After this message of extreme solemnity great splashes of red paint the screen (as seen above) as the credits run, which proves that someone, at least, was watching Corman movies. This is accompanied by the wailing of a female choir suggesting the howling of the damned. This is an extremely horrorshow moment that must have caused many a child in the audience to crap their pants, especially after being promised "Four Supreme Fright Points" - but more on those later.
Baltimore - the Turn of the Century. We are introduced to Jason Crevette (Patrick O'Neal) at his wedding. That the ceremony is taking place at night and without witnesses is odd enough; the fact that Crevette is forcing a terrified reverend - at gunpoint - to wed him to an obviously dead young lady cues us that the groom might not exactly be the stable one in this relationship.
After the wedding, Jason thanks the minister politely, pays him and allows him to leave - the frightened friar immediately scampers to the local police department where (as luck would have it) the rest of our major characters are palavering. Tony Draco (Cesare Danova) and Harold Blount (Wilfrid Hyde-White), the proprietors of a local House of Wax specializing in Murder Throughout the Ages- the Chamber of Horrors of the title - are returning reference material to their friend, police sergeant Albertson (a pre- M*A*S*H* and Astro-Zombies Wayne Rogers). It seems that Tony and Blount, besides being artisans, are also criminologists and unofficial detectives. Albertson's superior, Inspector Strudwick (Philip Bourneuf), has made it known in no uncertain terms that he wants no interference from amateurs. "Amateurs!" snorts Blount, in a high dudgeon, which is interrupted by the arrival of the minister.
Three weeks later, Crevette is still at large and is the subject of a new exhibit at the House of Wax. Blount is contacted by an old acquaintance, Mrs. Perryman (Jeanette Nolan), a nicely eccentric society matron, who wants Draco to track down Crevette, who it turns out is her nephew. When they have no idea where Crevette might be, she tells them he is still in Baltimore - after all, she saw him only the night before, stealing her jewelry. Wishing to avoid scandal, she has pressured Strudwick into allowing Draco on the investigation.
The Wax Boys spring into action, but it is Blount's protégé, the dwarf Pepe (José René Ruiz aka Tun Tun) who hits paydirt, bringing news of a prostitute who must dress in a bridal gown every night and lie perfectly still to satisfy her odd client's strange lusts. Draco, Strudwick and Albertson converge on the bordello in question and Albertson arrests the madman before he can strangle his new bride. "Excuse me," the madman says sweetly to the uncomprehending woman, before he is led out by the policeman.
Justice moved more swiftly in those days - Crevette's trial is speedy. Albertson testifies as to his arrest, and the important role Tony Draco played in bringing him to ground; Dr. Cobb (Richard O'Brien) diagnoses him as "sane enough to hang", and Judge Randolph (Vinton Hayward) orders him hung by the neck until he is dead, dead, dead. The end.
Ha! Not! We haven't even had one Supreme Fright Point!
On the train to prison, Crevette's escort, realizing that he's left his bags in the luggage car, handcuffs his prisoner to a brake wheel and leaves to retrieve them. Once alone, Crevette immediately goes to work, stretching to the extent his body will tolerate, until he manages to snag a nearby fireaxe.
THE HORROR HORN! THE FEAR FLASHER!
Crevette goes to work on the wheel and frees it from its spoke - he then leaps to what he thinks will be his freedom, as the train crosses a trestle. This is, however, a bad career move, as the trestle runs over a river, and the iron wheel - still attached to his wrist via the handcuffs - drags him down to the bottom. Crevette desperately swings at the weight, but underwater, the axe merely glances off the chain... so he hacks away at the only thing that might save his life: his wrist. Now, if you obeyed William Conrad at the beginning, this was a very long time to keep your eyes closed. And, as there was no dialogue, you probably wondered if it was over, and opened your eyes just in time to see Crevette swimming toward the surface as the water billowed red around him. Eek! (And you just knew there was something scarier and bloodier in there while your eyes were closed).
The wheel is found, Crevette's hand still wedged in the manacle. Crevette is declared dead. The end.
Ha ha! Psyche! You've only been subjected to one Supreme Fright Point!
Sometime later, a one-handed man walks the foggy night streets of New Orleans. We, of course, recognize him as Jason Crevette, even if he is clean-shaven (what a master of disguise!). He has come to the shop of a Chinese craftsman (Barry Kroeger, who is about as Chinese as I am) who handles, shall we say, "custom" orders. He has fashioned for Crevette a hook to replace his missing hand -but the hook detaches, revealing a socket into which many other instruments of a more ..."custom" nature may be fitted.
Crevette also finds on those very same streets Marie Champlain (Laura Devon), a street prostitute of unusual beauty, whom he plies with champagne and makes the usual "take you away from all this" offer. This time Crevette is not interested in strangling and then marrying Marie... he has other plans. Before long, Marie is attired in a new, stylish dress and is traveling in a train with the man she knows as "Jason Carroll" - a train bound for Baltimore.
Once there, Jason crafts a "meet cute" between judge Randolph and his Eliza Doolittle, who proceeds to charm the jurist. Several days later Randolph, a notorious womanizer, squires her up to an apartment he keeps downtown just for that purpose. Once there, however, Marie lets herself out and Randolph finds himself trapped with a man whom he thought was dead: Jason Crevette, who beats the older man down to the floor, then detaches his hook to replace it with a meat cleaver.
THE HORROR HORN! THE FEAR FLASHER!
Jason kneels beside his victim, raises the cleaver high... and the camera discreetly pans to the nearby fireplace. And the angelic choir wailing is heard. If you closed your eyes, however, that wailing was all you heard, and you could be pretty sure that whatever was happening up on that screen, it was terrible and bloody. After all, it was a Supreme Fright Point!
That night, a headless, armless torso wrapped in brown butcher paper is found in the fog. The authorities, as usual, are baffled, which means it's time to call on the assistance of Draco and Blount (and Pepe, as dwarf fan Andrew "Call Them Little People" Borntreger would hasten to add). Referencing a cryptic note found with the body, mentioning "The body of the law", the Wax Boys quickly narrow the field of possibilities down to a judge who hasn't shown up for work - Randolph.
Employing the 19th century version of the Good Old Boys network - the gentleman's club - Blount prevails upon one of Randolph's oldest friends to reveal the name of the woman the dead man had been trophying about - and thus does Tony Draco knock at the door of one Miss Marie Champlain, suavely delivering to her a trumped-up story about seeing her on the street, and wishing to use her as a model. This is just peachy by the man concealed in her apartment - Jason Crevette - who urges her to accept the offer.
Later accompanying Draco and Blount to a high society ball, Marie passes Dr. Cobb a note telling him that a patient has become seriously ill. Cobb leaves the party quickly, but the cab he climbs into is driven by none other than Crevette... and the unfortunate doctor finds himself strapped to an operating table as Crevette tells him about chopping off his own hand. The madman replaces his hook with a long, sharp scalpel...
THE HORROR HORN! THE FEAR FLASHER!
If you closed your eyes here, you were pretty sure that the Supreme Fright Point with the cleaver was much, much worse, but this one was still bloody and awful, and it was still bad enough to be considered a Supreme Fright Point because, after all, they used the Horror Horn and the Fear Flasher, and those wouldn't be abused, surely.
That evening, Blount and Draco, still in formal attire, are summoned to the City Morgue, where they are shown a gruesome display: two severed hands, identifiable by a ring as belonging to Dr. Cobb, along with another note: "Physician, heal thyself!"
The Wax Boys begin ratiocinating; someone is building a corpse, piecemeal. When Marie drops into visit Draco at the Museum, she is so startled by a wax likeness of Randolph (being prepared for a new exhibit) that she realizes what Draco has been implying to her is true... the judge and doctor are dead, and she is involved. She describes her employer to the Wax Boys; Blount walks to the old Jason Crevette exhibit, and pulls away the crepe mustache and beard, revealing - Jason Carroll!
Shifting into deduction overdrive, Blount susses out the method to Crevette's madness: Randolph, the Body of the Law; Cobb, the Hands of the Healer. This leaves Albertson, the arresting officer, as the Long Arm(s) of the Law, and as the Head... none other than Tony Draco, whom Crevette holds responsible for his capture.
That night, a heavy fog rolls in (I had no idea Baltimore was so foggy), as Albertson takes up a lone vigil outside the House of Wax. When Draco expresses concern that the policeman is alone, Albertson tells him that more men would simply frighten off Crevette, and besides, he took the madman alone once, and will do so again. Draco urges caution and returns to the Museum, where Blount and Pepe are showing Marie the new Crevette exhibit, now complete with scalpel hand and victim, and attempting to distract her with various murder anecdotes. That Blount - what a ladykiller.
Speaking of ladykillers - outside, a hearse ominously drives up to the Museum. Albertson immediately recognizes the driver as Crevette and draws his pistol, ordering the man to get down off the coach.
THE HORROR HORN! THE FEAR FLASHER!
Once he's down, Albertson orders the man to raise his hands, which he does... and we notice that Crevette now has two hands. The right one is made (ironically enough) of wax and conceals a derringer. Goodbye, Albertson.
If you closed your eyes during this Supreme Fright Point, you heard no wailing, just two gunshots, and missed one of the best surprises in the whole movie. Hardly a Supreme Fright Point, but then, the distributors probably felt that no one would pay full price for a mere three Supreme Fright Points.
Crevette works his way silently through the Museum, knocking out Pepe and Blount and menacing Marie, until Draco shows up and the requisite final fight scene ensues, the two men battling it out among the exhibits, Jason wearing his meat cleaver, and hacking off various portions of the wax images, just as he intends to do to Draco. Jason will eventually wind up impaled on the scalpel of his very own image, leading one to wonder if this could be termed suicide (not to mention about the liability issues of having something that sharp on one of the exhibits in your museum.
Some time later, Crevette is immortalized in wax - twice - in a recreation of his death scene. Draco looks a bit sadly at the wax semblance of Marie, as Blount reveals that, thanks to their testimony, Marie will be spending a minimal amount of time in prison as an accessory to murder. He then begins berating Pepe for messing about with the female dummy in the iron maiden exhibit. Pepe denies having anything to do with the new dummy, and upon closer examination, the men find that the woman is an actual corpse... as the men excitedly begin searching the scene for clues, we fade out. The end.
Like the previous year's Dark Intruder, Chamber of Horrors was a failed pilot for a TV series that was released theatrically. Where Chamber has it all over Intruder is production values - the budget is obviously larger, the sets richer. If the plot (crafted by genre stalwart Ray Russell and TV vet Stephen Kandel) is more Grand Guignol than Lovecraft, it is probably to the better, being more accessible to the average TV viewer. Why, then, was this series, so ripe with potential, not picked up? I fear that we need look no farther than our three leads - if, in 1972, it was felt that America was not ready for an Asian TV star, and David Carradine got the nod for Kung Fu over Bruce Lee - what chance did a series featuring three foreigners have in the more insular 1966?
Its TV origins also explains why the camera discreetly looks away during the "Four Supreme Fright Points", though the inception of the Horror Horn and the Fear Flasher are simply brilliant, and are rightly considered iconic devices. As my good friend and frequent Bad Movie Victim, Dr. Weasel will tell you, if you follow directions and hide your widdle eyes when the Fear Flasher makes its appearance, this movie can be terrifying like no other. It's the old horror movie axiom: the Producer cannot afford to show you whatever your imagination creates. For those of us who kept our eyes open during the experience, the response is usually, eh. That was a Supreme Fright Point?
This William Castle-esque publicity gimmick aside, Chamber of Horrors is a well-made, terrifically entertaining flick - I'm a sucker for this mystery by gaslight jazz - and its three main characters are instantly likable. Danova is appropriately suave and handsome. Hyde-White is chatty and amusingly garrulous, never at a loss for words or a suitable anecdote (alright, I admit it - this is who I wanna be when I get old) (or older, as Andrew would point out. If I were a dwarf, he would be nicer to me). And speaking of dwarves, Tun Tun is.... a funny little dwarf.
Patrick O'Neal probably gives the finest performance of a sadly undistinguished career as the multi-attachable Jason Crevette. Though the man is unquestionably mad, he is also ferociously intelligent and capable of great kindness to birds; he is also frequently amusing in an understated, sinister fashion without ever stooping to the quip-after-the-murder syndrome. Also, unlike another serial killer named Jason, Crevette is no sociopathic killing machine - he is chillingly precise in his predations. Bad Movie Law leads one to expect Crevette to kill the minister and the Chinese craftsman supplying his, ahem, armament... after all, dead men tell no tales... but he simply hands both men envelopes full of money and leaves. Nor does he kill Pepe or Blount during his assault of the Wax Museum - his duel is to be with Draco, and he has no argument with the others.
Also like the previously mentioned Dark Intruder, Chamber of Horrors is damned near impossible to find (though watch - now that I've said that, AMC will show it once a week for the next three years). In a day when almost everything seems to be coming out on DVD, we can hope that eventually these jewels will be once more be readily available to a public hungry for quality genre entertainment - but only if the viewer does not feel that their small screen origins somehow dull the jewels' luster.
William Castle would be so proud.
- August 6, 2000