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1953

First color 3-D film opens

On this day in 1953, the horror film The House of Wax, starring Vincent Price, opens at New York’s Paramount Theater. Released by Warner Brothers, it was the first movie from a major motion-picture studio to be shot using the three-dimensional, or stereoscopic, film process and one of the first horror films to be shot in color.

Directed by Andre De Toth, The House of Wax was a remake of 1933’s Mystery in the Wax Museum. The film told the story of Henry Jarrod (Price), a sculptor who goes insane after his partner burns their wax museum to the ground in order to collect the insurance payout. Jarrod survives the fire and later opens his own wax museum, featuring an exhibit immortalizing crimes past and present, including the murder of his ex-partner by a mysterious disfigured killer. The film’s heroine, played by Phyllis Kirk, eventually discovers that Jarrod himself is the killer, and that the museum’s “sculptures” are all the wax-covered bodies of his victims.

The 3-D filming process involved using two cameras, or a single twin-lensed camera, to represent both the right and the left eye of the human viewer. Images from the two cameras were then projected simultaneously onto the screen. Moviegoers had to view The House of Wax through special stereoscopic glasses to see its full 3-D effect. The lenses were specially tinted so that the viewer would see the right- and left-eye images only with the eyes for which they were intended. The 3-D process proved especially effective during the film’s climactic chase scene, in which the cloaked killer pursues Kirk’s character through a series of gas-lit streets and alleyways, with the viewer following along behind them.

The House of Wax launched Price on his long and successful career as a star of horror movies. It also jump-started the career of Charles Buchinsky, who played the supporting role of Jarrod’s mute servant; he would go on to achieve international fame as Charles Bronson, star of innumerable action movies. Earning an impressive (by 1953 standards) $4.3 million at the box office, the movie sparked an explosion of similar 3-D thrillers, including The Mad Magician (1954), also starring Price. (A forgettable remake, starring Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray, was released in 2005.) Apart from a brief resurgence in the 1970s, the popularity of 3-D lasted only about a year in the United States; its demise was generally blamed on the poor quality of the 3-D films produced.

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