freshly liberated from the world of TV commercials, is unafraid to push things too far, blood-and-guts-wise; and when he arrives at too far, he keeps on pushing. So when somebody falls to the ground with a big knife stuck in his neck, the director proceeds to show us a pair of feet clomping up to the spurting body, and then a big boot plunging down to jam the knife in even deeper. And this is one of the earlier scenes, before the movie really gets going.

The 1953 "House of Wax," which starred Vincent Price, is one of the most fondly remembered of the 3D movies of its period. Collet-Serra's "House of Wax" is related to that one in name only. The new film is frankly modeled on such '70s splatter feasts as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Halloween" (and, by extension, Herschell Gordon Lewis' pioneering 1964 backwoods bloodbath, "2000 Maniacs!"). But the new "House of Wax" is not a satire, like the "Scream" films. It plays its alarming carnage straight, and it's very scary.

The story is primordial. Six young friends are driving through deepest, darkest Louisiana (actually Queensland, Australia, where the movie was shot), on their way to attend some faraway college football game. There's a pair of lovebirds, Carly and Wade (beautiful Elisha Cuthbert and hunkish Jared Padalecki); Carly's surly brother, Nick (the scruffily charismatic Chad Michael Murray) and his doofus buddy, Dalton (Jon Abrahams); and a couple of sexual enthusiasts, Paige (Paris Hilton) and Blake (Robert Ri'chard). When night falls, they make the obviously idiotic decision to pull their two vehicles off the road into an empty field and camp out for the night.

Immediately there is menace. A battered old pickup truck appears in the flickering penumbra of the group's campfire, sits there mysteriously, and then rumbles away. There's also a foul odor in the air, and the first really hideous scene in the movie occurs when Carly, with Paige in tow, unwisely decides to seek out its source in the nearby woods — and winds up tumbling down a slope into a pit full of dead and gooey decaying animals. Nice.

The group soon meets the man who's made this mess — a leering, inbred yokel whose job appears to be clearing roadkill off the highways and dumping it in the pit. When Carly and Wade tell this character that the brand-new fan belt in their car has mysteriously become inoperative overnight, he offers to drive them to nearby Ambrose, a town so remote it doesn't appear on any maps. Naturally, Carly and Wade go with this guy, although, to their credit — for what that turns out to be worth — not without some reservations.

Richly justified reservations, of course. Ambrose is a ghost town. There are some houses, seemingly uninhabited; a movie theater (now playing: the nutso-sibling classic, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane"); and — hmm — a big wax museum, of all things. It's called Trudy's House of Wax, and it is constructed, literally, out of wax. Carly and Wade, definitely not wishing to linger now, manage to find the local auto-mechanic, a malevolent creep named Bo (Brian Van Holt). But he doesn't seem to have the type of fan belt they need in his shop. He does, however, have one up at his house — why don't they come up there with him? Like the idiots we increasingly know them to be, they do, and all too soon they make the dreadful acquaintance of Bo's twin brother, Vincent. This is when the movie really gets going; and it never lets up.

I have to say that I went into "House of Wax" figuring that any picture that featured Paris Hilton dying a bloody, horrible death had to have a built-in audience of at least several million people. Who wouldn't want to see this? But then I have to say that Hilton is actually pretty good — she seems natural, at ease. She can be sweet and appealing, she can be sexy (no stretch), and she can be a good sport, too, apparently: In a brief, funny scene set in the cab of a truck, we half-see her re-enacting on her boyfriend a maneuver made famous in her celebrated sex video. Hilton also has one of the movie's most spectacular death scenes — and this in a picture that's not at all short on them.

Most hardcore gore films are a bloody hash. The sort of people who are drawn to making them aren't interested in doing much more than grossing you out. Collet-Serra, however, working with the cinematographer Stephen F. Windon and the production designer Graham Walker, has created a claustrophobically dark and musty world in which feelings of fear and doom are the only emotional responses possible, and the most appalling events are quickly eclipsed by things that are far, far worse. "House of Wax" doesn't aspire to be art — please. But with considerable flair and admirable economy, it accomplishes its single, obsessive goal. It scares the bejesus out of you.

"Kingdom of Heaven": The War That Never Ended

With "Kingdom of Heaven," director Ridley Scott rehabilitates the historical action epic in the wake of the depredations recently visited upon it by the likes of Antoine Fuqua (with last year's "King Arthur") and Oliver Stone (with the very silly "Alexander"). Like those films, this is definitely an action movie — there's plenty of swordplay and mace play and barrels-of-boiling-pitch play, too. And the story is similarly set in a rich and tumultuous historical period — among the Christian knights who occupied the Holy City of Jerusalem in the late 12th century, and the vast legion of Muslim warriors who waited restlessly outside its ancient walls to take it back.

But Scott and his writer, William Monahan, have gone beyond the pursuit of simple historical incident tricked out with vintage violence. They've managed instead to fashion from the standard materials of medieval romance a rare thing: an epic whose action serves to illuminate ideas, and to make us feel the ominous resonance those ideas must still have for us more than 800 years later.

The story begins in France in 1184. A Christian knight, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), has returned from years in Jerusalem to seek out a son he's never known. This young man, Balian (Orlando Bloom), is now a village blacksmith, and has just lost his wife and child; he is despondent, and feels himself "outside of God's grace." His father urges Balian to return with him to Jerusalem, where he owns a thousand acres of land and is engaged in a bold cultural experiment. Balian is reluctant at first. But he is desperate for spiritual redemption, especially after he pushes a loathsome local priest into his fiery forge. ("I've done murder," he tells his father, who replies, "Haven't we all.") And so, hoping to find salvation in the Holy Land, he finally sets off on the perilous journey.

The Jerusalem in which Balian arrives, a few harrowing interludes later, is little like the one that had been sacked nearly a hundred years earlier by the first Crusaders, who slaughtered every Muslim and Jew within its walls. The city is now under the enlightened rule of the Christian King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), who, with his adviser, the battle-scarred Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), and an inner circle of loyal knights, cherishes a dream of Jerusalem as a "Kingdom of Heaven," a city in which Christians and Muslims can live together in peace, and worship God in their own ways.

But Baldwin is afflicted with leprosy — he covers his lesions with long white robes, and hides his rotting face behind a silver mask. He hasn't long to live, and his passing is eagerly anticipated by a group of resentful nobles, chief among them the arrogant Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and the maniacal Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson). These men are religious fanatics of a very familiar stripe. "To kill an infidel is not murder," one of them says. "It is the path to Heaven." They believe that no army that marches into battle under the banner of the cross of Jesus can ever be defeated, and they have begun carrying out murderous, unprovoked attacks on Muslim caravans in order to spark an all-out conflict. "Give me a war," Guy de Lusignan implores the demented Reynald, who will be happy to. "That is what I do," Reynald replies. "That is what I am. Someone has to be."

Observing this contemptible course of events with growing anger is the great Muslim warrior Saladin (played with enormous dignity by the Syrian actor and filmmaker Ghassan Massoud). Saladin admires King Baldwin's aspiration for peaceful coexistence among Muslims and Christians. But he has his own religious fanatics to contend with, and is increasingly resigned to the necessity of mounting an assault on the city with his army of 200,000 soldiers. He, too, awaits only the spark.

The movie is distinguished by the uniform excellence of its actors, and their unfailing disinclination to overplay a line or inflate a gesture. Orlando Bloom, in particular, whose Balian is the clarifying prism through which we view these complex events, gives a performance of striking stillness and reserve; there's no posturing in it. His eyes have a hooded intensity, a look of penetrating observation, and he seems to contemplate every word before speaking it. Indeed, some of the things he refrains from saying, but somehow communicates nevertheless, are as eloquent as those he does.

Some of the most memorable perceptions in the movie, however, belong to other actors. A warrior monk, portrayed by David Thewlis, tells Balian that he no longer feels any need for religion — it is a breeding ground of fanatics. "Right action" is God's only concern, he says, not blustering ideology. And Jeremy Irons' Tiberias ruefully admits that, while he once believed in the Crusades — in "liberating" the Holy Land from Muslim "infidels" — he now realizes that the endless battles have been mainly for wealth and land for the ransacking conquerors. It is impossible to hear these reflections and not be put in mind of the current situation in the Middle East. The movie isn't pedantic in any way, but it is chillingly instructive.

The film's power is subverted somewhat by our own over-familiarity with the conventions of the olden-times epic. The clanking armor, the flailing swords, the lords and ladies and the massed armies darkening the horizon — we've seen these things before, and, in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, for example, done just as well. We are no longer astonished by such commonplace wonders. But "Kingdom of Heaven" makes vivid for us some sad human truths. This is a wonder in itself, and a most uncommon one.