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  • nickkarner

Waxwork (1988)


Irreverence is a very tricky ingredient when it’s applied to the horror genre. Levity can work, particularly when it’s 100% appropriate, as in The Thing’s “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding!” Too much wackiness however, runs the risk of alienating both sides of the audience. Half may be looking for a fearsome, aggressively violent ride and the other a chuckle fest featuring a few thrills and chills. In his feature debut, writer/director Anthony Hickox comes up with a brilliant concept that affords him ample opportunity to indulge in both comedy and horror elements without anything feeling out of place. Of course, the resultant Waxwork (1988), a lightly profitable film which really took off after it was released on VHS by its production company, Vestron Video, is a bit of a mess, but it doesn’t lack for ambition, nor style.

Hickox has always been something of a minor bad boy within the film world. A blood relative of British film impresario Lord J. Arthur Rank and the son of Anne V. Coates (Oscar Winner for Best Editing, Lawrence of Arabia) and Douglas Hickox (director, Theatre of Blood), he was a club promoter through the 80’s until he became interested in filmmaking. While he’s dabbled in a few genres, including action (wherein he described working with Steven Seagal as “a nightmare”), his first love has always been horror and it’s in that dark and controversial classification that he’s made his most lasting contributions to cinema. Much has been made about the story in which he paid for damages to a producer’s car by writing a screenplay for three thousand dollars in under four days. When one considers how fractured and episodic Waxwork is, I find this apocryphal-sounding yarn fairly plausible. It could just as easily be a part of Hickox’s mythos, but if it is indeed true, then a little self-aggrandizement never hurt anyone...much.

As a child, Hickox would visit the famous wax museum Madame Tussauds in London and wonder: “Would these things come to life?” The intriguing notion of inanimate objects taking on a life of their own was famously explored more than once on The Twilight Zone, among other entertainments. A huge fan of Hammer horror films, he crafted a tale which would allow him to be self-referential (in a pre-Scream/New Nightmare era) as well as throw in various beasties from the studio made famous by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. After having to forego with more well-known horror icons (like Jason Voorhees), he’d find ways to include vampires, a werewolf (intentionally designed to resemble The Howling’s wolves), a mummy, and the Phantom of the Opera. “I would've loved to have had Oliver Reed be the werewolf, but then we had John Rhys-Davies and he was playing a version of Oliver Reed, so that was great, too.”

In the best tradition of British horror anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Asylum, Hickox takes it one step farther and finds a clever way to organically introduce completely separate monster tropes and subgenres into a cohesive whole. A waxwork, a place I never visited growing up, opens in town and its mysterious proprietor, played by the brilliant David Warner (Time After Time, Straw Dogs, Tron), invites some young people to a “private midnight showing.” Boy-crazy China (Michelle Johnson, Dr. Giggles) seems to have a thing for older men, understandably so since Warner is pretty handsome despite his purple-pink-white-yellow ensemble, so she ropes the rest of her friends into visiting the wax museum “after dinner but before breakfast.” What begins as a larf for these way-too-old-looking college teens turns into a nightmare because each wax display is a portal to another dimension/world in which the evil spirits within murder their victims and steal their souls. Once every one of the eighteen spirits attain a soul, they’ll return to the mortal world and destroy it.

When casting director Caro Jones (responsible for casting some of your favorite 80’s movies including The Karate Kid, Back to School, and even Silent Rage and Mac & Me) asked who Hickox would like to play the super-rich but goodhearted Mark, he simply said “Get me that kid from Gremlins.” Zach Galligan will forever be known for his wonderfully sweet role as Billy Peltzer in Joe Dante’s 1984 classic, yet he attributes his decision to leave Hollywood and attend Columbia University right after Gremlins’ success the reason he never became a superstar. It’s very possible that he might’ve been able to carve out a nice career as a teen heartthrob or light comedy star, but admittedly, his screen presence always comes off as pleasant rather than anything resembling intense. He’s a very impressive under-player; perhaps too much so. When he’s searching the museum for his friends, his response to their disappearance isn’t unrealistic, but one would expect a more emotive actor to put a little more ‘oomph’ into their delivery. For now, he can at least stake his claim to fame as the lead in two dual-part film franchises, which isn’t anything to sneeze at.

The first ‘lamb to the slaughter’ is Tony (Dana Ashbrook, most famously Bobby Briggs on Twin Peaks), who steps into a dark forest and at first assumes he’s been drugged. “All right, who put the acid in my drink again?” Then he starts an amusing list of possibilities, which includes “holograms” and “hypnotism.” He wanders into the home of Rhys-Davies, who transforms into a werewolf and bites him. The wolf looks great but isn’t shown a great deal, with Hickox employing an extremely slow POV shot for the beast. It’s not particularly exciting, but effects artist Bob Keen’s work is solid, with a lovingly graphic shot of the werewolf tearing a guy’s head apart right down the middle. Keen’s iconic makeup effects work on the original Hellraiser established him as a major force in the horror world and he also lent his talents to such films as Lifeforce, Candyman, Hardware, and Dog Soldiers.

China is next on the chopping block and her segment may be the most fascinating and entertaining. Set in a gothic castle, she finds herself invited to a dinner hosted by a certain Count Dracula (noted muscleman Miles O’Keeffe). The production design for Waxwork is quite wonderful for a low-budget film, but this is no surprise since Hickox was able to convince then-recent Oscar winner Gianni Quaranta (A Room With a View, 1900) to sign a contract on a napkin and provide the beautiful designs which would distinguish the film from other fantasy-horror films. The dish served at dinner is “raw meat with sauce...a bit salty.” China is hesitant, but she thinks of it as “steak tartare,” pulling a ‘when in Rome’ attitude and dives right in. The contents of their exotic dish is appropriately bloody with both light and dark elements and it was apparently a mixture of different fruits including rhubarb.

Later, she discovers the entrée was made from her fantasy world fiancée, who’s strapped to a chair, with most of his leg missing. Hickox specified an all-white kitchen set, which works wonders as China is set upon by a horde of vampires and it’s a fabulously bloody mess. She forms a cross with two knives and holds it upon a vampire’s head for so long that it explodes. The photography here is frenetic but features three beautiful dollying closeups of female vampires as they approach China. DP Gerry Lively (Hellraiser 3 and 4, Friday) brings a level of elegance to his photography rarely seen in a horror film. One of them is impaled on a wine display and the corks pop out as they stick through her torso. China manages to escape their clutches, but is suddenly entranced by the Count, who sinks his fangs into her neck. According to Hickox, O’Keeffe, whose roles as Ator and Tarzan the Ape Man didn’t require him to do much in terms of acting, had to be coached word-by-word through his performance. Also, after the neck bite, Johnson went up to the director and said: “I don’t know if you could see it or not, but this guy definitely had a hard on.”

After these two fantastical sequences, the film begins to lose focus. A random boyfriend of China’s calls her mother at presumably 1 or 2 in the morning and gets a perfectly polite response rather than an apoplectic “DO YOU KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?!” He goes to the waxwork and gets shoved in. No fantasy. He just dies. Mark now has the hots for Sarah (Valley Girl’s Deborah Foreman), whose full name happens to be Sarah Brightman, which is extremely odd since Phantom of the Opera had opened on Broadway only six months prior to Waxwork’s release.

A stereotypically tough-talking, overworked Inspector Roberts (Charles McCaughan, Slaves of New York) bangs his desk, chain smokes, and stands in front of his standard-issue noir blinds. How do you get any paperwork done in an office with no light? To his credit, the inspector isn’t an absolute train wreck at his job.

He visits the waxwork, then sneaks in later to break off a piece from China, now a wax sculpture. Get your mind out of the gutter. You know what I mean. Unfortunately, he strays too close to a mummy exhibit and gets transported into an Egyptian fantasy, where he’s attacked and trapped inside a sarcophagus. This is an average scene, more action-oriented than horror, but it does feature the mummy stomping a poor peasant's head into a bloody stump.

I applaud Hickox for his efforts in lending some real heft to what’s basically just an anthology machine. The opening scene depicts an unknown man being shoved into a roaring fireplace face-first while Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” blares in the background. Random artifacts are stolen and the thief turns out to be Warner. Mark figures out that he’s the man who murdered his grandfather 40 years ago and Warner has made a pact with the devil to resurrect “eighteen of the most evil people who ever lived." Why eighteen? 6-6-6. Get it? This is all explained by a delightfully hammy paraplegic Patrick Macnee (This is Spinal Tap, The Avengers, The Howling). Mark and Sarah head over to burn this motherfucker down, pookie.

It doesn’t go over well and Mark gets shoved into a zombie display, which is fine, but the real treat is Sarah’s fate. She’s transported into the world of the Marquis De Sade, whom she’s had a fascination with throughout the film. Besides China’s sequence, these elegantly sadistic aristocratic fantasies seem to be hitting Hickox’s sweet spot and there’s a surprising amount of intensity considering the film often has a cartoonish energy, helped in no small part by Roger Bellon’s (The Unholy) silly, synthy score.

The Marquis, played with an erotic, villainous glee by J. Kenneth Campbell (Cobb, Bulworth) provides an air of genuine menace as he entertains a prince (a cameoing Hickox) by whipping Sarah for their pleasure. It’s strange, to say the least, because Sarah is inexplicably catatonic, as if hypnotized. The Marquis isn’t a vampire, but whatever. “First, I’m going to warm you up with the prince’s riding crop, after which I’m going to hand you to the prince and his consorts to use you like the whore you are. Then, my beauty, I shall beat you again until you die.” His words, barely spoken above a whisper, awaken something in Sarah and she’s totally into it. This sequence is shockingly bloodless considering the dried blood splatters on the columns Sarah’s strapped to and how many times she’s whipped. I’m not looking for absolute brutality here, but her back should be torn wide open. It begs the question of whether this would’ve hurt or enhanced the film. Either way, Campbell and Foreman are pretty fantastic here. Hickox claims that after he made this film, women really responded to the de Sade scenes. “I used to get women turning up at my house and tying themselves up, because I never locked my house back then.”

Mark, in the somewhat hazy tradition of A Nightmare on Elm Street, realizes that none of this is real and after ignoring the pursuing zombies by listening to Paul Anka “Just don’t look!” he steps into the Marquis’ fantasy to rescue Sarah. Again, really fine work both in front and behind the camera with some clever writing and solid acting. Still, this is all for naught as a couple of rando victims show up and get killed, prompting the beings of pure evil to return. They include a multi-eyed alien, an Audrey II-style Venus fly trap, a snake man, Jack the Ripper, a very average-looking axe murderer, and a voodoo priest. Macnee and his cadre of very-English townsfolk show up and a would-be epic battle goes down. At least, it would’ve been epic had it not been for the money men.

Employing dozens of extras, Hickox had an elaborate plan for his chaotic finale. In the film, it comes off as a pretty inept mess of a scene with lackluster fights and very unenthusiastic deaths. As Hickox puts it: “The reason that was done like that was because we had run out of money, and we had a completion bond on set saying that we had to finish the movie, or else. Originally, I had planned on having three days to shoot that whole sequence, and my whole idea was that they would go back in time in each display, like we did in Waxwork II, but they told me I had only twelve hours to finish it.” It definitely shows and is truncated, to say the least, but like the similarly-fated Masters of the Universe, at least they were able to shoot an ending even as the lights were being turned off. While it wasn’t what Hickox envisioned, his decision to stage the sequence as a chaotic bar room brawl at least keeps up with the overall tone he’s established throughout the film.

Mark and the Marquis duel and Mark keeps getting beaten time and time again. Yet the Marquis continues to hand him back the sword to try again. It gets a little ridiculous after a while. Sarah stabs him from behind while Warner is shot and falls into a vat of boiling wax. The waxwork burns down and a disembodied hand scampers out of the fiery remains, after which Lesley Gore’s classic “It’s My Party” blares over the end credits. It’s a fine reminder that the film was all fun and games. More of a comic fantasy with a healthy dose of horrific gore.

Warner brings a classy air of mystery to his role as the proprietor and main villain while he gets decent support from his memorably diminutive, or as Mark puts it, “tiny and weird” manservant Hans, played by Mihaly 'Michu' Meszaros, best known for this, Big Top Pee-Wee, and as the man in the ALF suit. For a low-budget film, it’s quite impressive and Hickox’s hot streak, if one could call it that, would lead to Hellraiser III, which is let down by poor acting but contains an extended 20-minute sequence of carnage that’s astonishing, and Warlock: The Armageddon. After this, most of his work would be unremarkable, although the sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992), is a lot of fun.

Waxwork is an example of a first-time director bursting with ideas and at least partially succeeding in finding a way to make these seemingly disparate notions gel. If taken as a straight horror film, it’s only fleetingly satisfying, but as a parody that respects its source material, Waxwork is mighty sophisticated.