According to the internet, so it must be true, after Dario Argento saw that Italian film auteur Lucio Fulci was in ill-health in the mid 1990s, he decided to throw him a project. Argento and Fulci didn’t get along that well, however, so pre-production stretched on longer than it should have. Then Fulci died, and the project was passed to first-time director Sergio Stivaletti, who had been an established special effects tech for over a decade. The result was The Wax Mask, which was different enough from 1953’s House of Wax to keep Argento and the other producers from being sued.
The film opens on a grisly murder scene in Paris in the year 1900. A man and his wife have been cut to ribbons, with their young daughter a survivor and witness to the brutal crime. Fast forward to Rome a dozen years later and the girl has grown into a woman. Sonia Lafont (Romina Mondello) has arrived in Rome to seek a career as a costume designer. She gets a job at a soon to be opened wax museum run by the mysterious Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein), who becomes enamored with Sonia at first sight.
Meanwhile, a dark figure in hat and cloak, and with a menacing mechanical hand, has been abducting people, injecting them with goo that turns them into wax, and posing them in the museum’s exhibits. It’s clear early on that Boris is aware of what his exhibits are made, but it is not clear if he is the killer, or if it is his devoted assistant, Alex (Umberto Balli). Or, maybe, it’s someone viewers haven’t seen yet.
The mystery unfolds over the film’s 98 minutes in complicated, contradictory ways that fans of Italian cinema will know well. Misdirection, convolutions, and unlikely coincidences are the order of the day, Lucio Fulci and Daniele Stroppa’s screenplay designed to never let a viewer pin down exactly what is happening in the plot. The main question hovering over the movie isn’t which suspect is doing the killing, but what is the relationship between the murders in Paris and the wax museum in Rome. It’s all explained in the end, and is totally unbelievable.
But, has the viewer been entertained by watching the weaving together of this tapestry? That could be a problem as, despite this being very much a fun house movie where spectacle is used heavily, it can drag. Partly this is because there aren’t many rough edges to this film. Even the gore, in a film directed by someone very familiar with gore, feels rote. Much of the film is a throwback, or an homage, to classic gothic horror flicks, but in hewing true to those films of the past, Stivaletti and company robbed their film of the uniqueness needed to make it stand out.
The biggest hurdle for English-language viewers is the dubbing. It consists of dead reads all around. Emotion is missing when the actors are displaying it, and in other scenes the voice talent is overwrought when it is not called for. The dubbing is so bad it makes it much harder to appreciate what the onscreen performers are doing. I just can’t tell if Mondello or any other performer is any good, because the voice acting ate up so much of my attention.
After having to wait all movie, the final act has much more punch than the rest. It turns out that, in this movie, the destination was more satisfying than the journey. It’s not the best reveal and denouement, and there’s one final twist before the credits roll, but finally my attention wasn’t wandering elsewhere. In fact, the ending is kind of silly and stupid, but that’s no disqualifier on this website. I just wish everything else in the film had been this raucous.
Besides the final act, the best part of this film is the bad guy. We get glimpses here and there before the climax, and he’s a nasty beast. Heavily scarred, disturbingly robotic, the cloaked bad guy is a frightening villain, and underused. What is not seen in horror is scarier than what is seen, sure, but they hit on something with the killer in this movie. The filmmakers seem to have gotten so wrapped up in the mystery of the killer’s identity that they missed the compelling character they had created.
The people involved in making this film, director, screenwriters, and producers, had been in the film business for cumulative decades by the time The Wax Mask was made, and it feels it. The film is the work of professionals, but professionals that maybe don’t have as much of a creative spark as they used to.