Over the years there have been some movies that featured strange gimmicks. Some like 3-D were a big deal, then went away, and then came back again. A bit weirder, though, were things like seats that shocked the audience, life insurance policies to protect viewers from death by fright, and even scratch-and-sniff cards that allowed the audience to smell what they saw on screen. Our film today, however, features one of the clunkiest gimmicks of all time – an early warning system to prepare you for the scary moments. It’s 1966’s Chamber of Horrors.
We begin with a very bizarre wedding ceremony. A twisted individual named Jason Cravette (Patrick O’Neal) is forcing a priest to officiate his marriage to a dead girl he has just strangled with her own hair. After the wedding, the priest quickly goes off to the police. Joining the cops in the investigation are Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova) and Harold Blount (Wilfred Hyde-White), a couple of amateur detectives who also happen to run the House of Wax. They specialize in creating exhibits based on actual recent murders. So, not only are they anxious to track down Cravette, but also to recreate his sick wedding in wax form. The two actually manage to track down the killer fairly quickly and Cravette ends up sentenced to be hanged.
Cravette is far too clever to be stopped that easily, though. While being transported on a train by the police, Cravette is handcuffed to a large metal steering wheel in the rear of a train car. While the police aren’t looking, he grabs an axe and tries to cut the chains. Unable to do so, he unscrews the wheel and jumps from the train into the water. Being dragged to the bottom, he has no choice but to chop off his own hand in order to escape death. However, the police all assume he has perished.
Several months later, Cravette shows up in New Orleans. He is there to purchase a unique new appendage – a stump with an assortment of deadly objects to replace his hand. He primarily uses a hook, but there are various knives as well. Cravette then becomes cozy with a woman named Marie (Laura Devon) who joins him as he returns to Baltimore. His plan is to eliminate the various people who put him behind bars. This includes the judge who put Cravette away, and the police sgt who captured him (Wayne Rogers…of M*A*S*H fame), and, of course, Draco and Blount. However, our two amateur sleuths catch on that Cravette has returned once the bodies start piling up and they prepare for one final showdown with him in the House of Wax.
Chamber of Horrors was originally produced as a TV pilot for a series to be called House of Wax. Supposedly, it was decided that this was too intense for TV and was morphed into a feature film. Added to the whole thing are the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn. So, whenever a gruesome act is about to occur, a high-pitched noise sounds as the screen flashes red. So…if you’re a bit squeamish, you can turn away. The opening narration of the film, provided by Robert Conrad, even tells us that there will be four such moments throughout the duration of the film. Problem is, these scenes are about as gruesome as an episode of the Teletubbies. The result is that the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn become moments of unintended comedy.
Putting aside this ridiculous gimmick, though, we actually have a pretty good little horror mystery. Patrick O’Neal is especially good as the villainous Cravette. His performance is part crafty serial killer, but also seems to be channeling a bit of a vampire vibe that give his character a bit of an otherworldly feel. He takes some simple moments and makes them quite sinister, like when he caresses Laura Devon’s cheek with his hook hand. On the other side we have Wilfred Hyde-White who is wonderful as Blount. I found him to be a really intriguing character. Here’s a guy whose hobby is to track down killers, yet he has his own sinister streak as he lovingly recreates these murder scenes with his wax figures. Hyde-White seems to revel in playing the two extremes of the character.
The film has a pretty good atmosphere to it; slightly reminiscent of the Hammer style. Still, there is something about the look of the film that says “made for TV,” probably because it originally was. The film also features an amusing cameo by Jeanette Nolan that is a lot of fun. There’s also a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Tony Curtis which seems to only be there to make the viewer say, “Hey, was that Tony Curtis?!?”
Though I found Chamber of Horrors to be entertaining, it does lack a certain degree of horror punch. I actually think that this would’ve worked better had it been used as the pilot for a TV series, as originally planned. And who knows, maybe someday someone will resurrect the idea of the Fear Flasher and Horror Horn. I can see it now: The Exorcist re-released with warnings so that those who don’t like projectile vomiting can look away. Don’t think they won’t do it.