Warner Bros. originally commissioned this project to be the pilot episode for a supernatural detective series to be titled "House of Wax" but the film was deemed too violent and disturbing for network TV. New scenes were then added to boost the running time and a pre-credits sequence (narrated by William Conrad) explaining the also newly-added gimmicks "The Horror Horn" (an alarm urging people to close their eyes and cover their ears) and "The Fear Flasher" (flashes of red light heeding a warning that things were about to get violent) were added so the film could play theatrically instead. Surprisingly enough, it all comes together extremely well thanks to fine production values, good writing and an excellent cast.
Handsome, suave, wealthy lady killer Jason Cravette (excellently played by Patrick O'Neal) is terrorizing Baltimore; strangling young ladies and then marrying their corpses! But his reign of terror seems to end after he's apprehended by authorities and sentenced to die. While being transported elsewhere on a train, he's secured to a heavy steel wheel, manages to unscrew it, get his hands on an axe and leaps off the train into the river below. With his arm still cuffed to the wheel, Jason starts sinking to the bottom and is forced to use the axe to chop off his hand! The authorities assume he's dead, but they're wrong as Jason actually managed to survive and is hiding out in New Orleans. There, he gets a special feature made for his arm stump; a base where a detachable hook or meat cleaver (!) can be placed, hires a beautiful, oblivious hooker (Laura Devon) to help him and then returns to Baltimore to get revenge on those who had him put away. Meanwhile, a pair of amateur sleuths; debonaire ladies man Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova) and his aged partner Harold Blount (a wonderful Wilfrid Hyde-White), investigate when a local judge turns up missing. The men also happen to work at the House of Wax exhibit, giving guided tours and lectures about famous murderers.
I personally think the premise would have actually made for a great series myself, but since that never happened we can at least thank Warners for getting an excellent print of this out on DVD. It's very entertaining, looks great, has a nice period setting and the roster of character actors give it their all. The standouts are clearly O'Neal and Hyde-White, though Jeanette Nolan (as the killer's aunt), Philip Bourneuf (a police detective), Tun Tun aka Jose Rene Ruiz (a Mexican dwarf character actor who plays another worker at the museum) and Marie Windsor (a whorehouse madam) do nice jobs, as well. The cast also includes Suzy Parker, Wayne Rogers, Richard O'Brien and Berry Kroeger. Also look for an unbilled Tony Curtis in a cameo.