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Entries in Waxwork [1988] (1)

Sunday
May152011

Waxwork (1988) Home Video Review

Melting, I Scream

I don't know what to make of Waxwork.  It's either an awful horror movie or a brain-tickling horror-comedy in desperate need of a polish.  I'll err on the side of positivity and give writer/director Anthony Hickox the benefit of the doubt.

The plot is simple: A gang of rich California college kids tours the wax museum that's just sprung up in their neighborhood; its proprietor, Lincoln (David Warner), has constructed elaborate attractions featuring famous madmen from myth and history.  His patrons soon discover that each display is a magic portal into a dimension where they're picked off, one by one, by werewolves, vampires, and the Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell).

What makes the film so strange is Hickox's choice of protagonists.  Led by Zach Galligan as Mark and Deborah Foreman as Sarah, the teens in Waxwork are like third-generation Xeroxes of the characters in Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero.  They don't snort coke (on camera), but their dress is Don Johnson Chic and they live in ridiculous mansions with little parental supervision.  They also talk to each other in the showy adult-speak of 1940s film characters, making them not unlike the kids in Scream (substituting Freddy and Jason for Bogart and Bacall).

Typically, a movie like this will have one or two such characters; they're the preppy bad guys who cause trouble for the nerdy hero before ultimately taking a well-deserved axe to the face.  By switching up this paradigm, Hickox makes us root for people we might normally despise.  I use "root for" very lightly, as I found Galligan to be a curiously bad actor here.  In his star-making role as Billy in Gremlins, he pulled off the shy-boy-next-door-becomes-a-hero role.  In Waxwork, he's stiff and distracted until the climax, and I couldn't tell if he was trying to make himself that much more unappealing to the audience, or if he just didn't have it in him to play a jerk.

For her part, Foreman transforms from mousy hanger-on to sex-crazed maniac pretty quickly.  Her encounter with the Marquis uncorks something in her that never really gets put back in the bottle; indeed, if you're looking for the best example of why Waxwork doesn't work as a horror film, you need go no further than the scene where she's whipped repeatedly and then refuses Mark's rescue attempt. There's nothing creepy or dangerous in this scene, and it plays like a Cinemax After Dark teaser.  Don't get me wrong: Watching a sweaty, heaving Deborah Foreman snub freedom is quite amazing, but it doesn't have the same visceral effect as watching John Rhys-Davies turn into a werewolf.

If this sounds like the craziest horror movie ever, let me assure you, it's not that exciting.  So much of Waxwork has been borrowed from Fright Night, Once Bitten, and Return of the Living Dead (at least in spirit) that I spent more time jotting down references than eagerly awaiting the unexpected. Admittedly, I didn't see the climax coming.

After much fighting, running, and narrowly escaping death, Mark and Sarah return to the real world--just in time to see Lincoln achieve his dream of resurrecting the spirits of his wax subjects and ending the world.  All seems lost until a mob of geriatrics bursts into the wax museum to take on the forces of evil. This boots Waxwork out of the horror realm entirely and re-brands it as a modern Blazing Saddles; instead of pies to the face, we get knives to the gut.

The thrilling camp of these last fifteen minutes really brings the movie to life.  It's a shame that Hickox found his tone so late, because I would have loved to have seen this level of experimental horror/comedy from the beginning (Granted, not everything works: There's a clumsy nod to Little Shop of Horrors that made me wince).

Mixing horror and comedy is a tough proposition, and Hickox showed that he wasn't quite up to the task with Waxwork.  Unlike benchmarks Evil Dead 2 or Friday the 13th Part 6, the horror elements are too timid and the comedy is too lame.  Had he spent as much time on his screenplay as the rest of his crew did on creating elaborate costumes and sets, the movie might have been a triumph rather than a head-scratching oddity.