Not many people know this, but when I was younger I wanted to be an architect and most of my influence came from either traditional Mexican looking architecture (popularized by the California Missions) or Art Deco, which was very popular back in the 20s and 30s. After watching the remake of House of Wax I realized one reason why I enjoyed it so much and that was because of the set pieces. They were beautiful and they were all in the vain of Art Deco. This of course wasn’t the first horror movie to use this creepily styled architecture, but the first movie to really utilized the creepiness that I personally remember is House on Haunted Hill (1999). With that said, I want to briefly touch base on why I love looking at Art Deco and why it can be creepy if used right… so with that, I welcome you to the world of Ambrose, LA.
Right off the bat, Ambrose is the type of town that seemed to have been lost in time and probably couldn’t keep up with recent changes, much like a lot of town. It began to decay and fall apart and soon… the people there just left or died. A sad ending to what could have been a great town. The buildings still stand but only to rot and fall apart from the weathering, but they are reminders of what once was. The architecture of the buildings gives us a glimpse of a thriving town during a period where times were innocent and things were simpler. However, the aspect of a rotting town is quite scary because Ambrose isn’t just a ghost town but rather a grim look in time.
This is why I think Art Deco can be used to really build at creepy and almost surrealistic atmosphere to a film. This was an architectural style that was really big in the 20s and 30s, mainly the 20s, and this was also a time in which America was at its peak coining the term The Roaring 20s. Art Deco began to decline once the Great Depression hit. Art Deco’s influence was mostly based on geometric shapes and a modernized view of classic Greco-Roman styles. However, as the style progressed it drew more and more from artistic movements known as Futurism, Cubism and Retro-Futurism. Considering this was a small town, I’m willing to assume that everybody knew everybody and the people who lived in Ambrose were happy, at least on the outside. The core of the town had a really dark secret, as small towns often do. What a perfect architecture to fit a perfect town. Art Deco shows us the progress and booming economy of our Nation, only to mask over the fact that the economy was quickly turning to pot.
Throughout House of Wax, the viewer will see a vast variety of building that have the Art Deco theme to them. The key buildings that bare this heavy influence are the House of Wax and the chapel. Other buildings such as the gas station and the theater have the Art Deco influence but not as heavily. Below, I will take you on a brief pictorial tour of Ambrose, LA.
If the notion of using Art Deco to show a dead town’s secret isn’t scary enough, I’ll revert to talking about House on Haunted Hill. Again, the architecture is used to create a haunting and nightmarish quality to the film. In this movie, the Vannicutt Institute is shown as this monolithic, God-like kingdom to house the criminally insane only again… it has a very dark secret. On the outside it may look imposing and awe-inspiring but it’s secret is very threatening. This film uses the architecture as a gateway into another world. Here, the building is presented to us as a ghostly, foreboding building; almost as thought it was a ghost of the time it was made in. You really can’t get any more retro than that, since most people immediately think of Art Deco when you mention the term retro. Hell, a lot of people don’t know the name per say but they recognize the style as being ‘retro.’
Art Deco can be a very beautiful thing with its curvaceous styling, futuristic appeal and overall beautiful design but it can also represent the ghost of the past. It can be seen as a haunting, eerie window into another world or it can be seen as an angel of beauty that hides a dark secret. Everything depends on the way it’s portrayed in the film and I’m shocked that not many horror movies take advantage of this design. House of Wax really brought the creepiness to the design but I think House on Haunted Hill really popularized it for modern audiences. As someone who is still interested in architecture as a hobby, I still love and respect Art Deco for how it impacted our society.