Not every horror film has to be deadly serious. Sometimes, it’s impossible to hide the absurdity of a horror story, so a filmmaker doesn’t bother to try. Such is the case with Waxwork, the 1988 film from writer/director Anthony Hickox.
The film tells the tale of a gaggle of pretty 20-somethings who find themselves in mortal danger inside a wax museum. Putting youth in danger is a formula as old as horror films, and a risky one for filmmakers to take. Young, pretty faces are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. What’s unique is finding the young talent who is pretty, can act, and is capable of lifting mediocre screenplays. So, choose the wrong cast, and one could end up with a stinker.
Hickox didn’t hit the lottery with his cast, but the four main leads, Mark (Zach Galligan), Sarah (Deborah Foreman), China (Michelle Johnson), and Tony (Dana Ashbrook), have all had careers of respectable longevity. Too often in a horror flick where young folk need killing the filmmakers manage to gather an ensemble that doesn’t know how to tie shoes, much less act.
These four have been invited to the private opening of a new wax museum that has, strangely, opened up in the middle of a well-to-do residential neighborhood. The museum is run by David Lincoln (David Warner). Warner must have been on a tight shooting schedule, because, after issuing his invite, he all-but disappears from the film until the final act. That’s an odd choice for Hickox to make, seeing as how Lincoln is the film’s villain. But, he has other nasties to carry the weight.
The wax museum consists of dioramas showcasing classic horror themes. There’s a display featuring mummies, another with vampires (led by Miles O’Keefe), one with a wolfman (John Rhys-Davies), one with a zombie, and another with the Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell). The gimmick is that, while standing on the safe side of the velvet rope, the displays are just displays. But, cross the threshold, and our main characters find themselves flung, one by one, into real horror vignettes.
The aim is to make unsuspecting victims part of the wax displays. Other films have done this, but their methods were different. Hickox goes for a more fantastical approach, in creating whole new scenarios for his characters.
These vignettes also pay homage to old horror flicks, only Hickox and company stepped up the blood and gore. Much was left on the cutting room floor to satisfy the prudes at the MPAA, but there is an unrated cut floating around out there that restores this footage. Even with the need to satisfy the censors, Waxwork is a bloody film. The effects work isn’t great, and some of the puppet work, while detailed and nasty, wasn’t able to cross into believability, but there is still some nice splatter.
Events turn this way and that, as they are wont to do in a movie, leading to a final resolution between characters who have managed to survive the displays, and David Lincoln. See enough horror flicks, and one will know how it all turns out. Only, Hickox raises the stakes in the final act by making Lincoln and his wax museum world-threatening. The finale becomes a free-for-all of blood and nastiness that puts a capper on the whole thing like a less bloody Braindead. It has the feel of a pie fight to end a slapstick movie, believe it or not. Perhaps it could have used a lawnmower.
Waxwork is a funhouse movie. It’s not intended to be taken seriously. Hickox never tries to hide this movie’s intentions, but the film is also hit and miss in fulfilling them. Snarky, caricatured co-eds are perfectly fine in a film, as long as they’re funny. Galligan, Foreman, and crew did all they could, but the material didn’t live up to the ideas.
What works best in the film are the vignettes. Despite feeling truncated, there is some good low-budget horror in these sequences, and the more outrageous they are, the better. That’s another reason to watch the unrated version.
This film won’t be making anyone’s list of all-time classics, but, it did take a number of classic elements and ran with them. One could do worse on a dark and stormy October eve.