Flat-out Fun

Don 3-D glasses, brace for scary delight, Vincent Price's 'House of Wax' is coming.

Maryland Film Festival

April 28, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

True, the glasses are goofy-looking, and the strain on your eyes can be a bit much. But when 3-D movies are good, they're worth the headaches.

Like when the evil henchman from House of Wax jumps out of the audience and onto the screen. Or when a desperate Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder lunges for your hand while she's being strangled. Or when the eyeball in Friday the 13th Part 3 lands in your lap.

Ladies and gents, that's entertainment: the kind of good time only a 3-D movie can provide. (And the headaches don't last that long, anyway.)

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's Arts & Society section had the wrong date for an online chat with Survivor star Colleen Haskell, a Maryland native who will be introducing a film Saturday at the Maryland Film Festival. The chat is scheduled for noon Thursday at www.SunSpot.net/filmfest. The Sun regrets the error.

The fourth annual Maryland Film Festival will all but literally reach out and grab its audience Saturday at the Charles with a screening of the original 3-D version of House of Wax, starring Vincent Price as the crippled owner of a ghoulish 19th-century wax museum and Phyllis Kirk as the lovely young woman who looks a little too much like Marie Antoinette for her own good. The 1953 film stands as the most profitable, and possibly the best, 3-D movie ever. It's certainly the most entertaining.

For the uninitiated, 3-D means the images onscreen have dimensions of not only height and width, but also depth. When the effect works properly, you feel as though you're witnessing an actual event, not just a film. It's a little like watching a play from the front row: Things pointed at you hover just before your eyes, the table lamp looks as though you could flick it on, actors seem to step on and off stage.

Few would claim that 3-D films constitute great art; roughly half of all 3-D movies are horror films, and many others feature women with oversized chests. After all, the idea is to surprise you, to get you to open your eyes wide by shoving all manner of things right at your face.

Alfred Hitchcock, in Dial M for Murder, tried to use the process for dramatic effect, adding depth to what was essentially a stage-bound play, and limiting the attention-grabbing effects to just two. The result is interesting, but probably not worth the effort it took for Hitchcock to film the story in 3-D or for audiences to wear the necessary glasses.

Seen flat -- that is, in traditional 2-D -- these films look pretty strange. People are always throwing things at the camera, staring ominously at the audience, walking with outstretched arms. (SCTV's spoof, 3D House of Pancakes, featured John Candy thrusting a plate of flapjacks at the audience, his eyebrow cocked menacingly.)

'Wax' melts inhibitions

No doubt about it, 3-D is a gimmick, and should be enjoyed as such. That's what makes House of Wax an experience not to be missed (and I'm not saying that simply because I'll be your host for Saturday's 11 a.m. screening at the Charles).

How cool is House of Wax? So cool that, even without the third dimension, it's a pretty good movie. A remake of the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum (with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, shot in early two-strip Technicolor), it marked screen-legend Price's first foray into the horror biz. It also stars Phyllis Kirk and Carolyn Jones, best known for their TV work: Kirk on The Thin Man series, Jones as Morticia on the original Addams Family.

The movie is creepily atmospheric, the music plenty eerie, the bad guys all sorts of sinister. Thanks to the 3-D effects, the opening scene, which features a fire and sets the stage for the star's peculiar flaws, seems nearly to singe audience members' eyebrows. And much of the action is set in a building filled with lifelike wax figures; now that will give anyone the shudders.

Heck, this film's even got hovering disembodied heads. Who wouldn't have a good time with that?

The 3-D process is nearly as old as photography itself. Our great-great-grandparents gazed into handheld stereo viewers that, when used to view cards printed with almost-identical photographs, gave the illusion of depth. The difference between the photographs was that each was shot from a slightly different perspective.

The process is simple: When you trick your eyes into seeing the two images as one -- either by placing an actual barrier between the images or separating them optically -- your brain adds depth to your perception.

Thus, to make a 3-D film, the same image must be photographed twice. Until the 1950s, two cameras, or at least two lenses, mounted side by side, were used. Later, the development of a new lens enabled filmmakers to shoot a double image with just one camera.

In theaters, special glasses serve the same function as the old-fashioned stereo viewers. Sometimes, as at the Charles, polarizing lenses (that can bend light) are used to separate the images being projected onscreen.

Put the two images together in your brain, and you get Vincent Price reaching out to the audience. (The Charles' system, which uses a drive belt to ensure that the projectors move in synchrony, was installed in the theater more than 20 years ago --for a screening of Dial M for Murder.)

Coloring the image

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